Being Catholic to a Sovereign God

We often express our belief that God is Almighty – that he has power over all; that his power is unlimited. But have we ever stopped to consider what this means? The power of God is not limited like the construction workers on a building project or even the world’s most esteemed scientists, even those who might have the ability to make us better, stronger, faster. The power of God is unique: there is nothing like it!

God depends upon no one for his divine might; he is the source, the principle of all other power. Upon God depends all the power, strength and energy of all creation. We can give no example of his power, for it exists nowhere outside of God. But we can examine things that have been created and are sustained by God including the universe and our place in it.

The Catechism explains that God created the universe “in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained” (ccc 302).

We refer to this intentional path to which God placed his creation as Divine Providence. In short, Divine Providence can be defined as “the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection” (ccc 302).

We are told that “God protects and governs all things which he has made” (ccc 302) and “cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history” (ccc 303). In fact, “God’s primacy and absolute Lordship” is all-embracing “over history and the world” (ccc 304).

The Gospel of Matthew takes up this theme in the passage where Jesus asks for childlike surrender to our heavenly Father who takes care of his children’s tiniest needs: “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ … But seek first the kingdom [of God] … and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:31-33).

This passage affirms that God not only gives his creatures existence, but he offers humanity the intimacy of his Fatherly mercy and care. Our Heavenly Father also extends to human beings “the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan” (ccc 306).

Finally, God entrusts people with the responsibility of “subduing” the earth and having dominion over it (ccc 307).

God intended that we humans, the best of his creation, would help complete the work of creation. Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, we can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by our actions, prayers and sufferings. (ccc 307).

Next, the problem of evil is addressed: If God, the Creator of all things, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? The Catechism states emphatically: “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question” (ccc 309). Then to the question of why God created a world with evil, the Catechism tells us that “God freely willed to create a world ‘in a state of journeying’ towards its ultimate perfection” (ccc 310). As intelligent and free creatures, both angels and human beings have to journey toward their ultimate destinies “by their free choice and preferential love” (ccc 311). However, when “they … go astray” (ccc 311) and choose a path contrary to accomplishing God’s will, evil occurs.

There is a silver lining, however, even in a world saturated by sin, poor choices and every variety of  evil. The Catechism teaches, although “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil,” he permits it because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, “knows how to derive good from it” (ccc 311). One primary example is, what the Catechism describes as “the greatest moral evil ever committed” (ccc 312). This is  ”the rejection and murder of God’s only Son,” caused by the sins of all humanity. The Catechism continues: “God, by his grace … brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good” (ccc 312). To say it another way, borrowing the words of Saint Augustine, “For almighty God … because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.”

The final part of this section of the Catechism tells us: “Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face,’ will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation” (ccc 314).

Being Catholic and the Fruit of Salvation

While Catholics believe it is Christs death and resurrection that puts the believer in a new relationship with God, this is not the whole story of Christian salvation. What some evangelicals consider salvation by works is merely an expression of Catholic belief in spiritual rebirth and regeneration, the on-going blessing of grace in a persons growth toward God. What Catholics properly understand as an effect or fruit of salvation some evangelicals unfortunately interpret as its cause.

These evangelicals also object to the role, the sacramental role, played by parish and priest in the drama of salvation. They argue that Jesus Christ needs no other mediator than himself, that the believer has been provided direct access to his saving love. This, I think, is the more important, more substantive difference between evangelical and Catholic than the issue of faith alone. We can agree with evangelicals that faith in Jesus Christ saves us from our sin but it is much harder to agree on the form, sacramental or otherwise, of that acceptance. 

Catholics are rightly confused by the evangelical insistence that Jesus Christ is something other than his Church, his priests, and his sacraments. Isnt this exactly how Christ is concretely present to us? a Catholic would ask in reply. The Church as Christs Body, the priest as Christs representative, the sacraments as visible signs of Christs grace are all inextricably connected in the Catholic mind. 

