Paragraph 41 continues the Catechism’s teaching on the natural knowability of God. The emphasis here is placed upon the innate goodness of creatures—their truth, goodness, beauty. The text makes an intriguing claim—that “we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfection as our starting point.” And while para. 41 is rich in its theology, a good deal of spadework must be undertaken to engage in its wisdom and avoid significant misunderstandings.
The source text or footnote is Wisdom 13:5; the Book of Wisdom falls into the classification of Hebrew Scripture texts known as “Wisdom Literature.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) places the date of composition as late in the first century before Christ, making it possibly the last book of the Hebrew Scripture, and curiously, a text that apparently was never written in Hebrew. Its place of authorship was most likely Egypt and its language Greek, the universal language at the time for intellectual discourse.
The JBC commentator on the Book of Wisdom, Addison G. Wright, provides an interesting commentary on the unknown author’s theological intent in writing Chapter 13, a text subtitled “A Digression on False Worship” in the New American Bible (1992). Wright points out a developing conflict on the nature of God resulting from the intermingling of Hebrew and Greek thought after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It is hard for us today to understand how the God of Israel contrasted in concept from the Greek concept of God we use in Western Christian theology. As Wright puts it, “Israel’s knowledge of God was derived not from rational arguments but from the experience of God’s saving acts on Israel’s behalf. The Greeks, on the other hand, strove to know God in a philosophical manner.” (p. 519)
Wright explains that the Wisdom author was actually trying to combine the two in the text cited in the Catechism. Chapter 13 of Wisdom is divided between the errors of nature worship and idol worship. Wisdom is actually more understanding of those who see gods in the works of nature, including animals, and there are clues of Aristotle’s thinking that the created thing reflects the one who made it. Wisdom 13:5 reads “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” It is interesting that the NAB translation, a Roman Catholic enterprise, uses the word “analogy,” a term that has rich usage over the history of Catholic theology.
Para. 41 attributes admirable qualities to “creatures.” Is the Catechism referring to animals in a special way? It would seem so. I came across a noted scholar who has researched the issue of animals in the Bible, Joshua M. Moritz. His 2009 journal piece, “Animals in the Image of God in the Bible and Beyond,” is available for free and worth saving in your resources file. Moritz covers both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, but I will limit myself to a sampling of his Hebrew observations today. He observes, first of all, that the act of Creation was theocentric, not anthropocentric—that is, God’s bestowing of being and life extends to everything. Creation is not simply a tale of man and his accessories. The Genesis vocabulary speaks of God gift of life, or basar, as infused in man and animals.
In the six-day creation narrative, God moves in concentric circles of importance, so to speak, from taming the chaos and creating sun and moon, to the sixth day, when God crowns his work by creating both animals and humans and bids them all to be fruitful and multiply. What I found more remarkable was the Israelite sense of “animal morality, so to speak.” The serpent, for example, “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made,” is just as severely punished as Adam and Eve, in that the snake would be singled out as the most odious of all creatures (akin to Cain, a few paragraphs later?) and would be cursed by having to make do with no legs, which makes one wonder what serpents looked life before this fateful day in the Garden of Eden. Animals, like humans, are cursed with mortality, a point made in Ecclesiastes 3:19.
We know from the second creation account that God allowed Adam to name the animals, and it is common to hear interpreters speak of this naming as “domination.” Moritz argues that the naming is more symbolic of relationship, more along the lines of naming a child. “Naming” assumes great intimacy, as the name given is symbolic of the full quality and distinct characteristics. If man was given authority to name, it was because he understood the nature and destiny of what he was naming. There is a very real kinship here, long before Greeks and Christians introduced the concept of “soul” and thus made it near impossible to theologize on the shared destinies of man and animals.
Moritz points out that animals were included in the Covenant of God with ancient Israel. The Noah’s Ark story, after all, describes (mythically) the deluge punishment of both man and beast. When the flood waters receded and Noah offered sacrifice, God made a solemn promise never to destroy all living things, i.e., man and animals. When the Law became more detailed, the life and well-being of animals was spelled out: a mother bird could not be sold and separated from her offspring, an ox could not be muzzled, mutilating and castrating were prohibited, etc. Animals could be punished for transgressions of the Law, too; an ox who gored a human was sentenced to death.
In the best of all worlds, Hebrews would not have eaten any meat. Where necessary an animal could be butchered, but there were strict provisions about its life-giving blood, which could not be consumed. The devout Jew was reminded that animals belonged to God, and that their birth, life, and death were matters of intense interest to him. Moritz reminds us, too, that the sacrifice of animals in worship was not just symbolic; there was an actual substitution of lives taking place for the forgiveness of sins. In perhaps the most touching sentiment of his treatment, Moritz writes that “as a sacrificial surrogate, the blood of animals is taken in lieu of human blood. As our silent stand-ins and faithful friends, animals liberate and rescue us as they pay with their lives for the covenants we break.” This principle of Jewish theology underwrites the Catholic Mass where the lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
It is also true that the apocalyptic or future oriented writers of the Hebrew Scriptures envisioned the glorious days to come as a holy reunion of man and animals. Hosea (2:18) writes that “In that day I will also make a covenant for them; with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the earth; and will make them lie down in safety.” Whether the Catechism authors of para. 41 understood the full implication of the text it cites is hard to know, but if the point of para. 41 is to see the glory of God in his creatures, it is also true that creatures teach us something of our own image, too.