Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated. The Cafe is open, though I suspect most of you are preoccupied with household duties or travel or other traditional Thanksgiving pursuits.
I am on the road this Thanksgiving, two-day 20 hour drive to the northern New York suburbs to spend the feast with my in laws. On both Monday and Tuesday nights I crashed into bed after sharing the road with trucks from dawn to dusk. Yesterday we took the train into NYC to see the 9/11 site and memorial. The new structure is quite something to see, and the outdoor pools have the names of all the victims from all the sites. I was able to find the name of Father Mychal Judge, whom I knew rather well from my years in the Friars. I also found the name of Todd Beamer, the hero of Shankstown, whose "let's roll" command on the Washington bound flight saved countless lives.
The memorial center itself is a magnificent edifice, much larger than I had imagined it to be. As you go lower into the structure one wall is the restraining dam that kept ground water from flooding the supports when the site was excavated in the late 1960's. There is much too much to describe except to say that it is worth the money to go into the memorial building if you are in New York.
We were safely back in Croton on the Metro North line as the travel crush began. Yes, there was a high security presence in NYC, but I think anyone who has visited the City in the last decade is used to that. I thought to myself that it is probably good to have some muscle in Grand Central Station on Thanksgiving Eve; the travelers get a little rambunctious racing for trains out of town. I do hope the parade is safe today.
Unfortunately I have been in transit and away from my books, so I don't have any introduction this week to the beginning of the C Cycle, the Advent Season, and the Gospel of Luke. One thing about Advent to remember right off the bat: this season is directed to the Coming of Christ, primarily his future coming. You will notice this in Sunday's Gospel, where the liturgical season of Advent begins with Luke's dramatic Gospel of the end times. A very common catechetical malpractice is to begin Advent as a kind of "countdown to Christmas Day." In truth, according to the Roman Missal, attention does not turn directly to the earthly birth of Jesus till December 17, where the Lectionary draws heavily from St. Luke's Gospel. Luke and Matthew are the only two Gospels with accounts of Christ's earthly infancy.
I offer no pious ferverinos on Thanksgiving on the grounds that you have heard plenty of them, possibly from your various commercial vendors as I do--and in my case, every publisher, institution, diocesan office in the Catholic world. I did get a holiday note years ago from my garbage men: "If we don't get a decent Christmas envelope, we'll kick your can."
Green Bay by 17.
After a morning at the dentist I discovered that the Cafe was out of coffee. This called for a trip across town to my favorite coffee shop, which ground me some bags of chocolate-raspberry, ginger bread, and stroessel flavored coffee. Thus, there was no time today to properly prepare the entry on the Catechism. As next Thursday is Thanksgiving, I think it is safe to say that the next Catechism installment will be in early December. I will be back tomorrow for wild-card Friday, though.
MAN’S CAPACITY FOR GOD
I. The Desire for God
27 The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for: (355, 170, 1718)
The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.
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Paragraph 27 is the overarching definition of Church teaching on the created circumstances of man vis-à-vis God. In theological studies para. 27 would fall under the title “Christian Anthropology,” usually the second course in a graduate curriculum after the initial foundational course on the knowability of God and the philosophical language of speaking of God. The Catechism in one sense puts the cart before the horse in stating that “the desire for God is written in the human heart…” without laying a foundation of whether and how God exists and whether it is possible for finite and infinite beings to communicate. The text will eventually treat such foundational questions further down the road; paras. 355, 170, and 1718 are cross references. Para. 27 is not footnoted; this is a new formula by the editors to express a foundational truth of Christian interaction.
The nature of man as created with an innate hunger for God is one of the most powerful statements of belief to be found in the Catechism. It is at its heart the most optimistic statement we have seen so far, an indication that from his very origin man is ordained with an inclination for God and the potential to “live fully;” moreover, there is stated the degree of dignity and autonomy enjoyed by every human precisely as a human: the power to freely acknowledge God’s love and entrust one’s self to the Creator. After World War II theologians returned to this vision of human creation as a response to the devastating loss of life and human degradation of battle and genocide; papal and conciliar teachings since then have rested on the premise of human dignity, from teachings on abortion to global warming.
