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!”