50 By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works. But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation.1 Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Paragraph 50 opens a new section under the title “Revelation of God.” After a brief introductory sentence which recapitulates the previous section on the natural ability of man to know God, attention turns to “another order of knowledge…the Order of Divine Revelation.” The footnote takes us back to the Council Vatican I (1867-1870), which is the first post-Enlightenment Council or Council of the Industrial Age, and this in turn may provide the reader with some considerations on the nature of the teaching.
In the context of the Catechism, this paragraph is the first to draw a major distinction between natural and divine knowledge. If previous paragraphs had been generous in attributing to man a remarkable capacity to come to a knowledge of God, para. 50ff will “put us in our place,” so to speak, with the assertion that there is a world of knowledge impossible to access, namely God’s gift of redemption.
If we look carefully at the text, the knowledge inherent to man is the existence of God. The knowledge unattainable to man is the reality of God’s plan and action, as well as his infinite well of love. This twofold nature of knowledge of God is consistent with St. Thomas and the scholastics of the high Middle Ages, who like Aristotle put forth the contention that observation or scientific method could lead to a knowledge of the infinite, or in Aristotle’s thought, the necessity of a first mover. The ability to know something of the personal nature of God, however, was considered beyond human capacity. In fact, if God’s revealed knowledge (i.e., intentions) were accessible as observable science, the very fact of Jesus Christ would have been rendered superfluous.
Those of you who read the “Sacramental Saturday” posts may remember that a significant component in the development of sacramental theology is the description of each sacrament as conveying an “invisible reality” through outward signs. The idea of a metaphysical reality beyond human experience was introduced several centuries after Christ when thinkers such as Augustine wondered why one did not always “feel” different after a sacramental experience. In Augustine’s case, he still felt inclined to sin after his conversion. His generation of theologians would have argued that the invisible and unknown grace of God—never changing—connected to that part of human life equally unknown and never changing, i.e., the human soul. Certain sacraments marked the soul (again, the unchanging essence of man) with a “seal of identity—notably baptism/confirmation and orders. Whether one “felt” the experience was somewhat secondary to the metaphysical reality that it happened. Hence the terms “receiving sacraments” or “administering sacraments” passed into the Christian jargon.
Para. 50, then, establishes two points: that it is impossible for man to know God’s intent without divine revelation, and that humans live in two religious dimensions, so to speak, the flexible human condition and the timeless and changeless nature of the soul. This paragraph opens the door to numerous questions, including the process of communicating God’s knowledge and the human’s degree of power in accepting or rejecting what God has revealed. It is unfortunate here that the Catechism does not go into the nature of faith or belief, and grace, the term for God’s infusion of life-giving love, though it will do so further down the text.
This paragraph calls forth an assertion of faith from the reader that he/she accepts the anthropology set forth here: that we are created with corruptible and incorruptible natures, and that we live in an ongoing flux between what we know from science and experience and what we believe as unprovable truth in the metaphysical realm. Although this anthropological model is still at the heart of Catholic official belief today, it has never been without challenge. There are two extremes within the Catholic experience on this question—those who would hold that all of Catholic doctrine and life is metaphysical and depends upon blind faith; and those who put heavy stock into human emotion and experience as the ultimate divine experience as well. The late medieval mystic Thomas a Kempis said that he would much rather feel compunction than know its definition.
Going back to the footnote from Vatican I (1870) the Church was coming off of several centuries, probably dating back to the late Renaissance and certainly the Enlightenment, in which “modern man” was clearly chafing under the body-soul dynamic and everything it implied. Galileo’s telescope and subsequent writings were seen by the Church as an assault upon the invisible revealed truth of God (by contradicting the cosmos described in the Bible). Closer to Vatican I, Charles Darwin’s writings on the origins of the human species was an even greater danger to the body-soul definition of man, for Darwin’s conclusions both contradicted Biblical revealed truth about the origins of man as the Bible was then understood, and then created doubt over the precise time and place that humans acquired invisible spiritual souls.
It was at this juncture that Vatican I was called, not simply to reaffirm the Tradition of Church teaching, but to empower the Bishop of Rome with new and stronger weapons in the face of modern challenges, specifically the declaration of papal infallibility.
It is worth noting here that despite Vatican I, the twentieth century would see an age of theological exploration, and one of the discipline’s most significant projects would be in the area of Christian anthropology and the nature of interaction between God and man.