68 By love, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. He has thus provided the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life.
69 God has revealed himself to man by gradually communicating his own mystery in deeds and in words.
70 Beyond the witness to himself that God gives in created things, he manifested himself to our first parents, spoke to them and, after the fall, promised them salvation (cf. Gen 3:15) and offered them his covenant.
71 God made an everlasting covenant with Noah and with all living beings (cf. Gen 9:16). It will remain in force as long as the world lasts.
72 God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him and his descendants. By the covenant God formed his people and revealed his law to them through Moses. Through the prophets, he prepared them to accept the salvation destined for all humanity.
73 God has revealed himself fully by sending his own Son, in whom he has established his covenant forever. The Son is his Father's definitive Word; so there will be no further Revelation after him.
I had to smile this morning when I went to the next entry of the Catechism, as the phrase “in brief” appears before this sequence of sentences (68-73). As luck would have it, here on the eve of Christmas we have arrived at a “summary sequence” of God’s Revelation, brought to fullness in the revelation of God’s Son, “the Father’s definitive Word,” as para. 73 puts it. The Catechism provides these reviews from time to time because at its heart the book is a teaching instrument. You may recall from elementary school that our teachers—the thoughtful ones, anyway—would remind us of the material or the domain recently covered, on the eve of the next day’s test.
The Catechism’s focus is primarily content, not literary inspiration, but I can’t help but be impressed at how this segment does reflect a flow and a style that captivates the reader and pulls together the essentials of divine Revelation. I seem to recall that when the Catechism was promulgated, there was talk that perhaps some portions of it might be memorized. I don’t know if this sequence was one of them, but it seems to lend itself to that sort of use. Over the years, I have learned that early acquisition of a basic outline has proved invaluable in future study, research, and book selection.
On Tuesday I posted the pastoral considerations surrounding the selection of Gospel texts for Christmas Mass, specifically how Luke’s narrative always trumps Matthew’s and especially John’s. That most of us rarely, if ever, hear the introduction of St. John’s Gospel is an amazing loss to the Catholic faithful. John’s opening text is the consummate summary of the identity of Jesus Christ. The text appears to be a poem, hymn, or primitive creed that preexisted the full Gospel. Personally, I believe the text should be the assigned Gospel of January 1, the Octave Day of Christmas, with the Marian observance transferred elsewhere in the calendar.
Because of the high regard of the Church for John’s text, Pope Pius V inserted John 1 into every Mass after the Council of Trent in 1570; it was read after the final blessing and came to be known in the Mass rubrics as the “Last Gospel.” Surprisingly, Wikipedia has an entry on its use, quoting from a pre-1970 text: (links inoperative, alas)
The Last Gospel began as a private devotional practice on the priest's part, but was gradually absorbed into the rubrics of the Mass. Immediately, after the blessing, the priest goes to the Gospel side of the altar. He begins with the Dominus vobiscum as at the proclamation of the Gospel of the Mass. But, since he reads from the altar card, he makes a Sign of the Cross with his right thumb on the altar rather than on the Gospel text before signing his own forehead, lips, and chest. At the words Et Verbum caro factum est (And the Word became flesh), the priest genuflects…The text of the Gospel is perhaps best known for its opening lines: In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum... (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word...)
When the new missal was promulgated in 1970 the “Last Gospel” rite was discontinued and the text of John was incorporated into the Christmas liturgy during the later morning Masses, in a day when many families went to Mass in the morning. The liturgists and editors probably did not foresee how popular the Christmas Vigil Masses would become, certainly in the United States. Last Sunday my pastor, for example, suggested that some families might wish to “start a new family tradition” of attending Christmas morning Mass rather than the 4 PM extravaganza of the Vigil when we have had three Masses on site at times in our history, along with a 7, 9, and Midnight.
Thus, unless a Catholic goes about looking for the Johannine text, it is generally lost in practical parochial usage. This is unfortunate, for the beginning of John’s Gospel was regarded as the capital summary statement of God’s revelation in Jesus, so much so that it was read in every Mass until well into the twentieth century. So, on a day when the Catechism provides its summary statement of Revelation, I would like to include that of St. John: (John 1: 1-18)
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation
nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, saying,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’”
From his fullness we have all received,
grace in place of grace,
because while the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.
67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations".
Paragraph 67 is probably the first “directive” we have come across in our reflections upon the Catechism. Previous texts have laid out principles of the Faith, including last week’s teaching on the body of Revelation we are bound to uphold. Today’s text is a no-nonsense instruction which defines how para. 66 is to be enforced. There are no footnotes here, which suggests to me that the editors are addressing real time problems in the Church that call for clarification. To the best of my knowledge the Roman Catechism of 1570, by contrast, contains no such instruction.
