Doubts about doubt


There seems to be a discrepency in the way Catholics and non-Catholics are supposed to treat doubt. If a Protestant begins to have doubts about his faith, he is supposed to investigate those doubts rather than just stay where he is. If he doesn’t, then he is culpable for not joining the Church, because he is no longer invincibly ignorant: he saw problems with his faith, but he never did anything about it. So for example, the Baltimore Catechism taught:

In like manner one who, doubting, fears to examine the religion he professes lest he should discover its falsity and be convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, cannot be saved.

  • q. 121

Also in the Baltimore Catechism, even the “slightest doubt” binds a person to examine his religion.

Yet the Church teaches something entirely different to professed Catholics. A Catholic ought not to entertain even the greatest doubt. The ranks of the canonized saints have plenty of folks who had doubts, but nevertheless continued on in spite of these in acts of pure faith. This is regarded as exceedingly virtuous. If a Catholic has a doubt, he ought to turn to God, trust in God, and make an act of faith, casting aside his doubts and living on pure faith, as so many of the saints did.

Now I understand both of these teachings. In fact, both make perfect sense to me, generally speaking. We must not give in to every doubt. When I am at Mass and doubt the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, what great virtue it truly is to bow before It in worship anyways. Similarly, when years ago I began to have doubts about my Protestantism, I was right to investigate things. If I didn’t, then I truly would have been turning away from the truth.

So there is some truth to each of these ideas. They are certainly both true, but also so contradictory, and unlike those contradictions we call mysteries - God is Three and God is one, Christ is fully man and Christ is fully God - these are practical contradictions. We have to actually choose a course of behavior. We have to do what is moral here, and reject what is immoral. To seek an even greater understanding of the Trinity as we are drawn closer and closer to God is one thing, the practical aspects of how we are to live, of moral theology, is another. I think everyone understands what I mean.

Now the problem grows larger when we look at the greater context of Church teaching. The reason a Protestant can be saved if he has no idea he is not in the true Church of God is that God isn’t making a checklist. God is judging the heart. He cares if a person has chosen to truly love Him, or to reject His Love. A Catholic is not saved merely by virtue of being Catholic. He is saved by virtue of accepting God’s mercy andd Grace and of obeying Him, part of which most assuredly includes belonging to His Church.

Now imagine a person born Catholic. This person has a strong faith in God and truly desires to serve Him and to Love Him in Jesus Christ. At some point in that person’s life, he becomes convinced that the Catholic Church is not the Church of God, but a corruption. Were that person to remain in the Church, he would not be saved, for that person would be grievously violating his conscience. As Thomas Aquinas taught, even something that is not a sin is a sin for someone who believes that it is, or, to put it in Biblical terms, we might quote St. Paul: “whatever is not of faith is sin.” If a person truly believes that the Catholic Church is the work of Satan and chooses to remain in it, that person has made a consciouse choice to remain a member of a work of Satan.

But even before we get to this point, we have a big problem. Consider a woman from 1935 who comes to doubt that the church to which she belongs is the true Church of God. This person would be bound by her conscience to investigate, or else she would not in fact be following God. She would be choosing to ignore the truth of God for the sake of laziness (not wanting to take the time to investigate), convienence (not wanting to leave the comfortable situation she is in for something else), or fear that her current religion may be false. Now wanting to follow God wherever He leads and wanting to settle her doubt, she goes ahead and reads a book to look into the question.

If this woman is a Protestant, then whatever the outcome, so long as she is honest she has done right. She has done all that is in her power to settle her doubt and to follow God.

If this woman is a Catholic, then whatever the outcome, whether she stays or goes, even if she was as honest as Abe Lincoln, she has sinned. She has sinned by choosing to pursue doubts about the Church. She has sinned by endangering her faith. In fact, she has encurred automatic excommunication reserved to the POPE by virtue of having read a prohibited book.

My question is then, how can this inconsistency be understood? It’s not enough to say simply that a Catholic is already in the true Church and thus the teachings protect such a person’s faith, because once the person has a doubt, their certainty that they are indeed following God by obeying the teachings of the Church is no longer present. A Catholic with a doubt is in the same situation as a Protestant: he wants to follow God and is unsure of how to do so. Submitting faithfully - a la some of the saints - to teachings that he is no longer certain came from God is of no help to him. And thus as a second question, how are we to understand the concept of making an act of faith in the face of doubt as a virtuous act as opposed to a neutral or sinful act? (Note that I am not referring to saints who doubted God’s existence, or God’s Love, or that sort of thing, but rather to those who were uncertain of particular doctrines or of the Church’s authenticity).

God bless


Of course the inconsistency cannot be “understood”. It simply arises from the expectation of some in the hierarchy that the laity will simply follow along with a cult-like devotion and like mindless automatons or robots. Of course a Catholic that comes into possession of some fact that seems to undermine or call into doubt the truth of Catholicism is bound to investigate, just like a Protestant is. The expectation that Catholics will only get the “truth” from Catholic sources and the desire to excommunicate those who do otherwise is simple heavy-handed authoritarianism. Yes, I put “truth” in scare quotes. Sometimes, unfortunately, Catholics have their own agenda to propagandize.



