Friday, November 21, 2014

7qt - mostly about faith struggles


I don't really like theology, as a subject.  Oh, it's not my least favorite (philosophy wins that award, hands down) but every time I try to study theology or understand it, I wind up feeling less sure of everything than when I started.

And yet lately, everyone I talk to has been getting an earful, because I have so much stuff I'm working on figuring out.  Questions like, "Does God punish people?" and "Why does God seem so different in the Old Testament from the way he seems in the New Testament?" and "When we say God is good, how are we to define goodness in a way that isn't circular?" and, most of all, "How am I to know this isn't all a big scam?"

That last question is the scary one.  After seeing how Regnum Christi functions, I have trouble trusting that all religion isn't just a way of controlling people.  In the past, I have heard and believed the argument that the apostles would never have endured martyrdom for a scam.  But now . . . it occurs to me how many of us pledged our word that Maciel was innocent of whatever he was accused of, and I'm not so sure.  We weren't consciously lying -- we were just that convinced.  You can convince yourself of almost anything.


My answer that I have gone to in the past, to comfort me when I am freaking out about it, is -- so what?  What is Christianity, if it's not true?  Well, it's a set of beliefs and practices that convince people to treat others better and which can be comforting.  It carries within itself notions like the dignity of man, the benefit of sacrifice, free will, and continuous self-improvement.  Even if it weren't true, I would still think Christianity was a net beneficial influence on humanity.  There is a reason the Church has survived so well -- it's a set of cultural ideas that definitely have a place in society.

However, a lot of things the Church teaches and does do not help society, but rather propagate itself.  Evolution favors the fit, but it also can favor the over-fit -- cancer, invasive weeds, and so forth, things that destroy the ecosystem.  Christianity and Catholicism in particular have mechanisms that keep people from leaving -- for instance, the belief in hell.  Religions that believe in hell naturally suffer less attrition than others, because people are afraid they'll go to hell if they leave.  A layer is added if you say that doubt is a sin that will send you to hell.  So maybe the safe choice is to not even question.

This is a very scary line of reasoning to me.  Ever being told I shouldn't question is a major trigger for me, and so I question anyway, because I figure sincere questioning isn't doubt, but a search for God who is Truth in the first place.  Yet I still worry .... maybe all my doubts are my own fault for asking questions and I should just stop.  Only what sort of trust do I have in God, if I think even examining my faith, discussing it, and reading up about it will destroy my faith?  Surely he has answers to all the questions?


Why I am I so scared?  Well, you see, I'm not the stereotypical questioner I used to imagine -- someone who's just trying to find an excuse to leave so they can sin.  Even if I weren't Catholic, that wouldn't change my moral standards.  My conscience, wherever it comes from, is pretty strict.  I can't think of a single rule the Church has that I don't agree with.  I'd no sooner use birth control than I would take up bulimia, because it feels equally wrong to me.  So, no, I'm not looking to get out of anything.

In fact I'm not looking for a way out of the Church at all.  I want to be Catholic.  I'm holding onto my faith by my fingernails, because with it threatened like this, I realize I really do want to believe it all.  It's hard to even say why.  I know it isn't because I want to feel superior (I don't; I know some wonderful atheists) and it isn't because I find much comfort in it.  A little bit of it is because the Church is the only community I know -- probably 75% of my friendlist is Catholic, and the sort who would be very upset with me if I left.  Some of it is straight-up fear: if it turns out that God is a vengeful God, I don't want to be on the bad side of that -- even if I were 99% sure it was all a hoax, that 1% would come with scary consequences so best not to risk it.

But I think perhaps, on some level that I can't quite put into words, I really do love God and want to be with him.  I want to live in a world that has that much kindness and truth in it.  I want to have someone to say thank you to, the many times a day when I need to say thank you.


But for the moment I feel I can go on.  I had a scary couple of days when I really felt it must all be false; less a real argument against any part of the faith than just a fear that I'm getting manipulated again and I don't want to have my life and beliefs turned upside-down again and maybe it would be morally wrong to hide my head in the sand and try not to think of my doubts, because it would be lying.