There are a number of points to be made about this text, the first being the division of the teaching itself. I have reproduced the authoritative text as it appears in the original, the first paragraph in a smaller type than the second. The first paragraph is a historical and explanatory text describing “private revelations” with a deliberate “small r” in the word revelation, explaining the Church’s contemporary pastoral and doctrinal practice on such revelation. Regarding such private revelations, “some” have been recognized by the authority of the Church. To say that that the Church recognizes “some” private revelation is really to say that the Church recognizes the credibility of the personal subject of the vision and the message put forth, which must be synonymous with what Scripture and Church Tradition already teach. The religious experiences of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila immediately come to mind, as both called for a reform of the Church and a return to its basic truths and practices. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The Church, obviously, would have no objection to the content of such revelations, as they repeat what St. Mark taught in his Gospel in the first century.
But what does constitute a private revelation? In my own terms, I would define para. 67’s discussion as involving a personal experience of God, the Virgin Mary, or a saint where the intent is proclamation to the wider Catholic community. The context of the Catechism here is God’s Revelation and its parameters, so the concern here is any visionary’s claim to be adding new information to the body of Christian faith. I would venture a guess that a large number of believers over two millennia have had corporal or spiritual encounters they ascribed to the presence of God in some way. I use the word “encounter” because the exact nature of a private revelation defies a scientific explanation, and descriptions of such revelations vary greatly. St. Francis of Assisi believed that a speaking crucifix delivered to him his life’s work. Joan of Arc testified that she heard the voices of three saints instructing her to take up arms for the French. Other mystics report intensive experiences of losing themselves or passing into states beyond sensory or literary description.
Our main concern here is a reported revelation claiming to carry important information for the Church. The Catechism is clear that no one’s experience can undo or add anything to the Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition. It is the content of a private revelation and its claims upon the faithful today where bishops have a legitimate right of judging authenticity, in determining whether a “revealed message” in a private vision is consistent with the Apostolic Tradition. Perhaps the best contemporary example is the ongoing reported private revelations from the Virgin Mary to six individuals in Medjugorie, Bosnia-Herzegovina. These revelations began in 1981 and are continuing to this day. There is a home website maintained by believers in the revelation, and I have linked to a segment of the site where Mary’s reported instructions are posted verbatim, the most recent being this month.
Medjugorie, as many of you may know, has become an international site of devotion for many. You may also know that there has been a long running contention between the local Franciscan friars of the site and the regional conference of bishops and the Vatican involved in examining claims of authenticity. I reviewed periodic samplings of the text, and I did not see any major claims of new information—though Mary’s mention of six secrets of the future does seem to run counter to Christ’s teaching that only the Father knows the timing of the end days. But the Church’s rush to caution, so to speak, is well justified. I can single out several reasons, which would be applicable in any similar circumstance now and in the future.
My primary concern would be priorities. The three decades of Medjugorie revelations have coincided with the papacies of three remarkable men—Benedict, Francis, and of course St. Pope John Paul II in his writing and teaching prime. Each pontiff has written and taught the Church in his official capacity as successor of Peter in communion with all the world’s bishops. In addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued in 1993 under Pope John Paul. When one considers the richness of the last three decades in terms of the ordinary teaching power of the Church, or its Magisterium, one must ask why there is a need for an independent track of teaching from Eastern Europe when Jesus has commissioned the apostles and their consecrated successors, the bishops, who enjoy the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as first teachers and catechists of the Church and exercise this teaching authority magnificently in our own time?
There are other concerns about the content of this private revelation as the six individuals have reported it. The personality of Mary in the reported visions does not resonate with the Mary of the New Testament. There is estrangement from the life of the Church in that there is little connectedness to the Church’s liturgical cycle, and Mary’s reported messages include little recourse to the Scriptures and the ordinary teaching of the Church. As a catechist, one might ask whether the faithful are enriched or distracted from their Baptismal call through preoccupation with this local devotion. Reportedly some kind of decision about Medjugorie’s canonical status awaits the attention of Pope Francis; my guess is that he will pass over the matter in silence as his predecessors did, allowing the good sense of the faithful or the sensus fidelium to gently resolve the matter.
The second paragraph is stronger in its condemnation, and it does not seem directed toward the faithful who engage in the devotions of Medjugorie, who at the very worst can only be critiqued for faulty emphases. Rather, the text itself may be directed toward contemporary advocates of “liberation theology,” which attempts to redefine the mission of Christ as liberator from economic and social oppression. Liberation theology is based upon a scholarly reading of Scripture, however, and not from a unique vision or claim of separate revelation. Or it may be directed toward Islam, which has incorporated both Hebrew and Christian Scripture into the Koran toward a resolution far removed from Christian Tradition. Islamic faith is rooted in the unique visions or ecstasies of Mohammed. Again, it is hard to say precisely who is targeted in the text of para. 67; one would need to do considerable research into the archives of the Vatican committees to unpack the full meaning.
