Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why doubt is incompatible with faith

There is a general misconception today that doubt is compatible with faith. here is part of the introduction of an excellent short essay which explains why this is not the case; read the whole thing!

Discourses to Mixed Congregations
John Henry Newman

Discourse 11. Faith and Doubt

[...]It is, then, perfectly true, that the Church does not allow her children to entertain any doubt of her teaching; and that, first of all, simply for this reason, because they are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God's name, is God's word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God; he must be as certain of her mission, as he is of the mission of the Apostles. Now, would any one ever call him certain that the Apostles came from God, if after professing his certainty, he added, that perhaps he might have reason to doubt one day about their mission? Such an anticipation would be a real, though latent, doubt, betraying that he was not certain of it at present. A person who says, "I believe just at this moment, but perhaps I am excited without knowing it, and I cannot answer for myself, that I shall believe tomorrow," does not believe now. A man who says, "Perhaps I am in a kind of delusion, {216} which will one day pass away from me, and leave me as I was before"; or "I believe as far as I can tell, but there may be arguments in the background which will change my view," such a man has not faith at all. When, then, Protestants quarrel with us for saying that those who join us must give up all ideas of ever doubting the Church in time to come, they do nothing else but quarrel with us for insisting on the necessity of faith in her. Let them speak plainly; our offence is that of demanding faith in the Holy Catholic Church; it is this, and nothing else. [...]

Vatican II speaks of "The religious assent of faith" which I have often encountered in people who should know better as a public "yes" with a reserved private "no." The expression "Roma Locuta Est – Causa Finita Est" far better conveys the meaning of the religious assent of faith, for the Church speaks in the name of Jesus Christ (Lk 10:16). To him who would beg to differ with the Church speaking in Jesus' name, let them hear the voice of the Lord saying "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." (Mt 16:23)


  1. While what you say is true, it's also important to remember that not all levels of magisterial teaching (there are four) carry the same weight and the same obligations of faith. Dogmatic teachings require religious assent (as you mentioned); definitive teachings are required to be "firmly held"; nondefinitive doctrines must be addressed with religious submission of will and intellect (rather tricky phraseology that needs to be explained in more detail); and disciplines must be accepted with willing submission. Of course, none of these levels of teaching give people the right to rebel (although one can hold mental reservations about reformable teachings so long as one makes every attempt to reconcile that matter in conscience). Open, flagrant, and persistent dissent is simply disobedience. LG 25 covers these, but "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" goes into more detail.

  2. Oh, one other thing. The point of mental reservation is not to find an out (because we;re still obligated to obedience) but to grapple with a teaching and by doing so come to thinking with the Church. And by "reconciling them in your conscience," I don't mind "making up your own mind," but coming to understand the matter based on the guidance of the Church. In essence, we're to remember that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, even in reformable matters, and we should respect and honor that guidance.

  3. Your point is well taken, and is seen in the example of Mary, whose "Fiat" is accompanied by a request to tell her how this will come to pass; in contrast to Zecharia, who brings censure by choosing to argue with the message of an angel! Thus, it is one thing to seek understanding for that which is not fully comprehended, it is something far different to consider one's own opinion as superior to a definitive statement of the Church, feining adherance while retaining disagreement. The prime example of this would be the closed issue of ordaining women to the priesthood. One may not understand and seek understanding, but one may no reserve disagreement. Good luck with that; there is a path through the hazing you will receive.

    But all that is really beyond the pale of the point, which is that far to many within the Church are even willing to concede the nature of the Church, and thus separate themselves from her. Newman's Discouse #10, "Faith and Private Judgement" addresses this well.

  4. Yes, many Catholics (progressive and conservative) set themselves up as a magisterium of their own. I'm beginning more and more to think that we simply need to be Catholic--no labels.