39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.
With apologies to Mother Angelica, who earnestly believed that concerns about inclusive Church language were part of “the plot,” the English translation of Paragraph 39 does itself no favors here. Of course, para. 39 is hardly the sole offending party here—this linguistic problem plagues the entire collection—but here we find a statement of confidence in the Church’s ability to speak of God precisely with all (uh, men?).
This paragraph is unsourced, but its language smacks strongly of several Vatican II documents and the letters of Pope John XXIII. It is hard to imagine this sentiment in any formal document prior to Vatican II. In fact, John’s predecessor, Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) famously excommunicated all Catholic Communists, for example. Vatican II broke the centuries old modus operandi of Church relations with those not in communion with Rome and repositioned the Church in a humbler, missionary stance toward the world at large.
In truth, the sentiments of para. 39 and its origins in Vatican II were too late in coming. Pope John’s reasoning in calling the Council in 1959 was precisely the Church’s increasing inability to talk to the world or to be taken seriously. The twentieth century’s two world wars and the Holocaust gestated in the historical heart of Christianity, Western Europe. The dialogue spoken of in para. 39 was considered, until very recent times, a dangerous and unbecoming practice for Roman Catholicism.
The Catholic moralist James Keenan summarizes the “classical Catholic stance” that is still maintained even today by many, and why the dialogue referred to in para. 39 is such a break from the past. “…As God is, so is God’s teaching. God is eternal, unchanging, universally the same. Similarly, God’s willed teachings have the same quality. Second, the Church is the guardian of that deposit of the truth: her leaders cannot change Church teaching because they must not undermine God’s will. Their role is to promote and proclaim again and again the constant teaching of the Church. Third, for this reason the credibility of the Church is known for its constancy; were the Church to change established teachings, it would jeopardize the grounds of confidence that the faithful have in her. Fourthly, the reason why people do not adhere to the truth is not because they do not or cannot understand it, or that it is unreasonable. Rather, the innate weaknesses and wickedness of human beings hinder their ability to follow the law of God. Thus call for reform of the law is a charade. No one wants to reform the law but rather to abandon its claim on us.” (A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century, 112)
This extended quote from Father Keenan reminds me of the old adage, if you think of yourself as a hammer, the whole world looks like nails. Father Keenan has correctly summarized the essentials of how the old guard Curialists would have viewed the responsibilities of the Church on the eve of Vatican II, and why it fought so vigorously against the reforms proposed by Pope John and the majority of Council bishops who were not comfortable exercising their Apostolic ministries as sledgehammers.
Para. 39 is not quite the ringing endorsement of earlier paragraphs about the inherent dignity and worth of all humans “created in the image of God,” but it does not imply bad will to those whose conclusions on the things of God may be different or faulty, either. This paragraph uses a variety of terms for dialogue: The Church may speak of God (1) to all men, (2) with all men, and (3) in dialogue. Moreover, such interaction may take place (1) with other religions, (2) with philosophy and science, and (3) with unbelievers and atheists. (Presumably the inclusion of dialogue with thinkers and questioners within our Church is a given.) The term dialogue implies at least two parties, and I suppose one may wonder what an atheist may tell the Church that the latter might be useful. Perhaps the atheist might wish to know where our God was when Jews by the millions were marched into extermination camps. It is a hard but honest question—I think of it myself from time to time. The best answer I have is that God sent his Son to establish a Church that would renew the face of the earth—and we have failed miserably, preoccupied with pride of place.
The sincere questions of the world at large, and the input of the arts, philosophers, and scientists, do not diminish the majesty of God but rather emphasize God’s immanence and energy. Our doctrine of the Trinity speaks of an active God—one who creates, one who redeems, one who sanctifies. These activities continue in our time and in the present day, and presumably by the agency of our own Church, in communion with all men and women of good will. The Catechism—echoing the Council—endorses our collective prayer, thinking and good works in forestalling even greater evils than those of the twentieth century. It establishes the groundwork by emphasizing our common identity as created in the image and likeness of God.
38 This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also "about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error".
Paragraph 38 appears to be a follow-up to last week’s lengthy and detailed warning from Pius XII’s Humani Generis on the limitations of natural human reasoning, and not surprisingly, its footnote is indeed from Humani Generis. Pius, it may be recalled, addressed his concerns over new philosophies and new sciences perceived to threaten Church doctrine, and indeed the very authority of the Church itself to teach divine revelation definitively.
