Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Catholics Can’t Think for Themselves

There is a common objection to the Catholic Church that can catch an apologist off-guard because it is less about what we believe than how we believe. It can come, in different forms, from humanists, Protestants, and even from lapsed or cafeteria Catholics: Catholics can’t think for themselves.

When I converted I heard through the grapevine that some of my acquaintances were saying I joined the Catholic Church “to get answers to all his questions.” The implication was that I didn’t have the courage to deal with unanswered questions. Or you often hear the claim, “I want to think for myself. I don’t want my opinions handed to me on a silver platter.” The implication is that Catholics are too lazy—or too dumb—to think for themselves.

I heard an anecdote of a Catholic who was stunned into silence when suddenly asked, “Do you really believe everything the Church teaches?” The root idea here is that one is better off relying only on what one’s own mind can understand without relying on authority or tradition. This idea is one hundred percent wrong of course, but defenders of the faith must do a better job of explaining why.

How does the faithful Catholic answer the gibe, “You just want answers to your questions”? First, by saying, “Of course I do.” Going to a church that does not claim to have answers is like going to a restaurant that does not claim to have food. The table settings and the ambiance may be lovely, but the main ingredient—indeed, its raison d’etre—is missing. Moreover, the notion that one flees to the Catholic Church because life there is safer, tidier, or calmer is laughable. The Catholic Church not only has the challenges all churches have, it has more challenges since, because of its unyielding moral principles, it is on the front lines of controversy. And how “safe” is belief in a Virgin Birth? How “tidy” is the belief that a dead man, bloodied and broken on a cross, got up and walked out of his tomb?

A deeper answer is required to the statement, “I want to think for myself; I don’t want my opinions handed to me on a silver platter.” First of all, most of us are quite happy to use things we don’t fully understand, from our computers to our toasters. Indeed, human beings never start from scratch. The evangelical Protestant must eventually turn to his Bible; the humanist will inevitably pull out Darwin’s The Origin of Species or at least The New York Times. Human beings, if they use language and interact with other human beings—in other words, if they are human—use things handed on to them.

There is a special problem for the Christian who “wants to think for himself.” The key events and truths of Christianity happened or were proclaimed two thousand years ago, and many of them cannot be reproduced. For example, how can one person, thinking for himself and by himself, prove the truth of the Resurrection? Neither experience nor logic can help us: If we accept the Resurrection, we are, like it or not, accepting the experience of the apostles and the thinking of the Church for fifteen centuries. (Notice that I am not saying the Resurrection cannot be examined by reason, but only that reason must begin its work with the testimony of the apostles.)

Moreover, one human mind cannot on its own come up with the key teachings of Christianity. They all arose out of the collective accumulation of wisdom of Catholic Church, from the apostles through the Church fathers. It has become jargon to say that something is a “team effort,” but the key doctrines of Christianity are exactly that. The point is that this kind of “thinking for myself” inevitably cuts one off from Christianity. To proclaim that you believe only in what you can think of yourself is to cut the connection to Jesus Christ.

This is a key point for the apologist: The Church does not keep its people from thinking, it enables them to think in a much more profound way than ever before. The Church’s answers do not end questions, they give us the resources to ask the really important questions. The nun who helped bring me into the Church pointed out that the mysteries of the faith are not black holes unknowable to thought; they are rather such rich and profound experiences that we can never reach the end of thinking about them. The Catholic is not immune to doubts and questions; he has, however, an infinite array of resources to help him work on the answers.

What do we say when someone asks, “Do you believe everything the Church teaches?” Of course we say “yes,” but we need to be clear on what that means. It must be remembered that the teachings of the Catholic Church are far more than could be put on a T-shirt or bumper sticker. I have on my desk a catalog from Ignatius Press, a Catholic book publisher. Just one of the books listed in it is Butler’s Live of the Saints, which tells of the lives of 2,565 holy men and women. Another offering is St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica—all 3,104 pages of it. Another offering is a CD-ROM with the complete writings of the early church fathers: 16,000 pages of text with 60,000 footnotes. When we think of the countless other sources of the faith’s teachings, it is obvious that the teachings of Catholic Church can never be fully comprehended by one human being. Our minds are too small, our lives too short, and the Church too ancient and too vast.

Moreover, the truths the Catholic Church teaches are not simple. They are so profound and rich that perhaps only a few saints fully comprehend them on this earth. It is true that in today’s world of the sound bite and the slogan, at times this must seem to the apologist to be a disadvantage. What we need to remember is that Catholic belief does not consist of understanding everything the Church teaches, but of affirming it and pledging one’s life on the quest to understand it and, more important, live it. The Church’s teachings are not sound bites or slogans; some are mysteries so full of wonders that in this life we can only begin to plumb them.

The Church does not confine a person, it helps him grow. The Catholic thinks for himself but has the privilege of connecting that thinking to the work of great philosophers, holy men and women, and ordinary people from all over the planet. The Church does not prohibit us from thinking; it merely asks that we not hoard our thinking, but rather contribute it to the great storehouse of thinking that is the Church.

What if a skeptic thinks we are being cowardly? We must point out that thinking with the Church is not a flight from risk. The safest course of action is to hide on the desert island of one’s own self. In thinking for ourselves we sentence ourselves to solitary confinement of the self; in thinking with the Church we are equipped, we are accompanied, on the great quest for answers.

I think we Catholics need to keep all this in mind whenever humanists, Protestants, or cafeteria Catholics come up with comments about “thinking for myself.” Perhaps we can say, “I do think for myself, along with great saints and philosophers. Yes, I like having answers, especially answers that help me explore the ultimate mysteries of the cosmos. And I do believe it all, so much so that I have joined all the saints in the dangerous but thrilling quest to find out about it. Want to join me?”

Most of all, we have to remember that the Catholic way of thinking is a more fascinating and fruitful way of thinking than just thinking for one’s self.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!Donatewww.catholic.com/support-us