Paragraph 58 brings together a description of the primitive grasp of God's revelation and saving work in the pre-history phase of mankind and then proceeds to explain how this material from early Genesis impacted the New Testament authors and ultimately the Church's understanding of salvation for those who, through no fault of their own, never heard the saving message of Christ. The Catechism text returns to the famous figure of Noah as seen in Paragraph 56, for the full saga of Noah is so laden with meaning that one can hardly do justice to its content.
The paragraph opens with reference to God's covenant with Noah after the flood, and how this covenant was in force for the Gentiles for the entire period down through the proclamation. It may be helpful here to provide a link to Genesis 9 to look at the terms of God’s early covenant with Noah and his family. This link, by the way, connects to the USCCB’s Bible resources, and offers both excellent translation and brief but helpful commentary.
This Chapter 9 is the famous “rainbow text” in which God seals his covenant with a rainbow, the promise he will never destroy life upon the earth again through the agency of a flood. The language of the covenant is strikingly similar to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2; one gets the feeling that God indeed is starting over with the “humanity project.” God calls upon the children of Noah to people the earth once again, but this covenant is more detailed in terms of the ethics God invokes, most notably a concern for life of animals and of humans. For our purposes, the most striking verse is 9:9, where God states that he is establishing this covenant with Noah and his descendants after him. Again in 9:17 God reiterates that the covenant of life extends to “all mortal creatures that are on the earth.”
Para. 58 goes out of its way to extend this universality of God’s covenant “during the time of the Gentiles.” The Catechism text goes on to cite a variety of Biblical personages who were themselves Gentiles or at least were not easily recognized as Israelites. This is an eclectic roll: Abel, Melchisedek, and of course Noah himself are characters who lived prior to Abraham and the beginnings of Israel’s religious identity. Daniel and Job are figures from much later, but their literary identification with Abraham’s covenant is not pronounced, and the Catechism editors have no problem with lumping them into the litany of “good Gentiles.”
The point of para. 58 is found in the final sentence, where we read that holy men can (and did) achieve the “heights of sanctity” by living according to the universal covenant of God with Noah, a covenant revealed before the encounter of God and Abraham with the establishment of an Israelite creed and worship. The thrust of para. 58, then, is a return to a segment of the Catechism we examined some months ago—paragraphs 31-35, among others—that God has created man with an innate capacity to know and do good, and even to recognize the reality of a supreme and loving being. In this section of the Catechism the Church is pointing out the possibility of salvation through revelation to all those of good will.
Certainly para. 58 does not envision a religious universe without the Law of Christ and the saving actions of his Church. The final, binding covenant of redemption will always be defined as the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross, with our repeated ratification in eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharistic memorial. The text, in fact, puts something of a sunset law on the binding of Noah’s covenant, noting its run till “the universal proclamation of the Gospel.” Several of the Gospels conclude precisely with Jesus’ command that the good news of salvation be preached to the ends of the earth.
Preaching “to the ends of the earth” is a reality with much food for reflection. Certainly for much of the Church’s history the command was understood with geographic overtones, which is why one of the Café’s featured works at the moment, Reformations, (see home page) goes to great lengths to describe the heroic missionary efforts of European missionaries in both the Americas and the Far East. The implication here would seem to be new opportunities for those in remote lands who had never heard of Christ, and it was easily grasped by Catholics in virtually every age. The horrors of the tortures of St. Isaac Jogues and the “North American Martyrs” in the 1600’s in fact inspired many idealistic Catholic clergy, and eventually religious women, to preach the Gospel at great risk among hostile peoples enraged by European colonial influence and the importation of new diseases such as small pox.
It is safe to say, at any rate, that the command to preach the new Covenant of Christ was an easily grasped mandate for the Church, at least until relatively modern times. After the two world wars and the Holocaust, however, Catholicism in France went into a serious post-war decline for multiple reasons; in France, for example, the blue collar laborers came to believe that the Church was insensitive to working-class needs. Church participation declined as sentiment for the Church itself fell precariously. In 1947 a highly controversial work appeared as France: pays de mission? (France, mission country?) The discussion that followed this book was heated and intense, lasting until Vatican II. One of the by-products was the so-called French Worker Priest movement, where clerics labored alongside longshoremen to reconnect with those who had lost faith in an aristocratic episcopacy.
This was a new concept of mission, a “re-evangelization” of a land once called “The Daughter of the Church.” The argument can certainly be made that in 2016, the Catholic Church faced (and faces) similar alienation in much of the West, including the United States. The term “New Evangelization” was recognized by Pope Benedict XVII in 2013 and implemented by the USCCB at its website. Pope Francis has been, if anything, more arduous in awakening the Church to new vigor, particularly in terms of justice and mercy.
The final sentence of para. 58 describes the ultimate goal of Christ’s coming as the gathering of the scattered children of God who are scattered abroad. It is no longer distance that scatters us; it is loss of hope, confusion of mission, and the ever present reality of sin that scatters us. We are, to be sure, the disoriented sons of Noah, no less in need of God’s final saving covenant.