The Works of Mercy: Counsel the Doubtful

Doubt can be the emotional equivalent of anything from a brief spring rain to a Galveston-destroying hurricane. People can feel doubt over whether to place two bucks on the Mariners to win (don’t) or about whether or not the God in whom they have believed all their life is a sham, a fraud, and a delusion. Doubt can be a healthy exercise in which we learn to put aside our tribal prejudices and think critically, or it can be a soul-shattering crisis that radically remakes or destroys us.

The difficult thing about living the spiritual work of mercy called “counseling the doubtful” is that doubt is not always bad, confidence is not always good, and we often completely screw up those two facts.

For instance, one of the trendier notions afoot is the so-called “Theology of Doubt” whereby a supposed New Breed of Christian eschews the supposed “rigid dogmas” of those evil close-minded “Christianists” and treats all aspects of Christian teaching with an “open mind”. What this almost invariably means is that the New Breed of Christian is trading in one set of rigid sectarian assumptions for another, usually based on whatever ideology he happens to subscribe to. So the supposedly open-minded Doubter has all sorts of doubts about the Church’s teachings with respect to the pelvis, or whether or not Christopher “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to” Hitchens might not have some valuable insight into the life and work of Mother Teresa. But such adherent of the Theology of Doubt tend to have not one shadow of a doubt that “the Pope crap[s] on the tortured souls of hundreds of raped deaf children” or that homosexual marriage is the will of Almighty God. For people in this mindset, the tendency may be summed up this way: We may think nearly anything we like about Jesus Christ (Was he gayEaten by wild dogs? A myth who never existed? The table is open for a free-wheeling chat about our blithe open-mindedness!). But there is only one absolutely undoubted way people should think about global warming.

Similarly, there is now emerging a sort of reflection of this misplaced doubt and certitude on the Reactionary side of the aisle. There we are continually hearing that we just can’t trust the teaching of the Church since the sinister, protestantized Second Vatican Council and we must therefore (every man for himself!) ignore the bishops and our modernist Popes, and re-invent the Church according to our, er, private judgment and the views of our particular heroes, whoever they may be. We hear things like

I think it’s pretty obvious that the liberal, heterodox, post-Conciliar crowd at the USCCB is getting mighty uncomfortable with we “uppity” orthodox Catholics.


It’s clear. The Bishops and their bureaucrats are uncomfortable. They see lay people demanding and requesting orthodoxy, consistency in teaching the WHOLE truth.

It’s sad that we must look to lay Catholics for apologetics, firming up of the soul and for courage.


A political issue is also a moral issue only if it involves choices directly counter to an explicit Church teaching, otherwise it is only a prudential problem, so controversies like abortion and euthanasia are moral issues but health care and immigration are not.

Or (in response to John Paul’s and the American bishops’ call to abolish the death penalty) we see things like: “The Catechism is nothing more than the opinion of the Church at this time” and “[N]o Catholic should be calling for the absolute end to Capital punishment”.

Message: we Truly True Catholics are more or less on our own (with the companionship of a remnant of other like-minded Catholics) and almost nobody can be trusted, least of all the Magisterium or the post-conciliar teaching of the Church. In this world, the entirety of the Church’s moral tradition and guidance often gets peremptorily swept away and we are left with, for instance, the notion that opposition to abortion and euthanasia are the sole moral duties we bear as Catholics (except, perhaps, for the duty to either ignore or actively oppose the Magisterium on almost any other matter it might address, particularly the question of the death penalty).

In this topsy turvy world, we are condemned to a universe of doubt about almost every moral teaching the Church has to say beyond “abortion is wrong”. But that’s not to say such Reactionary Dissent lacks certitude any more than Progressive Dissent does. There is often an utter certitude about the worthlessness of the Paul VI Mass, the disposability of John Paul the Over-rated’s teaching or the sinfulness of church architecture that is not to our taste. One can, in such circles, discover dogmatic teachings that Harry Potter is evil, that 12 million illegals need to be (and can feasibly be) deported en masse, that Mary is most assuredly appearing (or most assuredly not appearing) at Medjugorje, that waterboarding is nothing more than a splash of water that is only objectionable to bedwetting gentry with no understanding of the necessity for brutality in the Real World, or that Obama is an atheistic Communist and a devout Allah-fearing Muslim.

In short, the problem is not “faith vs. doubt”. It’s that we are often faced with people who are doubtful about things the Church says are trustworthy (like the Mass, or the social teaching of the Church), and possessed of adamantine certitude about things that common sense and/or the Church’s Magisterium urge us to treat as ambiguous, or cheerfully latitudinarian, or even dubiously quacky. In such cases, Reactionary Dissenters simply tune out the Magisterium and common sense and run to their favorite celebrity theologian or visionary of media Talking Hairdo to reinforce their certitude on the doubtful thing and their doubtfulness on the solid and obvious thing.

