Friday, November 22, 2013

THE YEAR OF FAITH: October 2012 – November 2013

Pope Benedict XVI, in October 2012, began a Year of Faith to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This Year of Faith comes to an end in a week or so when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King.

The purpose of the Year of Faith has been two-fold: to challenge us to examine how well we listen to and respond to God’s word, not only on Sundays but at home, in school, in the marketplace, in the workplace, in academia and in the professions, Monday through Saturday; and to challenge us to study our faith, to speak up for our faith at home and in the public square so as to help ourselves and to give to others the reasons for the hope that faith gives to us.

The Apostolic Letter which announced this Year of Faith bears the title “Porta Fidei”, the Door of Faith. This expression – the door of faith – is taken from the Acts of the Apostles where St. Luke describes the completion of the first mission of Saints Paul and Barnabas who at the end of their mission journey called the Church together and reported what God had done with them and how He had opened the door of faith for the Gentiles. This door is always open to us today ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering to us entry into his Church. To enter through this door which begins at Baptism is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime, in fact it will last for eternity.

The Second Vatican Council was the first ecumenical council to address officially the question of unbelief. Pope Benedict XVI expressed his views about this question of unbelief. “In our day,” he writes, “when in vast areas of the world, the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, our overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God – not just any god but the God who spoke on Mount Sinai, to that God whose face we recognize as love in Jesus Christ, who presses on to the end in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment in our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light that shines from God, humanity is losing its bearing with increasingly destructive effect.”

Four centuries ago, unbelief involved a small segment of the academic world seeking to explain the world without God. In this one-dimensional world of ours, in this secularist world of ours, unbelief has become a massive phenomenon all over the globe. There is the unbelief of the marketplace – How to make a living without reference to God; the unbelief of the theatre – How to celebrate the meaning of life without reference to God; the unbelief of the revolution – How to change the world without reference to God. Strange things are happening these days. Polemical atheists are waging vigorous campaigns for the revising of civil laws which are favorable to religious groups. They are placing ads in busses and streetcars denouncing religion as useless and delusionary. In Great Britain today and in the Province of Quebec in Canada today, the governments are being asked to disallow any religious teaching and instruction. To be Christian is considered harmful to society and not to be tolerated in our enlightened times.

Faith is knowledge of what God has done for us in Christ and in the Spirit; faith is trust in what God has said to us in faith and in the Spirit; faith is obedience to God who calls us to himself in Christ and in the Holy Spirit; faith is union with God in the little vision we have through faith, hope and love until we arrive at the big vision which we call heaven. Faith is born when one who does not know begins to share in the knowledge of one who does know. If there is no one who knows, there can be no one who believes. If the one who knows is human, then we have human faith; if the one who knows is divine, then we have divine faith. To believe then is to regard something as true on the testimony of someone else, which we do one hundred times each day. Two elements are involved: 1) the content (what is believed) cannot be verified or proven, yet 2) the content is unreservedly accepted as real and true. Just think of what we say when we say our Act of Faith: we mention the Trinity, the Incarnation, we mention all the elements of our Creed, and then we add – “I believe all these truths, not because I can prove them, not because I can fully understand them; but because you have revealed them, my God, and you cannot deceive or be deceived”.

So far we have been talking about faith. Now we should turn our attention to something else, something always allied with faith in the best of the Catholic tradition, that is, right reason. God is the God of grace, so he gives us the gift of faith. God is also the God of nature, of creation, so he gives us the gift of right reason. Faith always needs the light that comes to us from right reason. Right reason always stands in need of those many lights that can only come to us from faith. Listen carefully, I would suggest, to what Pope John Paul II had to say in his remarkable letter on faith and reason: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” The apostles in the Gospel prayed – “Lord, increase our faith.” They could well have continued their prayer by saying – Increase within us also the good gift of right reason.

