Where Confidence Meets DespairRead Now
2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and of incurring punishment.
2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:
By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy.
2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).
Before I launch into sins against hope, I need to clarify that under the heading of the First Commandment, the Catechism includes sins against the “theological virtues,” that is, faith, hope, and charity. A “virtue” is a disposition or habit of thinking and acting; in our context here, “theological virtues” are dispositions toward God. Para. 2090 as a whole confuses as much as it clarifies; for catechetical purposes I would simply draw out the definition of hope as “the confident expectation of divine and the beatific vision of God.” Last week we addressed sins against the virtue of faith, the habit of believing that God is and God reveals in human space and time. Last week’s post also treated of the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to speak and act in the name of God and the kinds of responses expected of the believer.
Catechetics involving the virtue of hope are considerably more complicated. Sin against hope, essentially giving up on God, is often entwined with a mental health condition in which one gives up on everything in various degrees. Hope, in general language, is a measure of psychological health. The DSM-V, the official mental health diagnostic criteria in use today, lists nine symptoms of the absence of hope, a condition known by its official name, Depression. It may be wise to review these symptoms before we continue:
Specific symptoms, at least 5 of these 9, present nearly every day:
Depressed mood or irritable most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).
Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, most of each day.
Significant [unintended] weight change [5%] or change in appetite.
Change in sleep: Insomnia or hypersomnia.
Change in activity: Psychomotor agitation or retardation.
Fatigue or loss of energy.
Guilt/worthlessness: Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
Concentration: diminished ability to think or concentrate, or more indecisiveness.
Suicidality: Thoughts of death or suicide or has suicide plan.
Para. 2091’s definition of despair as a sin is painfully unnuanced, without mention of the human conditions that might form a predilection toward despair and despondency. This is a consistent flaw throughout the Catechism, its inadequately developed anthropology and the absence of interdisciplinary discussion of human behavior. Despair has captured nearly all the arts and sciences as a subject of interest and concern: I have treated depression for many years in mental health practice and have attempted to make connections for my clients with many facets of life: from psychopharmacology to drama to poetry, in an effort to help them understand themselves. The Catechism, alas, does not give much to work with.
Despair and depression create difficulties for Catholic moral discussion because (1) very few Catholic moralists—and hardly any catechists—bring neuroscience into their discussions of moral acts, and (2) depressed individuals are prone to engage at times in dangerous or self-defeating acts, from sexual promiscuity to suicide, to ease their pain or break out of the prison of anhedonia (the absence of the ability to feel pleasure or enthusiasm over anything.) Such behaviors are, objectively speaking, sinful by the book and pastoral tendency runs toward the sin rather than the cause or the symptom rather than the condition.
We do not understand the precise causes of depression. For a long time, the psychiatric community did not (and would not) recognize grief as a form of depression; the DSM-V has corrected this and prescribes the same treatment modalities for depressive grief and clinical depression. For much of my adult life the prevailing theories on the causes of depression have centered on deficiencies and poor interactions of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, though better brain photography may offer new leads. The best research seems to favor a combination of medication and psychotherapy for the best treatment outcomes, a recognition of the physical and relational (even spiritual) roots of the disorder, though a medical intervention is probably a prerequisite in time sequence to successful depression counseling; interpersonal engagement in therapy is handicapped until the most intrusive symptoms are eased up somewhat.
Even with organic causes, depression does not rob the intellect or free will, nor do any of the conditions we call mood disorders, such as anxiety, panic, or bipolarity. [Personality Disorders are diseases of thought, a different species altogether.] Counseling mood disordered individuals is possible precisely because logical and emotional engagement are not blocked. The impairment of hope is a matter that can be explored and acted upon as well as medicated where necessary, although with the important proviso that some depressed individuals will logically conclude that suicide is the valid option for them. I will address suicide in future posts but be aware in pastoral work of potential indicators; I would hope that the subject is a standard element of pastoral training.
