Doubt: Virtue or Poison? (Asking For a Friend)
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
April 29, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Year C) on April 28, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Acts 5:12-16; Psalm 118; Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; and John 20:19-31.

Easter is our greatest celebration of the year. We celebrate for 50 days, and we treat these first 8 days of the season as if it were still Easter Sunday itself. Every year on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear the same passage from the Gospel of John, a passage that focuses mostly on Thomas the apostle.

This is an extremely important passage in the Bible. I have preached on it frequently. (Two previous examples: St. Thomas: In Praise of Doubt and In Praise of Doubt: The “Grooviest Apostle.”) I cite it several times a month when I’m counseling people in my office or in the confessional.

But before we hear today’s Scripture passages, let us first celebrate that our God is a God of love. No matter how far we feel we have strayed, God is eager to embrace us with the gift of forgiveness and mercy.

The twentieth chapter of John tells of people close to Jesus Christ who do not understand that he has risen from the dead. Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb and presumes that someone has stolen his body… and she does not recognize the risen Jesus until he calls her by name. Despite whatever Peter and the beloved disciple see and believe at the tomb, and despite Mary Magdalene’s testimony that she has seen the risen Christ, the apostles have still locked themselves in the Upper Room for fear of the handful of Jewish leaders who pushed for Jesus’ crucifixion a few days earlier. Finally, the apostles see Jesus on that Easter night and believe.

It bothers me that Thomas has been given the name “Doubting Thomas,” considering that he doesn’t seem to behave any differently than Mary Magdalene, Peter, the beloved disciple, and the other apostles: just like them, he does not believe until he sees. 

Last year, in the Easter season, I received an e-mail message from someone I consider to be a friend and a man of exemplary virtue. His message was long, passionate, and researched, begging me to reconsider the homily I had just preached and posted online about St. Thomas and what I have called “the virtue of doubt.” My friend went so far as to call these homilies “spiritual poison… with… consequences [that] could be eternally binding.” Again, he’s a great guy who understands the complexities of life, so I knew this wasn’t a mean-spirited message by any means. I can imagine the guts – and the hours – it took for him to write this message to me! 

With all that in mind, I delved pretty deeply into what my friend wrote. Here are two of the passages he cited in his message:

First, from the letter of James (1:6-8): “The one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.”

And second, from paragraph 2088 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There are various ways of sinning against faith: 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.”

I’ll be honest: I’m uncomfortable with these quotations. The definition of involuntary doubt, in particular, troubles me. I encounter many, many people who hesitate in believing certain things that the Church teaches, who have difficulty overcoming objections, who have anxiety about details of the faith which seem obscure. Are they sinning? I have journeyed with so many of these people, and I have cited Thomas as a source of hope for them. Thomas doubted and yet was not turned away by the apostles or Jesus. I have continued journeying with these people long enough to often see them work through their questions, difficulties, and anxieties to come to a deeper, more robust faith.

My friend explained that his concerns were primarily about my word choice. “If you were to only stop using the word ‘doubts’ and change it to ‘struggles,’ ‘difficulties,’ or ‘questions,’” he said, “then I believe this to be a very good sermon. I would suggest a quote from John Henry Cardinal Newman to exemplify the distinction ‘Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.’”

Clearly, my friend has a point: many writings of the Christian tradition say that “doubt” is a source of instability, a sin, or even a heresy. But many of the wonderful people freaking out in my office that they are bad Christians don’t use the word “questioning” to describe their uncertainties; they use the word “doubting.” 

Can we find a common definition for the word “doubt”? I don’t think so. In our language today, the word is used to cover a vast array of different kinds of questioning.

After wrestling with my friend’s concerns for the past year, and after fervently praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, here is what I have decided. Whatever word we use – doubting, questioning, hesitating, difficulties, skepticism, uncertainty, or anxiety – these only become sins when they cause us to give up completely on “belief” and move wholly into a separate category called “unbelief.” God has placed the Holy Spirit deep within our hearts, and the Spirit prompts us forward even when we don’t know what to say or do.

I believe that no one comes to a mature faith without first questioning even some of our most fundamental beliefs. So, here’s my advice: let us go ahead and question our faith… as long as we keep having face-to-face relationships with other people of faith like Thomas did. Keep talking with God, even if you’re not sure God’s there. Keep coming to Church, even if you’re not sure you agree with everything we profess. Keep making appointments with religious professionals, especially if you think we’re not going to give you simple answers. 

And perhaps it would be good to come up with a prayer to use in these times of questioning. So, here’s a first draft of a prayer I came up with in the last 24 hours:

A Prayer In Times of Questioning
by Richard R. Andre, C. S. P.

Loving God and Creator, you invite me into an ever-deepening 
    relationship with you. 
In other words, you invite me to have faith in you.
When I have doubts about my faith,
    give me the energy and curiosity to pursue my questions.
If I ask, give me insight. 
If I seek, help me to find.
If I knock, open the door to me.
Through the Holy Spirit, I have received knowledge and wisdom;
Help me to trust that my questions are rooted 
in the desire to grow in relationship with you. Amen.

In my opinion, doubt becomes a sin only when it leads to isolation. If we only look for answers on the internet, or if we only discuss our questions with people who do not believe, then I think we’re getting into the territory that the Scriptures, the Catechism, and the saints cautioned against. As long as our discomfort is prompted by the Holy Spirit, and as long as the Holy Spirit keeps us in regular contact with other members of the Body of Christ, I think we’re going to be fine.