34 The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls ‘God.’”10
There is a reference (n. 10) in the text from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica which continues the train of thought about the knowability of God by men. In the full text of the Catechism there is also a cross reference to the Creed of the Church, which begins with “I believe in God…” as the central belief of the Christian experience.
There is a difference in saying that “man can come to know…a reality…. the first cause and final end…that everyone calls God,” and saying that total belief in God (not knowledge of God) is the primordial act of faith, and I get the impression that one can see between the lines of this section of the Catechism an ongoing struggle between a reason-based and a faith-based theological anthropology.
In truth, the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church since at least the early middle ages has held that there is a reasonable component of Christian faith and practice. There have been a number of formal condemnations since then, in response to the radical approaches such as those of more extreme Christian mystics of the medieval era, and of Enlightenment thinkers such as Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard who separated faith from reason, a tendency called fideism, (from the Latin fides, faith.). As late as 1998 Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical called “Faith and Reason;” Wikipedia summarizes his position rather well: “The encyclical posits that faith and reason are not only compatible, but essential together. Faith without reason, [the pope] argues, leads to superstition. Reason without faith, he argues, leads to nihilism and relativism.”
Fideists, on the other hand, would argue that only an otherworldly faith is the key to human meaning and Christian life. While fideism is considerably more complicated than I have described it here, at its heart a fideistic outlook includes a gulf between the reasoning from science and human experience and an absolute faith in God totally divorced from human experience and reason. Fideism would eschew modern Biblical study, holding instead to the idea that God works by an internal logical inscrutable with which he tests the faith of the believer. Some of you may have encountered extreme evangelicals who have explained the discoveries of prehistoric bones and artifacts as actual “plants” put there by God to test our faith in the literal 4000-year Biblical dating of the beginning of time.
As we addressed a few weeks ago, if God has created human life with the inclination to arrive at some natural knowledge of the divine, and the capacity to receive Revelation and make a true personal determination to accept the message or reject it, then it is necessary to come to grips with evil and suffering in the world. Thinkers of all stripes have pondered the troubling thought that God has empowered the human being with enough knowledge and freedom to essentially damn himself. If you carry this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you end up in the Calvinist stream of predestination: that God has preordained some of his children to make right choices and thus attain salvation. The corollary of this is that God has created others to sin, die, and face eternal wrath.
Thus, para. 34 is a reminder of that conundrum of creation—the all-loving God created a world that generated its own evil (“the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made”) and populated it with people, among whom were many who would succumb and fall into eternal perdition. I have not had a chance to study John Paul II’s discussion of the problem of evil, but in the aforementioned encyclical he does make connections between the issues of evil and the failure of humans to use the full reasoning and thinking power they have been endowed with to participate in the full truth of God. For John Paul, the sin of the world is acts of “sub-human” thought and behavior. While he cannot explain God’s mind, the pope certainly had enlightening ideas about ours.