05Oct Faith; the ability to live with uncertainty

A senior Catholic churchman recently expostulated on signs of hope in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Among them he listed a number of organisations, ‘dynamic movements’ he called them. All of them were from the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church. Some of them were, in common parlance, ‘completely off the wall’.

I could sense, as I read his words, Catholics around the country holding their heads in their hands in one great collective movement of disbelief and horror. Was this naivety or just a device for rallying the troops or even a refusal to deal with reality?

Whatever was the intention, it’s a dangerous wheeze. Because it’s leading the Catholic Church into a cul-de-sac and jettisoning those in the middle-ground, who are hanging on to the door-posts of faith and religion with their finger-nails.

In times of difficulty, especially when the world seems to offer a different wisdom, religion is susceptible to lapsing into what’s sometimes called ‘over-belief’. This is the religious disposition to accept extravagant claims and absolute guarantees as a way of dealing with a shifting reality. Doubt is blocked out, personal freedom and individual responsibility are set aside as everything is placed in a context of absolute certainty. We’re right and everyone else is wrong.

As religion is held up to ridicule, and the anti-religious movement is popularised by scientists like Richard Dawkins, the temptation for religion is to reject doubt and scepticism and to construct a self-indulgent fort, building walls and digging moats in case a carefully constructed certainty might be undermined or infected.

In its more extreme form this tendency allows religion to deteriorate into a sect as fundamentalism, always a temptation for religion under pressure, creates a Them and Us situation – we’re absolutely right and they’re completely wrong.

The churchman mentioned above is probably right in seeing the dynamism of conservativism in Irish Catholicism now. What’s emerging is almost a church within a church where visions, novenas and relics skirt the edges of superstition, where questionable piosities are lauded and intellectual rigour is suspect, where asking a question is tantamount to betrayal, where pleasure is distrusted and sexual pleasure anathema, where Catholicism takes on an Amish-like appearance and where a series of ‘Catholic’ newspapers encourage a return to the severity, rigidity and judgementalism of the past.

While most Irish Catholics look askance at and distrust this exaggerated form of their faith, bishops find themselves being bounced into supporting groups that mine this narrow vein of Catholic life as if it represented the whole of Catholicism. The end result is that a growing middle ground becomes disaffected when they recognise that their experience of life (and sometimes their intelligence) places a huge question-mark over some of the more exaggerated forms of Catholicism.

Some years ago now, the Anglican cleric, Richard Holloway in Crossfire, Faith and Doubt in an age of Certainty, wrote about the temptation to react against the confusion of our times by building a religious system that attempts to remove doubt by searching for certainty. Faith, Holloway argued, is under attack from two extremes, from those who tell us we can know nothing, to those who tell us that they know everything.

Both extremes are absolutely rigid in their positions and those in between what presents as absolute doubt and absolute certainty struggle to hold on to a faith that hovers between the two extremes. But doubt and scepticism are necessary, indeed essential parts of the building blocks of that faith.

The truth is that pious people can sometimes accept nonsensical beliefs and practices because, in their need for a system to offer unerring guidance and give absolute guarantees of meaning and value, they end up accepting extraordinary and extravagant views because, for example, someone somewhere had a vision and Our Lady told them!

What doubt does is filter out the nonsense that can seep into the crevices of our faith by grounding it in a clear understanding of what it is we believe and what we don’t believe, what’s essential and what’s peripheral, what’s of the faith and what’s little more than personal enthusiasm. And recognising that waiting and wonder, presence and absence, awareness and incompleteness are all part of the journey of faith. Absolute clarity is a mirage and those who imagine they have attained it are living in dreamland.

I suspect that most Irish Catholics today find themselves in that middle ground between competing certainties – atheists who tell them that faith in God makes no sense and extreme Catholics who sometimes seem to believe in everything.

Some are still attending Mass and sometimes wondering why they turn up. Others are more irregular attenders, wondering how long they can sustain the fiction. And still others find themselves drifting towards the church at Christmas time because something within them, a resonance of the beyond, beckons them. A need to express a longing for the spiritual haunts them, no matter how much they think they have jettisoned religion.

