Catechism Analysis: Paragraph 27Read Now
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.
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