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).