Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?
Published on: August 15, 2012
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  • John Barker

    This is an eloquent piece that looks at seemingly unrelated events and ideas and points out their similarity in a profound and unexpected conclusion. I wonder if there will be a similar piece about the core differences between Reform Judaism and Liberal Protestantism, or Evangelicalism and Conservative Judaism.

  • Patrick

    As a life-long Catholic and ne from a family of Catholics which goes back at least 17 centuries, I have to agree with Peter Berger that the current Church leadership is stifling religious freedom within the Church in an attempt to roll back the necessary changes of Vatican II. The questioning mind is often the fertile place where the faithful Church member trys to make sense of the core of basic Church teachings in the modern world without fear – which nevers comes from God but can come from an overly controlling Church authority.

  • thibaud

    Can you be a conservative Catholic and a devotee of Ayn Rand?

    That is, and still be taken seriously?

  • Dave

    @thibaud: that depends if you’re devoted to her atheism or her economic conservatism. I am catholic and a student of the latter.

  • Ronald Sevenster

    Freedom of religion within the Church is a contradiction in the very terms. The Church is itself one of the existing religions and those who cannot agree with the Church’s teachings should leave it. This is a free country. Nobody is forced to remain a member of religious organization against his own will. Catholics who are serious about their faith should subject themselves to the Church’s authority in matters of faith and morals.

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  • @ Thibaud:

    Ridiculous comment. Do you have to be a Hindu to learn from the teachings of Gandhi?

    There are many good and useful things to be found in many different and conflicting philosophies. Open your mind.

  • Assunta di Laura

    Yes, and even ad alta voce.

    Buon Giorno, Erasmus!

    Courage to admit the promptings of conscience and a desire for the Grace that bids us not to make of them a Utilitarian bludgeon.

    If Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity, if He has Ascended, if we are to one day know Him, then it’s imperative that we not pretend that lust for our preferred status-quo bear His imprimatur.

    “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”

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  • Rob

    Very interesting spin on some very interesting people and events. As an American, raised Catholic, dissented Agnostic, of all major religions I’ve had the most difficult time grasping the Protestant perspective, which on one side has much appeal, however in the United States it seems even less personal and more conforming and institutional group than modern Christianity (unless you get excommunicated of course) Even to the point of indoctrinating politics and consolidating major power in the American landscape to it’s leaders. I just don’t see the connection with it’s anti-authoritarian Reformation history, which is often a source of pride. Please don’t think I’m being antagonistic, I’m in the Northeast, and have little experience with the Protestant movements but would really like to understand the worldview.

  • Rob

    sorry – more conforming than modern Catholicism

  • Rob

    @ Thibaud: I’ve struggled with the same exact question. And I find it puzzling why more people don’t see some MAJOR clashes in the two philosophies. Unless your personal understand differs from the usual…Brotherly love, compassion and rejecting greed and even materialism seem to be core to Catholicism but Objectivism is full blown, cynical game theory, styled as Survival of the fittest…Valid question, no??

  • Usbek de Perse

    @Dave @Silverfiddle the question is, and on this I am no expert, how does Ayn Rand’s atheism support her economic conservatism, and how one can or can’t derive economic conservatism from the Christian message. One can more easily derive a liberal economic outlook from our Lord’s command to “feed my sheep”. On this, the magisterium of the Catholic Church tends to agree. I must add that this command does not, by itself, justify socialism as it has become manifest i practice.

  • Joe DeVet

    Patrick, I don’t think that’s what Peter Berger is saying.

    What he did say is that the characterization by Sr Farrell (by her question) is wrong. The Church does not stifle inquisitive minds, but does have the authority (and I would say, the duty) to confront false doctrine such as what Sr Farrell and like-minded members of various orders, have been dishing out for many years.

    Pursuing this sort of discipline benefits us all, by restoring clarity on important matters. If anything, the current round of discipline, led by Abp Sartain, is too long in coming. It is surely not the same thing as stifling inquisitive minds, as the author quite appropriately points out.

  • Rob


    Acceptance of religious authority besides God/Jesus ie: the papacy, cardinals, bishops etc with lay exclusion from interpretation and preaching, participating is one, if not the biggest, difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants ( generally speaking ) At least that’s how I understand it.

