An Encouraging Word — Embracing ambiguity

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live. Deuteronomy 30:19

Fr. Ron Knott.2012-wA bishop from the upper Midwest told me recently that what he looks for in a seminarian is a high tolerance for ambiguity, in contrast to a rigid thinker with an authoritarian mindset.

Why? Because life is complicated and parishes are becoming more complex along with the culture. The priest will be much happier, the people will be much happier and the bishop himself will be much happier if they are spared the fallout from the inability to tolerate ambiguity. The clean-ups that inevitably follow a priest who cannot handle ambiguity keep many personnel boards and bishops busy.

I was reminded of a phrase I had seen in “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on the initial formation and ongoing formation of priests. He teaches that priests need to be “men of communion;” “bridges, not obstacles;” men who can “respect the legitimate diversities in the church;” men who are “not too bound up in their own preferences and points of view” and men “free from authoritarianism and demagoguery.”

This harkens back to the teaching in the “Document on Priests” from Vatican Council II which said that it is the task of the pastor to “reconcile differences in mentality in such a way that no one feels himself a stranger in the community of the faith.”

With all that said, on one hand a priest is called to balance his tolerance for ambiguity with being “a strenuous defender of the truth, lest the faithful be tossed about by every kind of wind and opinion.”

In other words, he walks a thin line between two extremes: authoritarianism and the abdication of rightful authority. A pastor with a low tolerance for ambiguity tends to flee to one extreme or the other to escape the tension.

When I was researching the idea of “tolerance for ambiguity,” I came across an online test to see how I scored. I suspected I would score high. I scored 9.5 out of 10. I believe that my high tolerance for ambiguity is one of the biggest reasons why I have been quite happy in a church that has changed so much in my lifetime.

For me, everything does not have to be clear and simple. I do not need absolute answers for complex questions and people do not have to make sense all the time for me to function in this church.

It occurred to me that this is the same characteristic that effective marriage partners and parents must have, as well. It appears to be a delicate balance between individual good and common good, responsibility and freedom, trust and verification.

Since neither spouses, parents or children are perfect, for all those who are involved in the delicate structures of marriage and family, a high tolerance for ambiguity appears to be essential.

Father J. Ronald Knott

1 Comment

  • I agree with you however didn’t Jesus say that He was the only way to the Father? And if i believe that then are not all other religions deceived in their belief that they are the only one Because all other religions did not have a empty grave. If i truly believe that Jesus rose from the grave and sits at the right hand of the Father then i build my belief on that foundation and if not then is not all i believe in wrong?

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