Yet, for all their hostility to one another, the Progressive and the Reactionary do have one thing in common: The notion that there is an old-fashioned “pre-Vatican II” sort of faith that is coterminous with rigid ideological certitude, and that this is being replaced with a “new” Catholic faith that is riddled with doubt. It is a basic narrative upon which both sides heartily agree with Buzz Lightyear levels of certitude. On both sides of the aisle, the basic story is that, in the Pre-Vatican II Church, you knew exactly what was what without nuance, paradox, and ambiguity. It was, we are told, a simple world of Baltimore Catechism blacks and whites, and all this has been swept away by the Post-Vatican II Church of Ambiguity which folks like Andrew Sullivan see as the natural home for his Theology of Doubt (when Benedict dies and the Third Vatican Council is called to finish the work of demolition and reconstruction begun by the Second Vatican Council). Progressives and Reactionaries just disagree on whether that narrative is a Happy Story or a Tragedy.

But, in fact, that story is not true. What the Church has always offered us is Faith, not certitude or doubt. For the Catholic faith is in a God who is a Mystery, not a fog, nor a political platform, nor a diagram, formula, or equation. This was true before the Council just as it is now.

Chesterton wrote almost a century ago that Catholics agree about everything and that it is only everything else they disagree about. Twas ever thus. The Faith tells us a few very certain and definite things about God and the human person in its theological teaching (more or less summed up in the creeds and dogmas of the Church), and then it leaves much of the rest of life for us to figure out as we can and order as we will with the help of our shepherds and with the tools provided by such things as law, science, philosophy and the sense God gave a goose—with the help of the Spirit, of course.

That means we may have strong views on Harry Potter, or smoking, or health care, or the war in Iraq, or weight loss, and even how those with same sex attraction may order their lives in society short of perverting the sacrament of marriage. But the Church is not going to micromanage our views on those things—and it never has. That’s why you had great saints on both sides of the schism surrounding the Avignon Papacy. It’s why you had good Catholics on both sides of the Civil War, the Galileo Controversy, the merits of St. Thomas Aquinas’ work and every other serious controversy that has faced the world since the birth of the Church. And it’s why you have Catholics tearing each other apart in comboxes all over the web about whether J.K. Rowling is undermining civilization, and whether BP or Big Government is the villain in the Great Spill, and whether or not we should retain the death penalty.

In short, very rarely will the Church hand down dogma. Virtually always, when it comes to moral acts, she hands down first a few elementary moral truths like “don’t murder”, or “love your enemy”, and then she hands down finely crafted counsel steeped in the Tradition so that we might apply such teaching to our current circumstances. She simply does not (and never has) lived by the motto “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.”

On the Progressive Dissent end of the spectrum, the silly claim of Catholic totalitarianism is sounded every time the Catholic Church re-affirms some core constitutive principle of its being such as “Taking innocent human life is always wrong”, “Sex is always ordered toward the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman”, or “There is no salvation except through Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.” When such non-negotiables are enunciated, the Church gets excoriated by the Progressive Dissenter for refusing to “change with the times” and sinning against hedonist, multiculti, and relativist pieties.

The funny thing is the “Catholic totalitarian” complaint often passes seamlessly to the gripe that Catholic teaching is soooooo incomprehensibly fuzzy and confusing because the Church doesn’t treat us like idiots and spell out common sense propositions. Teenagers in CCD and high school moral theology classes who were just kvetching about the Church’s teaching on fornication as impossibly overbearing and old school can suddenly complain that they are filled with dizzying bafflement over how far is “too far” with a girl, or act like guardhouse lawyers parsing the Talmudic exactitudes of precisely how much alcohol consumption at the prom constitutes “drunkenness”.

Later, when such people get older, they can (depending on their ideological priorities) spend their lives feigning wholesale doubt about what on earth the Church means by mysterious words like “abortion”, “torture”, “dignity” or “human life” and demanding the Church behave like a totalitarian organization and micromanage our use of common sense, or expect no obedience from them.

Ain’t gonna happen. The Church gives us a relatively small number of rock bottom truths about God, the human person, how we should worship, how we should act, and how we should pray. Beyond that, it asks us to behave like adults, and form our hearts, minds and bodies in light of those rock bottom truths, while acknowledging that things can get enormously complex, sticky, ambiguous and conflicted. In short, the Church is the original practitioner of a Theology of Doubt. Only the thing it has doubts about is not the small body of dogma entrusted to her care, but about our ability to squeeze God into our heads or whittle him down to fit our political, cultural, sexual, social, philosophical and financial demands.