If I may attempt to explain, the Catholic Church is not as ruthless and authoritarian as some may like to paint her, not withstanding that in any human organization you’re going to have individuals who have an agenda. I know Boy Scout leaders who prey on little boys, but I certainly support the Boy Scouts and what they have done for young men for years. Like this, you can see any human organization.

As to doubts, let’s make sure that we’re calling a spade a spade. In Philosophy of Theology, which is what I studied, there are doubts and there are questions. Doubts stem from the word dubious. Question comes from the word query. A person who doubts casts a shadow over that which he or she perceives and leaves it at that until the shadow is lifted by truth or by a better understanding. In any case, the person chooses not to act, but to wait. Such is the case with many saints, especially the mystics. There were many shadows in their journey, but they chose to wait for God to act. St. Teresa of Avila lived through the dark night of the soul for more than 20 years. She felt nothing in prayer or through the sacraments. She travelled strictly on what her intellect told her, because her emotions were not engaged. Mother Teresa lived the same experience. She lived her faith through her head, not her heart. She didn’t feel anything until very late in life. At times she felt that Christ was not real. But her mind told her that this was not true. She doubted, but she did not act on that doubt.

The moral teaching of the Catholic Church is that one should not act on doubt. This teaching has nothing to do with being subservient to the hierarchy. It comes from Logical Philosophy, a branch of philosophy. Most doubts begin with emotions and emotions are not always reliable indicators that something is truly wrong. Emotions can be indicators that something is wrong within us or something is wrong around us. But it is often very difficult to tell which it is. Therefore, it is best to deal with the emotion and try to find out where it comes from, before we make any choices.

An emotion that casts a shadow over something that we have always believed to be true may be the result of our own state of mind or may truly be caused by a sudden awareness that we are in error. But we won’t know this until we study the root of our emotion.

Question is a different matter. This is what the Baltimore Catechism was talking about. The language has changed, but the concept is the same. Questions arise from the intellect. Our mind asks questions about matters of faith in an attempt to understand the faith. The mind seeks reason to shed light on faith and make the object of faith more comprehensible. This is how theology came into existence. The oldest theologians in the Church were John the Evangelist, his entire Gospel is a series of answers to Christological questions and Paul, who tried to answer the questions among the Gentiles.

If one has a question about something that one has always believed to be true, but does not comprehend how it is possible or reaches a point where thee is a conflict between said truth and reason, one has the moral obligation to apply reason until the question is answered.

Fore example, I was born Jewish. I had always been taught that the State of Israel was necessary for the fulfilment of the prophecies. However, my Catholic father believed in a Messiah named Jesus Christ. When I reached adulthood I began to question both the Messiahship of Jesus Christ and the need for Israel for the fulfilment of the prophecies. Both could not be right. I had a moral obligation to continue to ask questions until one of the two could be stand the test of reason. In other words, one of the two had to be rational. Even when the only answer to a question is the word “mystery”, it is still a rational answer. As philosophy and psychology have proven over and over again, there is such a thing as mystery.

My questions gradually pointed to the reasonableness of Jesus Christ and his saving work or Messiahship. In other words, Christ’s messianic work stood the test of reason. As the Baltimore Catechism correctly pointed out, once you have reasonable knowledge of truth, you are morally bound to follow it. Not to do so is to act against the grace that God has given you.

In the case of a Catholic who leaves the Church and goes to say the Baptists, the rule still applies. If the move was made because of an emotional state, then it was an erroneous move. One should never act in a state of doubt. If the move was made because one’s reasonably believed that this is the will of God, one must act accordingly.

Objectively, such a person has committed heresy and has excommunicated him or herself. Subjectively, only God can judge the soul. The Church never judges an individual’s soul. The Church only describes what something looks like from the outside. This is called objectivity. Objectivity is also a sign of mercy and charity.

JR :slight_smile:



Thanks for your reply. It is helpful in many ways, but it still doesn’t really help me to sort out the entire problem.

I understand the issue of God subjectively judging the heart. I don’t have a problem with this. It makes perfect sense to me, and it’s certainly true. I’m also not at all concerned with an authoritative hierarchy or that sort of thing. My problem is a bit different. It’s really a matter of strict logic.

When a person comes to a point where they have what you are calling a question, they are, as you said, morally obligated to answer it. The problem is that the Church’s teaching, today and in particular in the past, has been that a person was not allowed to do this. It is called a sin against faith to do this.

So the person is in the position where they are not certain what is the truth. They are bound by God to try to figure it out, but the Church of God tells them they are not allowed to do it. This seems to be a problem, because God is simultaneously requiring and prohibiting them the same thing. This is just dealing with the matter of sin, not excommunication.

