42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God -- "the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable" -- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.
I can’t do much about my age, and many of my own intellectual influences date back to the Jurassic era, or so it might seem. But I can recall that from the 1950’s forward there was always debate about the negative influences of television. I was too young to grasp the full implications of TV’s broadcasting of the McCarthy Hearings in the spring of 1954, but closer to home I was aware that some mothers’ groups were trying to get my 5 PM Howdy Doody off the air as being too frenetic and agitating for young children. (They might have done better to worry about “The Three Stooges,” whose films were released to TV around 1957 bubbling over with slapstick violence that my brother Al and I can replicate to this day. Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk!)
By the time I got to college in the mid-1960’s there were more serious academic questions about the influence of television on its viewers and the culture. One of the most popular works of the 1960’s was Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message. The general thrust of thinkers like McLuhan was the idea that whatever medium one used to communicate, the medium changed the communicated event. I believe it was the Greek philosopher Sophocles who argued that the invention of the alphabet would destroy the human capacity for memory—whether that was true or not, the alphabet captured conceptual thinking into a variety of forms that lived long beyond the writer.
The heart of this discussion is truly philosophical and contemporary—does any human medium perfectly capture the truth it conveys? This has been an issue for the Church as well, and our Paragraph 42 admits that all mediums at our disposal fail to capture the fullness of God. Para. 42 follows a previous proposition about deducing a perfect God from the perfection of his creatures. “Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God” is a more pessimistic contention than last week’s para. 41, repeating a pattern of checks and balances that appears frequently in the Catechism.
The emphasis here in para. 41 is on “language,” and it has powerful implications on the way that the Church has attempted to serve as the “medium,” if you will, of God’s intent. A bit of a review of the Church ‘medium” may be helpful here. In its earliest belief texts, the Church depended upon the body of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels—the bulk of which were narrative in nature, describing the effects of God’s work. The fact that the Church sanctioned four variants of the Jesus narrative (the four Gospels) is an admission that no one text embodied God’s plan and Jesus’ meaning perfectly. In fact, next Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus proclaims that “the Father is greater than I,” was ambiguous enough to create debates that proceeded into the fifth century.
The Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, ranging from 325 to 451 A.D., were invoked to bring unity to the Church in its belief and practices, and each Council expressed this unity in propositions, the Nicene Creed being the easiest remembered. In doing so the Church established a particular medium—propositions—that would become the template for its teaching and ruling exercises. One can argue that the penitentiaries of the Irish monks from the sixth century were propositional—itemized summaries of sins and reparations, for example.
However, the fullness of the propositional medium should probably trace back to the noted early medieval scholar, Peter Lombard (1096-1160). Lombard is best remembered for his Four Books of Sentences, best described in Wikipedia in this fashion: “Though the Four Books of Sentences formed the framework upon which four centuries of scholastic interpretation of Christian dogma was based, rather than a dialectical work itself, the Four Books of Sentences is a compilation of biblical texts, together with relevant passages from the Church Fathers and many medieval thinkers, on virtually the entire field of Christian theology as it was understood at the time.”
It was, nothing more and nothing less, than a compendium or collection of all statements of Christianity from a variety of authoritative sources. As the Wikipedia author observes, The Sentences was not as much systematic as quantitative. Peter apparently intended this work as an aid to students, but by the thirteenth century The Sentences was the starting point for any aspiring student of theology, employed by not only the Catholic greats of the age such as Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, but Martin Luther and John Calvin as well.
The Sentences cemented the “Catholic medium” as propositional, that is, all serious issues of faith life were expressed as collections of statements. Church Councils throughout the middle ages issued their conclusions as propositions. The new science of Canon Law would do likewise. After the Reformation the Catholic Reform Council of Trent (1545-1563) would do the same. I own a copy of the decrees of Trent, which run to 273 pages. Here is a link to the propositions approved by Vatican I in 1870.
Vatican II broke tradition when it adopted its more pastoral and personal style in many, if not all, of its documents. But in the half century since, the Church has returned to its propositional medium, most notably in the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law, and the very Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains 2865 propositions. [We have treated all of 42 so far, so get comfortable.]
Paragraph 42, interestingly, serves as something of The Medium is the Message reminder, that if the medium of talking about God and his laws is words, then the medium will always be imperfect, as words will at best be imperfectly analogous to God. Which raises the question: how accurately do Church pronouncements express the intentions of a living God? This is not to suggest that words, particularly those in the revealed books of the bible, do not connect with the divine. But there is a legitimate question if Church declarations/propositions are equal to the exact mind of God in every case.
I wrote yesterday that Pope Francis was coming under fire for creating confusion by not simply reiterating Church teaching in propositional brevity instead of “clouding the issue” over 280 pages. Francis has chosen to adopt another medium; I guess you could call it “pastoral narrative” to unify the many dimensions of marriage, family, and human sexuality. In doing so he has incorporated aspects of faith and life that propositions do poorly, if at all. But while we are at it, consider another teaching medium of Francis, the “prophetic action,” specifically his loving and observable conduct toward children, the infirm, the prisoner, the refugee. If para. 42 is correct that no medium captures the perfection of God, it is equally true that a multitude of mediums are capable of doing so imperfectly—not only propositions.