But I had a good talk with John, who pointed out that he, at least, is one person who believes the whole thing without either painting God as a big jerk or hedging his bets for fear of hell.  You see I have this deep distrust in my ability to know anything, and there are so few Catholics I know whom I trust much more than myself.  But there is John.  I have a great deal of trust in him.  If I can tell him all my worst doubts and they don't trouble him, I think for the moment I can go on.

I've also resolved to read the Gospels again.  The rest of the Bible is an iffy proposition; some things are great and uplifting and other bits are upsetting.  So I'll start with just Gospels.  It's a start.  Because Jesus is the sort of person I really would like to know, not because of fear but because he is so easily recognizable as Good.


In other news .... gosh, what else is going on?  Michael has been sleeping very badly, and worst of all, won't let you leave the room if you come in at night to comfort him, so you have to stay there for half an hour or more.  If you try to sneak out, thinking he's asleep, and he isn't, he comes fully awake and wails that he needs you to "be wif me!"  And for fear of waking Marko up, you just have to sit back down and wait.

Because I have a great husband, though, I am not handling much of this.  I'm staying with Miriam, who actually sleeps through the night once in awhile (knock on wood or the Internet Curse will get me) and so I get more sleep than John does.  We've even moved a sleeping bag into the boys' room so John can sleep in there if he has to.  Sometimes he's in there from 4 am to 6, when the kids get up for the day.  I sure hope this stage doesn't last.


Today I buckled down and actually sewed the dress for Miriam I said I'd do weeks ago.  It took me like an hour.  Funny how I can put off things for so long that wind up being really no trouble to do.

The fabric is just a receiving blanket that I happened to have.  Since it's cotton flannel, it's nice and warm and soft.  I would have preferred pink trim, but the green was all I had.  No pattern, I just cut it vaguely Miriam-shaped and sewed it up.  I had planned to put a button opening in the back, but when the neck hole went over her head easily, I skipped cutting an opening.

For my next trick, I want to knit her a headband with a flower on it so people will know she's a girl even though I don't dress her in pink much.

She is three months old now, and just reached the stage when she immediately rolls to her side when I put her down.  Still can't roll all the way over, unless she's on a very uneven surface like a pile of blankets.

She's not asleep in this picture; she's just super excited about that thumb.  


Marko has all of a sudden gotten super affectionate.  Not in the sense of wanting affection from me -- he's always had stages where he wanted lots of attention.  But in the sense of figuring out what I like (hugs and kisses and saying I love you) and very pointedly doing them.  It seems a little artificial, but I think he's just finally wrapping his head around the idea that he can make other people happy by doing certain things, so I appreciate it and tell him so.

Anyway, what is sweeter than a little boy who says "Come back here, I want to kiss you"?  He is not always so good about listening, he sometimes pinches his brother, but he really does care about making us happy and that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  You see, kids don't love their parents when they're little ... they need us.  But Marko is finally reaching a point where he's ready to give back.

How was your week?


Ariadne said...

Hang in there, Sheila, you're doing fine! And I don't know who made you think that doubt is a sin that will send you to Hell, but it REALLY isn't! Doubt is not a sin at all, in fact. Doubt is involuntary, and many holy people have had their doubts. I remember a story about a priest who was having serious doubts about the Real Presence, and God made a Eucharistic miracle for him. God is okay with doubt and questioning, so please cross that off your worry list. :-)

The Sojourner said...

J was born a few weeks early (as I have mentioned endlessly) and he could still lift and turn his head *and* roll onto his side from his back from the moment he was born. (It drove us insane as neurotic first time parents freaking out about back to sleep.) We probably should have known we were in for trouble at that point. :)

Does that sound braggy? Miriam is very cute and I'm sure she is just happier than J was. I used to call him World's Angriest Baby. He was mobile so early because he accidentally rage-flailed into rolling and then decided he liked it.

Sheila said...

Ariadne, here's the catechism:

"2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness."

Right now I'm on involuntary doubt, but what if it were clearly proven to me that the Church teaches that God does actually punish people, that what he calls "goodness" is behavior I would call evil? Am I just supposed to accept this and believe it, even though it seems manifestly wrong?