Then there is the excommunication. Assuming that a person does investigate the Church, by reading a prohibited book, and finds that it is indeed the right place to be, the person is then excommunicated and has to get the Pope to lift the excommunication. So God’s subjective judgment of the person’s heart doesn’t do them that much good in the end. They’ve still got a major problem.


You’re very welcome. Let me see if I can help you through this knot.

When a person comes to a point where they have what you are calling a question, they are, as you said, morally obligated to answer it.

We have a moral obligation to find answers to questions about our faith. That’s a no brainer. That’s what theologians and philsophers have done during the life of the Church. In fact, that’s their job, to use reason to enlighten faith.

The problem is that the Church’s teaching, today and in particular in the past, has been that a person was not allowed to do this. It is called a sin against faith to do this.

Here is the misconception. The Church allows people to ask questions about its teachings. It has setup appropriate venues to do so. These are clergy, catechists, theologians, Catholic colleges and universities, diocesan courses, parish courses, bible study groups, spiritual directors, confessors and religious educators. There are also writings such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Documents of Vatican II, Papal Encyclicals, the writings of the saints, the writings of the Doctors of the Church, and theological books written by legitimate Catholic theologians. In other words, we may always look for the answers to our questions within any authoritative resource. An authoritative resource is one that the Church sanctions.

Why may we not use prohibited works, texts, theologians, philosophers or theological works of other faiths or non believers? The reason flows from logic. If one’s question is about a teaching of the Catholic Church, the only legitimate voice on Catholic teaching is the Catholic Church. Just as you would not ask your cardiologist to fix a problem with your eyes, you don’t ask someone who is anti Catholic to clarify the Church’s teaching on the Trinity. However, if you want to know what Islam has to say about the Trinity, the Church does not hold that gainst you. Such a question is purely academic. You’re not asking Islam to teach you the truth on the Trinity. Is this clearer?

Then there is the excommunication. Assuming that a person does investigate the Church, by reading a prohibited book, and finds that it is indeed the right place to be, the person is then excommunicated and has to get the Pope to lift the excommunication.

I know that many people on CAF talk about excommunication as if they were talking about Ritz Crackers. They make it sound tht you’re going to be excommunicated if you fail to breath using Catholic oxygen or that you’re going to burn in hell if you commit one serious sin and the rest of your life is going down the tubes and not count for anything. You have to remember, that many of the people who post here, though they mean well, are not theologians, spiritual directors, confessors, members of the hierarchy or professional students of theology. When a person posts such dribble, you have every right to ask him or her what is their background in theology and philosphy. Many times you will find that they have done much reading, but they have little training in what they read.

Speaking for myself, I am not a theologian. I have an MA in Mystical Theology and a PhD in Philosophy of Theology, but I do not serve the Church writing or researchng theology. My entire experience since I became a Catholic has been in the area of education. I taught in the permanent deaconate, I was the Director of Pastoral Care for a Diocesan Agency for People with developmental disabilities. I was Director of Religious Education for three parishes. I was professor of Mystical Theology for future catechists. I was the assistant director of a retreat house and spiritual director for those who made retreats there. I was Director of Youth Ministry for several parishes and diocesan organizations and I was spiritual director for several religious men. Today I run an institute for children with developmental disabilities and am working with my parish to extend this ministry to the families of these children. My experience has always been applying theology to pastoral practice. Even what I tell you is not authoritative. It is based on what I have learned over the years.

That being said, not everything that we do incurs an excommunication. To incur an excommunication you have to engage in an act that separates you from the Church (Catholic). For example, people who marry, divorce and remarry, incur excommunication. A person who aborts their child incurs an excommunication. A person who abandons the Catholic faith incurs an excommunication (though I assume they know this). Then there are specific canon laws for which you incur excommunication. Most excommunications can be lifted by a confessor or the local bishop. There are very few that are reserved to the Holy See.

An excommunication does not mean that one is damned to hell. It means that one is outside of the temporal church. The only one who can judge you outside of the Mystical Body is Christ. If that were the case, the Catholic Church would not teach that Christ can use other faiths as a means to salvation. How could someone be saved if they are not part of the Mystical Body?

The fact that Christ can use other faiths as a means to salvation is not an endorsement on the part of the Catholic Church. It is a very simple statement. Nothing is impossible for God. God can bring good out of anything and anywhere. There are people of good faith who are not Catholic. Even though the fullness of truth and revelation resides within the Catholic Church, other faiths believe in some of the same truths that we do. Through fidelity to these truths, Christ can dispense sanctifying grace. Finally, just becaue someone hears the fullness of truth does not mean that they are always going to be able to embrace it. For some people this is a much more difficult process through no fault of their own, because they are afraid of offending God. Therefore, they are trying to be faithful to God, in their own mistaken way. This is where subjective judgement enters the equation. The Church does not judge the subjects soul, only his or her actions and choices.

So God’s subjective judgment of the person’s heart doesn’t do them that much good in the end. They’ve still got a major problem.