The faith-reason question at the heart of our centuries-long Catholic tradition is so important for our world today. In historic Westminster Hall Pope Benedict XVI asked the political leaders of Great Britain – Where do we find the ethical foundations for our political choices? He responded that the Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to right reason – prescinding even from the content of Divine Revelation. This means that the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers, still less to propose concrete political solutions, something altogether outside the competence of religion; the role of religion rather is to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. Thus, religion has a corrective role to play vis-à-vis right reason. Right reason has a corrective role to play vis-à-vis faith, because distorted forms of religion can create such problems as we see in countries all over the world. Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve but a vital contributor to national and international conversations. This is why our Holy Father has been suggesting that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of civilization. The work of the Gospel is two-fold – it must be at work both in evangelizing and in humanizing the world. Humanizing is a most important moment within evangelizing. Only when faith and right reason work together can the people of the 21st Century seek to create a civilization of love, and the civilization of love this side of the grave is a sort of sign and sacrament of what awaits us in the world to come.


The Christian mysteries which we are hoping to study are called supernatural mysteries. The doctrinal theologian who studies these mysteries can be called a theologian of the supernatural. Perhaps we should have entitled this particular blog, “The Problem of the Supernatural,” a problem seemingly founded on the very word itself. Theology, of course, cannot control the developments that take place as words and expressions are caught up in the evolving of the culture. Take the word “propaganda” for an example. It’s a wonderful word derived from the Latin that speaks of the spread and the growth of faith as God’s Word moved from mountaintop to mountaintop to bring the good news of the Gospel to men and women of everywhere. Now propaganda has become a nasty word. It represents in our culture what most of us dislike immensely. The word supernatural has had a similar fate in some quarters. Hollywood, television, the communications conglomerate, apocalyptic types of movies and the cultural celebration of Halloween think of the supernatural as whatever is beyond the senses or cannot be accounted for, so people begin to think of ghosts, miraculous events, strange and violent and always frightening happenings. This of course has nothing to do with the theological use of the word.

To live in the realm of the real is the mark of the balanced, intelligent person. Failure to distinguish between what is real and what is unreal is characteristic of psychological problems. But what constitutes the real? The believer and unbeliever would say: the world is real, nature is real, to learn by reason is real. The believer would say: God is real, the Holy Spirit is real, grace is real, to learn from divine revelation is real. In other words, the natural and the supernatural are constitutive of the real. The thought that nature alone is real is a truncated and inadequate view of what is real. Let’s use a few examples. The unbeliever sees the church as a sociological institution. The believer accepts that but sees the church as the house of God, body of Christ, temple of the Spirit. The unbeliever sees Jesus as a first century preacher, Son of Mary. The believer agrees with that but identifies Jesus as much more than that – he is Son of God who became Son of Mary for our salvation. The unbeliever would say we learn by using our reason. The believer would say – we learn also through Divine Revelation, that is, through the teachings God gives us in and through the Church.

It might be interesting to reflect on the fact that three basic questions figure prominently in the lives of thinking persons. First, there is the knowledge question. In this vast and complex world of ours, with competing philosophies and world views, what can I come to know as truth? Then there is the ethics question. In this vast and complex world of ours, which offers me all sorts of exciting goals and seemingly attractive ways to follow, what is the good that I have been made for? What is the good I ought to seek? Finally, there is what we might call the hope question. In this vast and complex world of ours, where hard things happen in the mischances of life, wherein many wonder if human existence has any ultimate meaning, what can I hope for – in whom can I place my trust? In a certain sense the hope question takes priority. If there is no hope, if life merely runs aimlessly from womb to tomb, why should I seek the truth in knowledge, why should I choose what is truly good and thus live an ethical existence? For a moment let us concentrate on the knowledge question.