You see why I'm so hung up on proving that the Church teaches no such thing.

Sojourner, Marko was like that. He would lift up his head so high he'd topple over, right from a week or two old. But then he got fat around 3 months and couldn't do it anymore! Thin babies have an easier time moving around, apparently.

The Sojourner said...

Yeah, J is usually aided by the fact that he's tiny, though sometimes his enormous noggin slows him down. Rolling back-to-front took FOR-EV-ER because he had to work against the weight of his skull rather than with it. I am also starting to think that's why he's hesitant to walk--it's hard to balance upright when your head is still practically as big as the rest of you!

Ariadne said...

I was referring to involuntary doubt, which is definitely not a sin because it requires no act of the will. Obviously, deliberately cultivating doubt is wrong, but that's not what you're talking about here.

For me, starting with the premise that God is good and that I am a limited human being has really helped when I encounter areas of the Faith that are confusing to me. There's just so much we don't understand, and God is the only one Who sees the whole picture. Most dogmas of Catholicism are beautiful and easy to believe for me, so I'm willing to trust that God knows what He's doing with the rest.

That's my way of looking at it anyway.

Laura said...

Hi, me again, popping up out of the blue after never commenting before last week. I appreciate what you say here b/c I've gone through a similar sort of phase too--not specifically w/ the issue of punishment--but a general "what do I really believe anyway?" Not because I want to lead a lifestyle contrary to Church teaching but just b/c nothing seems certain anymore. And it led me to want to read the Gospels too. Like: let me get to know Jesus better and see where that leads.

SeekingOmniscience said...

I'm not really certain how welcome this comment will be. Not trying to be in your face in any way.

But anyhow. One of the things that was troubling to me in your last post and in this post was the way in which you spoke about belief: specifically the manner in which you said you "should" just admit that you're wrong, and the manner in which you speak about clinging to belief in this post.

Speaking generally--smart people can almost always come up with some reason to think X, if they think they should think X. If you set out to bolster all the arguments that you can that support X, while being very sceptical of all the arguments that run contrary to X, then you can often convince yourself that X is so.

And there's a body of interesting psychological literature on this kind of topic regarding rationalization: For instance, you can stick a Democrat / Republican in a fMRI, show him two clips of Kerry / Bush (this was run a bit ago) saying things which are manifestly contradictory, and then ask them to rate the contradictoriness; as you'd expect, they each rate their own party's candidate as less self-contradictory. But their prefontal cortex, the part handling rational thought, still lights up as if they were thinking carefully when they encounter their own party's contradictions--even though they still seem biased. And the interpretation of the experiment is that the prefontal cortex is being used to suppress apparent contradictions.

Anyhow. Speaking generally, and apart from any specifically religious considerations, it seems like, if one is going to think about a topic and try to develop an opinion on it, one has no epistemological obligations but trying to come to know the truth; to put it differently, there need be no rules in conduction one's enquiries save that one should conduct them in a manner that is likely to help one distinguish truth from falsity. Someone who is investigating, say, whether there are WMD should be just as eager to show they are not there as to show that they are there... otherwise, problems result. And even if one isn't obviously biased, it's really difficult to update one's opinions on new evidence and arguments, simply as a human being, because humans generally hate to change their minds. A lot. We don't want to change with evidence and arguments; we want to stick with what we have.

I think this makes it pretty clear what my problems are. Advice of the Church re. investigating doubt doesn't seem optimized for truth, but for keeping people in their current positions--which is already a pretty deeply-engrained human bias. This seems really, deeply problematic and disturbing on an extremely gut level to me.

...I can also sympathize re. the fear of friends, community, etc. Some people react well; others do not. It would almost certainly be more difficult for you in your situation as well.

Sheila said...

S.O., I recognize my biases, but I don't actually believe that humans are capable of examining any important problem (that is, any that seriously affects our life choices) without bias. I am sure you have experienced the reality that when all of your friends and everything you read has a Catholic perspective, there seems no particular reason to question the faith, but when you hang out with atheists and read atheist things, without even having any new reasons to work from, that point of view seems more rational and coherent.