The power of the evangelical Protestant movement is seen in its emphasis on an encounter with Gods word as preached and encountered in the Bible. Catholics in America still have much to learn from this tradition of continually revitalized worship. Some evangelicals claim that their brand of Christianity to be more genuine, more akin to the early Church of the New Testament. They claim to practice a more immediate spirituality, a Christian faith shorn of its unnecessary accoutrements. 

Yet evangelical Christians, if they are honest with themselves, are not without a form of religious faith and practice. They exude tremendous confidence in the mediation of the Protestant pastor, the sermon, their worship, and the study of Scripture. 

Christ, we can agree, established these means for our conversion. But it is also true that he gave us more the sacramental reality and priesthood of the Catholic Church. Thus, Protestants continue to find a home in the Catholic Church not because Catholics are Christian and Protestants are not, but because of the fullness of Gods revelation which they find there.

God, Being Catholic and Free Will

Catholic teaching on free will recognizes that God has given men and women the capacity to choose good or evil in their lives. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council declared that the human person, endowed with freedom, is “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 17) As the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, makes so beautifully clear, God did not want humanity to be mere automatons, but to have the dignity of freedom, even recognizing that with that freedom comes the cost of many evil choices.

However, human freedom does not legitimate bad moral choices, nor does it justify a stance that all moral choices are good if they are free: “The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1740) Christian belief in human freedom recognizes that we are called but not compelled by God to choose constantly the values of the Gospel—faith, hope, love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, integrity and compassion.

It is entirely incompatible with Catholic teaching to conclude that our freedom of will justifies choices that are radically contrary to the Gospel—racism, infidelity, abortion, theft. Freedom of will is the capacity to act with moral responsibility; it is not the ability to determine arbitrarily what constitutes moral right.

What, then, is to guide the children of God in the use of their freedom? Again, the bishops at the Council provide the answer—conscience: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God . . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (GS, No. 16) Conscience, then, is the judgment of reason whereby the human person, guided by God’s grace, recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. In all we say and do, we are obliged to follow faithfully what we know to be just and right.

How do we form and guide our consciences? While the Church teaches that each of us is called to judge and direct his or her own actions, it also teaches that, like any good judge, each conscience masters the law and listens to expert testimony about the law. This process is called the education and formation of conscience.

Catholics believe that “the education of conscience is a lifelong task.” (CCC, No. 1784) Where do we go for this education of our consciences? Our living tradition teaches us that “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spir

it, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” (CCC, No. 1785).

Our Catholic beliefs about free will, conscience and moral choice are rooted in the Good News of Jesus Christ’s teaching and his redemptive life, death and resurrection: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1); “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor. 3:17); we glory “in the liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:17). Common caricatures of Christian morality portray believers as living in fear of punishment or concerned only with an eternal reward. Long ago, however, St. Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop and theologian, taught that the Christian, in living a moral life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “does not stand before God as a slave in servile fear, nor a mercenary looking for wages, but obeys for the sake of the good itself and out of love for God as his child.” (CCC, No. 1828)

As participants in the life of the civil community, we Catholic citizens try to follow our consciences, guided, as described above, by reason and the grace of God. While we deeply respect the freedom of our fellow citizens, we nevertheless are profoundly convinced that free will cannot be cited as justification for society to allow moral choices that strike at the most fundamental rights of others. Such a choice is abortion, which constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and cannot be justified by any Catholic notion of freedom. Because of these convictions we commit ourselves to a continuing witness to, and dialogue about, the Gospel values that underlie our understanding of freedom, conscience, and moral choice.

Objective Truth in A Modern World

“Truth. What is truth?”

While there are plenty of speculative interpretations attached to Pilate’s remarks, we can’t really know what the Roman governor’s intentions were as he responded to Jesus’ declaration that that those listening to His (Jesus’) words belonged to the Truth.

As Jesus’ trial continues, Pilate turns from Jesus, suggests to the crowd that Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, but succumbs to the demands of the mob; Pilate discards his initial judgement, and sends Jesus to crucifixion.

What is truth, indeed.

We now find ourselves in what is being called the ‘Post-Truth World’, a term first coined by author Ralph Keyes in 2004 as he described the growing trend that discounted the value of facts in favor of exaggeration, misdirection, and outright lying in human discourse.

