If you are looking for the next paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, can you hold out till July 21? I am on summer schedule and will post personally as possible, so check in as your summer schedule allows. We'll get back to routine in mid-July.
50 By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works. But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation.1 Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Paragraph 50 opens a new section under the title “Revelation of God.” After a brief introductory sentence which recapitulates the previous section on the natural ability of man to know God, attention turns to “another order of knowledge…the Order of Divine Revelation.” The footnote takes us back to the Council Vatican I (1867-1870), which is the first post-Enlightenment Council or Council of the Industrial Age, and this in turn may provide the reader with some considerations on the nature of the teaching.
In the context of the Catechism, this paragraph is the first to draw a major distinction between natural and divine knowledge. If previous paragraphs had been generous in attributing to man a remarkable capacity to come to a knowledge of God, para. 50ff will “put us in our place,” so to speak, with the assertion that there is a world of knowledge impossible to access, namely God’s gift of redemption.
If we look carefully at the text, the knowledge inherent to man is the existence of God. The knowledge unattainable to man is the reality of God’s plan and action, as well as his infinite well of love. This twofold nature of knowledge of God is consistent with St. Thomas and the scholastics of the high Middle Ages, who like Aristotle put forth the contention that observation or scientific method could lead to a knowledge of the infinite, or in Aristotle’s thought, the necessity of a first mover. The ability to know something of the personal nature of God, however, was considered beyond human capacity. In fact, if God’s revealed knowledge (i.e., intentions) were accessible as observable science, the very fact of Jesus Christ would have been rendered superfluous.
Those of you who read the “Sacramental Saturday” posts may remember that a significant component in the development of sacramental theology is the description of each sacrament as conveying an “invisible reality” through outward signs. The idea of a metaphysical reality beyond human experience was introduced several centuries after Christ when thinkers such as Augustine wondered why one did not always “feel” different after a sacramental experience. In Augustine’s case, he still felt inclined to sin after his conversion. His generation of theologians would have argued that the invisible and unknown grace of God—never changing—connected to that part of human life equally unknown and never changing, i.e., the human soul. Certain sacraments marked the soul (again, the unchanging essence of man) with a “seal of identity—notably baptism/confirmation and orders. Whether one “felt” the experience was somewhat secondary to the metaphysical reality that it happened. Hence the terms “receiving sacraments” or “administering sacraments” passed into the Christian jargon.
Para. 50, then, establishes two points: that it is impossible for man to know God’s intent without divine revelation, and that humans live in two religious dimensions, so to speak, the flexible human condition and the timeless and changeless nature of the soul. This paragraph opens the door to numerous questions, including the process of communicating God’s knowledge and the human’s degree of power in accepting or rejecting what God has revealed. It is unfortunate here that the Catechism does not go into the nature of faith or belief, and grace, the term for God’s infusion of life-giving love, though it will do so further down the text.
This paragraph calls forth an assertion of faith from the reader that he/she accepts the anthropology set forth here: that we are created with corruptible and incorruptible natures, and that we live in an ongoing flux between what we know from science and experience and what we believe as unprovable truth in the metaphysical realm. Although this anthropological model is still at the heart of Catholic official belief today, it has never been without challenge. There are two extremes within the Catholic experience on this question—those who would hold that all of Catholic doctrine and life is metaphysical and depends upon blind faith; and those who put heavy stock into human emotion and experience as the ultimate divine experience as well. The late medieval mystic Thomas a Kempis said that he would much rather feel compunction than know its definition.
Going back to the footnote from Vatican I (1870) the Church was coming off of several centuries, probably dating back to the late Renaissance and certainly the Enlightenment, in which “modern man” was clearly chafing under the body-soul dynamic and everything it implied. Galileo’s telescope and subsequent writings were seen by the Church as an assault upon the invisible revealed truth of God (by contradicting the cosmos described in the Bible). Closer to Vatican I, Charles Darwin’s writings on the origins of the human species was an even greater danger to the body-soul definition of man, for Darwin’s conclusions both contradicted Biblical revealed truth about the origins of man as the Bible was then understood, and then created doubt over the precise time and place that humans acquired invisible spiritual souls.
It was at this juncture that Vatican I was called, not simply to reaffirm the Tradition of Church teaching, but to empower the Bishop of Rome with new and stronger weapons in the face of modern challenges, specifically the declaration of papal infallibility.
It is worth noting here that despite Vatican I, the twentieth century would see an age of theological exploration, and one of the discipline’s most significant projects would be in the area of Christian anthropology and the nature of interaction between God and man.
44 Man is by nature and vocation a religious being. Coming from God, going toward God, man lives a fully human life only if he freely lives by his bond with God.
45 Man is made to live in communion with God in whom he finds happiness: When I am completely united to you, there will be no more sorrow or trials; entirely full of you, my life will be complete (St. Augustine, Conf. 10, 28, 39: PL 32, 795}.
46 When he listens to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience, man can arrive at certainty about the existence of God, the cause and the end of everything.