So I choose to own my biases and say straight out: I have a strong preference for remaining Catholic. For one thing, even from an atheist perspective, we know that religion has positive things to offer. It motivates people toward moral action and can be a source of comfort. There is no atheist Mother Teresa. So it seems that if right action and care for other humans are priorities for me (and they are), then religion won't be harmful and can be helpful. That's why I choose, as long as there is any uncertainty on the topic, to stick with being Catholic. If I'm wrong, there's very little danger. Obviously someone to whom the Catholic faith was uncomfortable or demanding might set the limit lower as to how much doubt would get them to leave. But seeing as I doubt the ability of humans to positively know anything, I am not going to waste time worrying about whether I am being perfectly objective. I am not an cannot be, because I am human.

But yes, I agree with you absolutely that the Church --whether in doctrine or in practical advice of individuals -- has a way of quashing doubt, and yeah, that bothers the heck out of me. It bothers me significantly more than any argument against any specific Church teaching -- especially given my own personal history. After all, faith comes through witness and through hearing. We believe because we know people who believe, and who can assure us that this is a good way to live. Finding out later that 90% of the people who were a witness for you, actually either are not trustworthy or are only hedging their bets ... well, it takes away much of the grounds for belief.

This is part of the reason why I've openly talked about my struggles here. I don't think it would be fair at all to let people believe I am sure about things I'm not actually sure about.

Sheila said...

Ariadne, you see the problem. The Church's standard for what to do when faced with doubt is to believe as long as you are capable of belief. The "objective" standard would be to believe as long as the faith is more likely true than untrue, but as soon as you are 51% sure it isn't, you should disbelieve.

I'm not sure I'm following either of these standards completely, but I stick more by the former. Especially as we do give the benefit of the doubt to those we love -- we feel it is much more important to avoid mistrusting a friend who may be telling the truth than to avoid trusting a friend who may be lying. Or like how we set the legal standard for a criminal trial to "beyond reasonable doubt." The risk of condemning an innocent man is considered greater than the risk of letting a guilty man walk.

At the same time, though, I don't feel this extends to willful blindness, if only because I really can't live that way. So I choose to try to resolve my doubts rather than ignore them. And if I can't resolve them ... I don't even know, so I really hope I can.

Andrea said...

Aw, super cute dress and that's a great idea to make one out of a receiving blanket! We got so many of them I don't know what to do with them all and that's a great way to recycle them!

In terms of your Faith struggles, there really are good and satisfying answers to all of of your questions! That's the beautiful thing about the Catholic Faith. Because it is true, there is always an answer. Sometimes it's an answer we can't fully understand yet, but God gave us an intellect to grow in continuing to know Him, so keep asking those questions!

There are proofs for God's existence and how the description of that Being fits perfectly with the Christian God. My husband wrote a neat comic for the proof of God:

Now I don't grasp all of it myself, but it's neat that Faith and reason fit so well together and we don't just believe blindly.

God's relationship with humans was much different in the New Testament due to the change in the abundance of grace after Christ came. He was also more relatable having come as a man. So His expectations of us changed.

Have you seen the newer movie Noah? It kind of gives a really interesting idea of how man's relationship with God might have been. There was so much that hadn't been revealed at that point.

In terms of your question about God being good, well He is Goodness. Is that circular? I don't think so. Since He is Goodness, all goodness comes from Him. He is Beauty and He is Truth. He is, so to speak, the embodiment of these things we often just see as attributes. He just "is" those things Himself. Not sure if I'm explaining that well...

One really neat concept my husband taught me about that has really helped me grasp this concept is the word "sehnsucht" which C.S. Lewis calls an "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what".

So one example is when you see a really beautiful sunset that seems to make your heart ache for a moment, and then that moment is gone. It's a small reflection of infinite beauty that is Beauty Himself.

You might be going through the spiritual struggle of desolation which is where God seems to pull Himself away in order to make one's will stronger.

A good book might be the "Discernment of the Spirits" by St. Ignatius. It's completely normal if this is the case. It's like God asking one to exercise their "trust muscles".

Make many acts of faith during this time and don't get discouraged if you can't find an answer right away to your questions. There are answers, but you just have to find the right source to answer them.

