Doubts, Difficulties and Disobedience

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” What he means is that there is a difference between a doubt and a difficulty. When we start to think through our Catholic faith we would be negligent or stupid not to have some problems. After all, the things we propose as true in the Catholic faith stretch the human mind and heart.

However, many people are worried that they are doubting their faith if they scratch their heads puzzle over our beliefs.

There is a difference between doubt and difficulty. The person with a difficulty says, “How can that be so?” whereas a person who doubts says, “That can’t be so!”

The first statement expresses difficulty, but willingness to believe. The second statement expresses cynicism and unwillingness to submit to the Church’s teachings. The person with difficulties says, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!” The person with doubts says, “I don’t believe Lord, and don’t bother to help my unbelief!”

A difficulty arises when we confront some teaching of the Church — either a moral precept or a doctrine — and honestly find it hard to accept. In his Parochial and Plain Sermons, Newman wrote, “The use of doubts and difficulties is obvious … our faith is assailed by various doubts and difficulties in order to prove its sincerity.”

We experience trials in the faith for three reasons: to strengthen us, to clarify our beliefs, and to help us proclaim the Gospel.

So, doubt is out, but difficulties are in. The person with difficulties may be struggling, but he is struggling to understand more fully and completely.

This is the first reason for a difficulty: It strengthens our faith. Just as an athlete or musician trains and practices and sweats to attain the goal, so the believer (if his faith is to be worthwhile) must face difficulties and overcome.

Just as the athlete or musician is strengthened by the experience of perfecting his skill, so when we work through our difficulties, we emerge purer and stronger in our faith.

The second reason for difficulties is so that our faith might be clarified. How can you expect to get the right answers unless you ask the right questions?

It’s the same in our faith. We come to understand more by facing the difficulties and asking the right questions. Whether we are struggling with a matter of Catholic doctrine or some aspect of Catholic moral teaching, it is by enquiring with an open heart and alert mind that we come to a fuller and deeper understanding of our faith.

Most often, the difficulty was caused by some misunderstanding, and by asking questions, we come to understand more fully.

The third reason for difficulties is to help us proclaim the Gospel with compassion and insight. Each of the baptized are called to help share the Good News, but if none of them had difficulties, how would they understand and sympathize with all those who need to hear the truth but face great difficulties in belief?

By going through the difficulties, we understand what others face, and by finding the answers, we are prepared to share them with others.

After “Doubt” and “Difficulties” there is another “D” which is disobedience. This is when a Catholic openly and unapologetically not only disagrees with church teaching, but willfully disobeys what they know to be true. Another word for this disobedience is “Sin”. This is a condition of open rebellion, and the reason the Catholic Church is so weak and helpless in the face of the world’s onslaught today is because a huge proportion of her children are living in open disobedience.

They have cut themselves off from grace, cut themselves off from God, cut themselves off from salvation. The fact that so many of them cheerfully continue to go to Mass and participate in the church and call themselves “devout Catholics” is a scandal.

Finally, it is so difficult to believe because it is so difficult to obey. Later on in the same sermon, Cardinal Newman writes, “To those who are perplexed in any way, for those who seek the light but cannot find it, one precept must be given — obey. It is obedience which brings a man into the right path. It is obedience which keeps him there and strengthens him in it.”

Obedience seems outrageous in a world of individualism and self-judgment, but the call to obedience is what makes the Catholic faith a “sign of contradiction.” “What! Shall I obey?!” modern man cries.

The reply is a hearty, “Yes — for it is in obedience that your faith will live and your difficulties will be resolved; but it is in your disobedience that your difficulties will turn into the doubts which will eventually destroy your faith.”

This does not mean that the Church calls us to mindless obedience. That is the way of the coward and sluggard. Instead we are called to an open minded and open hearted obedience–like little children in a loving and trusting relationship with the Father–we are also called to be inquisitive to ask questions, to be curious and to seek to learn more. We are called to be open about our difficulties, because although they may feel negative they are simply the way we ask the questions in order to find the answers.

We follow the Way with our hearts on fire and our minds alert. If we would find, we must seek, and if we wish the door to be opened to us, we must knock.


