Pope Francis Is Telling Catholics to Doubt the Church – That’s Good!

In my first piece at The Week, I explain why Pope Francis is right to encourage doubt about God and the Church. A sample:

Trying to understand the full meaning of the words and images one uses to speak about God is like attempting to assess the quality of a translation without knowing the original language. No one speaks “God.” Not I. Not the pope. Not even Stephen Colbert… For instance, believers use words like father and mother to refer and relate to God, but without being able to compare and contrast such language with the reality of God, they cannot have a clear sense of the analogies they employ. No one can. Aquinas wrote a lot about God, but he later likened it all to straw. This is the religious condition.

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15 thoughts on “Pope Francis Is Telling Catholics to Doubt the Church – That’s Good!

  1. Good essay (as usual), Kyle. I agree that doubt and uncertainty is good. I find those espousing absolute 100% certainty unsettling (regardless of whether they’re Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or whatever). Doubt is just an offshoot of humility, and humility is a pretty Christian thing*.

    *I’m not saying it’s only a Christian thing or originally a Christian thing, just that it’s a definite part of Christianity.

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    • Question for you and Kyle:

      I may have mentioned that I was reared in a religious environment, and in fact religious school. And ‘doubt’ (which has always been something I have in spades) was definitely *not* seen as a good or Christian thing.

      Upon articulating my doubt, I had one teacher tell me, in front of the class, that if I ever had any doubts, at all, about my salvation, then I wasn’t a Christian.

      (My argument at that time essentially ran along the lines of this: doubt is a function of reason; reason is God-given, since we are made in His image; doubt is therefore God-given, and an important tool He has provided us to understand the universe and Himself.)

      But going back to Jesus’ words (“O ye of little faith”; “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”), my interlocutors would seem to have been in the right, at least as regards Christian doctrine.

      How do you guys, personally, square that circle?

      I mean, don’t get me wrong, I *agree* that a little doubt and humility goes a long way. Kyle’s take is inspiring and beautiful and makes sense *to me*.

      But Thomas, IIRC, is not presented as an example of the ‘ideal’ Christian (Christ reserves His blessing for those who believe without proof).

      Is being a Thomas something for a Christian to aspire to?

      This isn’t meant as a ‘gotcha’. Genuinely curious.

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      • As I was nodding in agreement with Kyle’s OP and Jonathan’s comment, I just hadn’t thought of your question. But now that you bring it up, it seems like an unavoidable issue and I wonder why it hadn’t occurred to me.

        Here are some ways I think the circle could be squared, although they don’t particularly satisfy me and seem to run against some of the “must have certitude” mindset I grew up with. (“Doubting Thomas” was not someone to be emulated. Doubts about salvation, too, were labeled as signs of non-salvation.):

        1. Faith is holding fast to what reason tells you, even in times when events seem to contradict reason. This is my understanding of C. S. Lewis’s view of faith. If I understand him correctly, he argues that the truth of Christianity can be grasped or at least understood through reason (see his trilemma argument) and that reason-based arguments provide something like a “more likely than not” basis for believing Christianity to be true. In this sense, doubt can play a role, because it informs reason. But once someone ascertains something through reason, one should hold to it until reason requires a reassessment. In that sense, the admonitions against “ye of little faith” could be viewed as admonitions against people not following what their reason directs them to do. (It’s possible I’m not fully grasping Lewis’s point…..and if I am, I am definitely not convinced by it.)

        2. Another approach might be to distinguish between an internal sense of salvation, which is the source of something we can call “hope,” and our reason, which can never fully grasp the “mystery” of faith. (I realize “mystery” has a technical meaning, which I’m mostly ignorant of, but I’m using it more in what I understand its everyday sense to be.) In that sense, entertaining or at least admitting and acknowledging doubt is an incident of the hope for salvation. Without some countervailing doubt, hope is just a belief comparable to a belief in, say, oxygen or gravity.

        3. Another approach could be to recast the criticism against “doubting Thomas.” In the recasting, he is to be criticized not so much for doubting, but for relying too much on one standard of evidence (the physical wounds of Jesus, or, say, the physical/empirical evidence for a doctrine/belief that claims to transcend the physical/empirical). In that sense, “blessed are those who don’t see and yet still believe” is not meant to criticize doubt, so much as it is meant to criticize over-reliance on the physical world to answer metaphysical questions.

        I have no idea idea if what I’m writing here is on the right track. You or someone better trained in such issues could probably point holes in all of those possibilities. As an agnostic, I’m not even sure I believe them. And other than point 1 (which might very well be based on my misunderstanding of Lewis’s arguments), I don’t know of other authorities that agree with me.

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      • As an agnostic, I’m not even sure I believe them.

        As I also ended up in “agnostic”, the ‘twist’ is that my teacher turned out to be ‘right’.

        But did he simply accurately predict where I was going…or did he help push me out onto that ice floe?

