The Skeptical Catholic

Is human life always this bewildering, or am I the only bewildered one? Is there actually any man, or anything in a man, that is not bewildered?
(Chuang Tzu, Chapter 2, trans. Brook Ziporyn)

What man knows is far less than what he does not know. The time he exists is insignificant compared to the time he does not exist. It is because he tries to exhaust this vastness with this meagerness that he bewilders and frustrates himself.
(Chuang Tzu, Chapter 17, trans. Brook Ziporyn)

The Skeptical Catholic.

To the eyes of some people, the combination of “skeptical” and “Catholic” is enough to send alarm bells ringing in their minds.

More often than not, many understand skepticism to be a ridiculous extreme, of irrationally declaring to the world, “I can never know what is true!” When this is applied to the context of religion, skepticism is perceived as a threat to one’s faith, demanding unreasonable proofs for the justification of God’s existence that go beyond the limitations of human reasoning.

While there are such people out there in the world, this is not what I mean by the term, “skeptical.” You see, there are three kinds of skepticism: (1) doctrinal skepticism: I cannot know X; (2) recommendational skepticism: I should suspend my judgement of X since I cannot be completely certain about it; and (3) methodological skepticism: how can I know X for certain? (a method of inquiry meant to introduce doubt about X).

Philosophers, like Socrates, often employ the use of methodological skepticism to cast doubt on the very things which we imagined to know with complete certainty. Socrates, for example, went around Athens asking people if they knew what “justice” was. The very people he asked were the ones who thought they knew very well what “justice” was about. And yet, when Socrates began questioning them, they soon came to the realisation that they didn’t know very much about it at all.

Even today, many of us are like the men of Athens. We think we know many things well. Sometimes, we don’t just think we know them well, we believe strongly that we’re 100% certain about it. And yet, we do not need a philosopher like Socrates to reveal to us just how mistaken we can be sometimes. We make mistakes about the assumptions we make, about our calculations, and even about our beliefs. Mistakes happen all the time – and they happen even more so when we think to ourselves just how certain we are about the matter.

A few days ago, I attended a discussion about the objectivity of scientific research, one professor shared a story of a plane crash that happened several years ago. No one knew why the plane crashed until the flight data recorder was found and studied. It turns out that the pilot had flown the plane in the wrong direction, making it fly so high up into the air  that the engine had stalled. Yet, the entire time, the flight instruments were accurately measuring the status of the plane, but the pilot was so certain about what he was doing,  he refused to believe in the readings. And even after the plane’s engine had stalled and was dropping down from the sky, with the instruments indicating precisely what was happening, the pilot chose to ignore all the warning indicators, believing himself to be right the whole time – until the last moment when the plane crashed into the sea.

The point is that, more often than not, we feel ourselves to be absolutely right in certain matters that we choose to ignore everything else. Even if we have warning lights flashing in front of our eyes, such feelings of rightness and certainty – even what seems to be well-supported ones – can blind us from seeing such warnings.

Sadly, this problem appears to be even greater when it comes to matters of Faith and religion. Yes, as Catholics, we profess our belief in one God; we profess our belief in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. But there’s one thing we do not profess in our Creed: we do not profess belief in ourselves, we do not profess that belief in God and the Church makes us equally infallible.

It’s precisely because we are so prone to error that we put our belief and trust on an authority.

And yet, for some strange reason, many of us, having read just a few books on Catholicism, philosophy and theology, or having served in a ministry for years, or having done all kinds of Churchy things, have come to imagine that whatever things we have in our minds about God, the Church, morality, etc., IS the Absolute Truth, and anyone who says or do anything contrary to this Truth is either a heretic, a liberal, a modernist, a heathen, or simply irrational. Just where on Earth or in Heaven did we come to develop such a strong sense of certainty about the beliefs in our head?

Yes, we believe that what the Church teaches is true. But the problem is that our understanding of this Truth may not necessarily be an accurate reflection. If anything, it could very well be distorted. Perhaps I might have misinterpreted or misunderstood what has been taught. Or perhaps I do not yet see the big picture. And yet, the last thing we question is whether or not our own beliefs are actually a correct reflection of what the Church has taught.

Furthermore, coupled with this unjustified belief that we are so completely right, is often the privileging of everything Catholic, or more specifically, everything that seems “Catholic” from our perspective. If I see myself as a traditionalist, everyone who does not fit into my Catholicism is wrong. If I see myself as a liberal, everyone who does not fit into my Catholicism is wrong. And the list goes on.

To further complicate matters, this leads us to develop a tendency to ignore non-Catholic (both non-Catholic and non-“Catholic”) views. We need to recognise that believing in the Truth does not make us Truth itself. We can always be wrong. And for that matter, Truth does not belong to anyone. An atheist can also speak the truth too. 1+1=2. It doesn’t matter who tells me that. I have no good reason to ignore him just because he’s not a Catholic.

As Catholics, we believe that God is Truth, and that God will ultimately lead a sincere seeker of the Truth to Him in due time. And therefore, there is no reason why valid criticisms towards Catholicism should not be heard and addressed – the doctrines, the philosophies, the theologies, and even the practices. And for that matter, there is no reason why we can’t learn anything good from others.

It is worth noting that the Church teaches us:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
(Nostra Aetate, 2)

What atheists and non-Catholics have to say – their criticisms – should be taken seriously. I have noticed that the many criticisms are not direct attacks against the Church. Their criticisms are against the false teachings that others have propagated, and against the bad practices which has been done thus far (nothing doctrinal, but just really bad ways of doing things, including the scandals, etc.). Many of their criticisms are valid, and are indeed the warning lights.

But if we choose to remain committed to our false-belief that we are absolutely right in everything, then we will continue to be blind to the merits of their arguments, and come crashing down into the sea, while bringing others along with us, if we are not careful.

We need some skepticism. At the very least, we need to recognise that we can be mistaken and are indeed fallible. We believe in the Truth, but that does not make us the Truth or possessors of Truth (as if Truth is some thing that we can own). We learn from the Truth, but we are still prone to misinterpreting the Truth. If anything, we need to be aware of our own fallibility, and be open to correction.