Category Archives: Passing on the faith

Faith and Doubt

Moderator introduction: I’m please to introduce guest blogger Thomas Savoie. Like his name sake and and 20th great uncle Thomas Aquinas, he reminds us that reason and a searching intellect go hand in hand with us on our journey of faith.

 

The Nature of Faith and Doubt

Intellectual pain is an underrated cost of following Christ.   If I didn’t care about following Christ, I wouldn’t care so much about being honest, seeking truth, facing reality.   I would be more tempted to simply go with the flow, take the easy way, and maybe anesthetize my intellectual pain instead of persevering through it toward the truth.”                                                                                                                                                                                                    —Brian Mc Laren

Introduction

Among the more troubling aspects of my Catholic faith have been my misunderstandings and confusion concerning the nature of Faith and Doubt.  I believed that my doubts weakened my soul, displeased God, and hindered my quest for salvation.  Others around me didn’t seem to experience the number of doubts, disbelief and turmoil in their faith life that I did.  As a child I believed everything I thought Catholicism told me to believe.  How and why did my faith get so far off track?  I began to believe that my lack of faith put my soul in jeopardy.

About two years ago I resolved to carefully examine my beliefs on faith and doubt through a structured reading plan.  I’ve read much of the Catholic Catechism; Catholic Doctrine; Catholic Dogma; and the writings of theologians, early Church Fathers, and contemporary authors.  I learned that many of my assumptions about Faith and Doubt were just flat wrong.  My troubled attitude towards my faith began to lift.

This blog article is a humble attempt to summarize what I’ve taken away from my reading program.  I offer no assurances that the Church would agree with all my findings.  Nor do I recommend you accept my conclusions without doing your own “due diligence”.  If this blog article causes you to prayerfully reflect on your own Catholic beliefs, then publishing this article in Joe’s blog will have been worth my effort.

This article uses a Question and Answer format.  I wanted the article to be an easy but thought-provoking read.  I hope I’ve succeeded.   Your questions and comments are always appreciated.

Q  What conclusions did you find most surprising in your study of faith and doubt?

  1. First, both experts and lay people offer widely differing views concerning the nature of faith and doubt. Some theologians, clergy and religious authors appear to draw opposite conclusions concerning the nature of Faith and Doubt.  Catholic laity seems to largely rely on grade school religious education to support their adult beliefs.
  2. Second, some Christians, particularly Christian Fundamentalists, consider doubt to be the work of the devil and a hallmark of a troubled or weak faith. Some preach that doubt is something to be cast out if one wants to attain salvation.  Through my studies I now believe every man or woman has experienced doubt as a part of their faith journey.  Popes, saints, even Jesus Christ, struggled with doubt.  St. Teresa of Calcutta suffered spiritual torment and feelings of abandonment by God for nearly 50 years.   During Christ’s anguished night before His death He prayed “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Later, He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Surely we must consider doubt as a benign part of our faith.
  3. Third, doubt can often be a doorway to spiritual growth, but not always. Author Brian McLaren reminds us that all Christians are committed to lifelong spiritual growth. That means five years from now, your set of beliefs will likely be different from today’s set of beliefs. Hopefully your beliefs will be more judiciously considered, more mature, and more balanced. What causes us to examine a belief and test it?  Perhaps it’s that something inside us isn’t at rest about a particular belief … something in you doubts that belief.
  4. Lastly, many Christians (myself included) who professed a strong faith in God, could not list what they consider the most important or essential beliefs of their faith. This begs a question in my mind. Have I carefully considered which specific beliefs of my faith I am totally committed to believe, and those I disbelieve or doubt?

Q  Is faith an emotion?  Is it the same as belief?

Feelings are of no account.  Faith is not a feeling, but an act of will.  God reveals the truth of his love to us and empowers us to believe and trust.  Though love and faith can sometimes spring from the emotions, they are nourished and sustained in the will.  As one author put it “I am not moved by what I see. I am not moved by what I feel. I am moved only by what I believe.”

Faith is a gift of enlightenment given to us by God.  It’s not the same as belief.   Once enlightened, we then choose to believe truths and make them a part of our faith.

