Is It OK to Question Our Faith?

A former classmate of mine once told me of the difficulties he encountered in relating to the preaching in his home parish. Often when explaining a point of doctrine from the pulpit, the homilist would urge the congregation to accept this teaching with some variation on the phrase, “You don’t question Holy Mother Church.” He responded (with no hint of irony), “But why?” “Some things are difficult to understand. Some things are hard to accept. Like, how could God send his own Son to be tortured and die? I couldn’t imagine doing that to my child. Why can’t we question that?”

I don’t think my friend’s experience is unique. Many a Catholic brought up with the Baltimore Catechism, for example, has expressed frustration that their faith formation was not allowed to advance past the formulas in that text, with any further questions being slapped down as impudent and met with “Because the Church says so,” sowing resentment in their young hearts and arresting their curiosity about their faith. (Though at least their knowledge of the faith exceeded that of those who were subjected to the various experiments that came after—but that is for another time.) This is a phenomenon planted deep in the mindset of our age. The modern world is in its essence founded in a rejection of authority, from the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment to the revolutions in America, France, and Russia. This attitude still permeates our culture, such that any recourse to “because the Church says so” will be met with a rolling of the eyes and a dismissal of the Church and its allegedly “authoritarian” message.

Of course, we have so much more to offer to a person asking a question than “because the Church says so.” The Church does not simply believe by the fiat of popes or bishops, but by the gift of divine revelation and the reasoned exploration of it. Questions about why the Church believes this or does that can and should be met with all the resources available: Scripture, Tradition, the Fathers, the scholastics, and millennia of profound reflection by saints and theologians. Catholics are encouraged to dive ever deeper into their faith, to seek greater understanding. Seeking, a quest, a quaestio—a questioning. This is questioning in its proper sense, the kind by which St. Thomas can explore “Whether there is a God” (Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3) without impiety. We are disciples of Christ, and a discipulus is a “student.” Christ is our rabbi, the Church our magistra, and a student naturally asks questions of a teacher. This is the questioning of children endeavoring to understand the great big world around them.

But there is another kind of questioning that is less childlike and more identified with the teenager. It comes in the form of a query, but is essentially a declaration of disbelief in a quizzical mode. It is a scoff with a question mark on the end. It is a rhetorical question, asked for effect but not expecting or requiring an answer. The person asking the questioning has already made up his mind on the issue, and his question is intended as a “gotcha” moment, like “Can God make a rock so big even He can’t lift it?” (The question is absurd, by the way: God can do everything, but God can’t do the nonsensical. There cannot be a rock that God is unable to lift anymore than there can be a square circle. The definition of the thing proposed is self-contradictory. But we’ll leave that for another time.) This is the question of one who knows the Church’s answer already and rejects it. This is not “What must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16), but rather “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

Those who question in this mode must consider the possibility that there is something true that they don’t currently either know or accept. It comes down to trust, to faith: a question can only be properly asked when questioners trust that the one to whom they are addressing their inquiries will not deceive them or impose their will upon them, but rather will lead them to greater insight. This can be done even if there is great doubt about or struggle with the expected answer: but there must be some crack in the door, some openness to instruction, some willingness to accept something outside of oneself.

Our answer then is yes, it is OK to question our faith, but only if both parties, the questioner and the questioned, are committed to each other and to the truth. For we know Him who is the Truth, and He has told us that the truth will make us free. (John 8:32) All we need do is seek it, quest for it—quaestio—for He also tells us that whoever seeks, will find.

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Nicholas Senz is a husband and father who tries every day to live Galatians 2:20: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." He is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA, a managing editor at Catholic Stand, and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His work has appeared at Catholic Exchange, Crisis Magazine, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and his own blog, Two Old Books. Nicholas is a science fiction aficionado, Tolkien devotee, avid Anglophile, and consumer of both police procedurals and popcorn in large quantities, usually together. Twitter at @NickSenz.

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