Santa Clara University


Survival Guide for Thinking Catholics: Ten tips from Tom Reese, S.J.

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Not all Catholics agree with the Church all the time, and Tom Reese, S.J., will tell you there is no point in denying it. Questioning is not, however, something most Catholics undertake lightly. These disagreements are often born out of conscience, of genuinely believing in the faith while believing equally something that is at odds with the accepted teachings of the Church.

Reese, the former editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America, was a visiting scholar at Santa Clara during the 2005-06 academic year. In the Regan lecture delivered on April 26, cosponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Reese outlined his strategies for Catholics who think, question, doubt, debate, and disagree. Here are those strategies in a nutshell:


1. Understand what the Church is actually saying. Is your question the result of a misunderstanding or a true disagreement?

2. Our understanding should be inspired by sympathy, not sarcasm and cynicism. Whatever a person says should be interpreted in the best possible light, which is one of the things St. Ignatius says in his spiritual exercises. If we disagree, we should disagree as friends in the Lord, not as opposing armies of fanatics.

3. You have to do your homework. The issues that face the church today are complex and not solvable through sound bites. As Catholics, we do not believe it is sufficient simply to listen to the Pope and ignore scripture, but nor do we believe it is sufficient to simply read the scriptures in isolation from the believing community. For us, conscience is important—but it must be an informed conscience.

4. We are a believing community with 2,000 years of tradition and history. We need to know our history—our triumphs and our failures, our saints and our sinners. A study of history helps us take the long view. Things have been worse, things can get better. For example, prior to the 20th century, a Catholic understanding of the Bible appeared to be in conflict with science. Today, contemporary biblical scholarship not only has eliminated this conflict, but helped us to better understand the Bible. Imagine what is going to be the situation 100 years from now as people look back on our time. How many of our theological debates and doubts will seem as silly as those caused among Christians when they discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa?

5. It is important to distinguish between law and doctrine. If you are a conservative and want a return to the pre Vatican II liturgy, don’t let anyone tell you that you are a heretic. If you are a liberal and believe that married men should be ordained, don’t let anyone tell you that you are a heretic. The question of married priests, the question of Latin in the liturgy, these are not doctrinal issues. These are matters of canon law and liturgical law. Laws have changed over time, laws can change again.

6. Understand the level of authority of a doctrinal position with which you disagree. Popes have only made two infallible declarations since Vatican I, the time when the infallibility of the Pope was defined: on the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. Some people tend to give all Vatican statements a definitive or infallible status, and that is just not the case.

Today we see that even longstanding teachings of the church can sometimes change. The church now teaches that capital punishment is wrong, whereas for centuries it had no problem with it; in fact, popes executed people in the papal states. Likewise, the Church is rethinking its position on limbo. Most theologians now believe that unbaptised children go to heaven. This is not what I learned in the Baltimore catechism.

7. Know how to interpret the words in doctrinal statements. Catholics in the last generation have learned from scripture scholars that it is a mistake to understand the bible in a fundamentalist way. It is important to study the historical and cultural context of the writing, the literary style, and the audience to which it was addressed. The same is true of doctrinal statements. When a Vatican document says that homosexuals are intrinsically “disordered,” we tend to think of this as a psychological description, whereas the authors meant it as a philosophical description. You may still disagree, but it is important to understand what you are disagreeing with.

8. Sometimes the Church uses words that are open to multiple interpretations as a way of covering over differences and maintaining unity. This was certainly done at the second Vatican council. Paul VI wanted documents approved by what amounted to almost unanimity. Compromise and ambiguity were important to gain conservative votes. Problems arise today when this historical fact is ignored and conservatives go back and give unambiguous interpretations to words and phrases that were purposely ambiguous at the time.

9. In my parents’ day there were only two options when facing questions about your faith: “Accept what the Church says or leave.” This is more an Irish or Northern European response than a Catholic response. Certainly this is not the way Italians and Africans live their faith. Italians pick and choose just like the classic cafeteria Catholics in the United States. The only difference is Italians don’t question the Church’s authority publicly; they simply ignore it and do what they want. The response is much more cultural than theological.

10. We need to recognize there will always be disagreements in the Church because there have always been disagreements in the Church. The Acts of the Apostles discloses that Paul disagreed with Peter at the council of Jerusalem. What I find so delightful in this story is that the disagreement was resolved through a compromise: Gentiles would not have to be circumcised, but they would have to refrain from blood sacrifice to idols (no longer a problem) and from adultery (still somewhat of a problem).

In the Catholic Church, we believe that an informed conscience is our highest authority. We also believe in the importance of humility. One must pray not simply for the conversion of ones’ opponents, but for the conversion of oneself. Despite their weakness and sinfulness, Christians have faith in the word of God that shows them the way. Christians have hope, based on Christ’s victory over sin and death and his promise of the spirit. And Christians have love, that inspires them to forgiveness and companionship at the Lord’s table. Any survival strategy for thinking Catholics must be based on the virtues of faith, hope, and love.


Though much of the attention is on liberal Catholics urging the Vatican to allow female priests or birth control, questioning is hardly limited to one’s political alignment. From condoms to illegal immigration, the Church has taken many unpopular stands. Indeed, it would be hard for any organization with hundreds of millions of constituents in dozens of countries to be universally popular. Additionally, as Reese said, “a questioning mind is fostered by our education and the very culture we live in. It is part of who we are and we cannot run away from it.” That applies to all people, not just Americans, Democrats, reactionaries, or radicals.

Do you agree with the arguments Reese presents? Care to take issue? Join our online discussion.

Comments on Thomas Reese S.J. s guidelines for thinking

carry on!
Posted by gail risch
Date: Oct-19-2006 at 9:16 AM
Tom's tips are superb. Many thinking persons can grasp and appreciate each point Tom makes, but many others may need further explication and encouragement.

Further elaboration on each point is needed! Carry on in every possible format and publication.

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