My husband is actually very eloquent in philosophy and theology, so if you have a few specific questions, feel free to throw them my way.

Ariadne said...

My husband reminded that Catholicism is vague about a lot of things. Unless it's formally defined by the Church, there's some flexibility in belief. What does the Church officially teach about Hell? I don't know the answer myself, but maybe you've found it in your research. Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to find the Church's official position on this as opposed to what the Church Fathers thought or what is commonly held by theologians, because it may be less specific than you think.

Sheila said...

Andrea, I'm afraid that eloquence doesn't help me in the least. You see, I'm a cult survivor so anything that is either emotional or very eloquent makes me cagey .... a singed cat fears the fire, you know, and I hate to feel I am being talked into something.

What I mean by "God is good being circular" is that, on the one hand, I feel that if God is good, it should be detectable to me as goodness. I shouldn't see God acting in ways that I perceive as bad. (And some things in the Old Testament really do strike me that way.) So you could say "because God did it, it must be good," but isn't that circular? Shouldn't my vision of goodness and God's be somewhat similar, at any rate? Why would God give me a belief in goodness (which I very strongly have) and then fail to abide by those standards himself?

However, perhaps your vision of good and mine is very different, and of course God can't please us both and still be internally consistent. So in that way, what can we possibly reference to know what goodness is, *except* God? In which case, goodness is just "what God is" and knowing that God is good gives us no new information about God at all.

Does that make sense?

Incidentally, I do believe in God, perhaps not at 100% certainty, but it's not something I am really worrying about questioning. It's more the Catholic Church, specifically, that I have problems with.

Ariadne, what you describe is exactly the sort of thing I'm struggling with. To make things worse, there doesn't seem to be any sort of clear, universally agreed-upon standard for what is infallible. Out of the things we can say for absolute certain are infallible, I so far haven't found anything saying I'm wrong. But there are plenty of things that SOME people say are infallible that I do have problems with. So I have to dig through everything from scratch ... while at the same time having the strong urge to just give it up and stop looking, because I'd rather just go on with my faith without worrying about theological details. But every time I attempt to do this, someone springs up out of the woodwork to tell me I can't possibly be a good Catholic and believe the things I do, and I find myself wanting to prove that I can so believe what I do.

Ariadne said...

It sounds to me as if your problem is more with people who claim to know what the Church teaches than what the Church actually teaches! In my experience, those people are seldom correct; they think they know much more than they do. If you can't find anything obviously infallible that contradicts your personal beliefs, then my guess is that it isn't out there to find. Please try not to listen to all those people telling you what to think!

Andrea said...

All I meant by eloquent was that he explains it well enough so that even I can understand the older, deeper philosophy and theology of the Church. And I don't mean to convince you, because these aren't my opinions, they are the Church's. But rather I just want to pass on an understanding.

You are putting attributes to God that are human, and although He has a human nature as well as a Divine nature, we can't think of Him like we think of each other.

Goodness is something external to ourselves. So, my view of goodness doesn't really matter, as I could technically see something I would want to call "good", such as the modern idea that gay couples should be able marry, which is something that is not good because they misunderstand the true purpose behind their sexuality (that's just an example, I don't support any sort of gay marriage in the least).

So, marriage between a man and a woman is good in part because they are fulfilling the purpose of sex based on the natural law, which can be reasoned through without even having to include God. But the answer does eventually lead to God.

Here's one guy who reasoned through natural law that homosexuality was morally wrong. And this eventually led him to converting to Catholicism.

Instead of seeing if God's goodness matches with our own, we need to see that God is Goodness Himself and then try to understand it from there by understanding His laws and why they are there for us to follow. Or we can go even more fundamental and begin by looking why they are good based on the natural order of things. They aren't just arbitrary no-no's but rather, each one can be reasoned far beyond saying "it's good because God says so". But we have to be willing to do the grunt work to learn these things and examine them honestly.

Even God's creation of Hell is ultimately a good. Check this article out by Peter Kreeft. He's easy to read and explains it well.

The Catholic Church being the visible guide God gave us on Earth can also be reasoned rationally. So, if you do want further info on that, I could pass it on.