On the contrary. God’s opinion is the last word in all matters. The Church is given to us to teach us what God reveals, not to judge the state of our souls. It judges our actions and our choices. It can say that based on an action or a choice we may be going to hell, becaue when you look at it from the outside, that’s what it looks like. But she makes no guarrantees, because she cannot read your conscience. Have you ever heard the Church say that Hitler is in hell?

It is much easier to identify the saints than to identify the damned. There is always room for that last minute change of heart. Remember the good thief on the cross. Yet, the bible does not say that the othe thief went to hell. It only says that the one who asked for forgiveness was promised “tonight you will be with me in paradise.”

I hope this helps.

JR :slight_smile:


Let’s give the example of a Protestant who has grown up in her faith her entire life. At some point, she comes across doubts about her faith. Now according to this principle, she ought to investigate these doubts by speaking to her pastor, reading Protestant books that defend Protestantism, and so forth. Now this would be bad.

The reason is pretty obvious. The Protestant sources are only going to give the woman one side of the story. They will withhold certain information. They will put certain spins on some things.

Now the Protestant woman recognizes this. She knows that these Protestant sources are Protestant for a reason. They feel they are correct, and they will try to defend that viewpoint. That doesn’t make these people evil (though admittedly some may be and be intentionally dishonest), but it just makes sense they’d do this. If they didn’t feel Protestantism deserved defending, they’d be something else, after all.

Because of this, the Protestant may go ahead and listen to Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, or even Jewish or Muslim sources. This would ultimately be the right course of action, and may her to the Catholic Church.

Now a Catholic would be in the same situation. Such a person might well recognize the pretty simple concept that she’s going to get the information most supportive of Catholicism from Catholic sources, and she’s probably not going to get the most critical information. In other words, if the Catholic Church is not true, she’s simply not going to get any of the information that would help her to realize that from any Catholic source.

So from the perspective of her heart and conscience, it would seem she’s bound before God to look into non-Catholic sources.

The reason I mentioned excommunication is not because I misunderstand it. Rather, I understand it pretty well. I know a person isn’t excommunicated for just anything. The reason I mentioned excommunication is because prior to 1966, the act of reading a book prohibited by the Church was automatic excommunication reserved to the pope. In other words, if you read such a book, then without trial, without a sentence, without anything but completely automatically, you were excommunicated and the only person that could lift that excommunication was the Pope himself.

So while the Church would have said that a Protestant is bound by her conscience before God to read Catholic books if she doubted her faith, at the same time She placed the greatest penalty possible on Catholics who did the very same thing. This would seem to suggest that Catholics are not bound by their consciences before God in the same situation. Otherwise, the Church would be requiring the faithful to sin by Canon law. That’s the plain objective side of it.

As for the subjective side of it, dealing with, for instance of the catholic who goes ahead and violates this law, then recognizes the truth of the Catholic Church, they are now bound by the very law they now recognize as valid to stay away from the Sacraments until such time as the Pope lifts their excommunication.

It just seems like a huge mess of logical inconsistency, hypocrisy, and contradiction.



There seems to be a discrepency in the way Catholics and non-Catholics are supposed to treat doubt.

I think the answer lies in understanding more fully that which is doubted. If the object of doubt is the “deposit of faith once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3), it ought NOT to be doubted, either by Catholics or non-Catholics. It is materially sinful to doubt the revelation of God.

However, in practice, the objective, material revelation of God can be and often is the object of subjective doubt. Doubt is a formal sin insofar as it is done with voluntariness. Yet, in all cases, the non-Catholic or Catholic is bound to follow their certain conscience.

We have no control over God’s will. However, God has given us a free will, and in exercising that will in all matters, we are bound to follow our conscience, what the Catholic Church calls the “aboriginal vicar of Christ.”

We are all taught to “test everything. Hold on to that which is good.” If Catholics or non-Catholics have a doubt, each are bound to seek resolution of their doubts. Catholics do this using Catholic epistemology and ecclesiology. They “listen to the Church” (Matt 18:15ff), which is the “pillar and foundation of truth.” (1 Tim 3:15).

God has called us to respond in faith to Him. So, I’d say that all–Catholic and non-Catholic alike–are required to “seek the face of God,” in response to that calling, by following their certain conscience. Then, trust that God will do the rest.


I think the Baltimore Catechism may be using rather imprecise terms in the above statement. For example, doubt is the state in which the mind is suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them. One who doubts is not at the same time convinced. If they were “convinced” of the truth of the Catholic faith then they would no longer have “doubt”, in the proper sense of the word. Instead, their conscience would be certain of the Catholic faith, yet fail to act in accord with their certain conscience.