Q  Is doubt the “work of the devil”?

Fundamentalists have little tolerance for any doubt and a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. Some Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian authors warn “Christians with doubts are on a sure path to wickedness because doubt is a device of the Devil.  Satan wants to rob us of our faith in the Word of God because it leads us straight into sin. Satan is the source of all doubt.”  Fundamentalist preach a literal translation of the bible.  “Interpreting the Bible is the bane of Fundamentalism and a primary cause of wicked doubts.”

On the other hand, a Second Vatican Council document on Divine Revelation points to the importance of considering history, culture, literary forms and the intentions of the sacred writers when interpreting Scripture.

Most mainstream Christian denominations acknowledge that doubt and imperfect faith are part and parcel of every person’s faith journey, saints included.  And it’s more than just possible, even probable, to have a weak faith and to achieve salvation.

Author Madeline L’engle wroteThose who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of the mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself.”

My conclusion is that doubts do not necessarily endanger your chance for salvation.  As St Augustine wrote, “Doubt is but another element of faith.”

When Thomas the Apostle required forensic proof of Jesus’s resurrection before he’d believe, Jesus showed immense patience and love toward his doubting Thomas.  I am greatly comforted by that, and firmly believe Jesus accepts our doubts with patient love.  I continue to pray that Jesus will gift me with a deeper faith that will reveal over time other beliefs critical to my faith life.

Q  Isn’t doubt a sign of a weak or flawed faith that could cause you the loss of heaven?

As I mentioned earlier, at one time I was plagued by this fear, and I brooded over my many doubts.  Interestingly, most of my serious doubts had little or nothing to do with Catholic dogma.  The majority of my doubts were focused on elements of Church doctrine, i.e. teachings, traditions, papal pronouncements, church rules, and seemingly endless explanations and embellishments of Jesus’ words and actions.

It may be useful at this point to review the differences between doctrine and dogma.   In general, doctrine is comprised of all Church teaching in matters of faith and morals. Dogma is more narrowly defined as that part of doctrine which has been divinely revealed and which the Church has formally defined and declared to be believed as revealed.  An example may illustrate the differences:  Some Catholics have lobbied Rome to elevate Mary’s status beyond Virgin Mother of Jesus.  Some wish Mary to be referred to as the Mother of Salvation, the Co-Redeemer, and the Mediatrix of all Graces.  These titles for Mary are considered by some in the Church to already be a part of Church doctrine.  But the changes haven’t been elevated to Church Dogma.  Supporters say they will not rest until they are successful in their efforts to raise Mary to Co-Redeemer with Jesus.

  1. What are the sources of Catholic Dogma and Catholic Doctrine?

As a result of my study of Faith and Doubt, I’ve tried to narrow what I consider the essential beliefs of Catholicism.  Interestingly, in my opinion, nearly all the essential beliefs are sourced from Church Dogma, the revealed word of God, rather than from Church Doctrine.

The full body of beliefs that define our faith would fill hundreds, if not thousands of volumes.  There is a huge array of sources that have become important for the practicing Catholic to heed.  Sources include Church Dogma and Church Doctrine, with Doctrine being the far more detailed set of the two.  Doctrine includes Church Teachings, Catholic rules, traditions, Pastoral Letters, papal Encyclicals, Papal Bulls, etc.  Conversely, Dogma is the set of beliefs that have been Divinely revealed.  In my opinion, Catholic Dogma comprises most, if not all Catholicism’s most essential core beliefs.

If Catholics simply claim full faith in everything contained in Doctrine and Dogma, without really knowing which specific truths they claim to believe, do they not feel the need for a rational basis for what they claim to believe.   I wonder how many Catholics shrug their shoulders, say that they believe everything a Catholic should believe, and then walk away comforted that they have near perfect faith.   I have come to find it preferable to focus my faith on Catholicism’s most essential core beliefs rather than simply claim that I believe everything the Catholic Church says and teaches.

Q  What specifically does the Church consider the essential elements of Catholic Dogma

The essentials of Church Dogma are, for the most part, clearly laid out for us in clear, concise, terminology.  These are elements of Catholicism that we either fully accept as true and believe, or that we make an explicit act of will to believe.  Further, beyond believing, remember that we are called to live in full accordance with those beliefs.