  • Rob

    @Usbek de Perse
    I think it’s reasonable to see how some might interpret communal living/intentional communities, liberation theology and even many Marxist ideas ( aside from the Soviet Atheism obviously ) from Biblical sources, specifically the New Testament parables of Jesus. I personally don’t find it appealing, but there are clearly some parallels. And in the cold war-era, although strongly anti-communist, the two ideas always fit quite comfortably in my mind. Just curious but why do you find it far-fetched?

  • Assunta di Laura

    It’s not possible to get Jesus to rally to your side.

    The call to feed his sheep may involve food but only following the sheep being taught that He Is The Resurrection and the Life.

    Obama was stating the obvious when he called Jesus “ambiguous.”

    When he had the chance to refuse an anointing of his feet so that the expensive oil used could be sold and the funds redistributed to the poor, he rejected the call.

    He was quite harsh with the Syprophoenician woman when he asked her, why he should give to the dogs what belonged to the children?

    It’s impossible to pin him to a way of life or government. He seems to want to overturn any standing order. The economic order, family order, etc.

    Like the lady’s breasts? How about you poke an eye out?

    He’s not ours to whore out.

  • Kris

    “There is indeed a Christian tradition which puts conscience (though as guided by God’s Word) over the authority of the Church. This tradition is known as Protestantism.”


  • Marty

    Clearly there is a difference between merely “questioning” Church teachings and overtly acting against them. Sincere questioning – asking, seeking to understand one’s relationship with humanity and ultimately with God can be positive and fulfilling. But acting defiantly against well-established tenets of Catholicism by one who freely chooses to be Catholic (i.e. any of the individuals in your examples in the article) let alone encourages others to join in the defiance – ought to be labeled what it is: insincere, arrogant, and sad.

  • Chuck

    The LCWR (Leadership Conference of woman religious) the catholic group of nuns the liberal National Catholic Reporter supports has an average age in the 70’s and is the umbrella organization for around 48,000 nuns. The CMSWR (Council of Major superiors of Women Religious) was started 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II as an alternative leadership organization for those religious communities that felt betrayed by the LCWR. The CMSWR is much smaller (8,000) than the LCWR but has an average age in the 30’s and is loyal to the Catholic Church. Guess which will survive? The age structure of the liberal LCWR is fatal. All it takes is the passage of time and the LCWR is gone. The only questions are these two. Who will be the last geriatric nun in each LCWR order to shut off the lights and who will own the property? Perhaps Planned Parenthood will find some use for those defunct LCWR buildings.

  • Peter Barlow

    Dear Mr Berger,

    Regarding Vatican II, to which you refer in your article: the Council did not advocate the vernacular mass, at least not the Novus Order mass that has since the 60s replaced the Tridentine Rite in most churches.

    The Council wanted a reform, but not the removal of the ancient liturgy. It may have encouraged the use of the vernacular, but was in no way interested, formally, in changing the form of the Mass.

    Archbishop Lefebvre was driven as much by the Council’s decree on religious liberty as anything else to found the Society and to move in the directions that he did. He participated in the Council, as did Pope Benedict XVI. Contrary to what you write, the priestly actions of Society priests were not invalidated. At no point were masses said by Society priests deemed not to be true masses (actual consecration and transubstantiation).

    Your rather timid approach to the central question “Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?” would be amusing were it not indicative of a sad misunderstanding of history. Catholicism has been riddled with questioning minds, starting with St Paul and the apostles, right down to our time. While you seem to be aware of a distinction between questioning and blunt rebellion, you appear to conflate the two. Questioning means just that. But the LCWR in stating propositions is not questioning. It is not asking, for example, “Why can women not be ordained”, it is saying “The Church should ordain women”. The latter is not a question. Nor is liberation theology an example of questioning. Both examples are more a case of “non serviam”, and we know where that started, and what its fruits are.

    You make the point that the Church cannot allow fragmentation, and must insist on obedience to the Magisterium — quite rightly. But is this so odd, or even worth discussing? Any organisation requires its members to follow certain rules, practices and customs. For example, if members of the armed forces started calling for institutional pacifism, and saying that it was time to end the emphasis on warfare that had so thoroughly characterised the armed forces, would we discuss the dissidents with any seriousness, or would we not simply suggest that they leave the armed forces?