Para. 27 is cleverly written in the way it straddles one of the great theological controversies. The first part speaks of God’s agency, that “God never ceases to draw man to himself.” The second paragraph speaks of man as one “called to communion with God,” and later as needing to “freely acknowledge that love and trust himself to his creator.” Put another way, the call of God embedded in creation is irresistible; but man still must free choose and engage the gift of divine love. I use this expression in class: “God so loved us and poured out his respect for us that he empowered us to refuse.” (Expressed more dauntingly, God gave us the power to damn ourselves.) Man is not a puppet, nor is he the tragic victim described so well in Jesus Christ Superstar where Judas laments that without his betrayal, the redemptive plan would have crumbled to naught.
From the catechetical perspective, para. 27 calls for the teacher to put forward the role of God as creator (though without prejudice to evolutionists and creationists), that this creation was a free gift of love, and that with this creation man looks forward to the best and fullest life possible. Humans are created exclusively to choose love and obedience to God, they owe their very being to God’s supporting hand, but they must freely acknowledge this love and entrust themselves to the Savior.
This belief structure is Biblical in nature, and the two creation accounts in Genesis each parallel the sectioning I have outlined in the previous paragraph. Genesis 1, product of a priestly tradition, puts emphasis on the grandeur of creation and the orderly power of God, as with the six day creation litany. Genesis 2ff, on the other hand, personalizes the first humans (Adam and Eve) and gives Adam in particular a surprising amount of influence in God’s decision making. It is Adam, after all, who determines that none of the animals was a suitable partner, leading to the deep sleep that produced Eve.
It is true that determining that line where God’s grace meets immovable object (human obstinacy) is a mystery that troubles, even scandalizes, many. Some frequently heard objections: if God knows all things, why would he create an individual he knew was destined to hell? Or, if God’s grace is all powerful, how does he regulate his degree of love in the sense that some individuals are moved to seek forgiveness and others are not? While this might sound like late medieval corrupted scholasticism, as in “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” there are significant applications in pastoral and catechetical ministry.
Too much emphasis upon the power of man to spurn God’s love eventually leads to a very real form of pessimism. Catholicism has been admittedly loose in its damnation language: assignment of the classification of mortal sin to eating a hot dog on Friday or using a birth control pill was and is overkill, leading to indifference, or scrupulosity, or a cheapened sense of the divine economy. A few weeks ago I talked about the late medieval mania for assured forgiveness, which led to the indulgence controversy (the cash purchase of salvation) and the Protestant revolt against this abuse. Alongside the manics, however, were those who believed that nothing they could do would assuage the divine wrath. Tormented by anxiety, this group would produce Martin Luther and his teaching of utter dependence upon God’s will for salvation through justification by faith alone. This position could be easily corrupted, too; Luther himself taught “Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ.”
Para. 27 is a good example of how the Catechism (1) articulates the principles of faith while (2) leaving to us the ongoing work of theology in translating Church belief into discursive points with which to engage a highly skeptical society at large. For that reason it can never be assumed that the Catechism is self-sustaining. It is an attempt to define the parameters for starting points in Catholic dialogue within itself and with the world at large.
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH
“I BELIEVE” — “WE BELIEVE”
26 We begin our profession of faith by saying: “I believe” or “We believe.” Before expounding the Church’s faith, as confessed in the Creed, celebrated in the liturgy, and lived in observance of God’s commandments and in prayer, we must first ask what “to believe” means. Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life. Thus we shall consider first that search (Chapter One), then the divine Revelation by which God comes to meet man (Chapter Two), and finally the response of faith (Chapter Three).
