The critical phrase in Paragraph 51 is most likely the assertion that “men [sic] should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit….” The primary footnote source is Vatican II’s Dei Verbum or the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, with supplementary sourcing from several New Testament Epistles. The concept of God’s freely chosen will to create and love is as old as the Church itself, of course, and some form of this belief probably dates into the pagan pre-Christian era.
There are in the present time a number of individuals who do not believe in God. There are others who acknowledge the existence of an all-powerful God but do not believe that God is a factor in human experience. Others, including most of our founding fathers, credited God with creating the world but then stepping aside to let humans run the show. None of these positions dare to proclaim that man “has access to God” in the very nature of everyday life. Access is a very valuable thing. One need only look to Washington where elected and appointed officers retire or suffer defeat, only to be hired by private companies or interest groups wishing to gain access to the wheels of government with the help of those who know the players.
In government, buying access is recognized for what it is. Para. 51 stands the concept on its head, explaining that the very mystery of God’s goodness and wisdom is his desire to let us know that in his love he wishes us to have access to ultimate Trinitarian goodness—through the nature of our very creation, through his perfect example in his Son, and in the permanent presence and life of the Holy Spirit. The access demands no price aside from recognizing it and adopting a humble life of prayer to receive it. In next Sunday’s Gospel, a man imposes upon his neighbor a very inconvenient request for access—specifically to his bread box—and despite some grumbling by the homeowner, the access is granted, no strings attached. Godly folks grant access to one another because this is precisely how God welcomes us.
One of the great challenges of catechetics—of Christian living in general, for that matter—is understanding and teaching the concept and experience of access to God. Before I left for my vacation I downloaded a brand new release to my Kindle, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 by Carlos M.N. Eire and released last month by Yale University Press. Eire’s work treats of the Reformation, the century before and the century after Martin Luther’s dramatic arrival upon the religious scene in 1517. Don’t be frightened by its size, nearly one thousand pages. As historical treatments go, this is a page turner.
In order to set the table for what we call today the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation, Eire examines what I might call the “history of Divine access” in the Catholic centuries leading to the sixteenth. He isolates four varieties of access. The first, not surprisingly, is the medieval scholasticism of the universities and the great thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, which endured as a force up to the time of Luther and beyond. The scholastics understood religious experience as a logical unity of proofs by which the trained student would come to a rational understanding of God and the universe.
Side by side with the scholastic experience—enjoyed primarily by the scholars, lawyers, and clerics of the time---was the devotional life of lay Christians, built around the art of cathedrals, simple prayers, feasts, and the liturgy. As the middle ages progressed, the hunger for greater access to God led to a large number of intense, lay-populated, movements of penance and devotion, with a rise in emotional, affective and mystical experiences, including visions. The early such movements found a home within the Church, the Franciscans among the most successful. However, many of the later lay devotional groups became more antagonistic toward the scholarly and legal structure of the ruling Church, particularly when physical force was brought to bear upon some lay leaders/reformers by what we now call the Inquisition.
The third and fourth movements toward greater access to God would probably not have been possible without the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the widespread availability of better (i.e., older) texts of the Bible, the Fathers of the Christian Church of the first four centuries, and the classical pagan masterpieces of philosophy and religion. The late middle ages saw the rise of a new intellectual and philosophical movement called “humanism,” and by the time of the Renaissance all men of letters—including many Catholic clergy—understood themselves to be on a quest back to a golden age of truth and purity, in both religious and cultural terms. A good Christian education in, say, 1480, would have included fluency in the languages of antiquity, notably Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
Humanists were the first to consciously understand themselves as emerging from a “middle age” of darkness and deviation, where the Church had wandered from its pristine origins and practice into excessive rationality and ritual. Humanists returned to primitive sources—both textually and religiously—to recover a pure spirituality upon which a promising future could be built. The discovery of America, numerous scientific breakthroughs, burgeoning nationalistic feelings, and a new economic system added to this mood of spiritual optimism in which, to quote the psalm, “man was little less than the angels.” After all, mankind now had general access to Christ’s very words in the reader’s own language as well as the wisdom of the founders of Christianity. The first wave of humanists understood that the Roman Catholic Church was in need of reform, to be sure, but they optimistically believed that the Church now possessed a better roadmap for righting its wrongs.
This optimism came under question by our fourth group, the “later humanists,” who were wise enough to perceive that the science of history is very much influenced by the mood, biases, and perceptions of historians themselves. This group was more critical of the ancient texts, noting that close examination of the New Testament, for example, revealed a number of the same struggles that faced the Church of the sixteenth century. Moreover, many of the ancient writers had been very critical of the human species (think Augustine), and the humanist pursuit of ancient spirituality and wisdom could actually lead to a more pessimistic assessment of the condition of man, vis-à-vis his neighbor and his God.
The most famous (or infamous) of the later humanists was Niccolo Machiavelli, well versed in the ancient literature but witness to brutal war and later tortured by the Medici’s in the convoluted political circumstances of sixteenth century Italy. Drawing no doubt from his reading of history and certainly from his own hard experience, Machiavelli produced The Prince, the enduring treatise on what we would call today statecraft. It is devoid of ideals and practical to a fault—our adjective “Machiavellian” is no compliment—but, religiously speaking, it is a good example of the depression of a man who, at some point in his early life, had earnestly believed the humanists’ credo that access to God was simply a matter of association with a glorious age that, frankly, never existed.