THE PROFESSION OF FAITH
“I BELIEVE” — “WE BELIEVE”
26 We begin our profession of faith by saying: “I believe” or “We believe.” Before expounding the Church’s faith, as confessed in the Creed, celebrated in the liturgy, and lived in observance of God’s commandments and in prayer, we must first ask what “to believe” means. Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life. Thus we shall consider first that search (Chapter One), then the divine Revelation by which God comes to meet man (Chapter Two), and finally the response of faith (Chapter Three).
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And so we begin the “doctrinal” journal through the Catechism with a statement of priorities, the most critical one—not surprisingly—being man’s ability to comprehend and embrace God in the act we call “faith.” The Catechism, as a Church teaching text, begins with the understanding that there is indeed a God, a personal God at that. The mystery of para. 26 is the nature of man’s response to God, the miracle of faith. If the Catechism was a free-standing theological exposition of belief for a world audience of all peoples, it would have needed to address what we called in school “the God question.” Paras. 31-34 will address “ways of coming to know God,” but again the assumption in the texts is the very existence of God; the Catechism’s interest here is in Christian anthropology—how human beings, by natural and supernatural means, comes to embrace the living and saving God.
Those very qualities of God, however—supernatural, living, saving—are the qualities of a God who is. The presupposition of the Catechism—all religious activity, actually—is the very existence of the divine. If the idea of atheism is coming into your head, I would agree that there are a lot of individuals who hold steadfastly to the hypothesis that there is no God. Their organized persistence at it takes on some of the trappings of religion itself in some settings. The point here, though, is the pronounced rejection of an all-powerful being.
I do not believe that atheism is a major challenge to “organized” religion, and certainly not to Roman Catholicism. In fact, the philosophers of atheism today continue to raise the kinds of questions Catholics should be asking. I came across an “atheist take” on the “God question” spanning two millennia. Epicurus (d. 270 BC) is credited with the first expounding of the problem of evil. David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779 AD) cited Epicurus in stating the argument as a series of questions: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
Once you get past the queasy feeling about asking probing questions of the deity, both Epicurus and Hume summarize the more critical “God question” that we hope the Catechism can address in a convincing way: the nature of evil. Interestingly several Biblical authors do something of the same thing. Most notably, in the second creation account in Genesis, the author(s) describe Eve’s encounter with the snake in the Garden of Eden. “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” In contradiction to the good nuns who taught me that the serpent was actually the devil in reptilian clothing, the Biblical texts of creation and early history make no mention of outside forces of evil.
I suspect that a significant majority of Catholics believe in God, but that under close scrutiny this belief is very similar to the Deist belief of many of our American Founding Fathers, who readily acknowledged God as the first cause, the being who made the master watch and established its multiple mechanics (with an assist, perhaps, from Sir Isaac Newton, among others), wound it good and tight, and then stepped back to let life on earth and throughout the cosmos play out its course. However, there is a sizeable minority of Catholics—and all thoughtful people of good will—who behold this world’s evil in microcosmic or macrocosmic ways, and who labor to reconcile the brutality of humanity with God’s “job description.” This struggle with God is not atheism; in fact, those who wrestle with doubts about God’s role manifest true faith in things unseen, attempting the purposeful reconciliation of God’s wisdom and goodness with suffering on a planetary scale.
Because I read a great deal of history, I have become aware over the years of the sheer immensity of fatalities and sufferings from wars limited just to the twentieth century. As a religion teacher I have studied the Holocaust in great detail, numbers and facts dwarfed by individual stories and some magnificent works of art, such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Diary of Anne Frank. More recently in time I have followed the coverage of the Catholic priest scandal, first in Boston and then around the country. (The Boston story is the subject of the new movie, “Spotlight;” its trailer is here.) And in my own life, my stepson was killed 14 years ago by a drunk driver.
I can honestly say that I never “lost my faith.” At some level I knew, in that irrational way, that there is a God whose ways I don’t understand, despite a lifetime of reflection. But the contemporary daily carnage of cruelties, starvation, relocations, and the inability of us humans to work out our issues between one another has always been the Achilles heel of my faith: how the plan of a good God has so much wreckage along the way. Paragraph 26 promises that its successive entries on faith will address our interactive life with God, who “reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life.” Hopefully, there will be equal time and equal help for those seeking the ultimate meaning of God’s life and purpose as well. To seek discovery in the one we love is the fruit of desire, not arrogance.