A Jesuit and His Faith: Part II

Author: William Doino, Jr.


William Doino, Jr.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Copleston's Memoirs is his description of how he was able to maintain his religious faith despite encountering constant challenges against it. Secular philosophy, by its very nature, is a discipline that lends itself to doubt, relativism and irreligion. It is the rare scholar who is able to immerse himself into its precarious world without somehow being affected—usually for the worse. Copleston acknowledges that his prolonged study of a wide spectrum of philosophical thought "could hardly fail to exercise some influence" on his mind. He admits to having experienced doubts—even serious ones—about his religion, but realizes that this is a common temptation among Christian believers, even for the most committed. Indeed, the saints themselves have not been immune to doubt. One thinks particularly of St. Therese of Lisieux, who underwent a profound crisis of faith during her short life. The year before she died, she told her Mother Superior that the worst kind of atheistic arguments had entered her mind—specifically, the notion that science, by making ever-increasing progress, would eventually explain everything away naturally—would provide a materialistic answer for all that exists, thus destroying the basis for Christianity. According to Fr. Guy Gaucher, the foremost authority on St. Therese, some anti-Christian literature apparently fell into the hands of the young nun, and when she read it, her faith was shaken to its core. Only after undergoing an intense psychological struggle, culminating in a profound mystical experience, was St. Therese able to secure the peace that permitted her a tolerable death. (For a full account of the saint's religious travails, consult Fr. Gaucher's definitive biography, The Story of a Life: St. Therese of Lisieux, Harper & Row, 1987.)

On a more intellectual level, Fr. Copleston experienced a similar crisis of faith. Fortunately, he was able to overcome it, as he tells us, "...by employing a distinction, well known to moral theologians and spiritual counselors, between doubt and difficulty, a distinction which had been made by J. H. Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Chapter 5), when he stated that 'ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.' He had certainly been conscious of difficulties, but a hundred difficulties, he claimed, do not amount to one doubt. [This] ... can be explained easily enough by an example ... Consider a student of theology, who in the course of his studies is introduced to a number of difficulties or possible objections to this or that Christian doctrine. The lecturer, let us suppose, offers solutions of the relevant problems. The student, being a bright youth, finds the alleged solutions intellectually unsatisfactory or inadequate. For him, the difficulties or problems remain unsolved. But it does not necessarily follow that he therefore doubts the truth of the relevant articles of belief. For in spite of difficulties, problems or puzzles which can be brought against certain doctrines, he may still accept the doctrines on faith, as revealed by God through the mediation of the Church. Again, many people have seen in the evil and suffering which permeate human life and history a powerful objection to belief in the existence of God as conceived in traditional Christianity. But even if a Christian is quite ready to acknowledge an inability to provide any complete solution of the so-called 'problem of evil,' he or she may nonetheless cling to faith in the divine love and "providential care"." (pp. 208-209.)

These reflections are reminiscent of Cardinal Newman's line of argument in his famous essay, "Faith and Doubt." Therein, he maintained that Christian faith is invalid if it does not have the courage of its convictions; and that no true Christian could believe that his faith might someday be undermined by a scientific discovery or scholarly argument—for if he believed that, his faith was empty to begin with. As the Cardinal remarked:

"If it is true that God became man, what is the meaning of my anticipating a time when perhaps I shall not believe that God became man? This is nothing short of anticipating a time when I shall disbelieve a truth. And if I bargain to be allowed in time to come not to believe, or to doubt, that God became man, I am but asking to be allowed to doubt or disbelieve what I hold to be an eternal truth. I do not see the privilege of such a permission at all, or the meaning of wishing to secure it." (From A Newman Treasury, edited by Charles F. Harrold, Longmans, Green and Co., Inc., 1943, pp. 181-182)

