Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
When New York Times’ columnist and author Nicholas Kristof interviewed Cardinal Joseph Tobin for a Yuletide Q&A, the journalist prodded the archbishop of Newark to defend the miracles attributed to Jesus and the Scriptural basis for Catholic teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage and an all-male priesthood.
With Kristof setting the terms of the discussion, Cardinal Tobin didn’t attempt to sweep aside the predictable talking points about faith and organized religion that punctuated the column, “Cardinal Tobin, Am I a Christian?” But the cardinal left readers—especially those who reserve debates on the existence of God for the holiday season—with something to think about.
Indeed, when pressed to defend miracles like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, for example, Tobin pushed back—albeit with a gentle touch.
“The most mind-boggling miracle is the incarnation,” said the cardinal.
“We believe that the Creator of the Universe, the one who existed before time and before anything else, became one of us. If you accept that, then there are a lot of other things that don’t seem to be quite as unbelievable.”
And when asked to explain why “God answers prayers only in ambiguous situations, such as curing cancer, but never to, say, regrow a leg?” Cardinal Tobin responded with a personal anecdote:
It’s interesting you mention that, Nicholas. My dad grew up strong and big, played football for Boston College, went into the service and lost his leg in World War II.
One night he was looking at his prosthesis. He said: ‘I was thinking I’ve had that thing half my life now. But if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have your mother, and I wouldn’t have you.’
So he discovered something in that tragedy. Faith got him through it.
Sometimes I think when I don’t receive an answer to what I’m praying for, maybe what I’m asking for actually is something that could be harmful for me. I do believe God hears all prayers, and I believe God answers in some way.
Throughout this exchange, Kristof remained polite, but dismissive. In this and other columns, he has applauded Jesus’ ministry to the poor and the sick as a fine idea, but perceived no equal need for ministry to the poor in spirit. Proud of his commitment to evidence-based science and progressive values that appear to cohere with Catholic social teaching, he called himself a “respectful” skeptic.
Published on Dec. 22, Kristof’s column surely left most religious readers of America’s newspaper of record hungry for something far more engaging. Fortunately, an antidote for frustrated readers arrived just three days later in the Christmas issue of The Times: “How Can I Possibly Believe That Faith Is Better Than Doubt?”, a column by Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an Evangelical Protestant.
“Why is it that, according to Jesus, faith is better than proof?” asked Wehner in his rich exploration of faith not as an uninspiring collection of rules and "issues", but as a foundational relationship that grounds all others.
Jesus, said Wehner, is sympathetic to the doubts that overwhelm St. Thomas the Apostle. Thomas wants to feel the wounds inflicted by the Lord’s tormentors before he can believe in the Resurrection, and Jesus teaches him to trust.
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” says the Lord.
Seeking to better understand why a faith anchored in trust was “so precious” to Jesus, Wehner turns to a number of theologians for answers.
George Weigel, the papal biographer, explained that Church teaching presents faith and reason as compatible and complimentary. “Faith without reason risks descending into superstition; reason without faith builds a world without windows, doors or skylights,” Weigel tells him.
Wehner further noted—in remarks that seemed like a correction to Kristof’s respectful skepticism—that “rationalists and atheists ultimately place their trust in certain propositions that require faith.”
In an exchange with Wehner, Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller clarified this point. “Most of the things we most deeply believe in—for example, human rights and human equality—are not empirically provable,” said Keller.
The most important insight contained in Wehner’s column, however, is that faith in God is about so much more than a belief in his existence or an acceptance of his laws.
“What God is seeking is not our intellectual assent so much as a relationship with us. That is, after all, one of the purposes of the incarnation of God in Jesus,” Wehner explained.
“It is better and more vivifying to be the object of someone’s trust rather than the last person standing after a series of logical deductions,” he added.
“That’s true for us as individuals, and it can be true for God as well.”
Does Nicholas Kristof read his fellow columnists? I hope so. He might learn something.
The question, Nicholas, is not how little you must believe to be called “a Christian,” but whether you can open your heart and soul to be transformed by the Lord, who entered the world as a Child in a manger and invites each of us to become “children of God.”
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1, 12-13)