Sheila said...

I know the standard answers given by apologists. I did graduate from Christendom, after all. We all got scads of theology ... perhaps too much. You see, if you read deeply into Church history, you find a lot of things have changed over time, some Popes said things I really couldn't ever agree with, and some things seem to contradict with other things. Add that to the wide array of standards that people use for infallibility (as in, no one seems to have a clue what is or isn't infallible) and it all gets rather confusing. It looks suspiciously LIKE a cult, even if it isn't one.

I understand how God's laws are, in general, good, and most of what God does is recognizable as good. Some things, though .... for instance, God tells us to murder the innocent is wrong. Always, 100% of the time. And then people say that God really did command the Israelites to murder the Canaanites, men, women, and children. Why would God say "don't ever murder" and then turn around and say "oh except in this one case, then you can murder"?

(My explanation is that this isn't actually what God commanded, but a lot of people disagree with me.)

When Jesus died for sinners, my human reason can easily conclude, yes, that's good. But if he sent anyone to hell for never being baptized, when they never knew they should be baptized in the first place, that's not good. I think I can safely say that's not good. (And I'm convinced that, whatever the Church said in the Middle Ages, it's firmly on my side of that question now.)

I think, when it comes down to it, it isn't that I doubt God, or the Church -- it's that I trust *that God is good* more than I trust the Church. If the Church told me that God was not good, good in a way my reason can at least justify as being good, the Church would be wrong. God would still be good.

However, it hasn't yet been proven to me that the Church says God is not good ... and luckily it seems that most people I know seem to agree. I'm feeling a good bit better about this.

Sheila said...

I think, Ariadne, that what is happening with me is that I feel so cagey about the mere fact of believing anything -- so afraid of being taken in again -- that when someone disagrees with me about some issue of faith, I feel like I HAVE to dig everything up and re-do it. Because the whole point of cults is to halt that process .... to make you feel profound discomfort with the very idea of reconsidering what you've already committed to, so that you don't question the cult. So, to prove I'm not brainwashed, I feel like I have to question constantly.... yet when I do, I come up against this other wall, the "but humans are so easily manipulated and deceived, how can I ever be sure of anything?" one. I wonder if I will ever get over this.

Ariadne said...

I understand what you're saying and why you would feel that way. I'm sorry. Abuse can affect people for a long, long time, even when they thought they were over it. I think the important thing is that you ARE dealing with all this and that you're talking about your struggles. I really think you're doing a great job, even if it doesn't feel like you are. :-)

Andrea said...

Hmm . . . Can you give an example of the things that changed over time and the things the popes said that don't make sense to you? We often hear about these things second or third hand, and can come to believe that what our atheist or protestant friends are saying about the Church has some truth. I've always found it useful to find the source, though. I've found that as I examine history, the fundamentals and deposit of the faith have not changed, even if the language sometimes has. Looking deeply into history tends to vindicate the Church. As Cardinal Newman said, "To be deep in history is to cease to be protestant."

For instance, I don't think the Church ever, in the Middle Ages or otherwise, said that if someone isn't baptized, through no fault of their own, they go to hell. The idea of "invincible ignorance" has been around for a very long time, as has the idea of baptism of desire. Theologians have always been aware of the apparent conflict between the necessity of baptism and the fact that God doesn't send anyone to hell who didn't choose it.

Now that doesn't mean that theologians can't say screwy things, or others in the Church. I know what you mean about some things in the past being strange, and some people today being rather cult-like: my husband just got done debating with a modern day geocentrist who thinks the Church defined that as doctrine when the Inquisition silenced Galileo! But if you really look into the affair historically, you find that not only was it not defined as doctrine, but the whole conflict with Galileo was not simply a Church-vs.-science matter as it is so often portrayed, but more about the fact that Galileo was agitating in favor of something for which he had no scientific proof (he thought he could prove the earth's motion using the tides) and against something that was linked to scripture by many theologians at the time ( The Inquisition was wrong, of course — the Church is made up of fallible humans, after all — but not the villain it's often made out to be. More importantly, though this is probably the most egregious example of the institutional Church making a mistake, it's not a mistake about faith or morals. The teachings of faith and morals over the centuries have not changed, even when the church seemed full of corrupt clergy and the popes were raising their illegitimate kids to offices in the Vatican. And we Catholics are lucky in that we have ways of distinguishing what is actually of the deposit of faith and necessary doctrine, and what (like geocentrism) falls outside that scope — even if a pope is saying it.