This brings us to the overlap of mood and virtue. It is hard to read para. 2091 without sensing more than a simple declaration that God can do nothing for me. There is greater sensitivity to the reality that hopelessness is different from malingering. At last check, about 90% of Americans report a belief in God, presumably with the idea that God can do some good for them down the road. Para. 2092 seems closer to reality and personal observation; we presume that in our relationship with God we can “tank” as they say in the NBA, that little or no effort is required for the goodies of afterlife. In my own teaching experience, I find even among veteran church ministers a reluctance to acknowledge that life can have bad outcomes—i.e., that God would send someone to hell, as opposed to current popular thinking that afterlife determinations are mainly a question of how good your suite will be on the eternal ocean cruise of heaven.
Five centuries ago Catholics worried a great deal about afterlife, alternating between hopelessness and frantic activities to ward off damnation. Kevin Madigan concludes his medieval masterpiece with the observation that “when one Christian, emerging from the confessional, could feel serene relief and another near immediate doubt, the Christian Middle Ages can be said to have come to an end. In that era despair of salvation held place; in today’s post confession age, presumption holds sway.
Note: in today's research I came across an excellent blogsite on moral theology with a bibliography of useful readings from the University of Dayton, which you might want to bookmark.
Commandment One: Page 3Read Now
2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. "Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."
Paragraph 2089 is in my opinion one of the most controversial articles of the Catechism, for it pushes the envelope of language to the limits. This segment continues the itemization of sins against the First Commandment we began last week, the sins of the believer or non-believer vis-à-vis God. Para. 2089 equates belief in God with obedience to the Roman Catholic Church, and it reflects none of the intense study and debate that surrounded this claim at Vatican II.
The issue of the nature of the Church and its right to command obedience was the subject of at least two Conciliar documents, Lumen Gentium (1964) on the nature of the Church, and for our purposes section 8; and Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), The Decree on Ecumenism. For some context here, theologians since the division of Eastern and Western Christendom have wrestled with the claim that the “Kingdom of God” proclaimed in the New Testament and the Roman Catholic Church are the same. For westerners, the question became more complex with the Protestant Reformation and the multiplication of churches claiming to be Christian while denying the validity of the petrine or papal ministry, i.e., the successors of St. Peter.
In the 1800’s the idea of reunification of Christian churches, or at least a reconciliation, became strong, in part because of Pope Pius IX’s movement toward a declaration of papal infallibility, which eventually did occur at the Council Vatican I in 1870. For an interesting treatment of this era I highly recommend The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age (2017). Dollinger was the voice of Catholic academics who feared that claims of infallibility would discourage any movement toward reunion. Dollinger was excommunicated and became the symbolic leader of a budding ecumenical movement that included Episcopalians and some Orthodox.
Pius IX and his immediate successors never directly stated that “outside the Roman Catholic Church there is no salvation;” his own preaching and writing are clear on the point that innocent ignorance of the Catholic Church did not condemn a person to hell. Pius would have agreed with the thrust of para. 2089 that the teachings of the Church and the Revelation of God are the same thing, or that the Kingdom of God is the Roman Catholic Church. In 1900 Catholic scholars—particularly historians and Biblical academics—who questioned this proposition were silenced and, in some cases, excommunicated for engaging in “modernism.” Seminarians were required to take an anti-modernist oath, a requirement that was lifted only a few classes ahead of mine.
By 1962 the theological landscape was considerably different. Scholars had deepened understanding of the biblical Kingdom of God, enlarging its meaning and significance. To put it another way, Catholic scholars were less comfortable domesticating the being and intentions of God and recommended more humility in claiming to speak for God. The debate over the wording of Lumen Gentium struggled to find the wording to describe the relationship of God’s Kingdom to the Roman Catholic Church. The Council agreed to this (para. 8): This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic…This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”
The key word here is “subsists”. Opponents in the debate argued for “is.” The word “subsists” insures the Roman Catholic identity as the teacher custodian of all beliefs necessary for salvation while acknowledging that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure.” The Council uses the term “Church of Christ” with greater breadth than Pius IX and Vatican I, while still looking forward to a day of catholic [i.e., universal] unity. The Council recognizes aspects of Protestant worship, for example, as effecting sanctification.