    As you say, though I think some would differ, the tradition of putting private conscience above Church authority is protestant. Let the sisters, the liberation theologians and others like them leave the church. But let us not dignify willful dissent and self-motivated calls for “questioning” by confusing them with legitimate debate over doctrinal and pastoral precepts.

  • brad

    What one thinks of the Catholic Church or (corrected post)religion is irrelevant. This issue of “dissent”‘ has been at work in the laboratory of Western culture for some time now. Dissent from previous established norms in religion, politics, law, finance, social/business contracts, sexuality, etc. has produced, for good or bad (if those descriptors are still applicable post-modern 21 Century) its results

  • Chuck

    Dear Doctor Berger

    This has nothing to do with this article. I commented already on that in #20. Rather, it has some comments/questions I want to pass on to Dr. Berger and have no other way I can do that.
    1) What is the year of your interview, “Epistemology Modesty?” The match with late 1960’s Catholic seminaries was perfect. There was psychology as a substitute for religious faith and that was followed by liberation theology. The seminaries emptied. 2) In Praise of Doubt was excellent. I noted also your comments on page 66 “We are not constructivists.” 3) I know you have to pay the bills by writing, but Your Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist is a riot to read and fills in information about your life that is reflected in you many books. 4) Your Questions of Faith I found brutally honest. 5) “The tribe is in a state of Crisis” in Sociology Reinterpreted still makes me laugh and that is from decades ago. 6) I grieve the loss of the “debunking quality of sociology.” 7) Lastly, I almost gave up on you with the Sacred Canopy, but your follow up with a Rumor of Angels got me hooked. That is a long time ago!

  • Patrick

    A great many institutions of various kinds manage to exist without insisting on unchallengeable authority. Certainly some sort of Church could exist without such claims. Of course the idea that the magisterium is absolute comes from…the magisterium. It is a proposition you have to already believe in order to have evidence for. While Rome has at least attempted to maintain control, with varying degrees of success, since at least the Great Schism, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the church deified the magisterial authority with the explicit dogma of infallibility.

    It’s serendipitous that so many commenters want to talk about the more philosophically dogmatic forms of capitalist ideology.

    Adam Smith and Rome after all, have the same central premise. That fallible, self interested people working to preserve and enlarge their own power will through Divine Sleight of Hand produce the perfected will of God. Capitalists don’t need to let their humanity interfere with their exploitation of their workers, nor do Bishops need concern themselves with challenges to their existing agenda by voices denied access to Church power. God will sort it out.

    Now if only those who are supposed to crushed so they can be properly sorted, would just stop arguing about it, like good workers/Catholics.

  • ThomasD

    The Catholic doctrine of free will is very well developed, and an essential part of the faith. I am of the mind that, while not essential to Catholicism, it can be of great spiritual benefit to possess and utilize a questioning mind.

    Unfortunately this also means that, at the intersection of free will and human fallibility, some will go astray.

  • R.C.

    I’m puzzled by Patrick’s statement; or else, he is confused in making it:

    “As a life-long Catholic and one from a family of Catholics which goes back at least 17 centuries, I have to agree with Peter Berger that the current Church leadership is stifling religious freedom within the Church in an attempt to roll back the necessary changes of Vatican II.”

    Peter Berger never said that. Perhaps he meant to imply it, but if so, he implied it far too obliquely for me to detect it.

    Moreover, the Church cannot roll back Vatican II; it’s an ecumenical council properly called in union with the successor of Peter.

    However, we must be aware of two things:

    1. Of the reams of pages coming from Vatican II, not all of the text promulgates doctrine in such a way as to require assent from the faithful. There is some which is not dogmatic or doctrinal, but pertains to discipline (a thing changeable) or even mere expressions of hopes, intents, and ideals.

    2. Of the portion of the text which promulgates doctrine in such a way as to require assent; most of it can be interpreted in two ways, either as a new teaching contradicting dogmatic teachings of earlier eras, or as a fresh retelling of the earlier teachings, using new analogies and depictions for clarity’s sake, which in no way contradicts the earlier teachings.

    3. Of these two possible interpretations, the former would of course falsify the truth of the Catholic faith and thus may not be held by any Catholic. The latter interpretative approach, called the “Hermeneutic of Continuity,” is obligatory for faithful Catholics.