How do we ascertain the truth of things? How do we get to know what is real, what exists, what has extra mental existence? Popularly we say there are two basic ways of knowing what is real. There’s what we call scientific-knowledge and there is what we call faith-knowledge. It might be helpful to begin this little discussion with the words Pope John Paul II uses at the beginning of his wonderful Encyclical Letter – Faith and Reason: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” First, then, there is scientific knowledge which is self-appropriated knowledge based on scientific methodology, treating as it does all that can be seen or weighed or touched or is detectable by the canons of scientific methods. On the other hand, there is faith-knowledge which comes from sharing in the knowledge of others. Faith is born when one who does not know begins to share in the knowledge of one who knows. If there is no one who knows, there can be no one who believes. If the one who knows is human, then we have human faith. If the one who knows is divine, then we have divine faith. Most of what we know in the course of a lifetime comes from faith-knowledge, not scientific knowledge. We grow in knowledge in our very early years in the environment of the home and the school. As adults we read newspapers, books on geography and history and all the real, and the knowledge that results is really faith-knowledge. To use a personal example, I could say that my education was highly classical, as I did not have as much training in the physical sciences. What I know about the physical sciences is what good physical scientists have said to me in lectures or in books, so my knowledge of science is more faith-knowledge than personally-appropriated scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is quite limited. It cannot deal with truth and beauty and friendship and virtue and obviously cannot say anything about God. How did the human race first begin to know all these things that transcend the realm of science? The pagan philosopher six centuries before Christ can be a wonderful example. He first studied logic and rhetoric so that we learned how to reason and how to speak. He then wrote his treatise, the physics, his version of the philosophy of nature. Following the physics, Aristotle wrote his philosophical treatise which came to be called metaphysics, the philosophical discipline which deals with the reality that transcends the methodology of the physical sciences. There is no problem; at least theoretically, between scientific knowledge and divine faith-knowledge. The problem of the supernatural, especially in our one-dimensional world today, has not developed, as Aristotle did in his day, a study of metaphysics but that has to be left for another day.

It’s time that we looked at our title “The Supernatural” – the real beyond the natural, the real above the natural. The word itself can give us problems because of the way television and popular literature think about various phenomena which they carelessly call supernatural. What then is meant by the supernatural? The best way to answer this question is to think of words like Incarnation or sacrament. The Incarnation means the reality of the Son of God taking on our humanity. The word sacrament means the outward, visible, tangible sign of the real but invisible presence of the Holy Spirit and divine grace. Or take the word nature. Nature is a principal of operation and natures differ because they have different modes of operation. For example, a carrot plant has vegetative life so it can grow. A puppy dog has both vegetative and sensitive life so that it grows and it barks and it can feel pain. A human being has vegetative life, sensitive life and intelligent life, and has what we call the freedom of the will. Human nature enables us to do human things. Thus, one writer says, “The natural describes the inborn resources and the capacity of a thing; whatever is within the scope of its nature is natural.” Thus, it is natural for a tree to grow but not to sing like a canary. It is natural for a canary to fly or to chirp, but not to joke and laugh. What is natural to the canary is in a sense supernatural to the tree. And so it is with the great gift of our Catholic faith – our sharing in God’s nature, in God’s life through grace. What is natural to God is supernatural to us. It means our sharing in the divine nature; it means our incorporation into the mystery of Christ; it means our call to eternal life with God; it means the life of faith, hope and charity which is our way of living the new life God gives us in Baptism; it means the forgiveness of our sins and the indwelling presence of our three-Personed God.

One writer speaks of the supernatural in this way: “The supernatural is the self-communication of our three-Personed God, out of personal love, to sinful man in Christ and the Church, in view of heaven.” In other words, as the writer affirms, the supernatural is God giving God to us – which plainly, only God can do. That God is our Creator is part and parcel of the natural. That God is Savior and Redeemer is what we call the supernatural.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


My last entry, What is the Task of the Theologian?, came to a screeching halt when an obviously poisonous gall bladder made its presence known loud and clear; so off I went to the hospital. Sorry for the delay.

What is the task of the theologian? It is to talk about God. The word theology means God-talk; Christology means Christ-talk; ecclesiology means church-talk. Bruce Marshall of Southern Methodist University, writing in an excellent periodical “Nova et Vetera”, Spring 2013, offers a most helpful reflection which has as its focus the erudite German theologian Matthias Joseph Scheeben, prominent German Catholic theologian in the second half of the 20th Century. Marshall writes – “Scheeben habitually talks about God. He exhibits, to put the point more precisely, an intense focus on the supernatural mysteries of God’s own nature and life, the full range of divine mysteries at the heart of all Christian faith and teaching. This is the area of theology often designated as ‘dogmatic’. Of course,” as Marshall adds, “not all statements about God belong uniquely or properly to dogmatic theology. There are so many other interests that a theologian has – moral theology, spiritual theology, the whole realm of Christian ethics and the like.” Following Marshall we can distinguish two ways of talking about God. One way is to reflect on God as communicating and imparting his own divine nature, communicating his own divine self. This is the realm of dogmatics. The second way to explore theological truth focuses on the creature upon which God freely bestows creaturely existence. All these questions obviously involve God. They indicate truths about God since God is the source from which every creature receives its existence and nature and the goal every creature aims at according to its nature.

