The Bishop's Bulletin

Does the Church allow me to think for myself?

Question

I have relatives who are Catholic but don’t go to Church anymore because they claim that they want to be able to think for themselves. How can I respond to them?

Answer

Unfortunately, this is a very common objection many people raise against the Catholic Church; you’ll hear it from inactive Catholics, other Christians and atheists. As is so often the case, however, the reality is very different from the perception.

The Catholic Church doesn’t shrink from critical thinking. Just ask the Belgian priest Monsignor Georges Lemaitre who was a professor of physics and the first to propose the Big Bang theory.

One thing that must be noted up front is that the stated desire of this objection is sound: it’s a good thing to want to think for yourself and not merely follow another person blindly. The reality, however, is it is actually far easier to think for yourself within the Catholic Church than outside it.

As much as we might like to believe we are all autonomous individuals who do what and only what we choose, the reality is we are all influenced to some degree by people and events around us. The question we must ask ourselves is this: in what environment are we most encouraged to think critically, to stop, step back, and reflect upon our lives and the choices and decisions we make?

As counterintuitive as it may seem to some, the Catholic Church is more demanding in this regard than is the prevailing culture around us. In fact, major aspects of our culture actually attempt to stifle our desire to think critically. Consider the advertising industry as an easy and obvious example: companies with products to sell hire advertising firms precisely to get us to act on impulse rather than to think critically about our purchases. This is just one example of how our culture discourages critical thought.

One might object, though, that this is no proof the Catholic Church is any better, and that’s true. The initial objection holds that Catholics are simply supposed to do whatever our priest, bishop and pope tell us to do, without questioning or thinking. Again, the reality is very different from the perception.

Does the Church hold that her teachings are the teachings of Jesus Christ? Yes. Does the Church hold that Catholics are obligated to acknowledge and believe in her teachings? Yes, precisely because they are the teachings of Jesus Christ. Does this mean Catholics are called to be mindless robots? Absolutely not.

As it turns out, following Jesus Christ and His teachings as we find them in the Church actually requires we use our intellect, and in turn, following Him and His teachings will in fact free our minds rather than numb them.

Remember how Jesus answered the question about which of the commandments is the greatest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37; emphasis added) Or consider the words of St. Paul which he wrote to the Christians in Rome: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2; emphasis added)

The fact is, the Church—following Jesus Himself—encourages us to understand why we believe what we believe and do what we do. As I never tire of saying, “why?” is my favorite question: I love to intellectually explore the teachings of the Church, and I’ve found that I will never, ever exhaust that exploration. When my faith was awakened as a college student, I rejoiced to discover there is no question which the Church is afraid of or shrinks from. To the contrary, she practically begs us to more deeply understand her teachings, because doing so allows us to live them more fully.

It’s also worth taking note of the intellectual history of humanity: many of the greatest thinkers who have lived were devout Catholics. Did they have to check their brains at the church door? Of course not; in fact, many of them said being Catholic made them greater thinkers.

Finally, it’s worth noting that oftentimes what underlies the objection raised in this question is a doubt or denial that what the Church teaches are actually the teachings of Jesus Christ. We’ll answer that question in next month’s column.

Be sure to check out the additional resources at sfcatholic.org/answer. If you have a question you need an answer to, email rkranz@sfcatholic.org.

Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of Adult Discipleship and Evangelization for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.