In a political setting, this post-truth era is distinguished by campaigns where arguments are driven solely by emotion and talking points are disconnected from policy and fact.

Outside of politics, sales staff promise what can’t be delivered, college students pad resumes with unearned academic credits, reporters misrepresent messages by cherry-picking phrases, and on and on…

But the fact that truth-stretching, ‘truthiness’, and outright lying is practiced by so many of us doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that to many of us, real truth simply doesn’t matter.

So what is truth?

‘Truth’ is something more than facts. While facts are observable events and measurements, ‘truth’ is what happens when we add interpretations and reasoning based on our personal experiences. Facts can describe the ‘what’ and perhaps ‘how’ behind the things we observe. Truth involves personal beliefs and our judgement behind the ‘why’. As Catholic Christians, we believe that there does exist a common, objective truth, the Truth as revealed through the Old and New Testament and displayed in practice through Jesus’ life.

The Church teaches that the Truth works hand-in-hand with a well-formed conscience that guides our interactions with those around us.

What confronts us in this post-truth world, where what we call truth exhibits a complete disconnect between belief and reality, is the same danger the Church warns when it teaches that real truths are not subjective – not every expression can be accepted as ‘true’ simply because someone declares it so.

Does Worldly Truth Matter?

Why should I be concerned as a Catholic citizen if friends, co-workers, and leaders continue further down a road in which what is said and written becomes nothing more than opinion-fueled fiction? Do we get a free pass by proclaiming allegiance to the Truth while accepting that our expressions of day-to-day worldly truth can preclude honesty?

Truth is that truth, in all its forms, does matter for at least two reasons.

First – God is big on truth.

Yes, God is slow to anger; but there are some things that really tick Him off. And if Proverbs 6:16-19 has any avenue to the behaviors that earn His wrath, we are in a heap of trouble (especially after this past year). It isn’t a stretch to see that in a ‘post-truth’ world, where messages are driven mostly by self-serving emotion, we put ourselves at risk of violating at least a few of the seven major abominations – those things that God detests (self-serving ‘truth-less’ oriented abominations italicized):

  • Acting with pride
  • Lying
  • Taking innocent life
  • A heart with wicked intent
  • Mischievous behavior
  • Being easily swayed towards evil
  • Sowing discord

Second – if no ‘common denominators’ of truth exists between communities, that is, if every subgroup of society makes up its own truth, how can there be any hope of communities working together for common goals? If there are no absolute ‘truths’ shared among all people, how can anyone agree on solving problems, assuming they could even agree on identifying the problems that need solving?

Knowing ‘Truth’ isn’t Enough

Pilate’s behavior is telling. Whether or not he was being rhetorical by asking ‘what is truth?’, he hints at not being able to at least recognize, if not hold fast to the truth as presented in Jesus’ words. As a result, even though he may have sensed an unpopular truth of innocence, Pilate hesitates, and in the end, accepts the ‘truth’ of guilt that was proclaimed by a screaming mob. Therein lies the key – knowing the Truth is one thing, letting the Truth guide one’s actions is another.

We observe artifacts of the physical world and consume facts. Our sense of truth adds our interpretation of conditions to which a well-formed conscience responds. That conscience rewards or disturbs depending on our action (or inaction). We may see a homeless person on the street – Truth pulls us to take action to help solve a problem. We observe media that degrades the gift of human sexuality – Truth calls us to change the channel or discard the website. We observe behavior-fueled by anger and violence. Truth calls us seek out the causes of misunderstanding.

When we ignore the Truth before us, or worse, drive our actions by made-up truths, we deny our conscience a clear view of the world in which we live. Our conscience, which John Henry Newman called the ‘voice of God’, becomes muted, muffled by other voices concerned with something other than the moral good. Without that sense of real truth, our conscience loses its dignity, its real value. And with no well-formed conscience, our actions fall prey to the day-to-day whims of self-interest.

What is the Catholic Christian’s response to this post-truth environment?

