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.