33 The human person: With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,”9 can have its origin only in God.
Paragraph 33 is a very good example of the influence of Vatican II upon the Catechism, and footnote 9 is a reference to the Council’s Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World. For this paragraph admits to the fact that the thoughtful human being, by the very nature of his constitution, debates within himself the question of God’s existence. This is a freedom of inquiry that would have been considered dangerous or even unthinkable in the Church even a few centuries before, though both Aquinas and Aristotle, to name just two, felt compelled to address the question of God’s existence.
One can see in this string of paragraphs a tug of war: in para. 32, on the one hand, the very beauty and order of the universe was considered an irresistible material reality to draw the scientific, searching mind to God. On the other hand, the Catechism is cautious to say nothing that would imply that the natural universe is so irresistible that it is impossible to not embrace God; this would destroy human freedom and the basis of Christian anthropology.
Paragraph 33 recognizes that for all the beauty of creation, there are many who wrestle with the “God Question.” Collegians of my generation remember the famous Time Magazine cover of 1966, “Is God Dead?” This cover, in turn, led to the equally famous God/Nietzsche graffiti that seemed to be a staple of every collegiate drinking establishment. I know first-hand.
Indeed, the 1960’s actually produced a “God is Dead Theology.” Its primary proponent was a theologian named Thomas J.J. Altizer. Dr. Altizer visited Catholic University for a philosophy faculty colloquy during my time in the department. The next day we asked one of our philosophy professors, the legendary Father Robert Paul Mohan, Ph.D., how the event had transpired. Father Mohan observed that Dr. Altizer had bounded out of his car wearing a yellow blazer. “He certainly didn’t dress like God was dead.” Funniest line I heard at Catholic University.
Paragraph 33, read in a certain way, is a counterpoint to its previous paragraph. The Catechism here describes man as created with an openness to truth and beauty, as well as an impressive skill set of inner riches, but acknowledges that for all of this, “man questions himself about God’s existence.” A lot of thought went into the composition here: the man who wrestles over the question of the reality and nature of God is described as wrestling with himself—establishing that all of us enjoy access to the presence of God if we can come to grips with our personal reason(s) for questioning God’s life or benevolence.
Para. 33 does not adequately address why some have so much difficulty believing in God. However, its phrasing does suggest valid possibilities. Man may be open to “truth and beauty,” but it would be a very dense individual who failed to see that truth and beauty are not always present, or have not visited all people equally. We are becoming much more aware of the trafficking of young children for sexual slavery; or the intense suffering of the Syrian people, those who stayed in their native country and those who fled. Experience teaches that both nature and nurture often come up short in the way maturing individuals process their surroundings and their world.
Similarly, the “sense of moral goodness” can be blunted by many factors. Again, youthful formation of ethics and justice often comes up short. In some individuals the very capacity of “knowing” (as in perceiving moral order) is a biological impossibility, as in profoundly dysfunctional propensities toward narcissistic or anti-social behavior. But perhaps most of all, the mature adult grows to more acutely assess the malaise of moral disorder everywhere—a maturity which ironically leads the observer to wonder, how could there possibly be a supreme moral agent at the switch?
The Catechism, in para. 33, seems to be saying that the very fact of doubting—or even a sense of bitter disappointment in God—is itself a positive sign: ‘in all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul.” This is certainly the hope of the Church, and the Scriptures are replete with those who found their way back from the darkness of disbelief and doubt.
Two critical points to remember from para. 33 need emphasis. The first is that belief in God is a process, not a geometric proof. Our own experience—and certainly that of the saints who have left their journals behind—emphasizes that while our religious psyche grows throughout life, it makes us capable of drawing deeper conclusions, many of which are sad or troubling. “Blessed are they who mourn…” is a beatitude directed precisely to those with eyes to see. Francis of Assisi spent his last years in significant physical and emotional pain over the directions his massive order was now undertaking. He would pray, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.”
A second point is one I currently wrestle with myself in my late 60’s. I have no pressing doubts regarding the Scripture and the Church. In recent years I have been blessed with the opportunity to study the Faith more intently. So what is my beef with God or my stumbling block of belief? That He made Christianity too hard. That He has asked me as a Christian to embrace the cross. That He has demanded I embrace the beatitudes and strive for perfection and become like Him. That I can never put my life in auto drive and just glide along for the ride.
Believing in the existence of God is one thing. Using our innate gifts of human spiritual insight to act upon this belief is quite another.