Instead of unambiguously cheer-leading for ultra-conservative Catholics whose absolute beliefs will not tolerate any modification, leaders of our Church need to recognise the huge number of Catholics in Ireland who are drifting away from the faith because the tentative and questioning journey they are on is made all the more difficult by the official church sponsorship of groups who imagine that they know all the answers to every possible question.

Many years ago, the great poet Keats wrote about what he called ‘negative capability’, in simple terms, the ability to live with uncertainty. Religion, including the Catholic religion, is about living with mystery, because without doubt there can be no faith. The greatest form of unbelief, the great theologian Karl Barth once wrote, in absolute certainty.

The truth is that those who struggle with doubt and disbelief are ultimately closer to the right road than those who profess to know all the answers. They need to be supported too.

13 Responses

  1. Peter Shore

    What a confusing article! Richard Dawkins represents the dogmatic materialist viewpoint. It’s quite simple: there is no God, the universe wasn’t created, and the scientific method is the only route to knowledge and meaning. You don’t have to be an ultra-Catholic to reject this out of hand. Indeed, you can’t be any sort of theist at all, let alone Catholic, unless you *do*. You may have doubts about your Catholic faith, but you can’t have any doubt whatever about its incompatibility with dogmatic materialism. That is a simple matter of definition.

    Many other things about the Catholic faith are a matter of definition. It doesn’t mean that one can’t have doubts about them. Indeed, if the term “ultra-conservative Catholic” is being applied, as it apparently is, to someone who never has any doubts about their faith, then I would venture to suggest that such a thing doesn’t exist.

    We can confidently say, for example, that it is an article of the Catholic faith that the Church is one, holy, universal, and apostolic. We may doubt that it is those things, we might even wish that it was something else, perhaps something easier to believe. But we cannot deny that the Church is those things as a matter of definition: that takes no more than a reading of our Sunday creed.

    I must take issue with another point about the hypothetical ultra-conservatives. This is that they “can sometimes accept nonsensical beliefs … because, for example, someone somewhere had a vision and Our Lady told them”. This is quite the opposite of conservatism. A belief, no matter how enthusiastic, that is not supported by Sacred Scripture, Catholic Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, is not a Catholic belief. That is, it cannot be put forward as something to be accepted as a matter of faith by Catholics everywhere.

    Conversely, and in the current context more controversially, anything that *is* a matter of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterial authority is Catholic by definition. The reservation of priestly ordination to men alone is most certainly in this category. There are many who wish it were different, many voices agitating for “reform”, but none who can change it. There are even some who — recognising the triple-lock — claim that it is neither scriptural nor traditional, and that the Pope is in error when he says it is.

    This is a dangerous route to tread, since it risks misinforming the faithful on a matter which the Pope has said is to be definitively held by them. I hesitate to use the word “betrayal” as the author does, but it is surely a considerable irony for any ministers of the Church who take this stance, since they must deny the scriptural basis of their own ministry to do so.

    Faith may be the ability to live with uncertainty, as the article title claims. Those struggling with doubt and disbelief must indeed be supported, we can all agree. But we cannot pretend things are other than what they are by definition. That would be incoherent.

  2. Michael C.

    “Conversely, and in the current context more controversially, anything that *is* a matter of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterial authority is Catholic by definition. The reservation of priestly ordination to men alone is most certainly in this category.”

    I’m glad you are part of the debate. But I have to ask are things as certain as you state. I think not and the Pontifical Biblical Commission has not thought so, at least in 1976.

    The results of the April, 1976, meeting of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
    The three votes attributed to the Commission:
    (1) a unanimous (17-0) vote that the New Testament does not settle in a clear way and once and for all whether women can be ordained priests,
    (2) a 12-5 vote in favour of the view that scriptural grounds alone are not enough to exclude the possibility of ordaining women and
    (3) a 12-5 vote that Christ’s plan would not be transgressed by permitting the ordination of women.(2)

  3. John

    I wonder is it best to appeal to truth inasmuch as it can be discovered by reference to the Bible and to research and any other means of discovering the truth.

