Monday, October 19, 2015

Doubt and the Truth

Why would I consider leaving the Roman Catholic Church and become Eastern Orthodox?
Answer: Theological Truth and the freedom to struggle in the search for that Truth.

One of my favorite professors often stated that Catholics "must crane our necks towards Rome" on teachings we didn't understand or with which we disagreed. He said this with the utmost charity and humility meaning that the Catholic faithful are to rely on the leadership of the Magisterium and hierarchy. And so, I craned my neck. When I was young there were teachings I didn't agree with, like birth control and Natural Family Planning, but with prayer and an open heart I came to see that the teachings were correct. However, there were other teachings that I struggled to explain in my ministry because I could not wrap my mind around them.

Let's clear up a couple things right off the bat:
1) I don't think that I need to rationally understand every single aspect of the Christian faith. We deal a lot with Mystery, like the Trinity, but I do feel that a theology geek, like myself, should be able to at least articulate the basics of a teaching.
2) I take very seriously trying to live out what my faith teaches.

One of the teachings of the Catholic Church is on how the faithful are to receive dogma (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 88):
The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

I am bound to hold any teaching dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church, period. 

Flip forward 2000 paragraphs to No. 2088 where the Catechism distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary doubt:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

What happens when you doubt a dogma? Is that voluntary or involuntary doubt? There are a couple Catholic dogmas that have I not only doubted, but have had a very hard time accepting, the first of which is the Immaculate Conception. Most people think this has to do with the conception of Jesus. Nope. It's regarding the conception of Mary. The Catechesis of the Catholic Church states (no. 491) quoting Pope Pius IX from Ineffabilis Deus:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

Mary received a special grace that protected her from original sin; no other human in the course of history has received this gift. She received this gift at her own conception by the merits of the child she had yet to conceive; so the merits of Jesus worked retroactively and before these merits existed in time. Okay, I can kind of get this because God can do whatever God wants. No problem! It's starts to get dicey for me when pondering Mary's earthly life. 

Mary is supposed to be our example of a preeminent disciple, but if she did not have to struggle with original sin like the rest of us slobs, then how authentic and freely given was her 'yes' to the angel's Annunciation? If Mary was without sin, then why did she need a Savior? It was impossible for her to sin. Sheesh! I wish I was incapable of sinning, it would make going to Confession a heck of a lot easier, "Yeah, Father, I've got nothing this month." The teaching of the Immaculate Conception seems like theological gymnastics to me and I have struggled to understand it. If Mary didn't have to deal with the struggle of sin, then was she truly and fully human? The struggle against sin is, sadly, part of the human condition.

Based on Catholic Church teaching, I doubt the Immaculate Conception and I'm probably on the voluntary doubt side of the Catholic doubt equation. What am I supposed to do? My husband asked a Catholic priest what he should do if he doubts a dogma. The response was to go to Confession to confess the doubt and then, hopefully, the priest will help you understand the dogma. You must crane your neck, period.

Some struggle or doubt is allowed in the Catholic faith, but not when it comes to dogma. I was curious how the Orthodox Church presented the teaching of Mary's sinlessness. I also wondered if there were dogmatic mandates in the Eastern Church. Imagine my surprise and delight when I read about doubt in The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware:

Because faith is not a logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive...We have to make our own cry, "Lord, I believe: help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite - that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it (16). 

As long as you are continually engaging the faith, according to Eastern Orthodox thought, doubt is okay because the search for Truth is a struggle worth devoting your life.

I fully accept that Mary was without sin, just not the way the Catholic Church teaches. Orthodox teaching states that Mary was without sin, but that she was born with "ancestral sin" (that's a blog for another day). Mary was just like the rest of us, she struggled with sin, but she was so attuned to God that she didn't sin. Mary's sinlessness was due to her goodness and choosing not to sin, not because she was incapable in sinning. Now, that is a preeminent disciple - of which I am not, but I do not doubt it and it is an example I can try to live up to.


  1. "If Mary didn't have to deal with the struggle of sin, then was she truly and fully human? The struggle against sin is, sadly, part of the human condition."

    This argument doesn't follow. Saying that Mary was free from original sin does not mean that she was never tempted or in any way negates the fullness of her Fiat, or her true humanity. To do so would also mean to deny the same of Christ. Christ was fully human, and his temptations are thoroughly documented in Holy Scripture. He suffered terrible temptation in the garden (to the point of sweating blood), yet He freely chose to lay down His life on the cross (His own Fiat.) His lack of original sin didn't in any way negate the agony of his temptations. He was "like us in all things, except sin." Why can't we say the same for Mary?

    1. Here's one of the quotes from Ineffibilis Deus that caused me to ask the questions in my blog about Mary's life on earth:
      "Eve listened to the serpent with lamentable consequences; she fell from original innocence and became his slave. The most Blessed Virgin, on the contrary, ever increased her original gift, and not only never lent an ear to the serpent, but by divinely given power she utterly destroyed the force and dominion of the evil one."
      This says that she did not even listen to the temptations of the evil one. Also, it says that she destroyed the evil one, I thought that was what Christ did.

    2. I don't think this passage means what you have taken it to mean. The she "never lent an ear to the serpent" doesn't necessarily mean that she never heard Satan's voice and felt his temptations, but that she never entertained them or gave them seat within her to lead her to actual sin. She took and increased Christ's "original gift" (that of preserving her from the stain of original sin from her conception) by her constant "yes" to His will, her free choice against sin. She thus defeated the evil one's force and dominion in her life (not universally, as you seem to be implying), but only by Christ's "divinely given power."