Now imagine a person born Catholic… At some point in that person’s life, he becomes convinced that the Catholic Church is not the Church of God, but a corruption. Were that person to remain in the Church, he would not be saved, for that person would be grievously violating his conscience. [emphasis added]

I don’t agree. We are not saved or damned based upon *our *actions , or based upon our will, but instead we are saved based upon the grace and providence of God. So, following a certain, albeit subjective conscience is our job. It is surely that which God calls us to do. However, by doing it, we are not still not owed salvation. Moreover, by not doing it, nor are we guaranteed damnation. Although we are called to follow the command of God, the saving or not saving is God’s job, not ours. Eternal life is still a gratuitous gift, not earned by the exercise of our subjective conscience, whether faulty or not.

According to MSgr. Paul J. Glenn, *A Tour of the Summa, *p. 181:

In so far as the human will can thus (by accepting cooperating grace and using it) make preparation for grace, it can set up no necessity or demand that grace should actually follow upon the preparation. my note: This is why I think Protestants are biased against our terminology of “cooperation,” as they believe we think our understanding of cooperation sets up some kind of obligation upon God to give us sanctifying grace. This, of course, is an incorrect understanding of our use of “cooperation.” By cooperating, we still rely SOLELY upon the goodness of God with regard to whether we are made just by Him or not].

I agree that NOT following a certain conscience is a sin. Whether or not it is a “mortal sin” involves three conditions: grave matter, full advertence, and perfect consent.

Is it a “grave matter” to have doubts about Dogma (ie. Divinely Revealed Truth)? Yes. However, it is only culpable insofar as such doubts against revealed Truth are “voluntary.” There are three kinds of ignorance:

  1. Invincible (unconquerable) Ignorance - doubts arising from such ignorance is not a formal sin, and as such are non-culpable.

  2. Vincible (conquerable) Ignorance - doubts arising from such ignorance are either partly or fully voluntary. Thus, these are formal sins, but depending upon the extent of voluntariness (ie. can be only partly voluntary, partly involuntary), such sins may be venial, and not always mortal.

  3. Affected (or crass) Ignorance - doubts arising from such ignorance are due to one not wanting to know that which he is obliged to know. This kind of doubt is fully voluntary and also adds malice, which carries even more culpability.

There isn’t a “on/off” switch for culpability for sin that we can measure. God does all the measuring.

Nonetheless, according to Catholic theology there are some Vincible (voluntary) sins which are of “grave matter.” Yet, partly involuntary sins of grave matter can reduce culpability to the extent that they are no longer in “mortal sin.” God alone knows the subjective disposition of one’s soul, and so he alone can know when “perfect consent” is met in a subjective soul, so I believe only He should say when one’s culpability meets the threshold “damnation.”

Consider a woman from 1935 who comes to doubt that the church to which she belongs is the true Church of God. This person would be bound by her conscience to investigate, or else she would not in fact be following God.

I don’t believe that we are following God by following a faulty yet certain conscience. I’m certain we are not justified by doing so.

She should indeed “test everything.” But she must also “hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21). We are not justfied in the “testing,” but instead justified only by that which is Goodness Himself.


Dave, thanks for the comment. I just realized you’d posted a second time while I was typing this out, so if there is anything herein that you address in the other post, sorry!

I understand all of this, and I agree with it altogether. I’m looking at it from a slightly different standpoint, I think.

Say I’m a Catholic who’s grown up Catholic and simply believed everything I’ve been taught. I’ve accepted it with complete and total faith. At some point, I just recognize that there’s an awful lot of religions out there. How do I know which one is really true, I ask myself. I’m bound before God to settle any doubt I now have.

Now I can certainly go to my priest and ask his help with it. I understand that much. My problem comes in because if I were in that position, I know that my reason would be telling me that my priest, and every other Catholic source, would be biased. In other words, no matter how much I trust these folks or the Church, and no matter how honest and sincere they really are, I can’t be sure that I’m getting all the information. I can’t be sure they’re giving me the other side of the story, even if it’s only because they haven’t ever been taught it themselves. So it seems to me that if I am going to fulfill my obligation to settle my doubt, and if I am going to fulfill my obligation not to knowingly and willfully reject information that might tell me about the truth, then I am going to have to look into some non-Catholic sources.

However, the Church says that this is a sin. Moreover, in her discipline she has prohibited me from doing this. Now according to the principle of negative ecclesial infallibility, it therefore cannot be a sin to not investigate the doubts posed by my consicence fully.

So those thoughts are really the gist of what I’m trying to figure out here.


But as St. Paul and St. Thomas teach, an act, even an objectively good act, is a sin if the person committing the act believes that it is. We are saved by Grace, but our will must either assent to or reject that Grace. On the other hand, we do not need Gracec in order to sin, we only need our reason and our wills, which we may direct against a known good. So if a person comes to believe that the Catholic Church is in fact a corruption and is neither in its doctrine or its being the true Church of God, then making an act of the will to remain a member of the Church is to make an act of the will towards something which is understood to be gravely contrary to the eternal law.

I don’t believe that we are following God by following a faulty yet certain conscience. I’m certain we are not justified by doing so.