  4. Peter Shore

    The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s vote of April 1976 doesn’t address the convergence of Bible, Tradition, and Magisterium. It suggests merely that the “New Testament does not settle in a clear way and once and for all” the question of women’s ordination.

    The Declaration Inter Insigniores approved by Pope Paul VI just six months later agrees. It says: “This is no surprise, for the questions that the Word of God brings before us go beyond the obvious. In order to reach the the ultimate meaning of the mission of Jesus and the ultimate meaning of Scripture, a purely historical exegesis of the texts cannot suffice.”

    This declaration *does*, however, address those other issues of the Church’s constant tradition, the normativity of its practise, and the permanent value of the attitude of Jesus and the apostles. It says: “The practice of the Church therefore has a normative character: in the fact of conferring priestly ordination only on men, it is a question of unbroken tradition throughout the history of the Church, universal in the East and in the West, and alert to repress abuses immediately. This norm, based on Christ’s example, has been and is still observed because it is considered to conform to God’s plan for his Church.”

    As for whether things are as certain as they seem, the definite pronouncements of four recent popes and the admonitions of John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis seem to me to leave no room whatsoever for doubt. In fact, the Holy Father explicitly declares his intention to remove all doubt, says that this judgement of the Church is “not merely disciplinary” but is a fundamental tenet of the Church’s constitution, and makes it a settled matter that the Church cannot ordain women. It is hard to imagine anything more certain.

  5. Ann Walsh

    What a wonderful article this is.
    It just sums up exactly what many of my generation feel about church leaders.
    I am in my 40’s with four teenage children who I try to encourage to come to Mass every week and it’s not easy.!
    And when I see some of the ‘dynamic youth groups’ which bishops often refer to I feel very uneasy.
    They are certainly not representative of any teenagers I know – nor indeed would I want my teenagers in such groups. To me they are cults which try to live their faith removed from real life rather than in the centre of it.
    Thanks Fr Brendan for saying what I felt but couldn’t express for so long.

  6. Paddy Ferry

    Thank you for another marvellous article, Brendan.
    Thanks also, to Michael C @2 for giving us details of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s research into the scriptural basis for denying ordination to woman — a scriptural basis which they found did not exist. I first became aware of this work by the Pontifical Commission through Angela Hanley’s excellent address at the very first, I think, open meeting organised by the ACP.
    I have recently read Angela’s equally excellent new book, Whose Á LA Carte Menu? I would recommend it. The chapter on Birth Control describing the machinations that went on prior to the publication of Humanae Vitae is among the best I have read on that topic.

  7. sara

    In my diocese in Lancashire we have the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest who are very much out of tune with the area. It is my worry that if this spreads Catholicism will be seen as an eccentric, medieval sect by the local population….a bit like the Amish…a group totally against any engagement with the modern world.

  8. Prodigal Son

    I think I feature in Fr Hoban’s designated range of conservatives. I admit to saying rosaries, engaging in repetitive novenas, going on pilgrimages. I am not into holy wells and am not so excited about relics except those of Bernadette at Nevers, and other similar shrines. Scripture, the Sacraments, the Magisterium (which is not a collection of exaggerated forms of Catholicism) are central. It’s better not to judge the piety of others, Amish or otherwise.

    I think the categories of conservative and liberal Catholicism are not real life categories. Space doesn’t permit the reasons why.

    Some of the movements I have seen in the Church are “off the wall.” Consequently bishops are slow to validate movements and pilgrimage sites, even Medjugorje.

    Doubts and uncertainties are human experiences, not virtues. Many disciplines – philosophy, psychology, medicine, financial management, meteorology et al, – all function to erase or dilute uncertainty and doubt.

