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.