I’ve made a partial list of dogmatic sources that include essential statements of belief of the Catholic faith.  There are other sources of Dogmatic truths I have not included.  This is just my current list and is enough to fill my plate for the time being.

Some Essential Sources of Dogma:

  1. The New Testament
  2. The Lord’s Prayer
  3. The Nicene Creed
  4. The Apostles Creed
  5. Statement of Faith from the Rite of Catholic Baptism

Celebrant:    Do you reject Satan?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    And all his works?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    And all his empty promises?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    Do you believe in God the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth?                                                                   

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?               

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:   Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:   This is our faith.  This is the faith of the Church.  We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.                                                      All:  Amen

Summary

The New Testament is at the top of my list of sources of Catholic Dogma.  I suggest you reread the four gospels.  They are a treasure trove of dogmatic faith essentials.   As you may know, some New Testament texts are printed with Jesus’ words in a red font.  When you read those words, you are reading our Catholic Dogma.  There are no more essential truths than Jesus’ own words.

I fully embrace the Divinely Revealed Truths of Catholic Dogma as the bedrock of my Catholic faith.  I humbly acknowledge there are parts of Church Doctrine I doubt and that remain as yet unresolved in my heart.  I fully trust that Jesus will have gentle patience with me if I prayerfully remain open to discern other important faith elements that may be gifted to me by Him.

 

The Duchy of Savoy and the inheritance of our faith

Some of our most treasured, earliest memories are of cuddling up on the couch with our parents, grandparents, great aunts and great uncles as they recounted stories from the “old” days. We loved to hear about their parents, their great-grandparents, and, if we were lucky, snippets of stories and legends that went back even farther.  Way father!  We especially wanted to know their names, what they did, and what were they like.   Being youngsters, we eagerly seek connections and an orientation of where we are in our family and how our family fits within the wider world.

My grandfather Roland Savoie and his sisters Rita and Florence took great interest in passing on what they knew of Savoie family history to every new addition to the family.

There were many great legends and stories.  Three of the most tantalizing, mysterious and persistent stories were:

  • We have a Spanish Princess as an ancestor
  • One of our Savoie ancestors was a Catholic Priest
  • The very first Savoie who came to Canada did so because he was forced to leave

Old family stories that get handed down from generation to generation are nothing new.  Sally Hemming’s descendants claimed that Thomas Jefferson fathered her children.  Alex Haley based his “Roots” saga on a story of his distant ancestor Kunta Kinta making a drum for his younger brother on the day he was kidnapped by salve traders.  Both stories persisted over centuries, handed down by word of mouth from parent to child.  Although the stories had their detractors, they both turned out to be true.

As the years went by I pushed the Savoie family stories to the side as I commenced with the business of adult life.  Besides, I had no idea what to do with these ancient Savoie tales or how to begin validating them.

The last time I saw Aunt Rita alive was while she was in hospice, in the final stages of cancer.  While I was there we talked about her childhood as I tried to catalog every memory I could before she left us. However, what she really wanted to talk about were the three family stories:  the Spanish Princess, the Catholic Priest, and the Savoie runaway.  I made the mistake of expressing some skepticism that one of our Savoie ancestors was a Catholic priest.  Aunt Rita was indignant, “it’s true!” she insisted.  The poignancy of the moment was not lost on either of us.  She was soon to meet her maker, and she was the last living person of her generation.  Her insistence and the circumstances caused me to listen very carefully so that I could remember the stories and later pass them on to others in the family.

Ten years later, on a whim I signed up for a genealogy research website.  Progress was slow at first as I worked my way backwards from my great-great Grandfather Joseph Savoie.  I eventually discovered that his father was Narcisse Savoie and his father and grandfather were both in turn named Pierre Savoie.  So far, all of them were born in Quebec.  Continuing to slog my way backward in time, I discovered Pierre’s father, Jean Baptiste Savoie, who was born in Nova Scotia. I was surprised but that was only the beginning: three generations from there I was introduced to Prince Francis Savoie, the first Savoie to emigrate to North America in 1642

After he arrived in Nova Scotia, Prince Francis Savoie married Catherine F. LeJeune of the Mi’kmaq Nation.  Catherine’s great-grandfather was Henri Membertou.

