You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is without measure. And man, so small a part of your creation, wants to praise you: this man, though clothed with mortality and bearing the evidence of sin and the proof that you withstand the proud. Despite everything, man, though but a small part of your creation, wants to praise you. You yourself encourage him to delight in your praise, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
Paragraph 30 presents the conundrum between belief in the infinite desire of God to draw all beings to himself, on the one hand, and the free will of man to reject this offer from God on the other hand. As in para. 29 the writing is a bit ambiguous—documents produced by a committee often are—and we bounce a bit between God’s initiative and man’s. The opening line comes from Psalm 5, and it introduces a paragraph in which the action or agency of man receives significant emphasis. Man is called by God, but it is up to man to make every effort of intellect as well as a sound will (or mind and heart), and to live with “an upright heart” (morally) and attentive to the witness of others who teach the importance of seeking God.
The second paragraph is a protracted text from the Confessions of St. Augustine, one of the greatest works in the library of Christian literature. (As of today’s post, sales of the Penguin edition of the Confessions is rated #800 in Amazon’s entire inventory of millions of books). Augustine will be the source for 87 paragraphs throughout the Catechism, so it is worth our while to focus for a moment on Augustine’s position in history, particularly his thoughts and writings on the relationship of God’s will to man’s will.
Augustine (354-430 AD) was a native of North Africa. In the days prior to Islam, North African civilization was robust economically and intellectually, though young men seeking higher learning traveled to Rome for advanced studies. Augustine’s relationship with his mother Monica is fairly well known. A devout Christian herself, she nonetheless did not have her son baptized at infancy but prayed earnestly for his own adult embrace of baptism. It was customary in Augustine’s day to postpone baptism until adulthood, in some cases to the point to death, because of the sacrament’s power to forgive all sin. Augustine reportedly prayed for the gift of chastity, but with the added sentiment, “but not yet.”
From his Confessions and biographers, Augustine’s biggest sin appears to be a misplaced certitude in the pagan doctrine of Manicheism, a belief that truth and purity resided only in the spiritual world. Such a school of teaching would contribute to a pride and aloofness from the concerns of this world. Augustine finally encountered the brilliant St. Ambrose of Milan, who refuted his arguments and introduced him to the integrity of the Christian Creed. Ambrose baptized Augustine at the Milanese Easter Vigil of 387, described dramatically in Gary Wills’ Font of Life.
Augustine returned to his native North Africa a different man, and in due course became the bishop of Hippo. A brilliant thinker and writer, over the years Augustine produced an immense library of writings, which included sermons, theological tracts, commentaries on scripture, and a majestic definition of the Church, The City of God, a response to wholesale disarray among Christians when the barbarian prince Alaric overran the city of Rome in 410. He maintained a friendship with St. Jerome, the author of the Latin Vulgate Bible used at Mass until 1970. It is not too much of a stretch to say, as many do, that all of Catholic Theology is a footnote to St. Augustine.
For sixteen centuries Catholic thinkers have debated one of the key issues of Augustinian thought: the power of God and man’s utter need for God’s intervening redemption. The failure to reach a satisfactory explanation of God’s power in human existence is probably a main cause of the Reformation, as Church practice endorsed the idea that man could effect salvation by his own actions, as in the acts associated with indulgences. Martin Luther, by contrast, found in the text of St. Paul the principle that man is saved by faith, not works, and that this faith is a free and unfettered gift-act of God. In Lutheran thought, the Christian is saved by full faith in what God is doing for him and in him.
It is hard to know exactly where Augustine adopted this primitive Lutheran construct. It is most likely that Augustine was a highly self-conscious individual who regretted the prideful arrogance of his Manichee days as well as his ongoing struggles with chastity after Baptism. It is true that Augustine came to believe that while baptism forgave sin, it did not remove the desire to sin, or the technical term concupiscence. Augustine’s anthropology has been interpreted as somewhat negative toward the creation of man, a sentiment that would work its way into his scriptural interpretation of the Adam and Eve account. Thus the term “original sin” (or Adam’s biologically transmitted sinfulness) entered Catholic usage and led to the baptism of infants, not for the sins they had committed but for the sinful condition they had inherited.
If Augustine held that man could do little or no good of his own volition, he was opposed by the British theologian Pelagius, who argued that the human moral will was capable of free acts of good or evil. Wikipedia’s description of Pelagianism is quite accurate and useful. Pelagius in fact never said that man could win salvation independently of God; rather, he argued—with considerable merit—that God has created man in such a way that the human person is capable of excellent moral acts. He does note that God’s grace is helpful, and thus does not close the argument by defining how much of or to what degree God’s grace or saving influence determines human actions.
The Catechism takes the middle ground in acknowledging that God originates the desire for himself in the very way that man is created, and that man of his nature seeks union with God constitutionally. That said, the Catechism gives considerable weight to what a man must do in response to this divine attraction, and throughout subsequent paragraphs will affirm that man does indeed possess the power to refuse the divine call, a statement that man can in no way be considered a puppet of the divine.