What can be safely assumed here is the desire of the Church to challenge all its members to remain focused upon the authentic teaching handed down to us from Christ through the agency of the Apostles and their successors, under the lasting presence of the Holy Spirit. Last week I mentioned that it is the mission of Catholic theologians to continue to unveil better understandings of this Tradition. Along the same lines, there is a mission too of select holy people to give witness to divine reinforcement of fidelity to this Apostolic Tradition. While we can never know the precise nature of these moments of enlightenment, the Church is fully empowered to assess the content for its fidelity and usefulness to the salvation of us all.
Paragraph 67 will be a day late, appearing on Friday. However, the topic is intriguing: "private revelations." I expect to post around 6 PM Friday evening.
66 "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ."28 Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
Paragraph 66 continues the thought that the Revelation of Jesus as recorded in the Sacred Scriptures is the total and complete body of truth necessary for salvation. The theological term “economy” has an interesting development. In Greek, the root work oikos means “house” or “household.” Oikos is also the mother of the term “ecumenical” as in the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, when the entire household of God came together (at least that is the principle; Vatican II, like most ecumenical councils in history, was decidedly male and clerical.) The term “Christian economy” is the home of all Revelation, all revealed truth under one roof.
Para. 66 describes the Christian economy as the last word (“the new and definitive Covenant”) which will never pass away. This statement calls to mind Matthew 24:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Allowing for literary hyperbole, Matthew’s emphasis is the permanence of Jesus’ words—the heart of the Christian economy. The catechism goes on to state one of key doctrines of Christianity: that “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, Revelation is finished in terms of content. Catholic Tradition expresses this truth in two ways. First, the Church holds that Revelation ended with the death of the Last Apostle (believed to be John), thus designating the ultimate meaning of an apostle as an eyewitness of the Resurrected Jesus and his life’s body of work.
Although not explicitly mentioned in para. 66 (though it will be treated later) the definition of the Apostles and the precise nature of their role in the Church is inseparable from any discussion of Revelation. For much of the Church’s history it was customary to speak of the “apostolic college.” If you check the definition of the word “college” in a contemporary dictionary, you will find among the more remote entries the definition “an organized association of persons having certain powers and rights, and performing certain duties or engaged in a particular pursuit: the electoral college.” (Sorry about the given example.) In my seminary, there was an elderly friar who always spoke of St. Peter as the “dean of the apostolic college,” a metaphor that always conjured up caps, gowns, and ivy. But in fact, the identity of apostles as teachers dates to, well, apostolic times. Recall how St. Paul defended his right to teach as an apostle by virtue of his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. [See Acts 9] While it is customary to think of the Apostles as founders of local churches, it is their function as the first teachers--who handed on the tradition of the Lord Jesus from first hand encounter—that gives them a unique identity and authority.
This brings us to the second critical point, the embodiment and “passing on” of the Apostolic teaching. As one might expect, this “passing on” would take the form of written texts with the deaths of the Apostles. These texts would be read at the Eucharist and used in the instruction of the faithful as well as authoritative sources for Church governance. As the Church progressed into the second century, the multiplication of such writings became problematic, and by the end of the second century the bishops, successors of the apostles, invoked apostolic authority to declare which 27 texts summarized the full content of apostolic teaching, and thus the New Testament canon was established for all time as embodying the Christian economy, so to speak.
A remarkable inclusion in para. 66 is the instruction that despite the completion of Revelation and the establishment of the books that contain it, “it has not been made completely explicit.” The text goes on to say that over time it remains (present tense) the task of the Christian faith to grasp the full significance [of Revelation] over the centuries. The Catechism is saying that the Church is on a constant mission to better understand its Apostolic teachings; this is the mission of Catholic theology.
One of the “follow-up” tasks of Vatican II remains the establishment of due process, so to speak, in the working relationship between the ministry of protecting the truth of Revelation as we presently understand it and the ministry of theological investigation of the Faith by the Church’s scholars. If you have been following the Monday thread here, you may remember that the moralist Bernard Haring, a major theologian in the proceedings of Vatican II, was ordered to appear before the doctrinal office of the Vatican to account for his writings over the late 1970’s. Haring’s description of his hearings is borne out by many other Church scholars of note who were similarly summoned: a generally hostile and one-sided procedure with presumption of guilt, i.e., writing and teaching contrary to the established teachings of the Church. For a Catholic priest scholar, public censure by the Church is no small penalty. It is intriguing to see that in the last generation or more, some of the best innovative Catholic theology is now published by lay men and lay women, as well as women religious.
The question remains, when is “innovative” too innovative? Is the welfare of the Church threatened by scholarly debate over the ordination of women, for example, or discussion of morality of homosexual relationships? Something of a new factor is the public’s accessibility to the thinking and writing of speculative theologians. Centuries ago such debates remained the private domain of university faculties. Today anyone can purchase Father Haring’s books, for example, on Amazon.
