The trouble with being a well-catechized Catholic is that you know too many details, and all of these hang together. For that reason, uncertainty about any minor theological point can discredit your entire religion.
I don't want to take that approach, because it seems to me quite likely that some stuff is true and other stuff isn't. So I've spent some effort trying to sort out what things I believe, and how sure I am about each. Some things, I'm very sure about -- including pretty much all moral issues. I get my point of view on morals from my conscience -- which, for sure, is formed by having been brought up Catholic -- and I don't think I can go wrong following that guideline. (And yes, I think that's the "Catholic thing" to do -- more than one pope has pointed out that conscience is always primary.) Other things I do believe, but have a higher degree of doubt about them.
That I did not create myself -- absolute certainty. That is the one thing I can know for sure. And from this follows a moral conclusion, that I owe a debt of gratitude and worship to whoever or whatever did create me.
That the entity that created me is conscious -- near certainty, most days. It's just a little too convenient, that the universe would have exactly the set of rules, the mass, the amount of energy, and so forth required to create the earth, life, and intelligence. Those odds are vanishingly small. The one doubt in my mind about this is because I know the tendency of humans to see design where there is none, because our brains are geared to recognize patterns. For instance, we see faces just about everywhere. When I was in boarding school I was convinced that I had found my name written in the marble tiles of the chapel floor. Of course the marks on marble are random, but even random things can seem to form a pattern to a human eye. But on the whole, the universe does look designed to me -- not in terms of seven-day creation (I believe in evolution) but in its system parameters. A slight change in those parameters would have resulted in chaos or collapse . . . only this specific universe we live in could have exploded into such a complex, beautiful thing.
That this entity is concerned with humans specifically -- near certainty. Like I said, what are the odds? And why make us conscious, moral, religious, and attracted to beauty if He didn't mean to have something to do with us later?
That God has been attempting to interact with us throughout history -- pretty sure. The story I get out of the Old Testament is of the idea of God surviving despite all kinds of threats from within and without. There's this insanely complex and frankly weird legal code, which contains just enough "cultiness" to keep the chosen people separate from everybody else, and also the sort of symbolism that could make sense of the redemption. The redemption is hard to explain in one-syllable words ... but God didn't try. The only conclusion I can draw is that he really did take thousands of years to prepare a group of people who could understand it.
That most of the "historical" events in the Old Testament really happened -- highly doubtful. Most historians, so far as I've read, believe the historical books straight up through the book of Kings were written centuries after the events they describe. And that actually comes as something a relief to me -- it seems to suggest that they were never intended as a straight-up chronicle, but rather a legendary story. Intent of the authors is important in interpreting scripture, right? And since God's behavior throughout the Old Testament is strange, sometimes seeming cruel and unfair and other times plain self-contradictory, I'd much rather see it as somewhat mythologized from what God actually said and did. I guess I describe my view as "God tried to explain himself to the Israelites, but they got pretty mixed up about what he'd said by the time they got around to writing it down." I sure hope this is okay, because it's one of my main struggles ... I simply can't make myself believe a lot of those stories. Other parts make God seem like an arbitrary, unloving sort of being -- not at all how he is described in the New Testament.
That the events in the New Testament happened -- reasonably sure. Most everyone agrees by now that the Gospels were written before 100 AD, possibly quite a bit before, and the epistles were written even earlier. That means that when they were written, there were eyewitnesses still alive who could counter inaccuracies. I could not today write a book stating that President Eisenhower fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, because there are plenty of people around who could testify against me. Basically no one denies that Jesus was a real person who really did have a massive following and was really crucified by Pontius Pilate. There were no end of preachers and revolutionaries and prophets at the time -- Jesus is the one that everyone remembered.
That Jesus rose from the dead -- can't get around it. That is to say, the idea blows my mind, it seems incredible, and yet I can't find an alternate explanation. Why would all of those witnesses go to their deaths rather than recant? I know how cults work. I know how people can convince themselves of some crazy, crazy things. I know about Jonestown and how all those people drank poisoned Kool-Aid because their leader told them to. And yet, what you don't always hear is that many of them refused to drink it and were forced to drink it by others. Some ran away into the jungle, which is why we know what happened at all. And probably none of them would have drunk it if they hadn't all been together, egging each other on. They had reason to believe their leader was telling them the truth -- that they would all be brainwashed by fascists if they didn't commit suicide first.
None of this holds true for the apostles. They had time, alone, in prison, away from other influences that might hold them to their beliefs. They weren't given sweet koolaid to down in a second ... they were tortured, set free, tortured again, locked up, over and over. Each of them had a chance to deny Jesus. Not one did. Not ONE. And they should have known. Their founder wasn't on the scene to call the shots. They were the leaders now. They were in a position to know if they were lying. Cult leaders don't go down with the ship, not when they have a choice.
That the Catholic Church is the descendant of the community of believers started by Jesus -- not much doubt there. We do believe the same things the Church Fathers believed, a generation or two after Jesus, if it is also to be admitted that we believe a lot more things than they ever wrote about. There is a direct line you can trace from any priest, to the bishop who ordained him, straight back to the Apostles. (The Orthodox can do it too, I think, and some but not all Anglicans.)
That the Catholic Church is infallible -- some doubt. It seems a bit circular to me. The Church declared itself infallible. If it didn't have the authority to do that, it couldn't give itself the authority just by saying so. I admit that the idea of infallibility wasn't invented wholesale at Vatican I; it has a long tradition behind it. But can it be entirely certain that everything from "when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" to "where Peter is, there is the Church" was exactly the same thing as infallibility as currently understood? Because there's just so much out there. And it makes me very nervous to realize that whenever there's an apparent conflict, the answer is always "that was never infallible in the first place" or "it was never meant to mean that." For instance, we now believe that there is no salvation outside the Church in a very difference sense than the one it was originally expressed in, but no one wants to admit that it's different. There's no infallible list of infallible teachings, so everyone is free to believe in the set of teachings that they think is infallible. It seems a little too hard to be sure you're not a heretic. And the stuff that we're being taught now -- are we going to be told, centuries hence, that they didn't really mean it that way?
Infallibility is just one of those things that trips all my cult detectors. What cult worth its salt wouldn't claim to be always right, if it thought it could get away with it? And yet it's one of those culty things that is sort of required for any religious group to survive -- as Catholics will always remind you, look at the Protestants! They don't have a central authority and so they splinter. You can never be sure you have the right set of beliefs. So doesn't it make sense that God would provide a way to stop this from happening to the Church?
But if you look at the vast difference between a liberal Catholic and a traditionalist Catholic, it makes me suspect that having an infallible pope hasn't actually stopped us from being divided. Not just on unimportant stuff like whether Mary really appeared at Fatima, but vital stuff like "Does God punish the sinners in hell?" or "What proportion of people are saved?" I know Catholics who think pretty much everyone goes to heaven and are able to defend that belief, and I know Catholics who think that hardly anyone does and are able to defend that too.
Is it just a balance we've struck here? It could be, but it seems very odd to me that we have an infallible teaching about whether Mary was immaculately conceived (which doesn't even matter, so far as I can see) and not one about whether God cares more about believing the right things or about doing the right things.
Anyway, that's my attempt at a summary of what I believe and how much I believe it. It's my determination that, if something is true, God desires me to believe it, and therefore I also want to believe it. If I am wrong, I hope I figure it out. From the best I can determine, this wish keeps me from being a formal heretic or dissenter.
Well, let's hope. I do my best.