  • Nathan

    Father, it seems to me that the difference between the reaction of Zachariah and the reaction of Our Lady to Gabriel’s announcement represents the difference between difficulty (how can this be so, I know not man) and doubt (how shall I know this? I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years). Mary wonders how she can conceive without knowing man, while Zachariah doubts the angel’s words could be true. What do you think?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      good example!

  • Imperious Dakar

    If doubt itself is a sin, it seems that relatively mindless obedience IS required.
    Especially in the context of expecting people to regard the Church and its teachings with childlike trust.

    You appear to be trying to (intellectually) have your cake and eat it too Father.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Or you could read the post and understand the difference in attitude between doubts and difficulties.

      • Imperious Dakar

        I read the post.
        That’s why I take issue with what your saying.

        On a related note, its often seemed to me that Catholicism has something like the God of the Gaps (for those unfamiliar with the term, here’s a useful link: but in reverse.

        Catholicism does have a rich intellectual tradition that encourages people to question and think about things. However, as time passes the Catholic Church publishes more and more official doctrine on various things. And once official doctrine is established on something (like female ordination or the Assumption of Mary) Catholics are expected to not merely obey the new rules, but believe in them too.

        So instead of the supposed realm of God decreasing over time, it is the space Catholics have to think freely (without sinning) that becomes ever more limited.

        Of course the Catholic principals of intellectual freedom and intellectual conformity could be reconciled (to a certain extent) if moderation was also a Catholic virtue (i.e. something Catholicism encouraged and regarded as a moral good).

        But theologically at least, that does not appear to be the case.

        • Bryan

          Sometimes people respond to the post in their own head and, in cases like that, it doesn’t much matter what anyone else says. It doesn’t even matter what the original post was saying.

        • David (UK)

          Thanks for you post Father. I always enjoy reading your posts though I’ve never commented before.
          Imperious… (interesting name btw – you don’t come across as imperious!) … to be fair to Fr. Longenecker, I don’t believe he said that doubt is sin. He said that disobedience is sin and that disobedience is acting in terms of a particular doubt. I think it basically comes down to the definition of the words “doubt” and “difficulty” as presented in the post.
          When we come across a teaching of the Church that is hard for us to accept, we can follow one of two paths: Treat it as a “difficulty” and seek to increase our knowledge with regards to that teaching, all the while, extending a line of credit to the Church and obeying, or treat is as a “doubt”, don’t bother to find out why the Church teaches what she does, and disobey.
          You’re right that Catholicism has a rich intellectual tradition. From my own limited studies, it seems to me that the nature of that tradition has always been to shed greater and greater light on the truths revealed by Jesus through his apostles, not that everything is “up for grabs” until the Church says otherwise (sorry if I’m misrepresenting you).
          The Magisterium of the Church has never proposed anything for belief that has not been held by Catholics since the earliest days of Christianity (e.g. Assumption of Mary, male-only priesthood). She only needs to “make these doctrines official” when there is a need within the Church to properly define them (most of the time because of some disagreement about a particular belief).
          As Catholics we believe in absolute truth, revealed by God through Jesus Christ, faithfully preached by the apostles and proclaimed by the Catholic Church down through the ages (which has been kept from distorting this truth by the power of the Holy Spirit). It’s not unreasonable then to give assent to the doctrinal teachings of the Church even if we find those teachings hard to understand. The right use of our intellectual freedom is to work to understand better these teachings.
          When Jesus quoted the “Shema” from Deuteronomy (changing one of the words) he said “The greatest commandment is this: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind”. It seems to me that when you go down the road of doubt and disobedience you violate all three parts of this commandment.

        • Luke

          Imperious Dakar,

          Obedience doesn’t just extend to the realm of “doing” but also to “believing.” Belief does not equal total comprehension or a deliberated outcome of “free thinking”; actually, usually it usually implies lack of complete comprehension. I don’t fully understand how God can be Triune, and I never will. But I do believe it, and I believed it even before I reached the age of reason!

          Just like I don’t have to understand how a stove is hot and can still obey my parents’ command not to touch it, I can also obey intellectually regarding any Church teaching I don’t understand and still pose questions. So I can ask a theologian, “I believe in the Trinity, but how can God be Three and yet still be One?”

          You mention the Assumption or female ordination, but actually both the Resurrection and the fact any human being can be ordained to celebrate the sacraments at all in the first place, for example, are much “bigger pills to swallow” – and we don’t have a “choice” in those matters either. (Nor can “choice” be the most essential mark of freedom – God can never “choose” to do evil, and yet His freedom is the greatest, far greater than ours.)

