2104 "All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it. This duty derives from "the very dignity of the human person." It does not contradict a "sincere respect" for different religions which frequently "reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men," nor the requirement of charity, which urges Christians "to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith."
Para. 2104 is yet another segment under the heading of the First Commandment, and it takes us into the subject of Christian anthropology, i.e., what makes up a human being. Way back in para. 33, which treats of anthropology at considerable length, the Catechism quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, “…man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality ‘that everyone calls God.’” Put another way, it is the nature of humankind to enjoy the God-given inclination toward high purpose by creation itself, before the intervention of Revelation and religious formation.
Para. 2104 does not make sense unless recognition of God and the Church [broadly understood] lies within the capacity of human nature as we are, i.e., we are born with some basic capacity to strive for the truth about God and to both increase the search for that truth and to embrace it for personal conduct. In the current state of public affairs, here in our own country and elsewhere, one would be justified to conclude that either large segments of the population turn their backs on this innate drive to seek the things of God, or that some powerful force is presently blocking inner consciousness of man’s inherent sense of the drive for the divine.
As a catechist and a psychotherapist, I find this question compelling. It is a form of the question of the nature of evil, and trust me, we won’t have a clear-cut answer to the nature of evil within the lifetime of the Café postings. But as a counselor I recognize in practice and read in the professional literature that some individuals suffer impairments that make clear thought and ethical management next to impossible. Catholic moral theology, in my opinion, has not addressed the question of those with impaired judgment or underdeveloped capacity. I am thinking specifically of addictions—the opioid crisis, for example—and another cohort that is rarely understood or discussed in pastoral context, those with personality disorders [antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, etc.]
With the personality disorders, the origins are generally unknown but believed to be genetic. A common trait of all personality disorders is the absence of any clinically proven cure or treatment regimen, particularly troubling given that the prevalence of PD of all types is about 9% of the population. I learned the hard way that insurance companies do not reimburse PD because no talking therapy style has been proved effective. In terms of the moral status of afflicted individuals, I recommend a stretching of para. 2104’s final admonition “"to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith." Throughout my career as a pastor I always provided full Catholic funeral rites for those who had committed suicide.
Neurological factors impede an embrace of God and his truth; are there other, outside forces in play? I was taught as a boy that God was in a titanic struggle with Satan for my 8-year-old soul, and I needn’t prolong any discussion about belief in Satan, devils, or demonic spirits introducing evil and sin into the world. Discussions along these lines, though, take us to the mythic world of creation, and for our purposes, the story of Adam and Eve [though in fairness some cultural creation myths predate the Garden narrative by at least 1500 years.]
While on retreat last week I would sit up in the absolute silence and darkness of the monastery setting reading and reflecting upon Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (2017). Greenblatt’s work has significant implications for thoughtful adherents to the Bible in its treatment of how three religious traditions [Hebrew, Islamic, and in primary detail, Christianity] understood the “fall of man” narrative, the wounding that universally impairs the ability to seek God. The author makes the point that simply because the historical and literary evidence precludes the possibility of the Garden narrative as literal history, the bigger questions involve the creation of the story as we have it, and how the predominant Christian interpretation—involving Original Sin—stands up to the actual text and its uses through Church history.
The early Genesis texts of creation and fall seem ancient because of their placement in the Bible, i.e., at the beginning. However, the Adam and Eve narrative was written quite late in the revelation process, perhaps around the end of the Babylonian Captivity (597-539 B.C.) and inserted earlier into the Hebrew Canon. The multiple authors may have been attempting to unseat the predominant creation myth in that portion of the world, the venerable tale of Gilgamesh, probably the oldest writing on earth. The Genesis texts are a combination of philosophy and theology: an attempt to explain sin, suffering, and errant human desire while at the same time providing a template for the relationship of God with his people. For our purposes here, it is worth noting that nowhere in creation is there mention of outside evil influences; the serpent is “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” The early narratives of Noah and the Tower of Babel simply reinforce man’s sinful, rebellious nature.
Jewish interpretation of Adam and Eve’s disobedience emphasized the natural state of man as sinful and imperfect. [Noah’s son sinned right off the boat, so to speak.] Islamic interpretation is more benign; “…Islamic tradition characterized the wrongdoing that led to this expulsion as an error rather than as a heinous crime transmitted to all posterity.” [p. 7] In the Christian era St. Paul identifies Adam’s sin vis-à-vis the cross of Christ as a universal sin, and it is important to recall the origin of the name of Adam, i.e., “from clay.” One can read Paul’s Letter to the Romans as saying that God could have picked anyone out of a crowd, put him in Adam’s place, and the results would have been the same.
The idea of Adam’s sin as a literal event resulting in a cosmic moral disfigurement of the human species—a theology that many Church documents still put forth today under the title of Original Sin—can be traced to St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.). I have a link here to Augustine’s biography if you are unfamiliar with his place in Christian history. To understand Augustine’s interpretation of the Garden narrative, the basis of Original Sin, the moral anthropology of humankind, and the catechetical model of redemption we use almost unthinkingly today, it is important to look at Augustine’s own tortuous journey to Christianity and his baptism by St. Ambrose of Milan. I will continue this thread next Monday.
2101 In many circumstances, the Christian is called to make promises to God. Baptism and Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders always entail promises. Out of personal devotion, the Christian may also promise to God this action, that prayer, this alms-giving, that pilgrimage, and so forth. Fidelity to promises made to God is a sign of the respect owed to the divine majesty and of love for a faithful God.
