This peppery work of apologetics is brief but covers a lot of ground. William O’Malley, S.J., is shaped by 40 years of teaching at the high school and college level and currently teaches at Fordham Preparatory School in New York City. His approach reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s observation that all the great questions are raised before the age of 14. And the author does deal with the great questions of faith. But unlike Thomas Aquinas, he does not attack them exclusively through pure reason, or even head-on.
Help My Unbelief seems to acknowledge the impoverishment of today’s catechesis, in which answers are handed down from on high with a view to forming new generations of Catholics. O’Malley questions the effectiveness and teaching power of the updated catechism and accompanying directives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on how to transmit Catholic teaching to those of high school age. What he is apparently advocating is a real, on-the-ground wrestling with the most fundamental religious questions. This, he says, is how genuine conversion happens. Obviously the catechism does not preclude this, but it takes a good teacher and genuine tussling with issues to help doubters over their hurdles and into belief.
Though the author’s insights are likely born of classroom experience, they apply across the generations. There is the question, for example, of biblical disenchantment. What happens when we begin to fear that biblical stories are simply “made-up stories”? This is a doubt that may afflict us at any age. In order to deal with it, O’Malley begins from the doubter’s angle, pointing out problems in the biblical narratives: the Magi are mentioned in just one Gospel and are probably symbolic; Thomas probably would not have said, “My Lord and my God!” because that was an understanding of the later community. He takes the view that Jesus and Peter probably did not walk on water but that the story serves to give meaning to Peter’s actual crucifixion, the full and final sign of his conversion. “That,” O’Malley writes, “is a real miracle.” His discussion offers us ways to move beyond literal interpretation of texts.
In one of the most engaging parts of the book O’Malley first acknowledges the authenticity of non-Catholic Christianity. He also recognizes the many flaws of the Roman church, although he states clearly from the outset his commitment as a Roman Catholic—and the reasons why. First, “The Roman Catholic Church seems to be the original from which the others branched.” Second, “The pope is, for me, a father who unites all disparate views with a reassuringly single voice and direction.” He clearly is comfortable with papal authority. And third, “A critical issue for me is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.” Oddly, he finds his faith confirmed by the fact that both Martin Luther and Henry VIII believed this teaching, too. Finally, though he has been born into the faith and some of his comfort level is cultural, he describes a deep friendship that has developed between him and God.
From this vantage point, as a loyal son of the church, O’Malley explores some areas of real difficulty for modern believers, especially Americans. One is that many American Catholics have difficulty with Humanae Vitae and most specifically its teaching on artificial birth control. In reflecting on this question, O’Malley makes clear how and why a large number of American Catholics have come to see the question differently from the hierarchy. “In 1993 Peter Steinfels conducted a survey for The New York Times and found that eight out of ten Catholics disagreed with the statement, ‘using artificial means of birth control is wrong’; nine out of ten said that ‘someone who practices artificial birth control can still be a good Catholic.’” Other surveys suggest that 75 percent (even 80 percent) of American Catholics use artificial birth control.
I have been aware of these figures for a long time, but I am still not sure what they mean. O’Malley seems to be arguing for the virtue of latitude and the primacy of conscience, though he does not do it in so many words. Instead he quotes Gaudium et Spes (1965): “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this decision in the sight of God.” I found myself marveling that couples who cannot strictly follow the teaching had mostly remained within the Roman Catholic fold.
The book ends with two sharp discussions of major challenges to Christian and Catholic belief. One chapter is on science, and deals with the kinds of taunts often hurled by Richard Dawkins and his crowd. But within this chapter the author admits to regretting at least one argument he has offered in previous books. When his earlier conviction turns out to be false, that the human eye (a splendid thing) could not have been the product of evolution, he is embarrassed by his overconfidence and says so. “Foolish. Neither avid creationist...nor defender of intelligent design, zealous to insert God at every chancy juncture, I was just confidently ignorant.” Father O’Malley’s candor is refreshing. He mentions his chagrin at learning the eye not only can evolve but has done so more than once. Arguments such as these, he seems to be saying, are not needed to sustain our belief in God.
And his last chapter, on suffering, is a winner. If you are wrestling with questions of unbelief do not hesitate to take this slender, provocative book as your guide.
Read a selection of essays by William J. OMalley, S.J., for America.