The Shadow of Doubt

When Nikki Loomos and her husband, Bill, brought their son, Chase, home from the hospital in 2005, she was on top of the world.

She had gone through a normal pregnancy and delivery, and was embarking on the adventure of motherhood with a healthy baby, a strong support network of friends from her parish and tight ties with her family.

But the euphoria didn’t last. Within days, Chase was admitted to the hospital with jaundice. A doctor at the hospital heard a heart murmur when he examined the baby; by the time Chase was 12 days old, he was having heart surgery.

“We were all at the hospital, and I remember my mother saying, ‘These are the times when it’s so important we have our faith,’” Loomos said. “And I just looked at her, because I wasn’t really feeling it right then.”

What Loomos was feeling was betrayal and fear, forcing her to wonder what she had done wrong. How could God do this to her son? She was a good Catholic; she even taught religion in a Catholic school.

“I always thought I had pretty strong faith to begin with,” Loomos said.

For Loomos, the doubt and fear did not last long. Her mother prayed for her, and when their pastor, Father Jack Farry, came to visit at the hospital, her mother spoke to him as well, and the pastor took the time to reassure Loomos.

“He told me it was all right to be angry, and it was all right to have doubt and be afraid,” Loomos said. “I could take that to God and share it with him.”

As the days and weeks passed, Loomos often got word that people were praying for Chase and for her family — often people she didn’t even know. But all of those prayers helped support her and remind her that she was not alone.

Years later, Loomos shared the story of her faith — and her doubts — with her middle-school religion students at St. Andrew School in Chicago, where Chase recently finished second grade.

As old as time

There is so much in the world that is frightening and destructive and evil, from natural disasters to family tragedies to societal woes such as war and crime. People from the Old Testament on have struggled to reconcile faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, good God with the evil they see in the world.

“Even in the Psalms, the psalmist often asks God ‘Why?’” said Legionaries of Christ Father John Bartunek, a moral theologian who teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. “But underneath the difficulties, we can maintain our faith in God’s goodness, wisdom and power.”

Many — even most, if not all — people of faith have doubts from time to time, said Father Stephen Bevans, SVD, a professor of mission and culture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“Sometimes we have a picture of God who can fix anything, who can do anything, and we say, ‘Why did God take my child?’” Father Bevans said. “But faith in God is about God being with us, being at our side through it all.”

For Father Bevans, some kinds of doubt are intrinsic to faith.

“Doubt goes along with faith,” he said. “In some ways, if you don’t doubt, you’re taking faith too lightly. It’s like the humility in an act of faith. If I really look at what’s at stake here, the whole direction of my life, I could see having some doubt. I think it’s kind of natural. I certainly have doubt in my own faith.”

In any leap of faith, doubt exists, Father Bevans said, whether the doubts of a bridegroom the night before his wedding — will he be a good husband? Can he give his wife what she needs? — or a pregnant mother before giving birth — how will she protect and guide and care for this little one who will need her so much? Such doubts do not indicate that the person involved has no faith; rather, they demonstrate the seriousness of the endeavor.

“The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote powerfully on the presence of doubt in faith and insists that the element of certainty in the act of faith cannot be removed,” said Father Bevans, who noted that Tillich said it “must be accepted.”

“Tillich explains that the doubt connected with every act of faith is an existential doubt,” Father Bevans said. “It ‘is the doubt that accompanies every risk. It is not the permanent doubt of the scientist, and it is not the transitory doubt of the skeptic, but it is the doubt of (one) who is ultimately concerned.’”

Defining doubt

Part of the question might be in understanding what people mean when they talk about doubt.

Is it an acknowledgement that they simply do not understand the ways of God, or even sometimes why the Church teaches what it does?

Is it a statement that they do not believe that God exists, or that there is no empirical certainty about a God that we say is ineffable?

In that way, doubt and faith are intertwined, Father Bevans said. If people could empirically demonstrate the existence and nature of God, that belief would take no more faith than knowing the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

“It’s something we can’t know for sure,” Father Bevans said. “There is a difference between faith and certainty.”

There is another level of doubt, a level that has blossomed in a society where more and more people profess a lack of belief in anything they cannot see or hear or touch.

That level of doubt — the refusal to believe without proof — is another thing entirely.

That may have been what Blessed John Henry Newman was getting at when he wrote in his Apologia, “10,000 difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines themselves, or to their relations with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a certain particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and yet borne in upon our minds with most power.”

It’s also a distinction drawn in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says:

“The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. 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. If deliberately cultivated, doubt can lead to spiritual blindness” (CCC, No. 2088).

‘Not mathematics’

“We can have difficulties understanding why the Church teaches certain things, for example, or why God allows certain things to happen,” Father Bartunek said. “But underneath the difficulties, we can maintain our faith in God’s goodness, wisdom and power. We can exercise that faith by simply saying a small prayer, what is traditionally called an ‘act of faith.’”

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Father Bartunek and Bevans both cited the example of the man in Chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to save his son, and Jesus asks if he believes in him. The man says, “I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).

Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he heals that their faith has saved them. In this case, in which the man admits to both faith and doubt, the boy is saved, and his father finds his faith strengthened.

But, Cardinal Newman’s example notwithstanding, Christians cannot expect God to provide them with a logical proof for his own existence or his nature.

“Ultimately, Christianity is not mathematics,” Father Bartunek said. “There is plenty of evidence for God’s love, goodness and wisdom, but that evidence will never take away our freedom to choose whether or not to trust God.”

“Faith is linked to our relationship with God, and relationships always involve trust,” he added. “So at some point, we need to acknowledge that God has shown that he is trustworthy and take the leap to trust in him.”

Choosing the opposite path — to walk away from God — is wrong, Father Bartunek said, adding that people who make that choice often do so because they can’t reconcile faith with their own behavior.

“Doubting God’s goodness, wisdom and love can indeed be sinful; it can be a sin against the virtue of faith, a rejection of that gift of faith,” he said. “This sin often stems from immoral behaviors that someone has freely chosen to engage in. In order to justify those behaviors, the person intentionally doubts what Jesus has revealed and his Church teaches.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Overcoming Doubt
Authors Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey offer practical steps to help increase faith in “The Doubter’s Novena: Nine Steps to Trust with the Apostle Thomas” (OSV, $9.95):