Certainly a person cannot be justified in following a faulty conscience, for to believe as such would be to believe that God’s Grace would lead a person into error. However, provided that the conscience is faulty through no fault of the individual, then that person can commit no mortal sin by following it.

The only way that this is really involved in my question is that I was postulating the case of a person, in a state of Grace, belonging to some religious body. This person comes to doubt the authenticity of her faith. She is bound to investigate this to discover as much of the truth as she is capable of. If the woman is a Protestant, the Church would say she remains in Grace by doing so, while she forfeits it by choosing not to, whereas the Catholic would forfeit Grace by doing so, but remain in It by not.


Our way of knowing will never be perfect this side of heaven. However, despite our imperfect nature, we all have some capacity to know some things with certainty. All of us come to our certain beliefs based upon three things: 1) our experience, 2) our reason, and 3) the testimony of others. This is true of every human being–whether Catholic or non-Catholic, theist or atheist.

However, every human being has a differing capacity for reason, different experiences, and are exposed to different testimony. Consequently, it should be no surprise that there are many different beliefs. Moreover, not all subjective beliefs are objectively true. That which is “true” is only that which “corresponds to reality.”

Whatever our subjective beliefs, we are all on a “mission from God.” :wink: That mission is to know God, to serve God, so that we may love Him in this life and forever in the next. That’s our mission, whether all realize this or not.

We are taught as Catholics that all are given grace from God sufficient to respond in accomplishing our mission. We cannot do it without God. Yet, we trust that God gives us the grace to do that which is expected of us.

We have one job, and that’s to cooperate with God’s grace. We cannot, however, say that by doing so we necessarily go to heaven. We have hopeful confidence that due to God’s goodness, He will reward us in accordance with our works. He has told us this, and we believe by faith that God tells us the truth. But by cooperating with Grace, we only receive more grace by the mercy and goodness of God, as we deserve neither the first nor second grace, nor any other Divine grace. What happens to us when we end our life here on earth is solely up to God.

I’m bound before God to settle any doubt I now have.

Well, I have many doubts about “anti-matter” and some other postulates put forth by scientists, but I am not obliged to settle those doubts. I also have doubts about Molinism, Thomisim, and many of the other “-isms” which attempt to explain the distribution of God’s grace and how that interacts with free will. Yet, I am not bound to settle all doubts regarding matters religious or otherwise. I am bound to seek the face of God. Only He can lead me to Him. In doing so, we are called to “test everything” but that doesn’t mean that every doubt will be settled in the testing.

While we “test everything,” we are only bound to hold on to that which is good. What is objectively good may not always be what I subjectively “think” is good.

According to Christian teaching, by following a certain yet erroneous conscience, one may be headed toward hell***. The punishment of “hardness of heart” is due to prior sin, according to Catholic teaching. As such, one who has sinned so as to result in the penalty of “hardness of heart” according to God’s will, may very well follow an erroneous yet certain conscience on the road to perdition. This was St. Augustine’s view.

Similarly, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger affirmed,

“Certainly, one must follow an erroneous conscience. But the departure from truth which took place beforehand and now takes its revenge is the actual guilt which first lulls man into false security and then abandons him in the trackless waste.” (Conscience and Truth by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger)

We are not justified by following a certain yet erroneous conscience.

According to Cardinal Avery Dulles:

A persons conscience can be out of phase with what is objectively right. In such a case, the individual will not be guilty for following the voice of conscience, but may be guilty for having failed to form that conscience by utilizing the necessary means. [Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Authority and Conscience”, *Church

, 1986]

…it seems to me that if I am going to fulfill my obligation to settle my doubt, and if I am going to fulfill my obligation not to knowingly and willfully reject information that might tell me about the truth, then I am going to have to look into some non-Catholic sources.

Is this an academic exercise, or is there something specific that you have real doubt about? I don’t believe we are prohibited from studying non-Catholic sources.

However, the Church says that this is a sin.

Not necessarily. By testing everything, we do not sin. We sin only when we reject that which is good.

Moreover, in her discipline she has prohibited me from doing this.

Can you explain?

Christian prudence certainly exhorts us to do good and avoid evil. However, there’s evil every time I interact with the world (and sometimes even in my thoughts), so prudence must be applied in the context of each situation. How can I evangelize the world if I shelter myself from it in the absolute sense? Paul took a risk in preaching among the Greeks, and not avoiding their evil teachings, but he was strong in faith and walked with the Lord. Such an undertaking may be an “occasion of sin” for others, not as strong in faith and catechesis.

Now according to the principle of negative ecclesial infallibility, it therefore cannot be a sin to not investigate the doubts posed by my consicence fully.

There’s a double negative in there, so I’m confused as to what you said. Ecclesial discipline both encourages us to learn the beliefs of others so as to aid in ecumenical dialogue and cautions us to avoid that which is contrary to Catholic doctrine. I think one has to understand these norms in their context to better apply them.


Thanks again, Dave.