    It is important to understand all of that, Patrick, so as to understand the following:


    The classic example of folk exercising a Hermeneutic of Rupture is any group (dissenting theologians, dissenting nuns, dissenting priests, dissenting laity) who elevate their consciences to the status of an alternative Magisterium in areas about which the Magisterium has already ruled definitively, and claim that Vatican II somehow authorizes them to do so.

    This is truly a limitation: One may be a faithful Catholic and still speculate wildly, or even state a firmly held opinion, on an doctrinal issue about which the Catholic Magisterium has not ruled. But about a topic on which the Magisterium has ruled, one may speculate wildly only about why the Magisterium’s teaching is correct. One may express a troubled mind. One may wonder how it could be correct. One may admit bafflement. But to knowingly state a firmly held opinion that the Magisterium is WRONG is to contradict the Catholic faith, and thereby to become non-Catholic.

    Even this, of course, is not a compulsory kind of limitation to free thought. It is a limitation which the thinker himself imposes if he desires to remain Catholic. If he is willing to give that up, then it is no limitation at all.

  • R.C.

    To add to my previous post:

    I do not see how it can possibly be argued that the existence of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium has any limiting effect on religious freedom.

    The Magisterium has, so far as I can detect, a sole effect on the world; that of informing the world as to what the Catholic faith is.

    And that is a very freeing thing.

    To understand why, consider an analogy:

    A person who would use language to communicate with freedom depends on words having definitions. If he speaks or writes in a language wherein the words have no fixed definitions, precise or even approximate, then he cannot say anything and have any confidence that his thought has been received by his audience.

    He might think his freedom enhanced by his having the power to change the definitions of words so that they meant whatever he wished. But in this he would be in error, for two reasons: (1.) His freedom would not be enhanced by such a power, because he already has the power to invent new words to which to attach any new definition he might conceive, thus permitting him to convey any thought he wishes; and, (2.) His having the power to change definitions would necessarily imply that everyone else had the same power, which in turn would prevent words from having any reliable definitions, which in turn would prevent him communicating his thought reliably, thus restricting his freedom.

    So by having words with fixed definitions, he has the maximum possible freedom. He may still coin words if he likes, while still communicating his thought using the existing lexicon if he likes, and knowing that in either case he will be understood. (So long as he kindly defines for his audience any newly-minted terms.)

    So it is with the Catholic Magisterium. It tells us what is and is not Catholic. This grants us the ability to be Catholic, or not, as we choose, and KNOW that we are or are not Catholic. It is up to us, so we have lost no freedom through compulsion. We have only gained freedom through the illumination of boundaries, the picking out of contours and demarcations.

    Of any person who says, “I want freedom to think the Eucharist is purely symbolic without having any unique supernatural presence of Christ and still be Catholic,” we can only ask whether they are less free because they cannot simultaneously paint their walls entirely white and entirely black. The fact that A is not the same as Not-A in no way impedes our freedom; the fact that nonsense is nonsense does not chain us.

    Having made that point clearly, I have one final point: If one has true premises upon which to build, one who is insightful can draw fresh conclusions never previously drawn by anyone else. (It is much like what scientists say about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”)

    I said that the Magisterium is a freeing thing inasmuch as it helps us know what is or is not Catholic. I also think it is an enabling thing, for without it, we would constantly have to re-question the foundations of Catholic theology and would have no firm foundation of known premises upon which to reason our way to fresh conclusions.

    But because certain premises are defined as “Catholic” in a fixed way, a Catholic theologian is enabled to “stand on its shoulders” and derive fresh insights.

    I fancy this is why, when I moved from Evangelical theology to Catholic, I found myself nearly drowning in a fathomless ocean of theology seemingly out-of-proportion to the difference between the ages of the two traditions. If the Evangelical Protestantism of my upbringing (for which I am today thankful and have no desire to disparage) is around 500 years old, and Catholicism at most four times larger, I would have expected at most four times as much depth. But I find it is at least forty times deeper, if there is any bottom to be found.

    But my guess is that is what you can do, if you can settle some matters and move on to others without having to constantly revisit what is settled. The fresh insights are truly fresh, not mere repeats of old errors in fresh disguise, for the old errors are ruled out by definition.

    So, for what it’s worth, I find the Magisterium both freeing and enabling. I don’t disparage the experiences of others who disagree, but I wanted to register my experience. It is at least as valid, I think!