In terms of morality, what are we to make of para. 2089? The most serious struggle with the text results from its lack of nuance. As stated here, every married Catholic who uses the pill is a schismatic or a heretic, for “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.” Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirmed the Church’s earlier teaching that artificial contraception is a grave [mortal] sin against God’s natural law, and Pope John Paul II reinforced this teaching on multiple occasions during his papacy. And yet, adherence to this teaching is not noteworthy. Entire bishops’ conferences questioned the wisdom of Humanae Vitae when it was released. While passions over this teaching have cooled over time, the reason may be a general disregard of reproductive moral teachings in general among Catholics. By the same token, are all of the private and public critics of Pope Francis in a state of schism or separation?
The words of Lumen Gentium to describe Christian non-Catholic believers can just as easily apply to members of the Catholic Church itself who find themselves in similar circumstances, i.e., wrestling with matters of proclaimed faith and morals. I draw a distinction between those who take their faith and conscience seriously and those who are casual about religion in general. This latter group resembles the Catechism’s definition of incredulity, “the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it.” I fear that of all the sins listed in para. 2089, incredulity is probably the most common. The other sins, strange as this may sound, at least require a commitment from the “sinner.” Heresy, apostasy, and schism are often the fruits of anguish; Dollinger was judged fit for excommunication, but his academic and spiritual energies were devoted to matters of faith throughout his life, however history judges his actions. Technically speaking, apostasy is often a change of denominations—from Catholicism to another worshipping community—in an effort to find God in better preaching and strong community support.
The issues of para. 2089 require much better and more nuanced articulation. We don’t have a moral category for the questioning soul, and we should. Lumen Gentium uses the phrase “Pilgrim People” to describe the Church: we are not static but rather organic. Like Israel in the desert, we are a traveling people, learning from hard experience as we make our way to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. In defining the authority of the Church, this provisionally historical dimension must find its voice in the expression of Apostolic tradition.
Para. 2089’s point about “incredulity” may be the most valuable takeaway from this paragraph. The “neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it” suggests a degree of human pride with little acknowledgement of the need of any sort of higher power or helpful social interaction. Incredulity is a condition that reaches beyond the bounds of denominational religion. In the Catechism context, para. 2089 is also an invitation to examine the precise nature of the degree we allow Scripture and Tradition to penetrate our psychological center.
Commandment One: Page TwoRead Now
2087 Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the "obedience of faith"9 as our first obligation. He shows that "ignorance of God" is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations.10 Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him.
2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.
The morality portion of the Catechism uses a specific format: after a Commandment is posted, there follows a breakdown of its meaning and the various sins and virtues that have come to be associated with that commandment over three millennia. Last Monday I posted the First Commandment; there are at least 60 sequential paragraphs running into the 2140’s. What I am doing is doubling statements where appropriate, and skipping some with are repetitive, vague, or overly time conditioned.
Throughout this section there is one notable skew: there is not a single academic theological source after St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) cited in the treatment of the First Commandment. Why is this important? The Catechism makes no reference to the enormous volume of philosophical thought and writing since the Renaissance, what we often call “the modern era.” Thinkers from the Enlightenment down to the present day have wrestled with the integration of God and the human experience. You may have had Hegel, Kant, or Kierkegaard in Philosophy 101, and whatever you remember of those days, you would be hard pressed to name a philosopher who identified himself as an atheist. Perhaps the Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) comes closest, although one wonders what he had in mind when he wrote “Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position." (As Archie Bunker once observed, “You know, a guy could take that two ways.”)
Poor Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was almost psychologically tormented by the Christianity of his upbringing, a dour Danish Lutheranism. The Stanford University Philosophy on-line site observes “Kierkegaard’s central problematic was how to become a Christian in Christendom.” Like most philosophers of the modern era, Kierkegaard was troubled by the claims of churches vis-à-vis the performance of churches. It is interesting that surveys of today’s millennials seem to indicate non-denominationalism, or a belief in God separate from a specific creedal community. Catholic writing terms this attitude “relativism,” and a non-denominationalist position does demand logical consistency on matters including suffering and death that I have not seen addressed to date.
