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St. John brings doubting to heart of Easter mystery

The following editorial by Andrew Britz, OSB, is titled “Concluding the council,” and was originally published in the May 22, 1995, issue of the PM. It is also the epilogue from his book Rule of Faith: as we worship, so we believe, so we live.

Archbishop James Hayes of Halifax, a longtime member of the administrative board of the Canadian bishops and for a time their chairperson and also a regular member of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, said that the Second Vatican Council “ain’t over till it’s over.” The final great act of each church council, he noted, is its acceptance by the people.

Some of the great councils in the early church did not achieve ecumenical status precisely because the People of God did not accept that council’s teaching. Reception is an integral part of each council.

Of course, that muddies the waters. We would have much more certitude in our church if only the bishops or, better still, if only the pope were the magisterium. Leaving a place, as did all the great bishops of the patristic age, for the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) often leaves issues unresolved.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council, however, were comfortable with this. They noted, in one of the council’s key concepts, that the church is always on pilgrimage, that it can do no better than move toward the fullness of truth. A perfect expression of our faith, a completed dogma, is one gift the Lord did not give to his church.

We live in an age of social disintegration and thus, more than in most ages of the church, we long for certitude. In the church at least, we are tempted to cry out, we should be able to have some black-and-white answers.

We don’t want muddied waters. And so we proclaim that the best faith is the faith that never questions — and surely never doubts. So for many of us it is not good news to hear the archbishop say that such acts of faith are far from being the best, that rather they are signs of immaturity in our faith life.

True faith, Hayes teaches us, involves questioning. It involves giving and sharing with people who, like ourselves, do not have their lives fully together.

It is interesting to look at the church at the time John’s Gospel was written. The church then knew more uncertainty than we experience today. The little community was caught in the crossfire between the Romans and the Jews and, to anyone with even a smidgen of pessimism, it looked like total disaster. Persecution and death was not what the first Christians expected when they declared their faith in the resurrection of Christ.

No wonder they spoke of the persecutions as giant waves threatening any moment to swamp the boat carrying the disciples across the Sea of Galilee. The disciples were certain that the Lord was asleep, that he would not save them. In other words, the first evangelists acknowledged that the church was rocked with doubts.

In the final Gospel to be written for the church, St. John brings this doubting into the very heart of the Easter mystery — and into the very centre of the church’s life, into the apostolic college itself.

John has his reasons for bringing doubt right into the story of the Lord’s passover from death to life. Just as death is no longer an evil but a necessary step to true life, so too is doubt.

Doubt and questioning make us part with empty certitude, with childish or shallow belief, to accept a faith that cuts much more deeply into our lives.

Making an evil out of questioning and doubting is usually a self-defence against a call to a faith which would summon us to a new level of existence.

But rather than move on to a new maturity of expression in our faith, our age is tempted to espouse fundamentalism.

We saw in the bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City that fundamentalism is a problem not only for the Muslims; it is finding radical expression within Christianity too. Nor should we forget that Catholics are well-represented in the militia movement in the United States, and that the first suspect to be apprehended for the bombing was a Catholic.

St. John would have nothing to do with the certitude of fundamentalism. His Easter story of the Doubting Thomas reminds us that what we have not doubted is usually not worth believing.

We should not overlook the process whereby Thomas came to faith in the lordship and divinity of Christ.

The apostle had to touch the Lord’s flesh. To affirm his divinity Thomas touched human flesh. To affirm his lordship he had to put a finger into the very cause of the death that so puzzled him.

We too will never come to authentic faith, to faith that takes us to the core of our being (and knowledge, no matter how certain, can never do that), until we touch the death about us, till we acknowledge the flesh, the weaknesses that threaten to overwhelm us.

It is this faith that can be of help to the world. Our dogmas, no matter how much truth they contain, will never dazzle the world.

Hayes reminds us that it is only with a maturity in our faith that we can take up the self-effacing task the council gave the church: “to answer the needs of the world, to be the servant of the human family.”