Doubts and Difficulties

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" (detail) by Caravaggio

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (detail) by Caravaggio

I’m glad doubting Thomas is a saint because gives us permission to question our faith. While we call him Doubting Thomas it might be better to call him Difficult Thomas or “Thomas who  had difficulties”.

There is a difference between a doubt and a difficulty. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

When we start to think through our Catholic faith we would be negligent or stupid not to have some problems. After all, the things we propose as true in the Catholic faith stretch the human mind and heart. If a person says they have no problems with their Catholic beliefs I doubt if they have even started to think things through.

There is nothing wrong with having difficulties, but there is a problem with doubt. Here’s the difference:  The person with a difficulty says, “How can that be so?” whereas a person who doubts says, “That can’t be so!”

The first statement expresses difficulty, but willingness to believe. The second statement expresses cynicism and unwillingness to submit to the Church’s teachings. The person with difficulties says, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!” The person with doubts says, “I don’t believe Lord, and don’t bother to help my unbelief!”

A difficulty arises when we confront some teaching of the Church — either a moral precept or a doctrine — and honestly find it hard to accept.

In his Parochial and Plain Sermons, Newman wrote, “The use of doubts and difficulties is obvious … our faith is assailed by various doubts and difficulties in order to prove its sincerity.”

We experience trials in the faith for three reasons: to strengthen us, to clarify our beliefs, and to help us proclaim the Gospel.

So, doubt is out, but difficulties are in. The person with difficulties may be struggling, but he is struggling to understand more fully and completely.

This is the first reason for a difficulty: It strengthens our faith. Just as an athlete or musician trains and practices and sweats to attain the goal, so the believer (if his faith is to be worthwhile) must face difficulties and overcome. Just as the athlete or musician is strengthened by the experience of perfecting his skill, so when we work through our difficulties, we emerge purer and stronger in our faith.

The second reason for difficulties is so that our faith might be clarified. How can you expect to get the right answers unless you ask the right questions? It’s the same in our faith. We come to understand more by facing the difficulties and asking the right questions. Whether we are struggling with a matter of Catholic doctrine or some aspect of Catholic moral teaching, it is by enquiring with an open heart and alert mind that we come to a fuller and deeper understanding of our faith. Most often, the difficulty was caused by some misunderstanding, and by asking questions, we come to understand more fully.

The third reason for difficulties is to help us proclaim the Gospel with compassion and insight. Each of the baptized are called to help share the Good News, but if none of them had difficulties, how would they understand and sympathize with all those who need to hear the truth but face great difficulties in belief? By going through the difficulties, we understand what others face, and by finding the answers, we are prepared to share them with others.

After “Doubt” and “Difficulties” there is another “D” which is disobedience. This is when a Catholic openly and unapologetically not only disagrees with church teaching, but willfully disobeys what they know to be true. Another word for this disobedience is “Sin”. This is a condition of open rebellion, and the reason the Catholic Church is so weak and helpless in the face of the world’s onslaught today is because a huge proportion of her children are living in open disobedience.

They have cut themselves off from grace, cut themselves off from God, cut themselves off from salvation. The fact that so many of them cheerfully continue to go to Mass and participate in the church and call themselves “devout Catholics” is a scandal.

Finally, it is so difficult to believe because it is so difficult to obey. Later on in the same sermon, Cardinal Newman writes, “To those who are perplexed in any way, for those who seek the light but cannot find it, one precept must be given — obey. It is obedience which brings a man into the right path. It is obedience which keeps him there and strengthens him in it.”

Obedience seems outrageous in a world of individualism and self-judgment, but the call to obedience is what makes the Catholic faith a “sign of contradiction.” “What! Shall I obey?!” modern man cries.

The reply is a hearty, “Yes — for it is in obedience that your faith will live and your difficulties will be resolved; but it is in your disobedience that your difficulties will turn into the doubts which will eventually destroy your faith.”

This does not mean that the Church calls us to mindless obedience. That is the way of the coward and sluggard. Instead we are called to an open minded and open hearted obedience — like little children in a loving and trusting relationship with the Father — we are also called to be inquisitive to ask questions, to be curious and to seek to learn more. We are called to be open about our difficulties, because although they may feel negative, they are simply the way we ask the questions in order to find the answers.


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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