First, no, there’s no real reason pertinent to a real human being I know or myself. It’s part of my struggle to understand God, His Church, and His truths as well as I possibly can It is also an exercise in me settling my own little doubts, or perhaps better put, my own little questions about this or that aspect of the Catholic Church.

We are not justified by following a certain yet erroneous conscience.

Agreed. To be justified requires cooperation with God’s Grace. God’s Grace will not direct me to error, and so following an erroneous conscience cannnot be an act of cooperating with God’s Grace. However, one in the state of Grace may avoid mortal sin by following an erroneous conscience, provided that the error in the conscience is invincible.

Now we come to two seperate issues here: why I said it was a sin to read a non-Catholic book, and why I said it was prohibited by the Church to do so.

The reason I said that the Church calls it a sin to investigate non-Catholic sources is because she says it’s a sin to read things that may be damaging to one’s faith. Of course, I can understand this if it is taken in the sense that one must not read things he knows to be damaging to one’s faith, because someone with serious doubts may believe a non-Catholic source may be beneficial to his faith, either by leading him back to the Church or by leading him away from it, if it is (in his thoughts) in fact a false church.

The reason I said it was prohibited was because in 1935, reading non-Catholic items was prohibited under censure of excommunication reserved to the Pope. This is also where ecclesial infallibility comes in. It is a sin to violate one’s conscience, even an erroneous one, in the very least case if that error is invincible and/or sincere. One’s conscience may hold - I think fairly reasonably so - that it would be wrong to listen only to Catholic sources, because there is an obvious bias there. So for a person in this situation, it would be a sin to fail to look into non-Catholic material, yet the Church, in Her discipline, prohibits this under the most serious penalty possible.


So too were public religious discussions with non-Catholics, however, that is no longer the ecclesial norm. Things have changed. Could you cite the source?

I have great doubt this is the current disciplinary norm of the Church. For instance, Pope Benedict, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, recommended an article by a Jewish author (Rabbi Neusner). How could this be, if by the mind of the Roman Pontiff the faithful are prohibited from reading non-Catholic items under censure of excommunication?

To be “damaging to one’s faith” it would have to be an “occasion of grave sin.” This begs the question, what constitutes an occasion of grave sin?


The censures were lifted by Paul VI in 1966.

I got it from the article in the Catholic encyclopedia on the censorship of books. It’s hard to provide a concise quotation, because the article reall is (in my opinion) very jumpy. Here is the best I think I can do:

The Index of forbidden books is a general law strictly binding on all, inclusive of the learned, and this even if in a particular case no great risk would be incurred by the reader or owner of a forbidden book. The obligation refers to the reading as well as to the possession of the book in question. It is in itself a grave obligation by reason of the importance of the matter, since the safeguarding and protection of faith and morals are involved. This is also apparent both from the existence of the constitution and from its wording. Nevertheless it is self-sufficient that not only for subjective, but also for objective, reasons lighter transgressions and venial sins may be committed when offending against the prohibition of books. Only in the event of more serious offenses, in two particular cases, the heaviest ecclesiastical punishment is inflicted by the law. According to paragraph 47, the penalty of excommunication specially (speciali modo) reserved to the pope is forthwith incurred by all who, though conscious of law and penalty yet read or keep or print or defend books of heretical teachers or apostates maintaining heresies.

I would recommend reading the entire article, if you need more information.


I realize that these canonical penalties no longer apply.

I’m dealing with the issue from a historical perspective. In other words, how does one regard as consistent the Church’s position as it existed in 1935?


As I see it, it is an exercise of Christian prudence, which pertains to a discernment of what is best for the common good, given temporal circumstances.

For instance, such censorship is supported by Sacred Scripture:

“***to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; *avoid them.” (Rom 16:17)

Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20).

“***holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people.***” (2 Tim 3:5)

Consequently, we still continue to have ecclesial law in force which says basically the same thing, but in a less specific way than the Index of Forbidden Books

General ecclesial law states,

“***All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.***” (Can. 750).

“***Christ’s faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with [Catholic] doctrine.***” (Can. 752).

Yet, what is the mind and will of the legislature, the Roman Pontiff, regarding these canons? Merely reading Nietzsche may very well be an “occasion of grave sin” for some, but not necessarily. I think it depends upon the strength of their faith and depth of their catechesis. To avoid whatever does not accord with Catholic doctrine takes vigilance, but it also takes prudence. I cannot very well evangelize atheists if I do not enter into dialogue with them, examining what they propose so as to better contend against it.

Scripture demands that we “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). In order to do so, we must know that which we are contending against, no? I can avoid contrary doctrines as canon law prescribes, by testing them and holding fast to what is good. That seems to me the intent of current ecclesial norms.

Regardless, I don’t have to be my own “canon lawyer.” I have a pastor, bishop, and pope who is responsible for governing my soul. If in doubt about what is “bound” and what is “loosed” according to their manifest mind and will, I can ask him. :wink:

Even in 1935, these norms were dispensable, given the application of prudence under particular circumstances. They were more cautious in 1935 than they are today. However, the substance remains the same, and rather Scriptural.

