Adjunct Faculty

On "Doubting Thomas" and Mercy

Fr. Michael Fones, OP

Once again we hear the story of the disciple misnamed “doubting” Thomas. You may have noticed that Jesus doesn’t call him that. Thomas is not chided by the Risen Lord for doubting. Jesus, appearing before Thomas with pierced limbs and side, says “do not be unbelieving, but believe.

I’d propose that what our society needs today is a lot more doubt. That is, if we understand doubt as described by St. Thomas Aquinas. And to understand doubt, we have to remember that for Thomas, one description of thinking is “the process of the mind searching before reaching its rest in the full vision of the truth.” (ST II-IIae, 2, 1) Thinking is a state of reasoning, pondering, puzzling, but not yet concluding.

Thinking is like two other states of mind Aquinas describes –namely, doubting and having an opinion because they also describe a mind that has not reached a firm assent.  To have an opinion is to lean tentatively toward one alternative, without being able to rule out others; while the doubter is unsure about two or more alternatives so that he leans toward neither.  According to Aquinas, faith is unlike both doubt and opinion because it involves a sort of certainty.  Believers can have a firm certitude about what they believe even though they continue to ponder in a way similar to that of those who doubt or have an opinion. To believe is to “ponder with assent.”

So clearly, Thomas doesn’t believe the other disciples’ breathless claim of the resurrection of Jesus. But neither is he doubting. He’s not torn equally between the proposition that Jesus is raised and Jesus is dead. He’s not pondering the possibility that Jesus is raised. No, he has concluded, and gives the one condition that will change his unbelief. The unbeliever’s mind is closed and in a state of rest – a kind of corollary to sight and knowledge.

Given this understanding of belief, unbelief, and doubt, I say more doubt in the western world would be an improvement over our current situation where unbelief reigns. For example, there are many people for whom no amount of data will make them believe the industrial activity of human beings has anything to do with global climate change. Even if Florida’s Disneyworld was submerged and became Waterworld, they would still deny human behavior was part of the problem. And there’s also a crowd for whom no evidence could exist that would make them believe human activity is not contributing to global climate change. We could stop driving cars and burning coal, and they’d demand we stop exhaling carbon dioxide.

Both groups are unbelieving - just unbelieving about a particular kind of evidence. I’m afraid the same could be said about evidence needed to change the minds of Holocaust deniers, atheists, and proponents of abortion. If pondering prior to reaching conclusions is one description of thinking, then what the world needs is more thinking and less concluding! We need more doubt in a society where changing your mind because of new evidence leads others to disparage you with the label “flip flopper.”

If thinking really is a process, a puzzling over “what is” and “what seems to be,” then doubt – as defined by Aquinas – is a healthy frame of mind. But not a healthy resting place for the mind. Agnosticism is the resting place of intellectual cowards and sluggards; the kingdom of the uninquisitive.

So how might we evangelize in a culture like ours – where so many people are locked into – unthinking unbelief? What did Jesus do? He appeared before Thomas in his glorified, yet wounded body – and showed him the undeniable signs that it was him.

What are the undeniable signs of Jesus’ presence today? Ever since the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the answer has been the same: the Church – the wounded body of Christ. The signs of Christ’s presence in the early Church led thousands in apostolic times to endure expulsion from their families, their synagogues, or their societies in order to be united to Him in this Body.

Our first and second readings remind us of these undeniable signs of Christ’s presence:

First of all, 1 John tells us that those “who believe that Jesus is the Christ” are “begotten of God.” That is, they are born again, born from above, born of water and Spirit, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Those begotten of God have God’s Spirit living in them. Just as Jesus breathed on the disciples, we, too, have received that Divine breath, who now dwells in us. So in every age those who do not believe can experience for themselves the forgiveness of Jesus reaching them through disciples who do believe.

The second undeniable sign of Christ’s presence is described in the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the disciples were of “one mind and heart.” On this Divine Mercy Sunday, let’s remember that one aspect of mercy is affective. Affective mercy is an emotion: the pity we feel for the plight of another because we, too, have known misery.  The early Christians were of “one heart” because they experienced affective mercy for one another because of the mutual love shared among those begotten of God. St. Thomas said, "The person who loves regards his friend as another self, and so he counts his friend's troubles as his own, and grieves over them as if they were his own." When such mercy is extended to those who do not believe, the ancient wonder of the pagans who said, “See how the Christians love one another,” becomes personal: “See how these Christians love me!” In the art of evangelization, asking questions that allow the unbeliever to share their troubles and then showing true empathy undermines the foundations of unbelief.

Thirdly, we are told those first Christians held everything in common so that no one was needy. This is what Aquinas calls effective mercy, a positive action meeting the needs of others.  While this kind of sharing is found in religious life, it can also be lived in some way by everyone; sometimes through charity, sometimes through the way we conduct our business.

The Houston-based family business called Marek Bros. is an example. Starting in 1938 as a sheetrock installation service by three Catholic brothers, it was founded on the principle that all the workers were to be treated as family. Because of the commitment to better the lives of their workers and their families, the company provided employees transportation and equipment, good hourly wages, unemployment insurance, paid vacations, and a Christmas bonus in the days immediately following the Depression. Soon pension and profit-sharing plans were implemented.

In the 1980s when the oil market bust meant the Houston economy went belly-up, the Marek brothers borrowed from the bank and put 45 years’ worth of personal assets into the company to avoid laying off workers – many of whom were the children of the original employees.  This is effective mercy – a practical concern for others born out of a belief that Jesus is the Son of God.

These are some of the signs of Christ’s presence in the Church today that may startle people from unbelief into belief:

1. Personal conversion that leads us to extend the forgiveness we’ve received to those around us.

2. Empathy for the suffering of others that grows from learning from the story of their lives and allowing them to probe your life and discover the evidence of Christ crucified and resurrected therein.

3. Effective mercy for others that leads us to even share our resources with them – i.e., recognizing the answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an unqualified, “yes!”

Thomas yields completely to the experience of seeing his wounded, yet glorified Lord.  “My Lord and my God!” he cries. It is one of the most powerful acknowledgements of Jesus’ real identity in the whole Gospel, and the only time anyone directly calls him God. Ironically, too, it is an act of faith.  Thomas could not see directly that Jesus was God.  His unbelief was startled out of him by the very thing he said would make him believe. Perhaps that might be a good question to ask an unbeliever today – “what would it take to make you believe?” But if we ask, we have to be willing to act as an instrument to break up the hardpan of unbelief and plow furrows of doubt that might one day be receptive to the seeds of faith.