  • Jim.

    Of course you can be Catholic and questioning. Just don’t be surprised when the Pope (or Scripture, for Protestants) has answers, and don’t be surprised if you don’t like those answers.

    Many people also went away from Jesus troubled, after he answered their questions.

    Further, don’t be surprised if people question whether you’re truly Catholic (or Christian) if you separate yourself from those authorities (the Pope, or Scripture) by disagreeing.

  • Fat Dave

    I can only speak to American Catholicism, but after forty years of poor catechesis, and clergy and religious preaching against the magisterium of the Church, the Church has to crack down on these groups. People are leaving the Faith in droves for other denominations. As many have said already in the comments, there is a difference between questioning the Faith and protesting it. I’d go even further to say that much of the harm that has come to the Church in the last few decades is due to clergy and religious not only protesting the Church, but even more insidiously teaching their personal beliefs as if they were Church dogma. I know my Diocese could use a little Inquisition (but then who would we have left to staff our Chancery?).

  • Fat Dave

    All Roman Catholics should examine their consciences. As Archbishop Martin of Dublin has repeated preached, if you find the Church in violation of your convictions, you need to have the courage to leave the Church.

  • fred

    A vibrant Catholic Church (as presently ordered, that is, centered on clergy) is disappearing in Western Europe and Latin America. The discipline of the Church now depends on Clergy for its maintanance.

    Vatican II encouraged Laity to take a more active role in the church. This is now being stifled. We are never going to return to a time when priests were plentiful. The church needs to listen to all of its members, or it will be reduced to irrelevance. Schism isn’t the issue: spiritual and intellectual atrophy is.

  • Josephine Stevens

    Interesting article – one thing the writer did not understand – Vatican II did not come about because of a whim of a Pope – it came about because my forebears raised questions and challenged Church “authority’ so much that the Pope listened and things were then changed. It is only through continual dialogue and challenges by the vox populi that things are changed. We are currently challenging the emphatic celibacy of the clergy. We will eventually see the return of married priests. Maybe not in my lifetime – but it will happen in my children’s lifetime. The Church is also made up of ‘people’ and they are not infallible. Also the teaching of the Church is not infallible but for a good explanation of this see:

  • Albert

    The suggestion that if one disagrees with a teaching of the Church, ten that person should leave the Church seems to me to be quite surprising. The faith is something that is dynamic. It does not stand still and be seen to be out of tune with humanity. AS humans become more aware of life within the divine, then it is impossible for the “old” teachings of the Church to be a restraint on a dynamic faith.For example the teaching of Paul takes into account the fact seen by Paul to be basic fact. This includes matters such as the reality of Adam and Eve; the fact of Original sin and so forth. We now know that the story of Adam and Eve is merely the old understanding of how humanity came into being.It is imperative that the faith is not caught in a mudbank of old fashioned ideas but comes alive to recognise reality.

  • Bebe

    This post initially troubled me. I was not schooled by Roman Catholic sisters who instilled in me the typical “pray, pay, and obey” of many American Roman Catholics. And the Magisterium was never presented as the only course, but rather just the safest rhumb line. Yet the history of the Roman Catholic Church is not one of safe harbors, but of rocky shoals and wind-blown seas. The beauty of the Church in the Renaissance lies in the contradictions: for Jesus taught not to allow the right hand to know what the left does. If you would lie only at calm moorings, then it is well to cast your anchor by whatever the pope says. Nevertheless, one’s life voyage must encounter storms and strike out into open seas. The Roman Catholic Church has no need of the heresy of “Roma locuta, causa finita”- it remains itself without that stultifying Roman legalism. One need never fear losing sight of land for the charts of the Church doctors, saints, and mystics unroll before you. At the end of the voyage, I shall be judged by the Creator. That judgment will not state how well I kept obedience to the Magisterium rulebook, but how well I heeded Matthew 25:40.

    I had to laugh at the excruciating correctness of nearly all the male posters who clambered over each other to bow low to the Magisterium and its concomitant papal infallibility. And especially at the ones who evinced the thin smirk of misogyny. Only the two female posters got it right: a church clergy comprised of male bachelors who are quick to use and then cast aside the women members (including the sisters and nuns) is not worthy to enter under the roofs of those women. Tell me: who saw the Risen Christ first?

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