One of the defects in contemporary Church statements, on the other hand, is a near total absence of psychology, and nowhere is this more glaring than in para. 2088’s description of sinning against the First Commandment. As I wrote last week, the First Commandment is qualitatively different from the rest, because it addresses one’s personal sense of reality in this life and the possibility of existence beyond the grave. To reduce the question of reality to the format of geometric theorems falls short of the wonder of God and the intense struggle of humans to dare put their trust in the promises of the divine or fathom “the ways of the Lord.” Moreover, the category of “involuntary doubt’ [a division that already cuts the apple pretty thin] takes the position that “hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity” are sinful, adding the proviso of “deliberately cultivated.”
The human spirit can be lifted above itself by the magnificence of nature [I for one will never forget viewing last summer’s total eclipse in South Carolina]. The human spirit can be driven to the point of physical sickness at the thought of the wholesale sexual trafficking of young children that we continue to learn of daily. How can the two stand side by side? A logical profession that God exists is one thing; coming to issue with the idea that God is personally present to a world of unspeakable beauty and unmentionable perversion is entirely another. My Catholic upbringing taught that to ask questions along these lines was “impertinent” and I guess that one could make the case that modern man is sometimes too arrogant for his own good.
On the other hand, when God is not a key factor in our personal deliberations, he has ceased to exist. If individuals have “reservation” or “doubt” about the Revelation of God and his “doings” in the present time, it would seem to follow that at the very least one can tease out of these dilemmas an acknowledgement of the reality of God. It does not have the polish of the Nicene Creed, but is “sin” a just description of a psychological need to create a gestalt of God that one can live with profitably?
The unpredictability of the emotions has led the Church to define its doctrines, even its language about God, in an unchanging logical system for the simple reason that it believed logic was static and always dependable for the reasoning mind or the intellect. We think of this philosophical/theological system by the two men who formulated it, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.). But even in Thomas’s era, post 1250 A.D., there were Catholic philosophers who questioned the thought system, notably the Franciscan William of Ockham, who wrote in the fourteenth century “the ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover." In the post-Reformation era, the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) would write “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."
In fairness, I need to add that the present Catechism takes much of its form and content from the earlier Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, published in 1566. Given that traditional Catholic scholastic thinking was under severe attack by both Protestant reformers and Catholic Renaissance academics and mystics, the Roman Catechism was a strong defense of medieval thinking and a rallying point in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The style of the Roman Catechism in many places is terse and logical, as in its treatment of the First Commandment: “The (mandatory part of the commandment) contains a precept of faith, hope and charity. For, acknowledging God to be immovable, immutable, always the same, we rightly confess that He is faithful and entirely just. Hence in assenting to His oracles, we necessarily yield to Him all belief and obedience. Again, who can contemplate His omnipotence, His clemency, His willing beneficence, and not repose in Him all his hopes? Finally, who can behold the riches of His goodness and love, which He lavishes on us, and not love Him? Hence the exordium and the conclusion used by God in Scripture when giving His commands: I, the Lord.”
While it is true that God is beyond all change, his children throughout history have labored in countless ways to know Him—His will and his promises. During the Civil War one of Lincoln’s aides prayed that God was “on our side.” Lincoln corrected the man to pray that “we are on God’s side.” We depend upon organized thinking, to be sure, but we need to give equal weight to the affective experience of God. The two Catechism paragraphs cited today skew to the technical and logical aspects of the quest for God and need to be read with this in mind. If para. 2088 is taken too literally, our confessionals would be eternally full and our spiritual directors out of business.
First and ForemostRead Now
THE FIRST COMMANDMENT
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
It is written: "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve."
"YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND HIM ONLY SHALL YOU SERVE"
2084 God makes himself known by recalling his all-powerful loving, and liberating action in the history of the one he addresses: "I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The first word contains the first commandment of the Law: "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him... . . You shall not go after other gods."5 God's first call and just demand is that man accept him and worship him.
In its treatment of the First Commandment the Catechism merges the two pronouncements from the Law, the earlier text from Exodus and the later text from Deuteronomy. The texts over time have been condensed into the formula we all learned in school, “I am the Lord, thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” The First Commandment is enigmatic in the sense that its language is heavily time-oriented while still pregnant with meaning for any succeeding generation.