That’s the basic difference between the Faith and an ideology. Ideology claims to be an All Explaining Theory of Everything. The Catholic Faith says, “We don’t know much about this immense and mysterious God and his world, but we do know these few things he has revealed to us are true and that he says we are to stick to them like limpets through thick and thin.” That’s why a crucial rule in thinking about God is to remember that he is more unlike than like any creature. As St. Thomas tells us:

Although it may be admitted that creatures are in some sort like God, it must nowise be admitted that God is like creatures; because, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ix): “A mutual likeness may be found between things of the same order, but not between a cause and that which is caused.” For, we say that a statue is like a man, but not conversely; so also a creature can be spoken of as in some sort like God; but not that God is like a creature.

The Catholic Faith says that some things are like God. Ideology (which is to say, “heresy”) seeks to whittle Him down to size and make him manageable—like a creature. Faith lets God be God and reveal himself on his terms—which are, paradoxically, our terms in the Incarnation of God as Man in Christ Jesus.

Because of this, the Church has never had a problem with doubt, provided it is rightly ordered doubt. The gospel, after all, was forged in a crucible of doubt. John the Baptist doubted both Jesus and himself, asking “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). And it will be noted that Jesus did not, in the slightest, rebuke the honest doubts that had formed to cloud John’s thoughts as he sat in prison awaiting execution. As God bucked up an exhausted and despondent Elijah with his still small voice, so Jesus fed John’s flagging faith with his word by reminding him of the solid facts:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

More than this, he took the occasion, not to diss John the Baptist as a weakling who lacked true faith, but to praise him to the crowds:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man * clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:7-11)

Nor was John the last doubter. As Jesus himself warned his disciples on Holy Thursday, including the famous Doubting Thomas, “You will all fall away” (Matthew 26:31). And that promise of terrifying thunderbolts and long plodding rainy days of doubt has been the experience of Christians ever since. Whether in the process of conversion, when we discover with Paul “how hard it is to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), or at some point in our Christian life, the overwhelming majority of us experience doubt usually several times. It may be doubt about God: his existence or goodness. It may be doubt about Jesus Christ. It may be doubt about the Church, or the Bible, or some aspect of their teaching. It may be doubt about one’s self, or some person or thing that has constituted a sure anchor for you soul. It may steal over the soul with the accumulation of thoughts and feelings that you do not know what to do with. It may be pounded in with a nail through your heart by the short, sharp shock of a tragedy or betrayal. But however it comes, it must be faced. And for Christians, it is meant to be faced with the help of Jesus Christ through his body the Church.

Doubts can be located in the emotions, the intellect, or the will. Emotional doubts can be potent, but very often, when you interrogate them, there’s no There there at all. Those who seek to counsel the doubtful can often be of tremendous help simply by listening and letting the doubtful one speak his feelings aloud. Often, simple sunlight will cause the emotional doubt to dissipate. The fear that you had about the new job or the apprehension you felt about that new boss turns out to be rooted, not in reality, but in the fact that it plucked on a half-forgotten memory of some childhood trauma. Once it comes out into the light you realize your emotional reaction was irrational and unfounded and you can move on.

Sometimes doubts can arise from real and reasonable questions. If the Church is guided by the Spirit, why did bishops let the priest scandal happen? If the Bible is the word of God, how come it says the world was made in six days? If God is calling me to marry this girl, how come I’m attracted so much more strongly to that one? None of these things are Forbidden Questions. All of them need to be addressed in some way. And indeed, the classic manner in which Christian philosophy came to treat of everything from soup to nuts is a great deal more thorough in putting really rigorous interrogations to doubtful questions than we are used to. Turn on your TV and you will find that what passes in our civilization for “asking tough questions” consists of stuff like Chris Matthews blasting guests with a fusillade of questions, letting them get in one or two words edgewise, and then peppering them with more half-baked rhetoric that is somewhere between inquiry and accusation.

Our media, as well as much of our advocacy academics, is not really interested in asking tough questions, because we are not a people who want to find things out. We are a people who want to get things done quick and dirty. A medieval disputatio would bore a TV audience to tears with its carefulness (we would say “nitpicky and pedantic”) in really figuring out the right question to ask and the right answer to seek. In short, we don’t want to argue (from the Latin “to clarify”). We want to fight and win, even if we win dirty and stupid.