Anonymous said...

What comes to my mind as I am reading your post and all the replies, is the passage from Mark's gospel (Chapter 9) in which the father of a boy approaches Jesus asking him to heal his son. At some point, the boy's father tells Jesus, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” All of us have doubts at some time or another and for some the struggle is more difficult. But I think our willingness to believe can be sometimes more important than the belief itself.

Sheila said...

Okay, Andrea, I don't really want to go there, but FINE.

Let's take just one doctrine, "Outside the Church there is no salvation."

Pope Eugene IV, in the Bull Cantate Domino, 1441, said, "The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, also Jews, heretics, and schismatics can ever be partakers of eternal life, but that they are to go into the eternal fire 'which was prepared for the devil and his angels' unless before death they are joined with Her... No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church."

That's harsh, but I suppose you could say, "Well, baptism of desire does make you a member of the Catholic Church." But then you'd have to deal with Boniface VIII's statement in his bull Unam Sanctam, "We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." Which doesn't make exception for baptism of desire, since people who don't know about the Pope can't be subject to him.

For more you can pop on over here:

Now I don't believe that all non-Catholics go to hell, or that unbaptized infants go to hell, and I think I'm in good company -- several popes agreed with me, and Vatican II certainly seems to -- but you see that just leads to more problems. Instead of being compelled to accept that God would send people to hell for reasons out of their control, I am compelled to recognize that the idea that non-Catholics went to hell was pretty much universal at one time and isn't now ... and therefore the Church's credibility itself is damaged.

I get around this generally by taking a very narrow view of infallibility. However many Catholics disagree with me -- perhaps you do! -- and every time they do I feel in some doubt myself ... could I be wrong? Because if I'm wrong -- if, for instance, everything in an official catechism or anything in any encyclical is infallible -- the whole idea is false; there are too many contradictions on that level.

Anthony T said...

Hi! I'm Andrea's husband, Anthony. :) Andrea's busy with Pio at the moment, but she showed me your conversation, so I thought I'd jump in. :)

You're right that infallibility doesn't apply to every word of an encyclical. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1914 says,

"It need only be added here that not everything in a conciliar or papal pronouncement, in which some doctrine is defined, is to be treated as definitive and infallible. For example, in the lengthy Bull of Pius IX defining the Immaculate Conception the strictly definitive and infallible portion is comprised in a sentence or two; and the same is true in many cases in regard to conciliar decisions. The merely argumentative and justificatory statements embodied in definitive judgments, however true and authoritative they may be, are not covered by the guarantee of infallibility which attaches to the strictly definitive sentences — unless, indeed, their infallibility has been previously or subsequently established by an independent decision." (

Regarding Most Holy Family Monastery: they're a sedevecantist group, and they're Feeneyites (they reject baptism of desire), so they're going to spin things in a weird way and pick and choose documents to give the impression that the Church said things more emphatically than it did, or that something that was said covers more situations than the Church intended. The geocentrists do the same thing. It seems to me that Eugene IV and Bonifice VIII were talking about those who REJECT the Church, not those who never encountered her. That's also the context of the Fathers when they talked about no salvation outside the Church.

Even if people did believe at one time that there no exceptions to the need for water baptism, would that be a bad thing? It would just mean they tried very hard to convert people! :) But in fact they didn't believe that: Aquinas, for instance, wrote a lot about limbo, so he definitely didn't think lack of baptism automatically meant hell. And he wrote about baptism of desire:

"If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him . . ." (

This was circa 1250. The Fathers, too, spoke of baptism of desire. Augustine, circa 400:

"And as in the thief [at Calvary] the gracious goodness of the Almighty supplied what had been wanting in the sacrament of baptism, because it had been missing not from pride or contempt, but from want of opportunity . . .

