35 Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.
You may be getting the impression that the last few paragraphs sound an awful lot alike in terms of content. Simply put, the first point of this paragraph is that man is created capable of coming to knowledge of a real God and a personal God by the nature of his personal make-up. All the same, “real intimacy” is brought about by God’s will to reveal himself to man and give him the grace to welcome revelation in faith. Man may know by nature the existence of a personal God, but divine intervention is necessary for a loving welcome of God’s intervention into a human’s life.
Why has the Church gone to such trouble to reiterate the importance of natural knowledge as well as divinely infused grace in describing the interaction of God and man? It may be that the Church is attempting a retrieval of its scholastic/universal past to address the intellectual world of the late twentieth century. I have made mention in different entries that the majority of philosophers and theologians of the high middle ages held the world view of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was a realist who integrated the works of Aristotle into his own works. Aristotle was an inductive thinker: he moved from what he could observe to classifications and then to hypothesis and principles.
Aquinas, however, was a Christian, a Dominican monk. Where Aristotle could only take his method so far, to causality and First Mover, for example, Aquinas could take observable sciences all the way to their ultimate end as reflections of the infinite wisdom of God. Aquinas, and those who adopted his view of the world, gave form to the Christian university as the place where all disciplines could be studied to their logical synthesis. Para. 35 (and others like it) rest upon the school of Thomistic thought, since the Catechism teaches that man, by his organized and scientific observation, so to speak, can reason to both the existence of God and the existence of a personal God.
There is no denying, however, that Thomas Aquinas, as a man of his time, was profoundly influenced by his culture and his faith. Looking back today, we can see that reasonable observers of the Thomistic system might find fault with the assumptions that man can reason to a personal God. I think it is fair to say that a philosopher today (or especially a theologian) might look at Thomas’s conclusions as a metaphor of faith, and not a set-in-concrete stairway of premises leading to incontrovertible evidence that God engaged Abraham and began salvation history.
As the Thomistic world view was conceived in the bosom of the Church and his elaborate description of reality in his famous Summa Theologica was the Church’s backbone for all of its official theological thinking virtually to our own time, it would take a great deal of gumption to challenge the Thomistic Dominican system. However, in the early fourteenth century a Franciscan friar came forward to revisit the system of Aquinas—and the Church’s, by then.
I do not know if Catholicism has rehabilitated the friar William of Ockham (1280-1349), but he was excommunicated in his day. I do know that in the 1970’s I spent three summers socializing every evening with friar scholars at the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York, who were devoted to producing critical translations of his works, and that project continues with great vigor as of this writing. Ockham is considered a hinge between the scholastic thought of the age of Thomas and the modern age of philosophy, usually associated with Rene Descartes. Or, as the eminent historian of philosophy Father Frederick Coppleston put it, Ockham was the end of the Via Antiqua and the beginning of the Via Moderna.
Ockham fell out of favor with the Church because he believed the premises by which St. Thomas argued the existence of God were wrong. Ockham did not believe in universals, including principles and hypotheses. He maintained that all reality had to be sensually observable. Ockham believed in God, but did not have use for metaphysical proofs of God’s existence. He held that God is unprovable and thus can be known only through faith; Ockham was an early fideist.
The Church of Ockham’s day would have found him objectionable because he questioned the very thought system that buttressed the official doctrinal expression of the day. Moreover, Ockham would have had little use for such widely held principles as divine rights of kings, and thus opening the door to early forms of democracy and freedom of conscience. Moreover, Ockham became something of a philosophical hero to Protestant reformers, who maintained that we are saved by faith, not works.
Ockham’s influence extended well beyond his death. Rene Descartes’ famous teaching was made possible by Ockham’s influence: “I think, therefore I am.” Modern thinkers were able to construct systems of reality independent of God while not denying God. In our present day modern Catholic scholars of Thomas have attempted to retrieve a world-view that connects God with science.
There is little doubt in my mind that one of the unspoken agendas of the Catechism was the restoration of the Thomistic organization of faith. While St. Thomas is honored as the theologian of the Church, Vatican II did not demand strict adherence to his scholastic outline. Even as a seminarian at Catholic University’s School of Philosophy, I was required to read Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Paul Sartre, (and Ockham!) as the Council had called for seminarians to prepare themselves for engagement with “the world.”
An interesting statistic regarding the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Citations from St. Thomas Aquinas: 59
Citations from William of Ockham: 0