St. Thomas, however, wanted clarity. And in pursuing it, he carefully and methodically covered thousands upon thousands of doubts about the Catholic faith fearlessly and with the enthusiastic approval of the totalitarian despotic Catholic Church that was (we are assured by the sort of people who make and view Chris Matthews-style television) allegedly terrified of a questioning human mind. He knew, as the apostles knew, that the Faith, having walked out of the grave, had nothing to fear from the Truth and that it was already, even in his day, an anvil that had worn out a thousand hammers. So he interrogated it for all it was worth with thousands of real posers that began, “It would seem…” and then put a question opposed to the teaching of the Church in the strongest possible terms he could find. Would to God that our politicians and journalists today could muster the moxie to approach their own simplistic ideologies with such courage and clarity. The primary problem our so-called Age of Rationality faces is that, unlike the medieval, we worship the intellect rather than using it in huge swaths of our public discourse.

The conviction of the Catholic faith is that, with the help of the Spirit, an intellectual fault can be dealt with by learning to think and getting decent information. Those who seek to counsel the doubtful must therefore be willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of thinking as best they can and not simply offer pietist bromides about how “It’s not ours to question”. On the contrary, it is emphatically ours to question long and hard until we’ve gotten some sort of answer and come to some sort of resolution. “It is,” says Proverbs 25:2, “the glory of God to conceal a matter. It is the glory of kings to search a matter out.” We are to worship God with our minds as well as our hearts. So the desire to find answers, to come to resolution of doubt, to demand that the living God show His face and hear our cry is a perfectly legitimate thing to do and those who counsel the doubtful should not squelch that but help to direct the doubtful to seeking the only thing that can satisfy that hunger: the truth. The truth may well turn out to be (and in the case of God, will turn out to be) a mystery so bright that it cannot be comprehended fully by the intellect. But the problem will be too much light, not too little. The healthy intellect can accept such an arrangement and say, “It is enough, Lord”.

That said, there is a real place where doubt can move beyond the help of mere counsel to help. This is when the doubt is located not in the intellect, but in the will. As long as a person is asking questions to find things out, the one who seeks to counsel the doubtful has tinder for the flame of faith and the satisfaction of the intellect. The one who says “I believe that I may understand” is living a healthy life. But when the will becomes perverted to a posture of doubt, what is necessary is no longer counsel but prayer for a miraculous act of conversion (or re-conversion) by the Holy Spirit. For now questions will no longer be asked to find things out. They will be asked to keep from finding things out. It is this that Paul is warning about when he speaks of those ninnies (still very much with us today) who are “ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). It is the radical sickness of soul that drives Jesus to say, “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6), When it is a perverted will that “questions” in order to refuse light rather than seek it, wisdom says “Don’t beat your head against the wall. This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting”.

That’s because the problem is not lack of information. The problem is a refusal to embrace what is often bleedin’ obvious. When such a perverted will to doubt becomes acute, it can destroy a soul completely, as Jesus warned the Pharisees whose perverted will twisted their intellect to come up with utterly moronic “doubts” such as “It is only by Be-elzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24). As C.S. Lewis sagely observed of Uncle Andrew: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

Speaking of Lewis, his other famous Uncle (Screwtape) gives us the best backhanded advice for how to start in counseling the doubtful, whether that soul be our own or somebody else’s. In discussing his strategy for countering God (aka “the Enemy”) our infernal correspondent says:

The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.

When in doubt, start with the Platitudes, the same old stuff, the ordinary teaching of the Church, the common sense, the stuff your mother taught you, the next practical thing, and the cry “Help me God!” Above all, draw near to God, his body the Church, and the sacraments, not away from them. Just as your body needs sufficient food, rest, play and work, so your spirit does too. Feed on the Eucharist, rest in the revelation of Christ, get counsel from a priest, spiritual director or wise person. Play with the questions you have by bouncing them off others who have the information and the wisdom to help you find your answers. And give your spirit a workout by not getting distracted from your day to day duties of obedience to Christ and winding up with your mind “buzzing in a vacuum”. If you are counseling others, don’t try to be a hero if you genuinely can’t help. The great thing about being Catholic is that you don’t have to know it all. It’s a big Church with a lot of resources to draw on. Odds are very good that whatever doubt a person is struggling with has already been chewed over in minute detail by somebody else somewhere in the Church theological and pastoral treasury of experience. Learn how to find information (starting with the Catechism).

The great blessing that comes from God’s permission of the strange gift of doubt is that, like the even stranger gift of exercise, you discover that you slowly build up “faith muscles” over time. You learn, after the umpteenth time you’ve feared that this doubt will surely shatter your faith (and then discovered that the Church’s teaching and the wisdom of God was sensible and beautiful yet again) that Cardinal Newman was simply being accurate when he famously observed that “Ten thousand difficulties do not amount to a single doubt.”

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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