"By all these considerations it is proved that the sacrament of baptism is one thing, the conversion of the heart another; but that man's salvation is made complete through the two together. Nor are we to suppose that, if one of these be wanting, it necessarily follows that the other is wanting also; because the sacrament may exist in the infant without the conversion of the heart; and this was found to be possible without the sacrament in the case of the thief, God in either case filling up what was involuntarily wanting. But when either of these requisites is wanting intentionally, then the man is responsible for the omission. And baptism may exist when the conversion of the heart is wanting; but, with respect to such conversion, it may indeed be found when baptism has not been received, but never when it has been despised."

Anthony T said...

And Ambrose, 4th century:

"But I hear that you are distressed because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me, what attribute do we have besides our will, our intention? Yet, a short time ago he had this desire that before he came to Italy he should be initiated [baptized], and he indicated that he wanted to be baptized as soon as possible by myself. Did he not, therefore, have that grace which he desired? Did he not have what he asked for? Undoubtedly because he asked for it he received it."

Both those last quotes come from, a site set up to combat the Feeneyites. One way it does that it by showing that they are picking and choosing the texts they present and interpret, and ignoring the context and the many other texts which give a more complete picture of the subject.

Extremists will always take things to, well, an extreme, but examining history tends to reveal more nuance than those with an agenda want to show. We live in a difficult time, when many in the Church don't seem to want to have anything to do with doctrine at all, and in response a lot of these extreme groups have popped up. In trying to "correct the errors" (some of which are real) by modern churchmen, they often go too far and "correct" too much. This is hardly new in the history of the Church though, which is why it's nice that we DO have official teachings to rely on, rather than finding ourselves following one group or the other, and breaking off into 27,000 different versions of the Church like the protestants did. :)

Sheila said...

But don't you see, Anthony, that instead of dozens of versions of the truth, you have dozens of versions of what infallibility is?

Yes, I know that the Feeneyites are wrong, and yet how can anyone *prove* that they are wrong? They say "this statement is ex cathedra," how exactly are you to prove it isn't? Because, unfortunately, there is no infallible list of infallible statements. It seems that leaves a lot of wiggle room for the Church to hedge its bets -- so that when it wants to change something, it can simply either re-interpret a past statement, or claim it was never infallible in the first place.

Meanwhile everyone spends their time arguing about what is and isn't infallible. I wish I could even find two Catholics who draw the line in the same place. Some people think the popes were speaking ex cathedra in the statements I quoted. Some people think everything in the CCC is infallible. Some people think there have only been two infallible statements ever. I define it according to Vatican I, but that too leaves me with something of a judgment call, where I have to research whether the pope in question was speaking to the whole Church and guess whether he was intending to propose something for belief. It seems that makes for more confusion rather than less.

But you are quite wrong that everyone understood before that "outside the Church there is no salvation" meant what we currently believe it to mean. Ask anyone over 60 years old, they'll tell you -- they were taught growing up that unbaptized babies couldn't possibly go to heaven (limbo is considered part of hell, just with no suffering) and that the reason we have to give to the missions is because anyone who doesn't get a chance to be baptized will go to hell. In fact I know people my own age who believe the same thing; they may acknowledge that baptism of desire is theoretically possible, but they tend to deny that very many people receive it.

But anyway, I KNOW all the explanations. I kinda wish you would stop repeating them; I am also capable of googling and, like I said, I've studied a LOT of theology. My point is not that the Church *couldn't* be true, but that it requires all kinds of fancy footwork to show that it could, while the obvious conclusion seems to be that it's not, that it's a human invention, because it evolves and changes just as other human institutions do. And though one can very easily choose to believe the more convoluted answer -- as I said, I have chosen this -- it makes it more difficult when there is this fear that you are being taken in by a scam.

And to be honest, all the lecturing kind of makes it worse. It feels like y'all are trying to pressure me back into the fold, trying to stop me asking questions. I know you're trying to help, but I spoke up more to share my feelings of unease than to ask for explanations. I do know those explanations. They just strike me as lacking, not enough to make it impossible to believe them, but enough to make it HARD.

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