          Now, if you define intellectual freedom as the freedom to disagree, then of course *any* sort of dogma – whether it be the Resurrection or the Assumption – is going to “limit” that “freedom.” But in reality, you are free to raise however many difficulties about either of those two you wish in order to deepen your understanding – you are just not free to call the truth a lie, such “dissent” never being an actualization of proper human freedom anyway any more than breathing water is an actualization of proper human breathing.

          If Christ really rose from the dead, He can also establish a Church with the authority to infallibly proclaim the true faith. I don’t see why one of those propositions is harder than the other…in fact, I think prior to modern times – when absolute freedom of indifference for each and every individual reigns supreme and God is even subject to our reason – the first proposition would have been the one that could potentially pose more difficulty for intellectual comprehension!

          • Imperious Dakar

            I mentioned the Assumption and female ordination because their the only teachings the Catholic Church has definitively declared to be infallible that I could think of right off hand.
            Because there is debate among theologians whether Catholics have the right to disagree (privately or otherwise) with Church teachings that have NOT been declared infallible.

            But nothing you said contradicts my main point.

            Which is, if official Catholic doctrine defines how a Catholic is supposed to act, talk, and think, and Catholic doctrine is continuously being expanded upon, then the range of behavior acceptable for Catholics, grows ever more limited.

            If the trend is allowed to reach its logical extreme, then eventually there will be detailed rules covering every aspect of thought and human life for Catholics. So that they basically have to adhere to a narrowly defined ‘script’ in all their actions to avoid behavior the Church considers sinful.

  • agus

    Very well said Father…
    Thanks for the enlightment. Greetings from Java! GBU

  • Bill bannon

    Catholicism needed dissent in MORAL matters in past periods and clergy and laity failed to dissent. A case in point was Pope Nicholas V in Romanus Pontifex, mid 4th large paragraph, giving Portugal the right to enslave and despoil “all other enemies of Christ” which became an aid to the slave trade….and a large reason Latin America is unsafe in many areas as to crime.
    Another case in point was Pope Leo X excommunicating any Catholic who said with Luther that burning heretics was against the Holy Spirit ( Exsurge Domine, art.33 condemned as ” against the Catholic Faith”. Currently the oath that Catholic teachers and leaders take thanks to John Paul II is one that ensures that if we
    ever return to past severe actions like burning people….then Catholic leaders will under oath have to submit to the non infallible again.
    We need a Pope who distinguishes between the infallible and the non infallible which is currently conflated
    especially on the Catholic blogs because converts were educated often by John Paul II priests who pushed the conflation on converts.
    Result is that we have a quickly arrived at, unsupported by research, death penalty position that has Bishops
    saying the death penalty is against human dignity while God said it is for human dignity in Genesis 9:5-6.
    This mindless conformity in the non infallible keeps higher iq people in some cases far from the Church. I know some.

    • savvy


      The church already distinguishes between the infallible and the fallible. It seems that you can’t. Dogma is fixed, doctrine develops, discipline changes. The critics of infallibility often bring up issues that have nothing to do with it.

      • Bill bannon

        I can see why you don’t use your real name.

        • Billy Bean

          So I would surmise that you are saying, in essence, that only “lower I.Q. people” can accept the dogma of papal infallibility? Am I correct in this theory?

    • Billy Bean

      Nevermind. Your post was a bit difficult to decipher, but I think I’ve got it now. You’re not agin papal infallibility. You’re agin knee-jerk responses to said dogma, like mine. Mea culpa.

  • Paul Rodden

    Yep. Yet another example of how essential Newman is to understanding the Faith, and how the nuanced and subtle, without extremes, is a true hallmark of Catholicism. (A point John Zmirak makes near the beginning of his new ‘Bad Catholic’s Guide’, but I’m blowed if I can find it now…)