The text here assumes that there are mysteries beyond the natural grasp of man, but it proceeds to “religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason,” … “which can be known by all men with ease, firm certainty, and with no admixture of error.” In the flow of the Catechism, paras. 37 and 38 stand separate as a thought unit; para. 39 will pick up a more optimistic strain as it opens a new section.
While our text at hand comes directly from Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, its insertion here is considerably more recent, just over twenty years ago, during the pontificate of John Paul II (r. 1978-2005). It is often forgotten that this pope was a true, peer-respected, bona fide doctor of philosophy, conversant with the intellectual world to a much greater degree than any other pope in our lifetimes. For years I had heard the story that Cardinal Wojtyla was openly reading a Marxist journal of philosophy during the 1978 consistory that elected him pope. This morning I finally tracked down an intriguing printed source here:
During the first day of voting last Sunday, Wojtyla nonchalantly read a quarterly review of Marxist theory as the time-consuming balloting dragged on. “Don’t you think it’s sacrilegious to bring Marxist literature into the Sistine Chapel?” joked a Cardinal. Wojtyla smiled. “My conscience is clear.”
My impression of John Paul II is his dedication to the logic and clarity of ideas. He certainly understood phenomenology and existentialism and marxism as symptoms as much as causes of the decline of the Faith in once-Catholic Europe. He also understood the critical need for unity between orthodoxy (the primacy of belief) and orthopraxis (the primacy of good actions). Despite the censures of some notable Catholic academics during his reign overseen by then Cardinal Ratzinger—John Paul II worked toward the primacy of common devotion, worship, and moral behavior. His devotion to Mary, for example, is very well known.
Unity of action takes us into the world of Catholic morality. When John Paul II was elected in 1978—debate was raging in the United States among clergy, schools, and academics about specific moral issues that, while on the books of official Church teaching, were critically censured by many in Church leadership. Near the top of the list was Pope Paul VI’s 1968 teaching on the immorality of artificial birth control. As far as historians can tell, Paul undertook the promulgation of a highly unpopular teaching out of respect for previous popes and tradition (notably Pius XI). This would be consistent with the scholastic mindset of unchanging moral law.
John Paul, by contrast, leaned more in the direction of praxis: there is truth in doing, and truth in not doing, depending on the circumstances. John Paul would certainly have shared Paul’s concern for the credibility of the Church, but as a social analyst of the first class, he interpreted much of the ills and unrest of late twentieth-society life as the predictable outcome of abandoning a unified way of living a congruent life that, even by the lights of purely natural sciences, was reasonable and logical. To use one example, serial sexual involvements do not contribute to the gift of intimacy, mankind’s most cherished need and, incidentally, a sacramental of full intimacy with God.
Para. 38 then reflects the belief that man is born with enough reason to successfully employ “scientific method” to his entire life experience and come to a convincing belief that the Church’s moral teachings in our current existence are indeed divinely inspired and ordered. My impression is that para. 38 is more easily applicable in some situations than others; we do not know, for example, why a goodly number of humans are born with same-sex attraction, nor have we enough experience to date to make religious (and certainly political) conclusions on how to verbalize the complex realities of, say, the Catholic Church or the American society vis-à-vis homosexuality.
I would be remiss if I did not extend my best wishes to all of you as we enter the three-day solemnity of the Triduum, which begins tonight with the Holy Thursday Mass. I will pray for all you at the special Altar of Reservation this evening.
36 "Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason."11 Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created "in the image of God".12
37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:
Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.13
It has been a few weeks since I have been able to get back to the Catechism, but today it is back with a vengeance. Paragraph 36 commentary was twice postponed and once lost on my computer transfer. It succeeds other paragraphs with a similar theme, that man has been constitutionally created by God in such a way that he can know God by the natural light of his reason. Without this innate capacity, man would have no ability to welcome the content of God’s Revelation.
The final sentence of para. 36 calls for special attention. Footnote 12 refers the reader to Genesis 1, the six-day creation account. It is hard to recall any texts of the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of the dignity of man in a more pronounced way. It is here that God states, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness.” In the context of para. 36 and certainly throughout the Catholic theological tradition is the understanding that man has something of God’s life within him that not only sets him apart from other creatures but which enables him to understand the very mind of God and discern the Revelation put forth by God. The second creation account (Genesis 2:4ff)—not cited here--uses a slightly different analogy, that God “blew in his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being,” as if he were breathing with God’s lungs, as one might put it.
