Catechism Analysis: Paragraph 29
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29 But this “intimate and vital bond of man to God” (GS 19,1) can be forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected by man.3 Such attitudes can have different causes: revolt against evil in the world; religious ignorance or indifference; the cares and riches of this world; the scandal of bad example on the part of believers; currents of thought hostile to religion; finally, that attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call.
I had to go back to December 3 to reacquaint myself with this thread and—to my embarrassment—figure out where we are in the numerical sequence. It was helpful to me to go back and read that entry for para. 28 to recover our train of thought. Para. 29 is located very early in the section on “belief;” the previous paragraph addresses the reality of an inherent desire for the divine within the hearts of men as their natural condition.
Having established its anthropology, the Catechism progresses quickly to perhaps one of life’s greatest and most agonizing mysteries: alienation. Quoting from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the text describes our relationship with God as “intimate and vital.” Put another way, the ideal of the human experience is a union with God that meets the need for intimacy and life itself. Disunion is the state of death and utter loss of love, even love of self. It is no accident that one of the Church’s seven sacraments embraces the ultimate human experience of life and love, marriage.
What I find interesting about para. 29 is its expansion of the reasons for loss of union with God. Prior catechisms had addressed this condition rather exclusively in terms of sin—original sin (inherited) and actual sin (committed). Sin is included here, to be sure, but there is an intriguing little spectrum of how the relationship might deteriorate—God might be “forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected.” The parallel between divine union and the human realities of friendship and love relationships is rich, and consciously or not, the language expresses a venerable truth of religious life: one is either growing in holiness or declining; there is no “cruise control” religious experience. The Catechism is stating that where God is concerned, there is no such thing as stasis.
Para. 29 is not the literary gem of the Catechism. There are poor word choices and clumsy constructions, at least in the English translation. The phrase “such attitudes” in the second sentence does not follow from the first sentence. No one cultivates an “attitude” of forgetfulness or overlooking; a relationship fails precisely because there is no attitude or conscious pulse taking of the relational dynamic. The balance of this sentence explains the conditions which foster neglect and deterioration, though again the language is not helpful. The phrase “revolt against evil in the world” is so out of place here that it might be better dropped altogether; I have no idea what the authors have in mind here.
However, the rest of the catalogue is clearer. “Religious ignorance or indifference” certainly makes sense, though I would have divided the two conditions because there is considerable difference between them. Religious ignorance is an absence of understanding the Revelation of God; it is a condition with victims and perpetrators. It is hard to blame someone for a poor understanding of God if (1) the true nature of God has never been adequately preached to them, or (2) if the image of God passed on to them is such a distorted one that meaningful personal encounter with the divine is either impossible or even repulsive. On the other hand, it is also true that religious ignorance is the end product of the failure of believers to evangelize and catechize with urgency. Poor preaching and especially the low standards of competence that marks so much of faith formation—along with the collapse of formal Catholic education—is a sinful omission, a dereliction of duty.
“Indifference,” on the other hand, may be a personal judgment that the matter of Revelation can be easily dispensed without loss. Consider St. Paul’s brilliant discourse before the altar of the Unknown God in Athens, where his listeners responded that they would like to talk to him again on his subject, kicking the can down the road, so to speak. For a long time, the term indifferentism in Catholic journalism and official decrees had come to mean an erroneous belief that, at the end of the day, all religions—or all lives of humanitarian focus—are essentially the same, that involvement with the Judeo-Christian God is one of a number of worthy entrées available to the hungry heart.
“The cares and riches of this world” is no doubt a reference to the familiar Gospel theme about riches, notably in the books of Matthew and Luke. The parable of the sower comes to mind, where some seed (the word of God, as Matthew explains) falls among thorns and the new growth is enveloped by the concerns of this world; and the story of the rich young man, who goes away sad when Jesus invites him to sell his possessions and come and follow him. From the earliest days of the Church, the divestiture of excess goods has served as a first step into organized religious communities such as monasteries, and our vow of poverty is interrelated to intensive communities of prayer as freedom to pray and serve in ministry.
“The scandal of bad example on the part of the believers” is another example drawn from the Gospel; Jesus’ warning that it is better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone than scandalize a little one is the premier example of the need to avoid scandal. “Currents of thought hostile to religion” is possibly a reference to the direction of post-Enlightenment thinking in which even the most sacred sciences came under the scrutiny of secular sciences. A more contemporary read on this phrase might include the actual assaults on Christian communities in Islamic militant states, for example.
Finally, “the attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call.” This is vintage Old Testament imagery: Adam and Eve dressed themselves in fig leaves and hid in the garden, ashamed of their nakedness after their sin; and the reluctance of Jonah to preach to Nineveh, which resulted in his Moby Dick conversion moment. Again, the literary style is confusing, but it seems on its face to address the downward spiral of sin and shame and fear of God that fosters an ongoing sinful existence like a perpetual motion machine. If para. 28 describes the innate need for God, para. 29 is a reference book on how the relationship can be broke.
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