  • Dominick

    The term “blind obedience” is often used in the context of something undesirable for Catholics. As if we are trying to make excuses to our Protestant friends. I have come to dislike the term because it turns something positive into a reaction to a negative. There is nothing blind about true obedience – one is either obedient to God or not.
    The questioning comes into play when one attempts to understand and act on God’s will in one’s everyday life. Sometimes this is difficult for us to do and in such cases reverting to “simple” obedience is the best remedy. The beautiful thing about obedience is that, while it does not require a great deal of faith to act upon it, acting upon it exercises and strengthens whatever faith may reside in one’s heart.
    The Old Testament is full of examples concerning the virtue expressed through ready obedience, ultimately to God, but specifically to men granted authority by God. In fact, as I have been read more of the Old Testament it in my adult life, I am struck by the realization that it does not just agree with Catholic doctrine, it practically shouts it.
    I am not so sure that I should find 1 Kgs 20:35-42 as humorous as I do, but I think it is another passage (among countless others) that reinforces Father’s point (as well as Luke’s point made by Zacharia and Mary).

    • Dominick

      Sorry Father, I used “blind” hear while in your post your used “mindless”. I suppose they mean the same thing, but I should have stayed consistent with your diction.

  • Vijaya

    My first time commenting here even though I’ve been reading your wonderful posts for over a year. I’m a convert and this issue of difficulties and doubts resonated with me greatly. What I discovered is that some understanding often came AFTER obedience. I love the first example (difference between Mary and Zecchariah) because Mary obeys without knowing how all this is supposed to work. She doesn’t argue with the angel and although she does not understand many things (she is often pondering the many mysteries) she is always obedient. Even Jesus does not lift the veil … until she is in heaven, crowned as Queen of heaven and earth.

  • http://CatholicNews Thomas Lynch

    For people like me with a ordinary intelligence(thank God for the spell check)my trust in the Church of Jesus Christ will never be in error in matters of faith or morals is all I need, so to obey a Church teaching I don’t quite understand is small apples if I have Faith

    • Imperious Dakar

      Yes Thomas, but if someone is smarter than a priest (or even most bishops), why should they assume that ‘Father knows best’?

      This may not apply to me (I’m not sure how my intelligence compares to the average priest) but there are plenty of scientists and other intellectuals who are probably smarter than most members of the Hierarchy.

      Why should someone like Stephen Hawking just take something that a priest tells him (that doesn’t seem to make sense) on faith?

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  • Grtgrandpa

    Obedience versus Disobidience is the crux of the distinction in the lives of Adam and Jesus. Adam, was disobedient and caused disorder into the rhythm of the universe. Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient even to death on the Cross. Therefore God exalted him…(Phil. 2:8,9). Abraham was the first example of obedience to God in his love for God, he was willing to Sacrafice his first son. God rewarded Abraham for this, and destroyed the Kingdom of Nimrod.
    In ‘The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena,’ God explains that the key to open the gates of Heaven is “Obedience.” THE TREATISE OF OBEDIENCE: (exerpts, and highlighst- pages141-164): The key to obedience is Completeness in the sweet Word. What destroyed obedience of the first man was pride and self love. Disobedience destroyed his innocence depriving him of the life of grace… The sign that you have this virtue is patience. Love is the mother of patience, and sister to obedience. You must have them both, or have neither… Obedience is the key with which Heaven is opened, because your whole faith is founded upon obedience, for by it you prove your fidelity. Obey means to obey the Commandments, the Chief which is to love Me above everything and your neighbor as yourself. Obedience is how we derive grace, and from disobedience you all derive death. In Baptism is the promise to renounce the world and all its pomps and delights, and to obey. Obedience being the Key, you must take the key in your hand and walk by the Doctrine of My Word.. The key can be broken with the hammer of pride, rustlng it with self-love. Without the key of obedeince, men are devoid of everly virtue are like unbridled horses, without the bit of obedience, go from bad to worse, from sin to sins.
    “Master, we have left everything for your love’s sake, and have followed You, what will you give us? (Matt. 19:27). Jesus replied: “I will give you one hundredfold for one, and you shall possess eternal life.” (Matt. 19:29). Jesus used the number one hundred because it is the perfect number, as it cannot be added to except by recommencing from the first. So the number one hundred represents perfect virtue so perfect no higher virtue can be added to it except by recommencing at self knowledge, and then increasing in merit and virtue.

    • Imperious Dakar

      Jesus was very much a special case when it comes to obedience.

      He was obedient to God yes, but he also WAS God.
      Jesus Christ was obedient to himself.

      • Mack

        He was obedient to God the Father. Yes, Jesus is God, but the distinction between the three persons of the Trinity remains.

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