Authentic dialogue depends on asking and answering good questions. It is often hard to distinguish good questions from bad ones, however. Luke’s Gospel records two seemingly similar questions in response to angelic messages. When Zechariah was told that his wife would bear a son, he said “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Lk 1:18). When Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive a son, she asked “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34).

However similar these questions might seem, the motivations behind them were very different and they received very different answers. In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Zechariah…doubted the possibility of the task announced to him. Like Elizabeth, he was advanced in years: he could no longer hope for a son. Mary, on the other hand, does not doubt. She asks not whether, but how the promise is to be fulfilled.”

This distinction is an important one. Questions and questioning can represent doubt or interest, antagonism or trust. The Pharisees were constantly asking Jesus questions so that they could destroy him. On the other hand, the disciples frequently asked him to clarify his teaching because they recognized his wisdom.

Questioning Pope Francis

A similar distinction can be made regarding questions about Pope Francis. Many Catholics are puzzled by him. They are worried by his off-the-cuff remarks, and they have questions about his statements and actions. Having such questions and concerns is not necessarily a bad thing; WPI exists in large part to answer such questions to the best of our ability.  As Catholics, we don’t have to agree with the Pope’s practical actions and non-magisterial statements. An individual can disagree with such actions and statements and still remain a good Catholic.

Some Catholics, however, ask questions about the Pope merely to delegitimize him. They question anything and everything he does, always imputing sinister motives or malicious intent. Even when Pope Francis acts in the same way that previous Popes have acted, his motivations are questioned by these professional papal critics. The famous “dubia” sent to Pope Francis by four conservative Cardinals were questions of this antagonistic type. Any possible answer given by the Pope to these questions would have been used as evidence against him—and when he declined to answer, his silence was used to “prove” that he was a heretic.

In the Wider Church

Just as conservatives tend to question the magisterium of Pope Francis, progressives can sometimes question Church teaching in a destructive manner. A rejection of the surprises God sends our way will make genuine and trusting questions impossible. Such a rejection, as Pope Francis reminds us in Let Us Dream, can be rooted in the wrong kind of certitude. He writes that discernment “is a difficult thing for those of a more impatient disposition…Many religious people, too, struggle with discernment, especially those who are allergic to uncertainty and want to reduce everything to black and white. And it is quite impossible for ideologues, fundamentalists, and anyone else who is held back by a rigid mindset.”

Those with such a mindset ask destructive, antagonistic questions. If one is certain that one already possesses all wisdom and knowledge, genuine questions become an impossibility. Instead, questions are used merely to attack opponents. Ironically, such rigid individuals also tend to see the questions of others as attacks. Pope Francis writes:

“Fundamentalist mindsets…offer you an attitude and a single, closed way of thinking, as a substitute for the kind of thinking that opens you to the truth. Whoever takes refuge in fundamentalism is afraid of setting out on the road to truth. He already “has” the truth, and deploys it as a defense, so that any questioning of it is interpreted as an aggression against his person.”

What do our own questions represent? Do they stem from doubt and antagonism, or from genuine interest and trust? Do we seek an understanding that will give us control, that will leave no loose ends or doubts or worries? Do we see questions as attacks? Or do we spend time in patient contemplation, holding seeming contradictions in creative tension and waiting for God’s inspiration?

To escape the vicious cycle of destructive questions, we should turn to Mary. Like her, we should seek to understand. Like her, we should ponder deeply what we do not understand. And like her, we need to be open to God and let his grace break into our lives in surprising ways.


Image: Adobe Stock. By Stanislav.

Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE). New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

Discerning good questions from bad questions
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