        And I don’t want to make that whole scene out to be too “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?!” – although that particular day was certainly an uncomfortable/upsetting one, one other student stood with me, and that particular teacher [chemistry] was otherwise a lovely man – and I had another teacher there [the Bible teacher, also a pastor], who also taught philosophy at the local community college, who was ironically much less rigid and dogmatic and harsh, and much more philosophical, about the doubts and questions I had.

        And in any case even teacher #1, as I said, may have been right – so to whatever degree he was being unkind on that day, perhaps it can be excused as honesty, which I should expect as I was being honest with him when saying that *of course* I had doubts about my salvation, and I frankly couldn’t fathom ANYONE *never* having doubts.

        I haven’t read Lewis since I was a kid (he was one of the authors recommended to me, of course, at that time, and IIRC I read Mere Christianity). Wonder if it’d be worth a re-read now.

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      • Gabriel, Your #2 is pretty close to what I’ve often heard from some lay Catholics with regard to the role of doubt in religious faith, but historically, and in fact pretty much universally within the Catholic tradition, doubt and faith have been seen as incompatible. It’s rather within the Protestant tradition that I’ve seen doubt viewed as a state on the way to faith. This is unsurprising given the origin of Protestantism and the history of Catholicism, and it makes the Pope’s stance on doctrine, which Kyle interprets as an invitation to (some) doubt, a pretty profound development.

        However, the sort of doubt the Pope seems to be inviting doesn’t, as far as I can tell, run up against the scriptural issue Glyph raises, because it’s not meant to be doubt about the basic truths of Christianity (the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, that sort of thing), but about less central Catholic doctrines. The Pope certainly isn’t going to suggest that those central articles of faith might change.

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      • Dang it, I just had a comment disappear. I made two main points:

        1) There’s a difference between Catholic and (some) Protestant thinking here. Both see the beginning of faith as recognition and acceptance that Christ died for our sins. The Protestant sees the certainty of his salvation as sufficient (sola fide). The Catholic sees the possibility of his salvation as the beginning of the path (faith and works).

        2) Kyle’s exclusive focus on doubt seems to have put him on a way of thinking outside of what I’d broadly call Catholic. This is different than point #1. There are ambiguous aspects of the faith – for example, mysticism – but Kyle seems to be applying a standard of doubt to everything, and seeing it where it isn’t there.

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      • My response to your point is similar to ‘s point about sola fide. The (evangelical) protestant traditions I was familiar with growing up seemed much more obsessed with certainty than did the Catholics I knew growing up. Of course, most of those were lay Catholics, and the actual priests I knew were probably just happy if the pews were almost half-full to be too doctrinaire. Also, we had a bishop in residence, whom, I’m told, was “silenced” by Pope John Paul II because he (the bishop) spoke in favor of woman priesthood, or something like that. (I’m not sure how much of that is true or legend, but I have heard it.)

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      • As I also ended up in “agnostic”, the ‘twist’ is that my teacher turned out to be ‘right’.

        But did he simply accurately predict where I was going…or did he help push me out onto that ice floe?

        I had a similar issue with a pastor I knew. When I expressed doubts about my faith, or later, talked about having “lost” my faith, he said something like, “well, if you lost it, you never had it.” A response that infuriated me. But maybe he was right?

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      • Evangelical Protestant is another story altogether, and a recent one. Mainland European Protestantism and, to a lesser extent, Anglicanism, were born in doubt, and have a tradition of emphasizing the path to faith (a tradition makes its way into Evangelical traditions though the emphasis on Testimony, maybe?), which admits and perhaps even demands (e.g., Kierkegaard) doubt.

        Aquinas has passages, which I’m loathe to look up because I am in my phone, in which he is quite clear that faith is certainty. There is no room for doubt, any more than there is for the valid products of reason. Doubt is only a part of opinion, sharply contrasted with faith and reason. One can believe something as a matter of opinion and doubt it, but not as a matter of faith. As far as I can tell, this has been the Church doctrine since, if not before, and doubt about the basic tenets of faith as well established doctrine is, or was, considered a sin.

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      • This is where we’re making the word “doubt” work too hard. Are we talking about uncertainty of one’s own salvation? Ambiguity in a teaching? Recognition that matters of church discipline have changed over time? Lack of clarity over the proper interpretation of a Bible verse? Critique of one of the medieval proofs of God’s existence? The whole continuum between struggle to understand a teaching and conscious denial of that teaching? “Encouraging doubt about God and the Church” – what couldn’t that include? If a statement applies equally well to Aquinas and Dawkins, either the two aren’t so far apart, or the statement itself it overly broad.

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  2. I hate to see articles like this getting increasing readership. Well-meaning people can cause damage to both believers’ and non-believers’ understanding of the faith. They can even do it without saying anything that’s factually wrong. This is why the Church has always closely guarded its teaching authority. The great heresies start as errors in emphasis.

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