Of doubtful humility Print
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 21 May 2009

I’ve been noticing lately that some prominent public figures have started to make an odd case for the virtues of doubt. According to this new dispensation, certainty leads to intolerance, doubt to tolerance. This does not square with my own experience, nor does it explain the lives of, say, Mother Teresa as opposed to, say, Richard (“parents teaching religion is child abuse”) Dawkins. But there’s something in the air that gives this sophism an initial plausibility – and needs to be carefully watched.

Pope John Paul II lamented some years ago that there are many among us now who think that relativism is the only possible basis of democracy. So much for self-evident truths. But the new professors of doubt have a more subtle approach. A Certain Person who appeared at A Certain Catholic University recently – enough said about that already – remarked, not entirely in passing: “remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. . . .This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.”

To ask an indelicate, pre-modern question: is this true? I don’t like unruly passions or self-righteousness any more than A Certain Person, but I myself doubt that this doubt will work as advertised. People just as often let loose their passions when in doubt, and get self-righteous over not being self-righteous. Sadly, that’s the way we’re made.

And besides, the sort of person who typically recommends doubt to others is not saying, “You know, I really shouldn’t hold so much to my own convictions. I should be more open to you.” He’s actually saying, “You shouldn’t be so sure of your positions. You should be more open to me.” It’s a clever undermining of someone else masquerading as an open-minded plea for humility – on your part.

Doubt is also often confused with questioning, which is a very different kettle of fish. The great Cardinal Newman is famous for: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Newman, the great expositor of the development of doctrine, knew that we progress in truth not by doubting, but by wondering about the truth. How can Jesus be God or how is it that bread and wine on the altar can become Christ’s Body and Blood? Great thinkers like Augustine or Aquinas were not foolish enough to try to prove such mysteries, just to address rational difficulties.

Even in more mundane matters, doubt does not get us far. I may doubt whether one of my children is telling me the truth, but the important thing is the truth and the truthfulness. In certain matters, doubt is decadent. If someone had asked the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “aren’t you being a little too sure of yourself about this ‘all men are created equal’?,” King would have rightly said “get thee behind me,” the proper place for the Spirit that Denies. There are truths about which doubt doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, nor is it a mark of sophistication and humility.

This is eminently true about killing babies in the womb. That the child in the womb is a “person” deserving of full rights may not allow of proof beyond all doubt. Many things cannot be proved: that a spouse or parent loves you, that no one ever played the piano like Beethoven, that someone is bald though he has a few hairs on his head. Things are unprovable in various ways that do not affect the fact that they are true.

But those very unprovable things may still make large moral claims on us. To kill someone with the claim that you weren’t sure he was alive would not go far with a jury. A few people celebrate abortion as a kind of sacrament, but they are not part of the serious dialogue. The people we want to talk with are still sane enough not to believe that because someone has raised a doubt, we are free to do what we want. A Certain Person seemed very certain that women who get abortions agonize over it morally and spiritually. Perhaps that’s sometimes so, but opening the door to doubt has also had the effect of reducing and in some cases eliminating the moral struggle. There may yet be enough moral sanity at large to make this clear. A majority of the country for the first time since Roe seems to have been convinced.

The doubt gambit is aimed at undermining the effort. It’s curious how Christians have been publicly chastised lately for being too self-assured. Whatever happened to the old stereotype of Christians as forever guilt-ridden, obsessed with sins and faults, unable to live a confident, normal life in the world? The answer, I believe, is that the new stereotype serves a specific purpose, as the old one did. Early modern secularists and naturalists used the old one to show how “unnatural” Christianity was. It gets you divided within yourself, questioning what you know and do.

The new stereotype wants to do something similar, though to opposite effect: now that even nature is too moral for us, Christians who found a voice about crucial public issues like gay marriage over the last quarter century can only be silenced by telling them they’re forgetting the essential Christian virtue: humility.

Humility is always something to strive for, never something we possess. But we keep a grip on it not by doubting – and certainly not by feeling superior in doubting. We grow humble by knowing the truth. The truly humble people I’ve been lucky to know in my life were not humble because they practiced intellectual doubt, but because they had come to understand that they are sinners. Not were. Are. The truth.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Other Articles By This Author