The Church carries its Apostolic mandate to provide, among other things, a moral and doctrinal grounding for the study of the Faith, and I know of no practicing Catholic theologian—at least in my schooling and reading—who would deny participation in this role. How theologians serve the Church is by exploring conditions and factors that bring us closer to better understanding the fullness of Revelation. It is unfortunate that some can view such exploratory work as “attacks” upon Catholic belief. For the first time in a long time, we presently have a Pope who is feeling some of these same “attacks” for his writings on economy and morality.
One curious point in para. 66 is the implication that all Christians share in the work of grasping the full significance of the faith, a matter we need to return to at a future point.
65 "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son."26 Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father's one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one. St. John of the Cross, among others, commented strikingly on Hebrews 1:1-2:
In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word - and he has no more to say… because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.27
Paragraph 65 marks the climax in the Catechism’s chronicle of God’s self-revelation. The Book of Hebrews, one of the literary masterpieces of the New Testament, in perhaps its most memorable passage, states unequivocally the God’s final Word to humanity comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This text from Hebrews, 1:1-6, is the assigned reading for the Mass of Christmas morning. It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the doctrine of the Incarnation: “Christ…is the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything, there will be no other word than this one.”
Here is a case of written language struggling to define or describe something that is beyond human comprehension, how the infinite God expresses himself in the human Jesus of Nazareth. The Evangelist John, in his Last Supper account, describes Phillip asking Jesus to “show us the Father, and that will be enough.” Jesus replies with a mild rebuke: “Phillip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.” The idea of a perfect God-figure taking upon himself the human limitations of space and time was the hardest bridge to cross for Jew and Gentile alike. The metaphysically minded Greeks lived by the principles of Plato, who taught that all created and differentiated things were reflections on perfect, unattainable ideals. Christian preachers were challenging the Greek mind to accept the idea that the perfect ideal and the “imperfect reflection” could be one and the same was, to put it mildly, a stretch.
For centuries, the Jews had worshipped a perfect God, so beyond their comprehension that to mention his name was itself blasphemous. When Moses encountered the burning bush in the Book of Exodus, he asked for the name of the being he has encountered, to later tell Pharaoh whose authority he (Moses) is bringing into play. The bush relies enigmatically, “I am who I am” has sent you. In Hebrew, this phrase was consolidated into its consonants YWH, from which the sacred name Yahweh was derived. Jews were forbidden from uttering this name, and several alternatives were developed, such as Jehovah or Emmanuel. The sacred presence of YWH was situated in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Christian preachers were now identifying the human person of Christ—crucified in the most shameful of fashions at that—with the YWH of the Temple. Such claims constituted a blasphemy of unimaginable proportions for many Jews.
In fairness, it took Christians themselves some time to come to grips with the Incarnation. One can see, for instance, that the idea of the divinity of Christ is stated much more emphatically in St. John’s Gospel than in St. Mark’s text written at least thirty years earlier. Even centuries later a heresy known as Arianism divided the Roman Empire and led to the calling of the Council of Nicaea by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. Arianism held that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, but not materially; there had been a time when Jesus was not. It was only with the Council of Nicaea that the term “Son of God” meant the same as God. Nicaea developed the language describing Jesus as “of one substance with the Father.” (Homoousias in Greek, Consubstantial in Latin.) It is the Council of Nicaea that gives us the doctrinal framework of the Trinity.
The second portion of para. 65 is supporting text from St. John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic and reformer, perhaps best known for his Dark Night of the Soul. However, in this context he is cited more as a doctrinal source than a devotional one. The gist of his quotation reinforces the centrality of Christ as the fountain of all revelation, summing up the partial revelation given to the prophets and the full revelation of the Father in time. John underscores a reality of Christianity that bears constant repeating today, that all divine revelation begins and ends in the person of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel Jesus teaches that only an adulterous generation demands signs, or what we might call today “special knowledge.” Some early Christians, for a multitude of reasons, sought hidden meanings or revelation beyond what was available in the Gospels. Such heretics were called Gnostics, from the Greek gnosis, or knowledge. John of the Cross calls this extra-biblical search “the desire for some other novelty.” The straightforward example of Jesus of prayer and works of charity apparently is not enough for those who find the economy of Jesus’ example to be too pedestrian. The quest for “more revelation” beyond what God has given has plagued the Church throughout most of its existence, and it is not uncommon to come across reports even today of individuals within the Church who claim to have received new information from the Blessed Virgin, particular saints, or even Christ himself. Para. 66 explores this further next week, but for now it is enough to say that the Church does not accept “new content,” and teaches that all things necessary for salvation are revealed in the person of Jesus Christ through the medium of the sacred scriptures. It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that God’s revelation was completed with the death of the last evangelist, John.