Once in possession of a secure faith, Fr. Copleston waged intellectual warfare against the errors of his age—engaging the most influential minds of the twentieth century. The most famous of these battles was undoubtedly his legendary debate with Bertrand Russell over the existence of God. Aired by the BBC in 1948, the debate culminated in a technical knockout for the Jesuit philosopher. In his Memoirs, Fr. Copleston is far too humble to gloat over his victory, but does manage to expose Russell's viewpoint as morally bankrupt. Commenting on how he cornered Russell into defending an extreme brand of relativism, Copleston writes: "Russell agreed, of course, that he felt this way. But he found some difficulty, he admitted, in squaring the implications of this admission with his professed ethical theory. He even said: "I find myself in a dilemma. On the one hand I certainly want to condemn the Nazis' behavior towards the Jews as wrong in itself. On the other hand, my ethical theory does not allow me to say this.'" (pp. 136-137)

Fr. Copleston is equally adept at detecting the errors within his own community—exposing charlatans like Teilhard de Chardin, and arguing against modernists who try to "redefine" or "re-formulate" Christian doctrine until they empty it of all supernatural content. But Copleston is at his finest in expounding the necessity of orthodoxy. For example, Copleston on the ecumenical movement:

"Christians should certainly be prepared to recognize the values present in other religions. Short of embracing all mankind there can be no limit to the reach of the out-going love which lies at the heart of the Christian religion, and which can be seen as demanding the extension of the ecumenical movement to relations between Christians and adherents of other religions. ... [But] one should not close one's eyes to the danger of abandoning Christian belief in the unique status and role of Christ and treating him simply as one among other prophets and religious leaders, a danger which is by no means illusory." (pp. 196-197)

Copleston on dissenting theologians:

"We are sometimes told by "progressives" that we should think of the Church as seeking the truth, rather than as being in possession of the truth. That the Church's theologians seek truth is not a claim which I would venture or wish to deny. But they discharge this function as members of the Church, not simply as lone individuals. And the final court of appeal in doctrinal issues can hardly be anything but the Church herself, speaking as a teaching authority, through what is called the magisterium ... My point is simply that if a theologian claims to be a Catholic, he or she should act as such, operating within the Church, as one of its members." (pp. 200-201)

Copleston on the afterlife and the reality of hell:

"The ideas of heaven and hell are complementary... if the one idea expresses revelation, so does the other. The orthodox Christian can be expected to accept both; and I do accept them.

... Possession of freedom implies that a human being can accept or reject God. ... I do not see how one can exclude the possibility of a human being persisting in his or her choice against God and so remaining in a state of alienation from God. Given this possibility, hell would be more something chosen by the human being in question, than simply imposed by a ruthless judge." (p. 212)

Copleston on the current state of Christendom:

"The Christian is not committed to believing that if Christianity finds itself widely regarded as moribund and as unable to act as an effective source of inspiration, this shows that Christ has failed. Where in the Gospels is He recorded as having assured His followers of a triumphal march through history? Perhaps I may add that Christ did not claim that if His followers encountered difficulties and opposition they should set to work revising His teaching and adapting it to the spirit of the age. He called for persevering loyalty." (pp. 205-206)

Looking back over his career, Fr. Copleston's Memoirs express profound gratitude for a life richly blessed. He had no regrets about devoting his life to the study of philosophy, despite its inherent risks. Indeed, Copleston maintained that, far from weakening or confusing his Catholic faith, his conflicts with alien philosophies ultimately served to sharpen and strengthen it. He also provided a measured defense of historical study, arguing that "it is rash to assume that the study of the past is necessarily irrelevant to life and action in the present. After all, historical study is study of some aspect of the one developing world in which we live and act." (p. 224) Yet as valuable as academic scholarship was to the success of his life, Fr. Copleston never lost sight of his true goal. For as he movingly states in the last sentence of his book, "The only really important evaluation of one's life and work is God's evaluation. And in the closing years of one's life it is just as well to bear this in mind." (p. 224)

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Winter 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.