I married relatively late in life (age 50) to my wife who had been widowed in her 20’s. Both of us had developed professional lives over the years and had achieved a strong measure of personal autonomy and self-assurance. At the time of our marriage we each owned our own homes. By objective measures, we could have progressed as single people in the world. But for all of that, the strange works of Providence brought us together at a Friday evening wedding Mass in October 1998. When doing our “paper work” for the wedding with our pastor/vicar general, he stated that in his judgment the pre-Cana program of the diocese would not significantly raise our marital/spiritual IQ, and he recommended instead that we consider a spiritual retreat of several days with the Trappists at Mepkin Abbey outside of Charleston, South Carolina. We did, and we will be returning to Mepkin in a few weeks, coincidentally in the year of our twentieth wedding anniversary.
I remember the day of my wedding, sitting in my own house and attempting to study for my state medical licensure exam a week later. But my mind was understandably elsewhere, and I had the chance to reflect upon the vow I would be taking that evening. I remember that afternoon as one of the most enlightening in my ongoing spiritual journey. For I realized that I would be taking a vow with significant implications for myself, my wife, and my God. In very practical terms I understood that my daily lifestyle was no longer exclusively mine. There would be no more walking in the door from work and flipping on ESPN. Meals would be healthier, at regular times, and prepared with more than a passing nod to nutrition.
But beyond that was the greater sense of the sacrament itself. I reflected that I was committing to create an environment where my wife would experience the presence of God. I knew in her heart that she shared her vow in the same way. I admit that I had taken vows before in my lifetime; when I was 24 I took solemn vows with the Franciscan Order. I must own that failure for the rest of my life, despite Rome’s permission for “exclaustration” or release from vows. But I would say that looking back, I was much younger and the language of the vows for religious life was quite broad. I knew the act of making the vows was “grave matter” as the Catechism and Canon Law would say, but the target commitment was to a broad spectrum: God, the Church, the thousands of Franciscans around the world who wore the same habit. I see today that solemn vow classes in my old order are quite small; perhaps the formation for vows commands more of a candidate’s focus than it did of mine. And, in my day, the solemn vows made by a seminarian were often viewed as a step on the ladder to ordination to the priesthood, as much as we tried to put that out of our heads and reflect about our pledge of a common life to the brothers.
Para. 2101 speaks of making solemn promises/vows to God. It is interesting that the paragraph speaks of sacraments as the primordial vows or promises. Theologically speaking, when a religious man or woman makes solemn vows, he or she is taking an oath before God to intensify his or her earlier Baptismal vows into an intensified way of life under the rule of an established religious order/community and its duly authorized superiors. Living the vows should be quite specific: foregoing intimate personal relationships to focus upon the spiritual and practical needs of one’s designated fraternity, for example, or accepting work positions consistent with the intentions of the founder and the official rule. Members of religious orders have vowed themselves to a rigorous specific lifestyle as a powerful sign to the Church and the world at large that baptism leads to glory and reward beyond the grave. The variety of religious orders bears witness to the many ways the baptismal life can be intensified—from strict cloister to the soup kitchen. Consider the unique charism of Mepkin Abbey.
The old catechisms spoke of sacraments as “giving grace;” this phrasing was removed from modern catechetics for its overly mechanical tone. And yet any basic mental health text speaks of “concreteness” as an essential quality of the therapeutic process. To promise to do good sounds a lot like “I need to lose weight” or “I need to cut back on my drinking.” A health care provider will likely respond with a request for a concrete plan of action with a measurable outcome, usually called a “treatment plan.” The patient and I may agree that he attend four AA meetings in the coming week; if he fails this plan, we would need to examine exactly why he missed and what is his true state of mind about sobriety. The general intention always sounds worthy, but the devil “and all his pomps” are in the details.
Just as religious take vows in the context of their common life, the same would be true in the sacrament of marriage. The theological definition of marriage vows is virtually the same as the popular understanding. The vows are made by each party to each other. Sacramentally, the couple executes the sacrament; the priest is present as an official witness. [Interestingly, the Church recognizes the validity of marriage between two baptized Protestants.] The vow is made to God with the understanding that in baptism the reality of God already exists in the wedding couple.
The Church assumes that the vows made at Baptism [and their “subset” in religious life], Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage and Orders are lifelong. While this may seem a mighty challenge, a married couple does take comfort in the assurance of long-term personal, conjugal, emotional, and material support. I have been advocating for more intense counsel and input on the lived dynamic of marriage for engaged couples since I was ordained 44 years ago. Church programs or pre-Cana squander too much precious time on Church teachings regarding contraception, in vitro fertilization, etc. to a captive audience. The art of compromise, making decisions, hashing through disagreements, use of substances, managing money, etc. become true game breakers. Each area of distress deserves concrete attention and skill building. Preparation for all vows must keep in mind the last sentence of para. 2101, “Fidelity to promises made to God is a sign of the respect owed to the divine majesty and of love for a faithful God.”
Baptized Catholics can make other vows and promises to God, as per 2101, which I would classify as intensification of the vows of sacraments. In the Middle Ages Christians vowed to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land as part of their penitential [Penance] experience. Today such personal vows, which may include perpetual virginity, are made with the blessing of the Church, and are best initiated with discernment of a spiritual director or confessor.