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Review of
Faith and Certitude by Fr. Richard W. Gilsdorf

Faith and Certitude, by Thomas A. Dubay, SM (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985).

A few years ago, I attended a required event that afterwards featured a dinner. I sat at table with three older priests whom I had not seen for some years. The occasion prompted us to express our opinions on the state of our Church. Our Tischredeni
[1] soon revealed diametric opposition between us on essentials of the Catholic Faith.

This, in itself, came as no surprise since conversations among priests in these latter days have become routinely "ecumenical." What really shocked me was that whenever I pressed them on any of these substantive matters ("Now doesn't this make a difference? Is it tolerable that we priests don't agree on this?"), they refused to admit that it was important, all the while insisting vehemently that I was hopelessly "wrong" not to agree with them.

As we were, mercifully, led in grace after the meal and were about to go our truly separate ways, I begged them to at least agree that we did not agree on some important points. They angrily refused to admit even that! I traveled home that night in deep sadness and utter exasperation as how ever to reach these aging priests (who echoed a majority of younger men). I recall fuming over the core of that refusal: "They had wiped out the "principle of contradictories"! I recall fuming because their logic was so bad they didn't see that distinctions or contradictions are of any consequence.

They had committed semantic, intellectual, and spiritual suicide! They had ruled out any rational discourse but continued to demand "dialogue"!

In this masterful book, Fr. Thomas Dubay, SM, adroitly reveals that the roots of our crisis germinate in this sort of basic epistemological muck. As we survey the acknowledged chaos in the Church, we tend to isolate piecemeal the surface derangements in catechetics, biblical criticism, liturgy, religious life, the seminaries, and so on. The exceptional genius of Fr. Dubay is that he is a diagnostician-surgeon. He recognizes these separate "crises" as symptoms of a pervasive and lethal disease.

He then moves to exploratory surgery at the level of the underlying common sources: errors in epistemology, logic, and "natural theology"the now deplorably neglected foundations of pre-metaphysical philosophy courses. [2] He does not neglect to describe the surface symptoms but does so only to demonstrate their interconnection and to lay bare their common causes, which stem from the will. He skillfully probes the motives that seduce and pervert the will. His chapter, "The Causes of Error," responds to the dilemma of how my priest tablemates could so blandly reject the first principles of rational functioning. He concludes, "The taproot of most human errors is the will" (p. 83).

Having done this, however, Dubay returns to his main concern, which is to heal and restore. To do this, he describes (or rather "prescribes") the graduated processes that lead the human thinker from the sane first principles to the threshold of the act of faith, those luminously reasonable steps that prepare for and fully justify the embrace of divine revelation moved by the supernatural, transcendent, free gift of grace. When one concludes this book, he should be firmly convinced that our act of faith is not absurd; it is not a blind leap into a black hole; it is precisely a rationabile obsequium, a logical and loving surrender to truth incarnate.

As one might expect, the organization of the book is admirable in the relentlessly logical development of each of its 14 chapters; here we can mention but a few.

Dubay begins with a telling description of "existential boredom," the pandemic symptomatic malaise of modernity. He catalogues the causes and points out the remedies (recovery of faith and certitude, healing and correction of the intellect and will), themes which he pursues throughout the chapters that follow.

While not attempting to write a book on fundamental theology or an updated apologetics text on issues of revealed faith, Dubay clearly shows that theological errors stem from epistemological errors. His chapter "Scholarship, Doubt, and Certitude," documenting the enormous contradictions of experts from their own peers' testimonies, is a liberating and crucial preamble to the next two chapters on biblical exegesis.

Chapter 9 offers an excellent and balanced analysis of the current critical methodologies. Dubay subjects these schools to the test of perennial Catholic principles for genuine biblical studies, especially citing the analogy of faith required by the Council's Dei Verbum. He willingly accepts what is valid in historical-critical studies but excises their lethal flaws. He then proceeds to bring this down to the experience of average lay Catholics and their often-confused teachers and pastors in Chapter 10, "Biblical Criticism and Pastoral Practice."

Space allows for comment on only one other exceptional section of what is an exceptional book, Chapter 13, "Another Case: Theism" (pp. 215-326). In presenting motives for belief in a personal, omniscient, and omnipotent God, Dubay uses the data of modern science to describe the breathtaking wonders of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small. This chapter merits being called a classic of theodicy. These enthralling pages evoked for me the essay of Pascal in his Pensées on the "Disproportion de l'homme." Fr. Dubay has given us an updated (and possibly superior) version worthy of the original.

On rereading my comments thus far, I realize I may have given the impression of a stifling, complex, forbidding text. Far from it! Fr. Dubay is one of the best writers in the Church today. His style is limpid, almost entirely accessible to the moderately educated layperson. He explains with striking imagery, colorful language, and readily grasped examples. Indeed, he says his target audience is the average person, not just those in the academic or theological establishment.

I marked page after page with items to be quoted but finally gave upon every page there are those precious commodities, so rare today: facts, clear and compelling statements of truth, and citations of other great minds to show convergence along the path to certitude and faith. He writes incisively but with charity. He seeks to convert, not to conquer.

I kept thinking, "If only every bishop would read this and then urge it on his priests, religious, diocesan staff, seminarians, and the faithful at large."

If read by a large public, this book alone could restore sanity and common sense to the Church, for here are the premises to faith, the antidotes to our severe "crisis of faith."

The only nitpicking point of complaint I have is the title. It sounds flat and unappealing. It disguises what is a golden book of wisdom, a book of healing for tormented minds and souls. But whenever I try to concoct a more captious title, I come up empty. It is, like its author, logical and straightforward. Long known for his writings on religious life and for his retreats and conferences to Religious women (one can almost detect where he has been welcomed by the health and stability of the communities he has served), Fr. Dubay has given the Church at large a book that has to be read to be believeddespite the title. His is one more masterpiece in the increasingly vital repertory of Ignatius Press.

1.The literal translation is "table talk," and the sense it carries is that of an informal discussion. It is also the name of a book by Martin Luther.

2. Metaphysics, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, is "that portion of philosophy which treats of the most general and fundamental principles underlying all reality and all knowledge." So if you get metaphysics wrong, you will get so much else wrong as well.

Version: 6th October 2008

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