Asking "Catholic Questions"
Sister Marie Kolbe ZamorA
This brief article
is meant to raise awareness regarding the importance of asking good questions
and of being open to the asking of good questions. Far from indicating a lack
of faith, the ability to ask good questions is a presupposition to the mature "digestion"
of the mysteries Christians proclaim to believe in the Nicene Creed.
Recognizing the Value of Questions
of the greatest anomalies that I face in the college classroom is the hardened
unwillingness and inability of students to ask questions. My students have been
so conditioned to be afraid of asking questions that they tend to think the
BEST way to conclude any kind of reading is with "I don't have any questions."
They think that to say this communicates that they have understood everything they
read and that they are in good shape "for the test."
have become accustomed to thinking that questions reveal ignorance or
stupidity. As a result we have been conditioned to AVOID asking questions in
favor of looking for the right answers. Contrary to this deeply ingrained
conditioning, it is important that each one receive this message: it is the inability to ask questions that
reveals ignorance. When a person concludes the reading of a difficult or
complicated text with the statement that they have no questions, they reveal
that they have NOT engaged the text at all. Rather, they have "merely read it"
and "consumed" what it had to say without digesting what it had to say. In
other words, they reveal that they have learned nothing. They might have
"consumed" bits of information that they can repeat, but what good do these
bits of information do, even if they are the "right answers," if they are
asking the "wrong questions?"
Probing Dogmatic Mysteries
are to intellectual learning what chewing is to eating. We would never try to eat a steak or any
other kind of food without chewing it first; and yet we habitually place
ourselves before counter-intuitive truths (like the Incarnation, our Redemption
by Jesus' death and resurrection and the Trinity) without questions and then
wonder at the consequent spiritual / intellectual indigestion. On the one hand,
youth feel that it is "wrong" to ask questions about these counter-intuitive
truths because somehow they have absorbed the message that to ask a question
means that they will be understood to be on the verge of rejecting the truth
they are asking about. On the other hand, no one, beginning with St. Paul and
St. Augustine, has grown in any understanding of these counterintuitive truths
without having asked many questions about them. While it might be true that the
Scholastic theological method is not as comprehensible as in the past because
of its emphasis on definitions as points of departure, the heart of this method is the asking of questions, and this still speaks to the human person.
Marrying Faith and Reason
Catholic Church's commitment to the marriage of faith and reason indicates that
at the level of principle, the Catholic Church welcomes questions.1 However, how well do we welcome questions at the level of fact? Are we conscious that the basic truths of our
faith are mysteries and, as such, remain counter-intuitive? Or have we become
flippant and superficial regarding explanations of the mysteries we proclaim to
believe in the Nicene Creed? Have we forgotten that the Incarnation spawned
centuries of debate regarding how to speak about God in the flesh AND God
three-and-one? Have we forgotten the scandal that God-in-the-flesh (much less a
crucified God) is to one looking in on this scene from the outside?
years ago, an extremely intelligent 6-year old Buddhist little girl reminded me
of the counter-intuitive nature of all that I seemed to take for granted at the
time. Her older sister was taking an AP biology class that met on Saturdays and
I was the babysitter for her little sister on this particular day. In
discussing many things about her family, I learned that she had grown up
believing in "house gods" who kept her family safe. After quite a discourse on
her family's religion, she asked me if I could show her my God. Initially, I
was shocked by the question. What could I show this little girl to give her an
understanding of who "my God" was as a Christian? As I bought time with my
response, I remembered that around the corner there was a crucifix. Knowing
that she was expecting to see something tangible, I led her around the corner
and pointed up to the Crucifix and, after a moment, I said, "There. He is my
God." The little girl considered the image of Jesus Crucified and in total
sincerity, said "You gotta be kidding!" Those four words from this intelligent
little Buddhist girl opened a new door for me. Belief in a crucified God does
not just "make sense" and until I wrestled with why this needed to be (at the
level of historical, narrative, fact), I would not be able to effectively
communicate the Gospel in the future. Being able to respond to her "You gotta
be kidding" has, in a sense, become my life mission. Being able to respond to her (in her simplicity and
intelligence, her inquisitiveness,
sincerity and candor) has become my life mission.
(or "nones") who ask questions regarding dogmatic mysteries of the faith reveal
the desire to understand these mysteries inasmuch as they can be understood. In
asking pointed questions about these mysteries in relationship to their
experience, they reveal the inherent understanding that God wills that we use
our intelligence to know him so that our act of faith might truly be a well
calculated risk, to use the language of Bishop Robert Barron. It seems that
convinced Christian believers are unable, at times, to appreciate the value of
the questions asked by a "none" because the convinced Christian believer has
absorbed a mentality that is afraid
to ask questions. In reality, the well-placed question asked by a "none" can,
at times, be an extraordinarily good entre
to introducing the mystery of Christ.
"none" in the room might just be the person who is most "paying attention." Can
we honor this? Are we, as catechists and missionary disciples, able to respond
to these existential questions that touch on the mysteries of our faith? Or has
our task become that of dispensing answers that we have learned without
reference to the living possibility of a relationship with Christ that a "none"
Toward Pastoral Care of "Nones"
insight that we might take into account as we think about pastorally caring for
"nones" is the recognition that their questions do not necessarily imply a
rejection of Christian belief, but rather a desire to understand the mysteries
of Christian belief.
addition, if we are to proclaim the Gospel to those who claim to be "nones",
one skill that a missionary disciple2
might want to learn is the skill of asking good questions so as to be able to
recognize and respond to good questions posed by "nones". This is a
"philosophical" skill that is necessary in the "pre-evangelization" of "nones."
Learning the skill of asking good questions will help the missionary disciple
nourish the same skill in those "nones" who take a materialist account of the
world for granted. Only after the missionary disciple has learned to ask "is it
true?" (and come out peacefully on the other side of that question) will he or
she be able to humbly lead the "none" to ask the same question of all that they
might hold dear.
best practice for catechists and teachers in this would be the requirement that
students arrive in class with written questions prepared on assigned reading.
While students might not ask these questions out loud, the catechist or teacher
can later answer each of these questions personally, opening a dialogue that
would never have been possible in the classroom itself.
Preparatory Document for the XV Synod of Bishops proposes that the Church "ask
young people to help her in identifying the most effective ways to announce the
Good New today."3
Significantly, the document closes with a number of questions designed to help
target ecclesial reality around the world. This way of proceeding might serve
as a best practice model for the kinds of pastoral / practical questions we
might need to ask in our parishes as we grow in our desire and ability to reach
out to the "nones". Are our parishes able to conduct a "fearless moral
self-inventory" relative to our ability to communicate the Gospel with
See, for example, Bishop Robert Barron's video "On Faith and Reason" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcH_5Iecu5s.
For teachers, catechists.
Synod of Bishops, XV Ordinary General Assembly, "Young People, the Faith and
Vocational Discernment: Preparatory Document:"
accessed 27 February 2018.
Sister Marie Kolbe Zamora is a member of the
Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. She earned a doctorate in dogmatic
theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, is chair of the Department
of Theology and Ministry at Silver Lake College, and collaborates extensively
with the Diocese of Green Bay in the leadership formation of missionary