  2. Hi Deidre. I enjoyed reading your post about the Immaculate Conception. I think it is great that you (and Ben) are searching so much for the truth. This gives God glory and encourages me that there are still people who care for such a thing. May God bless us as we search together.
    There are many good questions you raise. I have some questions. Do you think that Mary then achieved sinlessness by her own virtue? How is this possible apart from a singular grace (a positive act by God) that we did not possess? By clarifying that the primacy of Mary's sinlessness was due to a special grace the Church preserves the primacy of grace, that is the primacy of God's creating-saving-sanctifying Word. Salvation is fundamentally and primarily the work of God, and man responds but this response is secondary and categorically different.
    What if God's will was from eternity that He should, despite our rebellion against Him,choose to reveal that we are so little, so weak, that it would not be possible for any of us to incarnate God apart from His wisdom and design (specifically any woman, recognizing that a man cannot be pregnant). The cooperation of Mary is so profound, so deep, yet it cannot be prior to God’s act, it is secondary.
    What if God willed for you to have a spiritual mother that in humility could not take credit for the grace that allowed her to be the Christ bearer and mother of the Word incarnate where every other person would have failed? What if God in His wisdom desired for each one of us in Mary to have a mother and model of total reliance upon and faith in the eternal wisdom of God? So much so that we cannot boast in our virtue but only in the eternal wisdom of God? Mary is the mother of the ecclesia – those who are “called out” from sin and eternal alienation from the source of their own being by God’s own Word.
    This doesn’t mean that Mary wasn’t tempted, of course she was. If Christ was tempted, Mary was tempted. Yet if and only if she didn’t suffer from the threefold concupiscence that is part of the heritage of sin in man could she have been able to be the Theotokos. Mary was not God, thus the need for grace to preserve her from sin. The question of how this grace affected her in the moment of temptation remains a mystery because we recognize that she could have sinned, but didn’t have the positive inclination toward corruption that we possess and thus thru humility was able to not repeat the sin of Eve, thus a new Eve, a new beginning. We seek a spousal relationship with Christ in the Holy Spirit but Mary’s was different than ours in that it broke forth into reality by God’s gentle yet all powerful Word in her womb. A baby that is also God. The designer of our being, our salvation and sanctification, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has the power and wisdom to do this. Does he not?
    Your question is whether this is true or not, but first you could ask, could God do this? And why would He? If he could, then it could be true. If there are reasons for it, then this makes it more intelligible, remembering that God is the arche of all intelligibility. Yet it is true that reason must work with faith, a grace we pray for. In faith I see that it is because he wanted us to have the mother of Jesus as our mother, our model, our intercessor that she received a singular grace we call the Immaculate Conception. In faith I believe this is part of the divine oikonomia.

    1. Put so much more eloquently that mine! :) I really enjoyed reading this. God bless us all, seekers on the journey!

    2. Hi Barry,
      I feel like the original question of my blog post has been lost to theological debates about the Immaculate Conception. My original question was: is it possible to doubt a dogma? The Catholic Church says no; you must accept the dogma as promulgated. That's very hard for me on several dogmas.

      The interesting thing that I have discovered through these comments on the comments on my Facebook page is that I have clearly "thought" as an Eastern Orthodox for a long time because the questions I highlight in my blog are the same questions that theologians in the East have asked for centuries. My questions derive specifically from the language that the Church has used in its documents to explain the Immaculate Conception.

      The root issue (at least as far as I can pinpoint) on the teaching of the Immaculate Conception is original sin. What appear to be subtle nuances between the Eastern and Western Church are actually two very different perspectives on Original Sin/Ancestral Sin. These two terms do not mean the same thing - and I am by no means capable enough, at this point, of explaining the Orthodox position beyond this simple explanation:
      In Catholic teaching, when Adam and Eve sinned against God it damaged our very human nature (Original Sin). In Orthodox teaching, the sin of Adam and Eve damaged the relationship with God, but there was no change to the essential nature of the human person because sin does not have the power to alter God's Creation. The sin of Adam and Eve ushers death into the world.

      In both East and West, there is a need for a Savior. In the West, Jesus' death was an atonement for the sins of all of humanity. In the East, Jesus' death on the Cross, destroys death. In the Divine Liturgy, it is proclaims "Christ trampled down death by death". In the East, there is no need for a dogma like the Immaculate Conception because Mary (and indeed all of us) are not lacking in our human nature.

      Here is a quote from "Light from the Christian East" (113-4)
      "According to Orthodoxy, sin is not an act of nature, but of a person. This correlated with the Eastern Christian understanding of creation: each nature created by God, and each individual which embodies that nature - whether human, animal, plant or whatever - bears within it a logos which impels it to God's service. Further, even after the fall of our first parents into sin and the horrific consequences that arose from it for human beings and for all the rest of creation, each created nature - and thus each individual that embodies that nature - still carry within it that dynamic logos which calls it to its appropriate divine service."

      On the topic of Mary, I do believe she was without sin and I believe that, by the grace of God, her logos was most especially attuned to the service of God. My doubts are not on WHO Mary was/is as the Theotokos, but on HOW the Catholic Church teaches about who she was/is. The doubt is on the formulation of the teaching, not the person of the Theotokos.

      If I have faltered on explained the Eastern Orthodox teaching, I ask that Orthodox believers fill in my gaps.