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And so we begin the “doctrinal” journal through the Catechism with a statement of priorities, the most critical one—not surprisingly—being man’s ability to comprehend and embrace God in the act we call “faith.” The Catechism, as a Church teaching text, begins with the understanding that there is indeed a God, a personal God at that. The mystery of para. 26 is the nature of man’s response to God, the miracle of faith. If the Catechism was a free-standing theological exposition of belief for a world audience of all peoples, it would have needed to address what we called in school “the God question.” Paras. 31-34 will address “ways of coming to know God,” but again the assumption in the texts is the very existence of God; the Catechism’s interest here is in Christian anthropology—how human beings, by natural and supernatural means, comes to embrace the living and saving God.
Those very qualities of God, however—supernatural, living, saving—are the qualities of a God who is. The presupposition of the Catechism—all religious activity, actually—is the very existence of the divine. If the idea of atheism is coming into your head, I would agree that there are a lot of individuals who hold steadfastly to the hypothesis that there is no God. Their organized persistence at it takes on some of the trappings of religion itself in some settings. The point here, though, is the pronounced rejection of an all-powerful being.
I do not believe that atheism is a major challenge to “organized” religion, and certainly not to Roman Catholicism. In fact, the philosophers of atheism today continue to raise the kinds of questions Catholics should be asking. I came across an “atheist take” on the “God question” spanning two millennia. Epicurus (d. 270 BC) is credited with first expounding of the problem of evil. David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779 AD) cited Epicurus in stating the argument as a series of questions: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
Once you get past the queasy feeling about asking probing questions of the deity, both Epicurus and Hume summarize the more critical “God question” that we hope the Catechism can address in a convincing way: the nature of evil. Interestingly several Biblical authors do something of the same thing. Most notably, in the second creation account in Genesis, the author(s) describe Eve’s encounter with the snake in the Garden of Eden. “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” In contradiction to the good nuns who taught me that the serpent was actually the devil in reptilian clothing, the Biblical texts of creation and early history make no mention of outside forces of evil.
I suspect that a significant majority of Catholics believe in God, but that under close scrutiny this belief is very similar to the Deist belief of many of our American Founding Fathers, who readily acknowledged God as the first cause, the being who made the master watch and established its multiple mechanics (with an assist, perhaps, from Sir Isaac Newton, among others), wound it good and tight, and then stepped back to let life on earth and throughout the cosmos play out its course. However, there is a sizeable minority of Catholics—and all thoughtful people of good will—who behold this world’s evil in microcosmic or macrocosmic ways, and who labor to reconcile the brutality of humanity with God’s “job description.” This struggle with God is not atheism; in fact, those who wrestle with doubts about God’s role manifest true faith in things unseen, attempting the purposeful reconciliation of God’s wisdom and goodness with suffering on a planetary scale.
Because I read a great deal of history, I have become aware over the years of the sheer immensity of fatalities and sufferings from wars limited just to the twentieth century. As a religion teacher I have studied the Holocaust in great detail, numbers and facts dwarfed by individual stories and some magnificent works of art, such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Diary of Anne Frank. More recently in time I have followed the coverage of the Catholic priest scandal, first in Boston and then around the country. (The Boston story is the subject of the new movie, “Spotlight;” its trailer is here.) And in my own life, my stepson was killed 14 years ago by a drunk driver.
I can honestly say that I never “lost my faith.” At some level I knew, in that irrational way, that there is a God whose ways I don’t understand, despite a lifetime of reflection. But the contemporary daily carnage of cruelties, starvation, relocations, and the inability of us humans to work out our issues between one another has always been the Achilles heel of my faith: how the plan of a good God has so much wreckage along the way. Paragraph 26 promises that its successive entries on faith will address our interactive life with God, who “reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life.” Hopefully, there will be equal time and equal help for those seeking the ultimate meaning of God’s life and purpose as well. To seek discovery in the one we love is the fruit of desire, not arrogance.