Henri Membertou on Canadian stamp
Henri Membertou on Canadian stamp

Yet another surprise.  Henri Membertou, was the grand chief of the Mi’kmaq tribe in Arcadia in Nova Scotia!  Interestingly, Henri and his entire family were baptized by the Jesuit Father Jesse Fleche.  From that point forward Henri became an enthusiastic Catholic.  He asked the missionaries to learn the Algonquian Mi’kmaq language so that his family and tribe could be educated in the Catholic faith.

My ancestors were beginning to emerge from the fog of time, not just as names and dates but as real people with personalities and histories.

I followed Prince Francis Savoie back across the sea, to his home in Turin, Italy and we found ourselves at the door of the House of Savoy in the Duchy of Savoy. I carefully pushed the door open and discovered yet more remarkable members of our family:  these were of men and women of adventure, leadership, and deep Catholic piety.  The first person I meet is Prince Francis’s father, Thomas Francis of Savoy, or as he would have been known in Italian, Tommaso Francesco di Savoia.

Thomasco Fransisco Savoie
Thomasco Fransisco Savoie

Thomas Francis’s parents were Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy and Princess Catherine Michelle of Spain, the daughter of King Philip II of Spain. At last I found Aunt Rita’s Spanish Princess!

Princess Catherine
Princess Catherine

As more ancestors come out from the shadows, the Savoys manifested themselves as a deeply woven thread in the tapestry of European royalty.

Duke Charles Emmanuel’s Savoy ancestors bore colorful names like Humbert I The White Handed Count of Savoy, Amadeus VI, The Green Count of Savoy, Humbert II The Fat, Count of Savoy.  Still earlier, I meet Amadeus The Crusader Savoy, who died in the Crusades and his son Blessed Humbert III, who was beatified by the Catholic Church.

Other Savoy saints step forward: The Blessed Amadeus IX The Happy, was the Duke of Savoy from 1465 to 1472.  Blessed Amadeus IX was known for his charity and concern for the poor and was beatified in 1677.  His daughter The Blessed Louise of Savoy (Our great ++ aunt), gave up a life of privilege and comfort to become a Poor Clare nun. She used her vast wealth to meet the needs of the poor and entered the monastery of the Poor Clare nuns in Orbe, now part of modern Switzerland. She was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839.

Joining the religious life or the clergy after the death of a spouse was common for Savoys.  It’s at this moment that I am introduced to  Amadeus VIII, the Duke of Savoy, who became a Catholic priest after the death of his wife, Mary, Princess of Burgundy.  So now we have confirmed another of Aunt Rita’s stories: the Catholic priest who was our direct ancestor. Amadeus VIII of Savoy was no ordinary priest though: in February of 1451 he was elected by the schismatic council of Basle as (anti) Pope Felix V (Savoy). Anti-Pope Felix was no rebel and for the good of the Church he resigned and quietly spent the rest of his life a cardinal.

As I move to speak to Pope Felix I am joined by  Anne, Princess of Cyprus di Lusignan, who was the daughter of King Janus of Cyprus and Charlotte of Bourbon; and a member of the celebrated Lusignan crusader dynasty.  With her marriage to Louis, Duke of Savoy, Ann became the Duchess of Savoy.  In 1452, Anne bought the Shroud of Turin from Jeanne de Charny in exchange for the castle of Varambon.  It remains in the Savoy family today although in the custody of the Church.

Anne of Cyprus
Anne of Cyprus

Farther back, I discovered my 20th great-grandmother: Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal 

As I contemplate my ancestors, Kings, Queens, Dukes and Princesses, Popes, saints and sinners all, I have to ask what’s different now? There are no titles to inherit, no cold coins, art or castles. I feel there is a message here, they are trying to tell me… us, something… I sit patiently and listen.

