36 "Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason."11 Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created "in the image of God".12
37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:
Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.13
It has been a few weeks since I have been able to get back to the Catechism, but today it is back with a vengeance. Paragraph 36 commentary was twice postponed and once lost on my computer transfer. It succeeds other paragraphs with a similar theme, that man has been constitutionally created by God in such a way that he can know God by the natural light of his reason. Without this innate capacity, man would have no ability to welcome the content of God’s Revelation.
The final sentence of para. 36 calls for special attention. Footnote 12 refers the reader to Genesis 1, the six-day creation account. It is hard to recall any texts of the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of the dignity of man in a more pronounced way. It is here that God states, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness.” In the context of para. 36 and certainly throughout the Catholic theological tradition is the understanding that man has something of God’s life within him that not only sets him apart from other creatures but which enables him to understand the very mind of God and discern the Revelation put forth by God. The second creation account (Genesis 2:4ff)—not cited here--uses a slightly different analogy, that God “blew in his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being,” as if he were breathing with God’s lungs, as one might put it.
This places man—his life and his insight—on a majestic plane. Para. 36 rings of Vatican II with its optimism that man can work with God to right the wrongs of the twentieth century, that indeed man is constitutionally enabled to do so. Notice that para. 36 does not mention Baptism, for it is an anthropological explanation of man as much as a theological one. The innate gifts bestowed by God come constitutionally to all living men.
When a document is drafted over several years and many revisions, it is sometimes possible to guess where the “cutting and pasting marks” might be, and I think we have found one between 36 and 37, which is why I have included both paragraphs today. What we have in these contrasting paragraphs is one of the Church’s true dialectic of thought since its earliest days—even to the roots of the Hebrew Scripture, actually. How is it that man, made “in the likeness of God,” chooses, despite his divine giftedness, to perform evil acts.
Paragraph 37 is a giant qualifier of 36, and its history is distinct and intriguing. It is made up entirely of a lengthy quotation (footnote 13) from the encyclical letter of Pius XII, Humani Generis, written in 1950. To understand why this encyclical is quoted so definitively here in the Catechism, it is necessary to understand HG in its own time. Humani Generis is not a household classic in Catholic homes today, but it was a significant document in its day for both the Catholic academic community and everyday pastoral life. I searched for some time for a summary of its teachings, which are multiple; Wikipedia’s cited above is the best unbiased summary for our purposes here. HG is definitively cited as the Church’s teaching on evolution, and particularly on the facticity of the Adam and Eve story, on many well-intentioned blog sites, but Pius did not precisely teach this.
Humani Generis, to use my own summary, represented the efforts of Pius XII to reestablish the authority of the teaching Church in the face of philosophical, theological, and scientific developments in post-War Europe, primarily. Early in the encyclical he reminds theologians that authentic interpretation of the Divine Deposit of Faith comes only from the Church itself; the role of the theologian is to explain the teaching as given. Specifically, he has in mind a movement called The New Theology, predominantly French Catholic theologians who believed that the Church would better address itself to the world if it dropped its heavy dependence upon the philosophy and style of St. Thomas Aquinas.
For Pius, the problem was the interest of Catholic theologians and philosophers in what we might call “secular” philosophy today. New philosophies had been developing since the days of William of Ockham and Rene Descartes, but until the nineteenth century Catholic thinkers had not tried to integrate them into formal Catholic teaching or expression. After World War II, at least three major European trends of thought began to influence Catholic academics. (1) Existentialism, a highly personalized philosophy which placed human experience at the core of reality; (2) Marxism, a materialist philosophy of economic and political equity, and (3) Positivism, which centered reality upon observable sciences.
For our purposes here I will just look at the positivistic influence, which we might think of as “cold hard science.” Both the things of nature (think Darwin) and the things of religion (think Biblical scholars) came under the harsh light of science and raised major questions about long-held theories of religion and science. If geologists were calculating that the earth was millions of years old, or that humans had lived here more than 6000 years, what happens to the Bible narrations of creation, or to the position of Adam and Eve as first (original) sinners?
Pius, then, tried to address the boundaries of modern science and thought with a strongly worded teaching that man’s intellect, even though created by God and working with the best of intentions, can be tainted or misled by pride and outside influences inimical to the faith. Evolution happened to be one of his concerns, but he was candid enough to say that the data available in his day was inconclusive; Catholics were bound to believe that the first two humans had souls, regardless of the exact time and manner of their creation, the proviso being that God did the creating.
In terms of the Catechism, we have to sift from para. 37 exactly what the editors intended us to take away from this citation. Given the context, I would say that this insertion from Humani Generis is probably intended as a counterbalance to an overabundance of optimism regarding the human mind expressed so emphatically expressed in para. 36 and carried along into the post-Vatican II years. We are saints, we are sinners; we are also descendants of a Church which lives in the “both-and” reality of the human condition.
The entire text of Humani Generis is here at the Vatican website.