Scholars are quick to point out that the commandments, as laid out in the Bible, take the form of a “suzerainty contract” or “vassal treaty,” a template of an agreement between a superior and a subject. Such contracts have five parts: (1) a solemn statement of the name of the lord or ruler; (2) the name of the party or parties with whom the ruler is dealing; (3) a summary history of previous dealings; (4) the quid pro quo of the contract, i.e., its stipulations; and (5) the blessings and curses for compliance or betrayal. Father Boadt notes that this formula is easier to see in the Book of Deuteronomy, written later when governmental affairs were better formulated (pp. 147-151).
When looking at the place of the First Commandment in relation to the entire series, it is evident that the first holds a logical priority, for it assumes both the existence of God and the power of God, at least in the minds of the Israelites who first received the revelation, and then later to the rest of the world. The choice of the vassal treaty is in its own way a statement of faith, an acknowledgement of a lord with a history of faithful dealings who has a rightful and specific claim to loyalty and devotion. The other nine commandments—not to mention the expansion of the Judeo-Christian tradition—would be meaningless if there is no God in the first place around whom life and conduct are arranged.
About a year ago on this stream I discussed the revolution in contemporary moral theology, with the introduction of Bernard Haring’s The Law of Christ (1954) and a renewed emphasis upon union with Christ. Haring and his generation of moralists understood that the starting point of their discipline was personal orientation to Christ. This was a challenge to the pre-Vatican II era of moral theology called “the manualist tradition” in which the study of morals was act-oriented and logically self-contained, at least in its least desirable presentations.
I mention Haring in this post to address a common misconception about the Old Testament Law, specifically the Commandments. A gross simplification of catechetics—a misreading of St. Paul, I suspect—has led generations of Christians to a hasty judgment that Old Testament life was preoccupied with law, in stark contrast to the Christian era’s emphasis upon love. In fact, the First Commandment, in its form and content, makes clear that the first loyalty and the first love of an Israelite was to a very personal God. The term “jealous God” appears from time to time in the Bible—and those of us who have loved and lost over the years in the romance department understand the meaning of jealousy and the passion of Eros. There are numerous metaphors throughout the Hebrew Scripture--notably the Song of Songs—in which the relationship of God to his people is described as anything but black leather law.
It is a fact that that when Jesus was asked to name the greatest of the Jewish laws, he cited the First Commandment with considerable detail, but he saved some of his harshest words for those whose god had become the black leather law in and of itself. Here he was continuing what Israel’s prophets had preached energetically over many centuries, that law of itself without passion for its author was misbegotten theology. Next Wednesday’s Ash Wednesday Mass proclaims the Prophet Joel’s cry, “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” The heart, source of the emotions for the ancients, is the focus of Christian observance of Lent just as it was for Joel and faithful Israelites. The early medieval philosopher St. Anselm (1033-1109 A.D.) is famous for his definition of God: “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.… And [God] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist.” If this rendering does not stir your blood, even the Catechism cites Anselm only once (para. 158), but not this particular quote. Rather, the Catechism cites a description of divine and human interaction in Anselm’s definition of theology, “faith seeking understanding.”
The Christian medievalists—both the academics and the mystics—knew that human life could never behold the full beatific vision of God nor apprehend his being, but both cohorts of believers were equally convinced that “the chase” was the most noble and self-consuming enterprise of the baptized. The Catechism, centuries later, would assert that everyone is inherently created with the capacity of desire for full union with the divine being.
Christians and Jews approach the First Commandment with a shared understanding that a love of God rests at the heart of what we call morality. The first “sin” one can commit against the First Commandment is its abandonment: a deliberate closure to “the chase.” Jesus identifies the only unforgiveable sin is “blaspheming the Holy Spirit,” cessation of any interest in or movement toward the outpouring of God’s life.
It is true, too, that a man or woman’s relationship with God is unique, shaped by a kaleidoscope of learning, experience, culture, and even neurobiology. The Catechism posts many such circumstances in subsequent listings and the appropriate moral responses to the same. I will choose the most pertinent for our examination here over the next few weeks, including questions of atheism and the nature of evil.