    The statement “doubt and scepticism are necessary, indeed essential parts of the building blocks of that faith” is not valid. One doesn’t say “I believe because I doubt.” Faith is a gift. As Aquinas puts it: “In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”

    Fr Hoban does not define “doubt.” For Blessed John Henry Newman a person who doubts says, “That can’t be so,” expressing an unwillingness to submit to the Church’s teachings. Newman distinguishes between this and a person with a “difficulty” who says, “How can that be so?” expressing difficulty, but willingness to believe, in accord with St Augustine’s dictum “I believe so that I may understand.”

    Notice the element of desire. In the case of “difficulty,” a person desires to make one’s “human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace.” Christ asks as he did of Bartimae’us “What do you want me to do for you?” What is your desire? Newman writes, “To those who are perplexed in any way, for those who seek the light but cannot find it, one precept must be given — obey. It is obedience which brings a man into the right path. It is obedience which keeps him there and strengthens him in it.” Myriad testimonies confirm that this is a real life reality.

    I count Youth 2000 and The Apostolate of Eucharistic Adoration as dynamic movements. Like the Church itself they do not have to be representative of the wider culture. Members never claim to know all the answers.

    Finally I agree with Fr Hoban that “to construct a self-indulgent fort, building walls and digging moats” is not intelligent behaviour.

  9. John

    “To those who are perplexed in any way, for those who seek the light but cannot find it, one precept must be given — obey.” (Previous comment)

    I think there’s more than one piece of advice (precept) possible in such a situation. One is : “Keep searching”.

  10. Prodigal Son

    # 9 John
    Of course. If we would find, we must seek, and if we wish the door to be opened to us, we must knock.

    The question is “what is one searching for, where does one find the questions, and where does one search?”

    Newman, aware of his own leanings towards atheism when young, showed sympathy with religious doubt. He believed that dogma and religious experience are in harmony, not opposed. Given this harmony, growth in faith means that searching never ends on this side of the grave because difficulties arise in everyone’s experience. But according to Newman, “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

    If one is receiving the sacraments worthily, doctrinal and sacramental faith unfold together. In this context Christ advised St Thomas to “be not faithless but believing.” The grace of the sacraments enhances the activity of Christ within the individual and energises the trust put in faith and obedience. Faith ultimately interacts with reason to facilitate understanding. Thus Thomas’s encounter with Christ (grace) had the effect of reversing his negative act of will (“I will not believe”) a week earlier. Christ’s riposte is significant.

    All that said, Joseph Ratzinger asserts that “the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him.” Obedience was the first thing Satan assailed on earth and has never stopped targeting it.

  11. John

    Obey : We have the ten commandments which are a must for all believers. With regard to non-believers, most would be in the area of good sense, some enforced by law. Jesus boiled down the commandments to two. Pharisees, then and now had a multiplicity of commandments. Jesus did not hold in high regard the laws of the Pharisees and disobeyed some of them. There are parallels with today.

  12. Prodigal Son

    John # 11, I’m not so sure.

    Take Matthew 5:17-19: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

    The Ten Commandments comprise the necessary requirements of the “two.”

    One could also consider Romans 6, 17-19:” But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” He is saying that faith is an obedience from the heart.

    Paul also says here that a form of doctrine is an essential component of faith. Faith does not come to us as an idea of ours, but as a word about the Word from outside. We are handed over into the Word through an “immersion” in the water of Baptism. We cannot learn this Word as a mere theory as in maths. We can learn it only by accepting a share in Christ’s destiny. This can only happen in the place where Christ has permanently committed Himself to share in our human destiny, in the Church.

    The faith that the Word calls us to and which we are assumed to hand ourselves over to in Baptism is the Word proclaimed and heard in the Church. We hand ourselves over to this Word giving up our individual “I” in order to enter into communion with Christ and the whole Church.

    As regards non-believers, I take my line from a careful reading of “all” paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium.

  13. John

    Law :

    “So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. 5 When we were controlled by our old nature,[b] sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. 6 But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.”

    Romans 7 4-6 NLT


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