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“Ask a Priest: What If I Have Doubts But Choose to Believe?”
Q: I was baptized Catholic as a baby and I’m now in my early 30s. I have been going through RCIA at my local parish to become confirmed on Easter. The problem I keep coming to is that I still have doubts about everything. My whole life I have always believed “something” created the universe, just not necessarily God. My brain keeps saying that the “Catholic God” or any god really could be wrong. Maybe we are all on the back of some giant space turtle. What if Jesus never really existed, or what if he was just a con man or there is some logical reasonable explanation for the whole story? I have all the doubts of your garden-variety atheist or agnostic. But I am choosing to believe. I choose to believe in God/Jesus and the Bible. But that doesn’t stop the other part of my brain from saying, “There are major holes in this whole thing.” My brain is hardwired to logically examine things and refuse them until I get concrete evidence that it is real. I’m not asking to test God or saying I deny his existence because I just don’t know either way. So the question is: If I choose to believe it, despite the voices in my head saying it isn’t real, and I live my life as best as I can according to the Church, am I OK? My priest pointed out John 6:68, and it really stuck with me: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I have chosen to turn to Jesus even if my head says it’s wrong because “to whom else will I go?” Can I be confirmed and still have my brain saying it’s a lie, but my will saying it’s true? Can I even receive reconciliation if I have these doubts? I have talked a little about it with my priest and at RCIA, but I haven’t gone into the full detail because I’m afraid of offending him or the other students. Thanks for any help. – J.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It is good to hear that you are taking your journey of faith so seriously. That is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in your heart.
Perhaps a few general points are worth mentioning right away.
First, there is no real conflict between faith and reason. God created them both. He gave us intellects, in part so that we could delve deeper into the truths of the faith. Throughout our life we will doing a kind of two-step — a bit of reason, a bit of faith.
Faith is like one of those lights that miners wear on their helmets: It helps illumine the darkness that they normally couldn’t penetrate with unaided sight. So it is with faith illumining places where reason can’t penetrate easily if at all. Yet, once we move forward in faith, we will often find that things are also reasonable. Maybe mysterious at times, but not absurd.
You mention that your brain “is hardwired to logically examine things.” Is that how you came up with the notion that we might on the back of some giant space turtle? Are the rules of logic really guiding you?
Second, it is one thing to have a difficulty about a point of Catholic teaching. It is another to doubt that teaching. The distinction is a fine but important one.
If you have difficulties, then you could certainly make an act of faith, a choice, and embrace a teaching even if you don’t comprehend it well. My suggestion would be to speak honestly with the priest in the RCIA and to tell him about your situation. Remember, many extremely intelligent people have held and spread the Catholic faith through the centuries — they were intellectually deep and honest. And many of them worked through difficulties, as you are trying to do now.
There is no point going into the Easter Vigil Mass trying to cover up things. You want to make an honest decision. You want to be forthright. The priest can probably help you.
It’s good to remember that we are all on the path to understanding our faith better. None of us has a 100% grasp on everything the Church teaches — its riches are so deep and broad. People can spend their lives learning more about the faith. So it is OK to have imperfect knowledge about the faith even as you profess it. People do something similar when they marry; they pledge themselves for life to a person whom they don’t know totally.
Some of the specific concerns you mentioned – such as whether Jesus existed or whether he was authentic – aren’t difficult to express. Jesus is probably the figure most written about in the history of the world. The New Testament attests to him, as well as the earliest Church Fathers and Christian writers, as well as pagan sources such as Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. Would it be logical to set aside all this documentation?
And as for Our Lord’s authenticity, it is logical to think a “con man” would possibly deliver the Sermon on the Mount, or pray for his persecutors from the cross?
Perhaps you might want to step back and see how you have been trying to nourish your faith. Have you exposed yourself to a barrage of anti-Christian material? Have you prayed for an increase in gift?
It might help to spend some time with Christian thinkers. Don’t just stop with the difficulties running circles in your brain. Keep seeking answers. Jesus said, “The one who seeks, finds” (Matthew 7:8). A few suggestions: Peter Kreeft’s audio course “Faith and Reason,” which you might find through your local library system; C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity; and Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity.
Remember, too, that there is someone out there who would like to lead you astray: the devil. He is there, all right. His handiwork is all around us. And he uses his little bag of tricks to sow confusion and doubt in the hearts of people. Maybe one way to fight that is for you to be open with the RCIA priest. Honesty will bear fruit.
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