Every parent of a teenager knows the value of censorship. At what point is it prudent to study the errors of others so one can better refute them? That’s a tough decision for a father. All we can do is pray for prudence. Each child, when they grow to maturity needs to test the various “creeds” and either reject the creed of their parents or adopt them as their very own. If they fail to test their beliefs, I don’t see how their “little faith” can become “great faith.”


I recognize the intent, as you spoke about, but it still seems to me to be a problem.

For example, even if a person were able to receive permission from his or her bishop (which, from all I have read, was very rarely granted), this is still asking a person to submit to a law they aren’t even sure has any validity. Now that may simply be a matter of saying “life is tough,” but what of those to whom permission was not granted? They are still in the position of either violating their consciences, or being excommunicated.


[quote=itsjustdave1988]Every parent of a teenager knows the value of censorship. At what point is it prudent to study the errors of others so one can better refute them? That’s a tough decision for a father. All we can do is pray for prudence.

The problem with all these sorts of answers (of which many I have received) as I see it is that it takes for granted that we are studying errors. Those in the position of actually having to do this to settle doubts, as opposed to being better equipped to refute what one knows to be erroneous, don’t have this luxury. They aren’t sure that these teachings are actually errors, and so the issue of prudence doesn’t really apply to them, subjectively speaking. Objectively one must always be prudent. However from the perspective of these individuals, just what being prudent constitutes would involve freely investigating those things so-called as errors to see if they in fact are so.


You said: “asking a person to submit to a law they aren’t even sure has any validity.” Isn’t that the quintessential question of all law and freedom? Abraham could have asked the same question regarding the Divine command to slay his son, no? Obeying God by killing every man, woman, and child of the Amalakites might be seen as a law of questionable validity too. The same could be said of that which is written in the New Testament, the Koran, or any sacred laws of any known religion or society. It seems the law can only be as authoritative as the law-giver. This means the principal norm for all theology is authority.

Back to a more fundamental question: how do we know something claiming to be true, really corresponds to reality?

As I stated earlier, we all have to make that determination based upon our experience, our reason, and the testimony that we’ve been given. We need to ask, is the testimony we’ve been given authoritative? In a sense, we are like a jurist trying to evaluate all the evidence before us, trying to discern which is authoritative, most trustworthy, in accord with our experience and reason.

Back in my bachelor’s studies, I took a theology course where I was required to read a book by Sociologist Peter Berger called The Heretical Imperative. In it Berger uses the word “heresy” to mean “to choose for one’s self.” The irony pointed to by Berger is that even when one chooses orthodox values, he or she has to exercised “heresy” because in the process of intentionally choosing any set of values, even the traditional ones, alternatives must be considered. In his book, Berger addresses the modern situation with its multitudes of religions, philosophies and paradigms, declaring that we each live with “a heretical imperative.”

Joshua made a similar point in that we have many choices before us. We each need to choose: “if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh 24:15).

Conscience is not simply subjective certitude. It is instead the soul becoming transparent to the promptings of the Lord, allowing Him to truly speak to us, either directly or through the testimony of others. Even so, while the conscience is rightly called by the Church the “aboriginal vicar of Christ,” it should never be understood as “an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.” (Donum Veritatis, 28)

Let me use a hypothetical to help clarify…

Let’s say that a Christian in the 1st century “conscientiously objects” to the teaching of Peter and Paul which they promulgated as “dogma” in accordance with the Council of Jerusalem concerning the “circumcision” dispute. Is this so-called “conscientious objection” the will of God, or would it more likely be the impious result of obstinacy or “hardness of heart?” Isn’t it true that from a Christian perspective, those that contend against this or any dogma contend against the Holy Spirit, whether led to do so by what they thought was their conscience or not?

In the final analysis, our conscience is not the final arbiter of Christian doctrine. That job belongs singularly to the “Church throughout” (Gk ekklesia kata holos or “Catholic Church”; cf. Act 9:31).


I think you may be missing the point I’m trying to make.

I have no problem with saying one has to submit his conscience to a higher authority. Abraham had to submit to God, because it was God. Israel had to slay the Amalekites, because it was God. The first century Christian is learning from St. Paul, who is an unambiguous source.

The 20th century, 1935 Christian woman is in the position of wanting to submit her conscience to God, and being uncertain as to whether or not the Church is in fact speaking for God. She is trying to figure out exactly that: who speaks for God? Is it the Catholic Church - which claims to? Is it the Qu’ran - which claims to? Is it the Baptist preacher down the street - who claims to?

In her situation, the ultimate good is not in question - she will submit to God. The precise means of doing that is in question, and in order to thoroughly ascertain how she is to submit to God, she has no choice but to listen to those whom she is prohibited from listening to. Sure, the prohibiter claims to prohibit by the authority of God, but that’s just the claim she’s trying to ascertain the validity of. To submit to the Church would almost be a sort of circular reasoning.

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