As we move forward in this hyper-connected world, a world where anonymity allows us to be way too free with our thoughts and words, it is good that we build a structure that guides our interactions with others as we search for the worldly truths that help us solve worldly problems. Let’s call it a plan to use the Truth to help us better grasp the truths of other peoples’ lives.

Using Proverbs as a model, our search for truth must build on honesty – we can’t just make things up. The search for truth has no wicked intent. We look for truth with humility (we do not know everything), and aren’t skewing our interpretations to sow mischief and discord. Disagree with others, sure. But such disagreements have value only when we see the constructive importance in helping others understand a perspective to which which they (or we) may not have been exposed — and only when we show respect for all ‘others’ God has placed on this earth.

These guidelines must direct our interpretation of observable facts, provide a litmus test of how we scrutinize the words of others, and set the tone for how we form our own expressions through any form of media.

And finally, even if when we apply all the good faith (pardon the pun) effort to properly interpret what is going on around us, we are called to act in accordance with what our well-formed conscience calls us to do. Having a strong sense of the Truth, knowing right from wrong, means little if, in the end, we allow our actions to be guided by self-interest and the groupthink of mobs.

That’s what Pilate did.

Natural Law, Revelation and Objective Truth

From nature and from revelation we can know something about God and His ways, but ultimately, much is mysterious and we face the problem of evil in the knowledge of God and of His infinite goodness. Faith with complete trust in God is the only way to bridge the gap between our temporal world and the eternal life of God.

Our Saviour Jesus Christ provides us with the complete answer to the problem raised by Job. He teaches us to call God Our Father. He also revealed very clearly that the human person is immortal and that after this life there are two possibilities: the wicked who reject God’s love will be damned in hell for all eternity, while those who love God in return, and who do His will in this life, will attain eternal life in the loving embrace of the most Holy Trinity. The basis for the judgment that will determine our eternal destiny is not an arbitrary judgment but one based on the truth and the law: both the eternal law and the natural law.

Our human laws are based on concepts like justice and truth. When laws do not express these truths they are unjust and we are not bound to follow them. In fact, we have a duty to oppose them. Objections to laws and truths however, are only valid when informed by reason. This is why not every opinion is necessarily valid. While it may be true that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, we are not entitled to our own facts. In a sane world facts are based on truth. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:1). The question posed by God may help us to understand the necessity for clarity especially as we engage a culture that is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith and quite simply mad, since it sometimes denies empirical truth itself. We are, it seems, more and more often at odds with the greater culture. When opinions are not informed by truth, they are indeed “words without knowledge” and consequently not worthy of consideration or even of debate. This is not the case with a statement of truth. We believe in objective truth.

People of our time have emptied each thing of its true meaning. He who commits a fault does not recognize that he did wrong.” This is how Marie Claire responded to Our Lady’s words: “We are weak, without strength. Give us the strength to recognize our faults and to ask forgiveness for them.” There is only one way to recognize our faults. We must confess our sins and admit our errors, and we must believe again in what is self-evidently true—that the nature of things cannot be artificially altered. If we do this then we will be truly humble because humility is truth; and if we are humble, we will in turn be gentle and merciful. We must adhere with all our strength to the word of truth that God has revealed to us and we must speak that word with all boldness because our salvation and that of the world depends on it. Only God knows the anguish that is suffered by those deceived and victimized by erroneous and deceptive opinions. 

Though we may not think of it in this manner, for sadly we tend to take too much for granted, we Catholics are privileged: every Sunday, especially in the lessons read at Holy Mass, God our Father enlightens us with the truth of His saving Word. In faithfulness to this Word, at the Saviour’s command and formed by divine teaching, we must endeavor to be attentive to the truth that has been revealed to us, and with constant devotion we must revere and love God’s holy name all the more in our confused and confusing world; in the sure knowledge that our Heavenly Father never deprives of guidance those He has set firm on the foundation of His love (Collect, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, The Roman Missal). Our counsels are His own counsels and because the Father’s word is truth we are sanctified by the truth (Cf. Jn 17:17).