1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God's gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become "children of God," "partakers of the divine nature." Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life "worthy of the gospel of Christ." They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.”
The term “symbol of the Faith,” is defined much earlier in the Catechism as “first and foremost the baptismal creed.” (para. 189) The flow of the paragraph defines the Nicene Creed as a narrative of the greatness of God in his saving gifts to mankind—creation, redemption, and sanctification. There is emphasis upon the sacraments of rebirth—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—as incorporating the new believer into the family of God and “partakers of the divine nature.” In this new state, the believer has had a change of identity, and thus flows the logical expectation that the reborn would then live a life “worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” The assistance to live this new life comes in the form of the “grace [gifts] of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit through sacraments and prayers.”
Para. 1692 is an excellent theological synopsis of the divine plan and the basis for living a moral life. From a catechetical perspective, the Catechism lifts the theological science of morality from an overly legalistic emphasis upon individual deeds and puts the emphasis where it is most appropriate—the saving and loving will of God, divine revelation through the Scripture, the role of the sacraments, and the free and undeserved interventions of Christ, in and through the Holy Spirit. Discussions of morality thus flow from the center of the Church’s life and interact with Christian faith most intimately.
I will not elaborate further upon the precise text here, because I think the logic of the statement—as theology based in faith—is clear enough for the reader. Rather, given that August 28 is the feast of St. Augustine, I want to look at para. 1692 for the question is does not and cannot answer: how is it that the all-powerful God, whose gifts and graces flow with divine plenty, oversees a planet of his creatures whose behaviors—the true dispositions of the heart—would appear to the human eye to be untouched by God’s grace.
This is one of the continuing debates in Christian life: God’s love and human intransigence. Many scholars see this question at the heart of the Reformation. Luther held that man is saved by faith, not works, though it is not clear from my limited reading of Luther if the Augustinian monk developed a “theory of refusal” of divine inspiration. John Calvin, in the next generation of Protestant reformers, addresses the question with a clarity unfamiliar to Catholic ears: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” This, of course, is the famous doctrine of “predestination.”
But going back to Augustine (354-430 A.D.), we strike closer to what has been the Catholic understanding of the reconciliation of the two: “God orders all things while preserving human freedom.” However, how trustworthy is the mind and the emotion of the free human? Augustine would also write: “Out of the forward will lust had sprung; and lust pampered had become custom; and custom indulged had become necessity. These were the links of the chain; this is the bondage in which I was bound.” It seems likely that Augustine, baptized by the Church Father St. Ambrose of Milan, was disappointed that after his baptism-- dramatically described in Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism [2012) –he still felt tendencies to sin.
Augustine thought long and hard on the subject; moreover, the Pelagian controversy was in full flower, which held that humans could in effect save themselves by good works in imitation of Christ’s ministerial sojourn, thus making the crucifixion superfluous. Augustine thus developed a theology of sacraments and human moral experience that is arguably in full force to this day. He maintained that Adam’s sin in the Garden had been passed to every human being through sexual regeneration. Twentieth century scholars as a rule do not hold to the literal Adam bloodline of sin; the Catechism in para. 390 notes that the Adam account is “figurative language” but also that the entire human race from the beginning is marked by what it calls “original fault freely committed by our first parents.”
Baptism washes away the “original sin,” but it does not remove what Augustine called concupiscence (from the Latin, “to desire”) or the drive to sin. This is a statement of Augustine’s Christian anthropology: left to his or her own devices the human will sin egregiously and ultimately toward full damnation. Thus, the redemptive crucifixion of Christ and the sacraments that extend continuing forgiveness and redemption are absolutely necessary in Augustinian theology.
What neither Augustine nor any other Christian thinker could fully articulate was the disparity between the baptized: some immersed themselves in God’s mercy through faith, prayer, the sacraments, and good works. Others, then and today, clearly do not. Some of the postulated explanations over time have been less than satisfying. Does God give more help to some than others? Does the devil or the power of evil hold equal sway over the baptized (or all persons for that matter) so that morality is reduced to a tug-of-war between good and evil? Or was the Protestant reformer John Calvin correct in his sixteenth century assertion that God chose ahead of time those who would be saved, a theory popularly known as “predestination?” Calvin wrote: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”
Why do people sin, or behave immorally, at the cost of eternal damnation? I can only add my own partial analysis: the longer I live and the longer people share the complexity of their life stories with me as their therapist, the more I have grown to appreciate the uniqueness of each human being, particularly the mental dispositions and handicaps they endure. In recent years, I have studied personality disorders; some types, such as narcissism or antisocial personality disorder, portray themselves in actions, attitudes, and behaviors we would generally term immoral. That said, science is looking at the possibility that, unlike the mood disorders, personality disorders may be related to forms of “faulty brain wiring.” While I do not believe in predestination, I cannot totally dismiss Calvin’s observation that “all are not created on equal terms,” in multiple senses of meaning.
It is hard to understand God’s work among us when we do not fully understand ourselves.