39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.
With apologies to Mother Angelica, who earnestly believed that concerns about inclusive Church language were part of “the plot,” the English translation of Paragraph 39 does itself no favors here. Of course, para. 39 is hardly the sole offending party here—this linguistic problem plagues the entire collection—but here we find a statement of confidence in the Church’s ability to speak of God precisely with all (uh, men?).
This paragraph is unsourced, but its language smacks strongly of several Vatican II documents and the letters of Pope John XXIII. It is hard to imagine this sentiment in any formal document prior to Vatican II. In fact, John’s predecessor, Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) famously excommunicated all Catholic Communists, for example. Vatican II broke the centuries old modus operandi of Church relations with those not in communion with Rome and repositioned the Church in a humbler, missionary stance toward the world at large.
In truth, the sentiments of para. 39 and its origins in Vatican II were too late in coming. Pope John’s reasoning in calling the Council in 1959 was precisely the Church’s increasing inability to talk to the world or to be taken seriously. The twentieth century’s two world wars and the Holocaust gestated in the historical heart of Christianity, Western Europe. The dialogue spoken of in para. 39 was considered, until very recent times, a dangerous and unbecoming practice for Roman Catholicism.
The Catholic moralist James Keenan summarizes the “classical Catholic stance” that is still maintained even today by many, and why the dialogue referred to in para. 39 is such a break from the past. “…As God is, so is God’s teaching. God is eternal, unchanging, universally the same. Similarly, God’s willed teachings have the same quality. Second, the Church is the guardian of that deposit of the truth: her leaders cannot change Church teaching because they must not undermine God’s will. Their role is to promote and proclaim again and again the constant teaching of the Church. Third, for this reason the credibility of the Church is known for its constancy; were the Church to change established teachings, it would jeopardize the grounds of confidence that the faithful have in her. Fourthly, the reason why people do not adhere to the truth is not because they do not or cannot understand it, or that it is unreasonable. Rather, the innate weaknesses and wickedness of human beings hinder their ability to follow the law of God. Thus call for reform of the law is a charade. No one wants to reform the law but rather to abandon its claim on us.” (A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century, 112)
This extended quote from Father Keenan reminds me of the old adage, if you think of yourself as a hammer, the whole world looks like nails. Father Keenan has correctly summarized the essentials of how the old guard Curialists would have viewed the responsibilities of the Church on the eve of Vatican II, and why it fought so vigorously against the reforms proposed by Pope John and the majority of Council bishops who were not comfortable exercising their Apostolic ministries as sledgehammers.
Para. 39 is not quite the ringing endorsement of earlier paragraphs about the inherent dignity and worth of all humans “created in the image of God,” but it does not imply bad will to those whose conclusions on the things of God may be different or faulty, either. This paragraph uses a variety of terms for dialogue: The Church may speak of God (1) to all men, (2) with all men, and (3) in dialogue. Moreover, such interaction may take place (1) with other religions, (2) with philosophy and science, and (3) with unbelievers and atheists. (Presumably the inclusion of dialogue with thinkers and questioners within our Church is a given.) The term dialogue implies at least two parties, and I suppose one may wonder what an atheist may tell the Church that the latter might be useful. Perhaps the atheist might wish to know where our God was when Jews by the millions were marched into extermination camps. It is a hard but honest question—I think of it myself from time to time. The best answer I have is that God sent his Son to establish a Church that would renew the face of the earth—and we have failed miserably, preoccupied with pride of place.
The sincere questions of the world at large, and the input of the arts, philosophers, and scientists, do not diminish the majesty of God but rather emphasize God’s immanence and energy. Our doctrine of the Trinity speaks of an active God—one who creates, one who redeems, one who sanctifies. These activities continue in our time and in the present day, and presumably by the agency of our own Church, in communion with all men and women of good will. The Catechism—echoing the Council—endorses our collective prayer, thinking and good works in forestalling even greater evils than those of the twentieth century. It establishes the groundwork by emphasizing our common identity as created in the image and likeness of God.