Doubting is actually an
 intelligent activity

April 10-11, 2011

Readings: AA5.12-16; Ps. 118; Rev. 1.9-11; Jn. 20.19-31

Doubting Thomas. Have you ever done one regrettable thing in your life, for which people remember you, while these same people forget the hundreds of good things you have done? St. Thomas the apostle must feel that way. People forget that he gave up everything in response to Jesus' invitation to "come, follow me." When Jesus told the apostles that he wanted to go up to Jerusalem, the other apostles tried to discourage Jesus, whereas Thomas said, "Let us go to die with him." After the resurrection, Thomas placed his hands in Jesus' side and proclaimed, "My Lord and my God", which is regarded as the Scriptures' first explicit affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. Instead of being called Courageous Thomas, Faithful Thomas, Perceptive Thomas, he still is remembered as Doubting Thomas.

Doubting is actually an intelligent activity. Each of us began this process when we were toddlers. Our parents would say, "Don't run out into the street." We'd reply, "Why?" Parents would tell us, "Hold onto my hand." We'd reply, "Why?"

Genuine doubting or questioning seeks to know the truth, the deeper truth, the whole truth. Genuine doubters ask lots of penetrating questions; they are not gullible. At any Sunday Mass, do you know who probably has more questions than anybody else about the Scriptural readings, the Church's teachings, the power of prayer, the benefit of moral living? It's not the teenagers or college students; it's the priests. Priests are trained in the liberal arts to ask questions, to get the facts on the table, to consider the complexity of matters, to anticipate unanticipated consequences, to pray for wisdom and prudence before making a decision. Many good students learned the classical method of study: SQ3R which means survey, question, read, recite, and review.

Some of history's best teachers were questioners. In the 5th century BC, the philosopher Socrates introduced the dialectical method of raising questions to arrive at answers for the significant aspects of life. E.g., what is virtue, or truth, or justice? By a series of what, why and how questions, he would arrived at precise definitions. Socrates is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method. He began with a hypothesis, and continually revised it by seeking further information through questions. Eventually, he was condemned to death on the charge of corrupting youth because, in the opinion of the town's leaders, he kept asking too many questions.

St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century treated many topics by beginning with a question. He wrote, e.g., "Does God exist?" First, he suggested a non-Catholic answer by using a popular viewpoint: "No, look at all the suffering in the world. Second, he would give the Catholic answer with arguments from faith and reason to the popular perspective. From faith: the Scriptures say that God exists: "God is love. I have come to do the will of my Father in heaven. You would have no power over me if it had been not given to you from above." From reason: "The existence of God can be demonstrated in five ways: God is the Unmoved First Mover, the Uncaused First Cause, the Uncreated Creator, Source of all Good, and Source of Goals/Designs." Aquinas describes theology as "faith seeking understanding."

Questions are wonderful. Quoting Ps. 22, Jesus asked, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The Blessed Virgin Mary questioned the angel Gabriel, "How can this be since I have not known a man?" St. Joseph must have had lots of questions about why God wanted him to marry this young woman who was already pregnant but not by him, and with whom he never would have intercourse. Who of us has not expressed lots of questions: "Why, Lord? Why now? Why this sorrow? Why me or my loved ones?" Who of us has not raised those fundamental questions?

May I suggest some cautions about questions. Many people like to ask questions, but don't stick around for the answers. To answer many questions requires an open mind, lots of research, writing to demonstrate a correct understanding of the various perspectives, and weighing arguments. Really, many people struggle to have an open mind, to struggle with and for the truth, to consider short-term and long-term implications, and simply, to sit down for long hours and to study. It is much simpler to ask a question, to raise a doubt, and then to leave. I describe asking a question and not waiting around for the answer as "intellectual hit & run." It's not fair. Complex questions can rarely be answered with a ten-word sound-bite.

I like to distinguish doubt and indifference. Doubts can lead to a deeper faith. Indifference leads only to drifting away from faith. Doubt implies, "I don't grasp the meaning of that teaching." Indifference demonstrates, "I don't care about that teaching." Some people claim, "I don't come to church because I am doubting my faith." I reply, "Come to church so that you can learn more about and deepen your practice of the faith." Virtue requires performance of the virtue sought. Someone will never grow in faith by abandoning one's faith. Doubt is a wonderful intellectual activity. Indifference is giving up and walking away from your faith. Doubting takes time and intellectual honesty. Indifference is quitting, in this case, quitting on God and the relationship and responsibility that he wants for you and from you, not what you desire in your relationship with God.

Doubting oftentimes cloaks some other issue. Many people raise doctrinal questions, e.g., "I don't completely understand the Trinity," or "How is this bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ." Many people use these doubts as pseudo-justifications for not coming to church. Experience teaches me that people oftentimes use alleged doubts about doctrinal issues to cover up for disagreement with the Church on moral issue, e.g., why can't I sleep with my girlfriend/boyfriend, or what's wrong with excessive drinking, gambling, or speeding. Most people drift from the church because of disagreement over moral teachings, or because of hurt feelings. Very few people leave the church because of genuine doubts or doctrinal teachings.

Another caution: religion necessarily involves mystery. If religion could prove all of its teachings, it would not require faith. Correlatively, if you could put your physical hands or intellectual grasp around God, you would not be holding God. You would have created your own limited God.

I hope that everybody has questions about faith and religion. If not, that means that they have stopped thinking, and that their childlike faith has not kept pace with the maturation process of other aspects of their life. Having questions puts you in good company: Socrates, St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Jesus and Mary. Stick around for the answers, and in the process, deepen your faith so that you might whisper genuinely, humbly and profoundly with the Doubting Thomas, "My Lord and my God."

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley