Doubts and Difficulties in Faith, and How to Respond

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March 11, 2018

A few years ago, I began to seriously question Catholic teaching – specifically, the all-male priesthood and what that meant for women.

I’d had my doubts before, but for some reason it all came to a head at the end of my junior year in college. I wanted to find an answer in the Catholic Church. I desperately wanted to be convinced. People did have answers for me, and I am grateful to my friends and family for trying to answer my questions. But no one seemed to have the perfect answer.

I suspect that many, if not all, of us either struggle with some Church teachings or know people who do. Quite possibly you’re in both situations.

If you are struggling:

First off, I’m sorry, because it is rough. Speaking from my own experience and struggles, it’s hard. It can be lonely, especially if no one else seems to understand your question or why it’s so important to you. It can be frustrating, because on one side you have friends who have left the Church because of these same questions… and on the other side you have friends in the Church who try to help, but often give you quick and easy answers to really complex problems. It can make you start to doubt everything you ever believed to be true, which is a little bit terrifying.

It takes courage to keep asking questions and delve deeper when it seems like the whole world wants you to give up and just pick one side already.

Second, I’m really proud of you. It takes courage to keep asking questions and delve deeper when it seems like the whole world wants you to give up and just pick one side already. St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” The God of truth has placed a desire for truth on your heart. The fact that you are not satisfied with the answers you see around you means that He wants to draw you deeper into truth, deeper into Himself. And for that, I am truly happy for you.

If you know someone who is struggling:

Acknowledge their struggle. Pray for them. Maybe you really can’t understand why they don’t “get it”… Maybe when the topic of the priesthood comes up, it’s enough for you that “Jesus chose only men to be apostles”".” If that’s not enough for them (it may well not be enough, I’m just here to tell you), trust that the Church’s teachings can stand up to questioning. Quite probably, you don’t have all of the answers (neither did Thomas Aquinas, but he turned out alright).

Encourage the person struggling to read Scripture and to read what the saints and the popes have written on the subject. Walk with them. Be willing to have conversations with them. Be honest. If you don’t have an answer, say that… and then join them in searching for an answer. Try to see things from their perspective, especially if it’s difficult for you. Please, don’t clam up. Odds are, your friend does not want to commit heresy. The reason they are asking these questions is because they desperately want to find the truth and because they have hope that the Church is the keeper of this truth. It is your sacred responsibility, as a Catholic and a friend, to journey with them in their search for truth. Sometimes that also means knowing when it’s time to step back and trust the Holy Spirit to work, in His own way and in His own time.

I recently had a conversation with a dear friend of mine, who was the first person I turned to when I had that crisis of faith a couple of years ago. He told me how happy he was that I had found the answers I was looking for, and that his own understanding of the faith had grown by listening to me as I wrestled with – and found answers to – my questions. He then said something that gave me pause: “Honestly, I was afraid for you when you started questioning all of this, because I had only ever seen people go down that path and end up rejecting the faith.

There’s a very real fear among good and faithful Catholics that to question the Church too much leads to a rejection of the Church.

And to be quite honest with you? I can’t really blame him. There’s a very real fear among good and faithful Catholics that to question the Church too much leads to a rejection of the Church. While I’m sympathetic to that fear, I’m not so sure I agree. If someone is at the point of leaving the Church, it’s because that person does not believe that truth, beauty, and goodness can be found in the Church. And a lot of times, that’s on us, as members of the Church. If we’re not willing to engage with questions and doubts, it’s going to seem as though we’re afraid of the truth. And that is a surefire way to send people looking elsewhere for answers.

Historically, there are two ways to question the Church. The first is the way of Zechariah (not to throw him under the bus, but this is not the good way). When faced with a seemingly impossible proclamation from an angel, he says, “‘How can I be sure of this?’” (Lk 1:18). Essentially, he wants a sign before he will accept the angel’s message. The second way is the way of Mary (the good way). Mary is faced with a similarly incredible proclamation from an angel, and she responds in like fashion (or so it would seem): “‘How can this be…?’” (Lk 1:34).

According to Blessed John Henry Newman, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” The crucial difference between Zechariah’s response and Mary’s response is that Zechariah doubts. He refuses to believe until God has proved Himself. Mary, on the other hand, accepts the angel’s Annunciation while at the same time expressing confusion – and asking for answers. She doesn’t ignore the difficulty of the message; rather, she looks to God’s messenger for answers when she doesn’t understand.

[Mary] doesn’t ignore the difficulty of the message; rather, she looks to God’s messenger for answers when she doesn’t understand.

(If you’re interested in the difficulties vs. doubts question, Father Dwight Longenecker explains Newman’s quote much better than I can in this article. http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/blessed-john-henry-newman-explains-faith-doubts-and-difficulties)

One last thing that is helpful for me, when thinking about individual difficulties with the faith:… I like to think of reality as this huge, beautiful tapestry that God has sewn together. So many beautiful threads come together to make this tapestry of reality. Some of the threads are moral teachings, some of the threads are natural law, some of the threads are insights of the saints, some are the sacraments, some are scientific discoveries, and so on. But if you take any of them out of the larger context of the tapestry, they stop making sense. Not only that, but within the tapestry, every thread holds the other threads in place. So when we ask, “Why does the Church teach X?” we may not be asking the question correctly. Perhaps a better question would be, “How does this teaching fit into the larger reality God is showing us?” When we look at everything around that one thread, we’ll be able to see how it is supported by other teachings and truths. And the more we look at how all of the threads come together, the better we’ll be able to see the whole tapestry. I certainly can’t see the whole tapestry myself. From what I’ve seen, though, it looks like an icon of the merciful face of God.

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Emily Archer

Emily Archer is a recent graduate of Baylor University, having written her undergraduate honors thesis on her three great loves: authentic feminism, faithful Catholicism, and traditional fairy tales. When not reading or writing or trying to cut down on Netflix, she works as a speech and feeding therapist in her clinical fellowship year.

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