47 The Church teaches that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty from his works, by the natural light of human reason (cf. Vatican Council I, can. 2 § 1: DS 3026),
48 We really can name God, starting from the manifold perfections of his creatures, which are likenesses of the infinitely perfect God, even if our limited language cannot exhaust the mystery.
49 Without the Creator, the creature vanishes (GS 36). This is the reason why believers know that the love of Christ urges them to bring the light of the living God to those who do not know him or who reject him.
I have lumped together six paragraphs, including para. 44 which was already treated as a stand-alone entry a few weeks ago. In the full text of the Catechism, these six statements are cited as summary statements for the chapter, “Man’s Capacity for God.” I felt that at this juncture we can stand back and take a look at the style and principles that undergird the texts of the Catechism itself, and the general conclusion of this section, that man can naturally know God.
The introductory material focuses on the basic question of the nature of man, his creation and his innate ability to know God naturally. The belief that man was capable of achieving knowledge of the existence of God when he “listens to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience” as stated in para. 46 is a staple of the scholastic medieval theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and his peers in the thirteenth century. The age of Aquinas, however, is considerably different from our own—medieval Christians lived with a view of the cosmos that was biblical in its origins. Aquinas was not writing for a hostile agnostic or atheistic world in his day, but rather to bring order and cohesion to the natural and divine world. Christianity was the coinage of the mind, at least the Western European portion of it.
When I read any Church document, my first place to look is at the sources. In our sequence here, no one from the thirteenth century is mentioned by name (Aquinas, Albert, Bonaventure, for example) but this not surprising, for the concise and direct para. 47, which indeed gets to the heart of the matter, provides as its sources the teachings of Vatican I (1869-1870), immediately installed into the Church’s collections of beliefs and decrees known as “Denzinger” or DS. That Thomas was seen as the mastermind of Catholic thought in the days of Vatican I cannot be denied. In fact, in 1879 Pope Leo XIII defined Aquinas’s theology as a “definitive exposition of Catholic Doctrine” and the backbone of seminary training and theological research.
[An interesting aside is this nineteenth century source cited in para. 47, the Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum, symbolized as DS, by Heinrich Denzinger. His first catalogue was published in 1854 and, as I understand it, is continually updated through the present day, though its use is limited to reference and historical research. Prior to Vatican II DS would have been the historical last word on Church doctrine.]
Thus the Catechism embraces the teaching that the existence of God is naturally known to man, at least in terms of cause and end. Para 47 clarifies this by stating that God can be known with certainty from his works, by the natural light of human reason. Aquinas, at least to the degree that he was understood in 1870, is the primary source here. (Neo-Thomism or neo-Scholasticism began a renewal of Aquinas’s thought beginning in the 1890’s that continues through this day.) Given that the Catechism has chosen to defend a nineteenth century model of divine interaction with man, it may be interesting to look at the reasons that governed the editorial process.
In the first instance, the Church had been rocked by new philosophies that challenged the Thomistic synthesis of reason. This revolution is often said to begin with the seventeenth century Rene Descartes and his famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” In truth what Descartes and four later centuries of philosophers set out to do was to change the perceived order of reality in the direction of subjectivity and human experience separate from religious experience. Vatican I took place in the age of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx, to name just a few of the post-Enlightenment thinkers. While many such philosophers, certainly Nietzsche, were religious men, their world view did not include Biblical Revelation or doctrinal systems, which they variously rejected as mythic, unscientific, or oppressive.
A second issue of the day involved the nature of subjective religious experience. The post-Reformation Catholic Church had strengthened itself against Protestant onslaughts by a clear reformulation of its doctrines and rites along the lines of the medieval scholastic era. This would result in reduction of abuses and better clarity of Church teaching; the practical effect would be a degree of strictness in such things as sacramental rites that emptied the element of human experience or compunction from these celebrations of grace.
The Church’s decision to take the scholastic route led a number of believers to seek out church experience of high emotion, in the way that Aristotle defined the best tragedies as moments of emotional catharsis. A very good example in England and here in the United States is the Methodist movement of George Whitfield and John Wesley. Methodist worship is noted for its roots in powerful hymns and preaching, but sometimes overlooked is its extraordinary living of the social Gospel and works for the poor, responsibilities of all its members. I am not familiar with the state of Methodism today, but in its origins this Christian community understood God’s grace to be mediated in a context of intense personal involvement and experience.
I would like to make two points here about our own Catechism. The first is a question—offered in full respect—of whether the document in its 1870-ish style of delivery and structure is intended to engage the world as a form of missionary message, or is it a kind of parameter of thought? Is God self-evident? Is the expectation of its authors that all humans will naturally come to accept the reality of God?
And second, if it is so ordained that all people will know God, what is the precise way of knowing? Is it through the logical “proofs” of thirteenth century philosophers? Or does knowledge of the heart of affections have legitimacy in Catholic belief?
These are heavy questions, but they live at the heart of anything related to any form of religious exercise, Catholic or otherwise. Legitimacy of personal faith rests on our addressing this crucible. If Catholicism was played like Monopoly, you can’t collect your $200 without first passing “GO!”