Not All Questions Seek Answers, Not All Answers Come By Words

Not All Questions Seek Answers, Not All Answers Come By Words December 14, 2016

Augustine image in the Lateran,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Augustine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Augustine often had people asking him questions for the purpose of criticizing Catholic beliefs and practices they did not accept. They would pretend to inquire for the sake of understanding, and use such a pretense as an excuse for all kinds of impertinent questions. Augustine, sometimes, would be flippant in response. [1] But at other times, when responding to the same question, what exactly God was doing “before” creation, he pointed out that the very question was asked in bad faith. He knew that such Manicheans loaded question with all kinds of traps which, while possible to sort through and untangle, would still allow them to abuse his response for the sake of claiming Augustine and Catholics like him taught error. Their purpose was not to understand Catholic beliefs, but to find reasons to cause doubt and sow seeds of confusion:

So let them tell us why the apostle Paul said . . . the recognition of the truth that accords with the loving kindness of God unto the hope of eternal life, which the non-lying God promised before eternal times (1Ti 1:1-2); what, I mean to say, could eternal times have had before them? This is therefore what they should be forced to explain, so that they may understand that they do not understand, when they thoughtlessly try to find fault with something about which they should instead have been asking earnest inquiries.[2]

St. Augustine shows us that not all questions are asked with the intent to learn something or to come to an understanding. This is why not all questions are useful or worthy of being answered. Questions which come out of bad faith, especially if they are based upon all kinds of false assumptions which are purposefully difficult to untangle, do not have to be answered. To answer them is to give them a semblance of credibility, but if the question is bad, and the questioner comes in bad faith, the only credible response is silence, as often was the case when Jesus was encountered by authorities who questioned him with similar trick questions.

This seems to be the case surrounding Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Even before it was made, many were preparing themselves to be critical of whatever he wrote, and so it should come to no surprise that once Amoris Laetitia was released, their bad faith persisted with questions aimed at trapping Pope Francis through misrepresentation, often engaging common misunderstanding of history and tradition which they want Pope Francis to contradict so they can then reject him and his teaching authority. They forget who is the authentic interpreter of tradition (it is not them), and more importantly, they use a distorted, false understanding of the history of marriage and divorce which would have condemned all Christians of the first millennium if their views were correct (for the theology concerning the sacrament of marriage developed significantly in the second millennium, causing all kinds of confusion and crises as traditional discipline became changed as a result).

Pope Francis by Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis by Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Thus, when critics of the Pope have tried to confront the Pope, acting like it is already proven that there is some cause to blame in what he said, they are not seeking to understand Amoris Laetitia, they are seeking to undermine it and the proper pastoral concerns in it.  They are not interested in answers, for the answers are not difficult to ascertain, but rather, they are interested in having everyone follow their assumption, and to answer the question in any form is to give their assumptions weight.

This is not the first time a Pope has had such backlash when, acting as Pope, they show pastoral concern and grant mercy to the fallen. This is the activity which is expected of the Pope. He is meant to be a pastor, looking for ways to heal the spiritually sick, giving them the merciful balm necessary for their salvation. Pope after Pope have been known to grant extraordinary mercy, often to receive the blunt end of criticism for doing so, saying such mercy supports sin in a way the Pope is not allowed to do so. This was exactly what happened during the Novatian crisis. When those Christians who rejected the faith under by the Roman persecution, the lapsed, wanted to return to be forgiven their indiscretion and return to communion, the Novatians said it was impossible, using Scripture such as Hebrews 10:26 as proof. Yet Rome said that, after due penance, the lapsed could be forgiven; doing so was not denying the objectivity of sin but was recognizing the superiority of grace, and that the pastoral mission of the church was to give out such grace when properly asked. The church had been given the authority to bind and loosen sins, and to deny the pastoral decision of the Pope and says he taught error was to deny the authority given to the church for the sake of such pastoral discretion.

God is love, and therefore, merciful to all who should seek him out. Pastoral concerns, helping sinners, always will often get vainglorious people upset, as it did in the story of the prodigal son, where the older brother was upset at the grace his father showed to his wayward brother. Often those who are critical of mercy being shown to others ignore their own sin, their own spiritual condition, and instead, would like to argue with the physician of souls, causing strife instead of helping others receive their needed healing. Such critics should heed St. Paul, who wrote:

Do all things without grumbling or questioning,  that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,  holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain (Philip. 2:14-16 RSV).

Some seem to want to pretend to be blameless instead of being blameless, and so put on the air of moral superiority instead of being morally superior. True superiority is humble with love, merciful without limit, willing to engage without grumbling or questions, those difficulties which they do not understand. They trust in themselves and their own limited understanding of mercy and the sacraments and sin and grace, instead of realizing the great diversity and methods by which God works for the healing of soul and body. They trust in their own limited, often false, assumptions as a way to engage the Pope, and instead of listening and heeding the Pope, they demand the Pope listen to them. Such an attitude rarely bodes well for those who make such ultimatums of the Pope.

If people truly have questions, they can easily seek out answers. The Pope has already pointed out directions which people can look to for such answers. If that is not good enough, they can look to history, and see the diversity of practices in the past, and realize the confusion is not with the Pope, but with false assumptions which are being used to try to trap him for political objectives. To try to trap him with questions which claim to be simple, but are full of equivocations which make it impossible to say “yes” or “no” to them, is the height of absurdity. Indeed, as the faith is full of mysteries and paradoxes, and marriage itself is one such mystery, it should not be surprising answers are not going to be so simple as objectors to Amoris Laetitia like to pretend.

Questions are not always innocent. Not everyone who asks them are seeking understanding. Some seek to use them to cause confusion. This is why not every question deserves an answer. When what is given is sufficient for those of good will to know and understand the answer, then further questioning is just quarreling, and not worthy of attention. Silence, then, is instead of an avoidance of difficult questions, the best possible answer.


[1][1]“ Behold, I answer to him who asks, What was God doing before He made heaven and earth? I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), He was preparing hell, says he, for those who pry into mysteries. It is one thing to perceive, another to laugh—these things I answer not. For more willingly would I have answered, I know not what I know not, than that I should make him a laughing-stock who asks deep things, and gain praise as one who answers false things,” St. Augustine, Confessions in NPNF1(1):167.

[2] St. Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees. trans. Edmund Hill, OP (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2006), 41.



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