Then one ancestor speaks up for all of them.  Fittingly, it’s Henri Membertou, whose efforts to have the Mass said in the Mi’kmaq language helped to preserve it to this day.   He died in 1611 and in his final words to his children he charged them to remain devout Christians.  Henri didn’t see his new faith to be just personal but transformational and transcending.  His Catholic faith was a treasure, an inheritance that must be passed on to his children and to their children.  Aunt Rita passed on the stories of Savoie family history that were told from generation to generation.  In like manner, Henri in turn passed on the most important treasure he had, his Catholic faith.  His daughter Marie passed that faith to her daughter who then passed it on to her daughter, Catherine Lejune, the wife of the very first Savoie in North America, Prince Francis.  From Francis and Catherine, they in turned passed on the faith to their son Germain Savoie, who along with his wife Genevieve Babineau, passed it on to their son Francois Xavier Savoie.

And so it went on, all the way to Phileas Savoie, my great grandfather, and then to Aunt Rita and Roland Savoie and on to his children and then down to us. The story is told, the treasure of faith is passed on.

Saint Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we have a great cloud of witnesses watching and cheering us on. . We have a very special cheering cloud of witnesses that includes our Savoie ancestors. They are us and we are them, all one family. The question is, does the story of faith that they passed on to us go on?  Let’s hope and pray so.

Meme Saint Elizabeth of Portugal,  Uncle Saint Thomas Aquinas,  Blessed Humbert Savoy and Blessed Amadeus Savoy, pray for your us your descendants 

______________________________________________________________________

PostScript and writer’s notes:

a.  All direct ancestors are in boldface. Poor Claire sister Blessed Louise of Savoy, is italicized because she is a great +++ aunt and not a direct ancestor

b. There’s another direct ancestor saint: Saint Louis the king of France.

Saint Louis King of France
Saint Louis King of France

He is a direct Savoie ancestor through  Elisabeth of Valois, the wife of Philip II and the mother of Princess Catherine Michelle.  Princess Catherine can be considered the grandmother of the North American Savoie line.

Elizabeth, the Mother of Princess Catherine and wife of King Philip II
Elizabeth, the Mother of Princess Catherine and wife of King Philip II

c.  Speaking of  Elisabeth of Valois: while her father’s line included the French Royal family her mother was Catherine de’ Medici of the famous Italian Medici family.

d.  King Philip II has an interesting family history as well.  His great grandparents were King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Yes, the same ones that commissioned Columbus on his journey to the new world.

King Philip II of Spain
King Philip II of Spain

e.  So that brings up yet another interesting question: What nationality are the Savoies?  Up until Prince Francis Savoie left Europe the Savoies were mostly Italian with a few French and German Princesses as maternal ancestors.  Once in Canada, Prince Francis Savoie and his descendants married into the Norman French settlers (along with a bit of Mi’kmaq Indian ).  Making it even more complicated is that if you go back far enough, the direct male Savoie line goes back to Geneva Switzerland before they moved to Italy.  You also should consider that through King Philip II of Spain the Savoies are Hapsburg (originally from Austria) along with some Spanish and Portuguese. In truth, the ethnicity of the Savoies is  typical for many of Europe’s royal houses.  The simplistic way to look at it is to say that the Savoies were culturally Italian until they went to Canada where they became culturally French.

f.  Speaking of European royal houses the Savoies also have ties to Hungarian Royalty as well as East Roman (Byzantine) emperors such as Michael VIII who was born in what is now Turkey in the 13th century.  So some of our ancestors were of the Greek Orthodox Faith.

g.  Alert readers will note that I confirmed two out of three of Aunt Rita Savoie’s family stories of the Spanish Princess and that the Catholic Priest. What about the first Savoie coming to North America under duress? There is some speculation that Prince Francis Savoie was disinherited after a dynastic dispute between his father and his uncle.  From researching other French Canadian family lines I found that almost all French Canadians originally came from the shores of Normandy France. That would make sense considering that if you are the French Government and you need bodies to load on ships to colonize New France you are not going to bother gathering them up from the interior of the country.  Prince Francis is unique in that he made the Herculean effort to traverse the Alps and the whole country of France to get on a ship to spend the rest of his life in the wilderness of Nova Scotia. We don’t know why he left but it is safe to assume he was highly motivated in doing so.

h. My thanks to Uncle Tom for his support and helpful suggestions and input!