This places man—his life and his insight—on a majestic plane. Para. 36 rings of Vatican II with its optimism that man can work with God to right the wrongs of the twentieth century, that indeed man is constitutionally enabled to do so. Notice that para. 36 does not mention Baptism, for it is an anthropological explanation of man as much as a theological one. The innate gifts bestowed by God come constitutionally to all living men.
When a document is drafted over several years and many revisions, it is sometimes possible to guess where the “cutting and pasting marks” might be, and I think we have found one between 36 and 37, which is why I have included both paragraphs today. What we have in these contrasting paragraphs is one of the Church’s true dialectic of thought since its earliest days—even to the roots of the Hebrew Scripture, actually. How is it that man, made “in the likeness of God,” chooses, despite his divine giftedness, to perform evil acts.
Paragraph 37 is a giant qualifier of 36, and its history is distinct and intriguing. It is made up entirely of a lengthy quotation (footnote 13) from the encyclical letter of Pius XII, Humani Generis, written in 1950. To understand why this encyclical is quoted so definitively here in the Catechism, it is necessary to understand HG in its own time. Humani Generis is not a household classic in Catholic homes today, but it was a significant document in its day for both the Catholic academic community and everyday pastoral life. I searched for some time for a summary of its teachings, which are multiple; Wikipedia’s cited above is the best unbiased summary for our purposes here. HG is definitively cited as the Church’s teaching on evolution, and particularly on the facticity of the Adam and Eve story, on many well-intentioned blog sites, but Pius did not precisely teach this.
Humani Generis, to use my own summary, represented the efforts of Pius XII to reestablish the authority of the teaching Church in the face of philosophical, theological, and scientific developments in post-War Europe, primarily. Early in the encyclical he reminds theologians that authentic interpretation of the Divine Deposit of Faith comes only from the Church itself; the role of the theologian is to explain the teaching as given. Specifically, he has in mind a movement called The New Theology, predominantly French Catholic theologians who believed that the Church would better address itself to the world if it dropped its heavy dependence upon the philosophy and style of St. Thomas Aquinas.
For Pius, the problem was the interest of Catholic theologians and philosophers in what we might call “secular” philosophy today. New philosophies had been developing since the days of William of Ockham and Rene Descartes, but until the nineteenth century Catholic thinkers had not tried to integrate them into formal Catholic teaching or expression. After World War II, at least three major European trends of thought began to influence Catholic academics. (1) Existentialism, a highly personalized philosophy which placed human experience at the core of reality; (2) Marxism, a materialist philosophy of economic and political equity, and (3) Positivism, which centered reality upon observable sciences.
For our purposes here I will just look at the positivistic influence, which we might think of as “cold hard science.” Both the things of nature (think Darwin) and the things of religion (think Biblical scholars) came under the harsh light of science and raised major questions about long-held theories of religion and science. If geologists were calculating that the earth was millions of years old, or that humans had lived here more than 6000 years, what happens to the Bible narrations of creation, or to the position of Adam and Eve as first (original) sinners?
Pius, then, tried to address the boundaries of modern science and thought with a strongly worded teaching that man’s intellect, even though created by God and working with the best of intentions, can be tainted or misled by pride and outside influences inimical to the faith. Evolution happened to be one of his concerns, but he was candid enough to say that the data available in his day was inconclusive; Catholics were bound to believe that the first two humans had souls, regardless of the exact time and manner of their creation, the proviso being that God did the creating.
In terms of the Catechism, we have to sift from para. 37 exactly what the editors intended us to take away from this citation. Given the context, I would say that this insertion from Humani Generis is probably intended as a counterbalance to an overabundance of optimism regarding the human mind expressed so emphatically expressed in para. 36 and carried along into the post-Vatican II years. We are saints, we are sinners; we are also descendants of a Church which lives in the “both-and” reality of the human condition.
The entire text of Humani Generis is here at the Vatican website.
The "36 Jinx"Read Now
I have come to the conclusion that Paragraph 36 of the Catechism is jinxed, at least as far as the Café blog is concerned. As you might remember, the full scheduled commentary on para. 36 for last Thursday was lost in transmission. I had hoped to recreate it this week but I neglected to look at my calendar. I was scheduled to teach yesterday afternoon, and all day Saturday, and work my preparation for this weekend around my physical exam on Friday, tomorrow. If I get a bill of health that allows me to leave my doctor's premises, I will possibly be able to prepare Saturday's post on the Sacraments tomorrow, the opening foray into that topic. The worst case scenario is that I won't be able to post until Sunday. Every now and then little problems get in the way of smooth routine--I think that's called life.