My purpose at this time in this blog, which is offered primarily to the parishioners of the three parishes first mentioned in an earlier blog, will be to focus on dogmatics, that is, talk about God and to talk about God communicating his own divine nature. These are the truths that Thomas Aquinas addresses when he explores the mysteries of faith; these are the truths that Matthias Scheeben sought to explore so deeply that he won for himself the title “theologian of the supernatural”; these are the truths Bruce Marshall has recently called our attention to – truths communicating and glorifying the divine nature; these are the truths, divine revelation tells us, that such communication takes place in three irreducibly distinct ways. What are these three distinct ways of God communicating his own divine nature? First of all, there is the eternal and necessary mystery of the divine Trinity. This is the great and primordial truth the Lord Jesus has revealed to us as he has made know to us the mystery of the Father and the mystery of the Holy Spirit. As the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has put it – “Jesus Christ revealed to us that God is ‘Father’, not only insofar as he created the universe and mankind, but because he eternally generated in his bosom the Son who is his Word.” Who is the Holy Spirit revealed to us by Jesus Christ? The Compendium responds – “The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. He is God, One and equal with the Father and Son. He proceeds from the Father (John 15:26), who is the principle without a principle and the origin of all trinitarian life. He proceeds also from the Son by the eternal Gift which the Father makes of him to the Son. Sent by the Father and the Incarnate Son, the Holy Spirit guides the Church ‘to know all truth’ (John 16:13).” How then does the Church express her Trinitarian faith? The Compendium tells us – “The Church expresses her Trinitarian faith by professing a belief in the oneness of God in whom there are three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three divine Persons are only one God because each of them equally possesses the fullness of the one and indivisible divine nature. They are really distinct from each other by reason of the relations which place them in correspondence to each other. The Father generates the Son; the Son is generated by the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The second mystery one would have to study in talking about how God communicates his own divine nature is the mystery we call the “Incarnation”. This means what Saint John tells us in his gospel – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and pitched his tent in our midst.” In this mystery our three-Personed God joins a created human nature, a created existence, our own human existence, to the divine nature in the person of the Son so that we can truly affirm with the saints and scholars down through the centuries that God is this human being Jesus and this human being Jesus is truly God. It’s important to stress the meaning of this word “Incarnation”. As the Compendium tells us – “The Church calls the mystery of the wonderful union of the divine and human natures in the one divine Person of the Word the “Incarnation”. To bring about our salvation, the Son of God was made ‘flesh’ and became truly man. Faith in the Incarnation is a distinctive sign of the Christian faith.” How does the Church set forth the mystery of the Incarnation? The Church confesses that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, not confused with each other but united in the Person of the Word. Therefore, in the humanity of Jesus all things – his marvelous signs, his suffering, and his death – must be attributed to his divine Person which acts by means of his assumed human nature.” In the Byzantine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom we read – “O only-begotten Son and word of God, you who are immortal, you who deigned for our salvation to become incarnate of the holy Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary…, you, while one with the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and Holy Spirit, save us.” The mystery of the Trinity is what we call a necessary mystery. God must be and God must be God for all eternity. The mystery of the Incarnation is called a free mystery – it didn’t have to happen. God the Father was not necessitated in any way, except by his love and mercy, to send us his divine Son. Trinity and Incarnation tell us about God communicating the divine nature within the Godhead. A third mystery involves ourselves. It is another free mystery which did not have to be. Thanks to the Lord’s death and resurrection, God the Father communicates a share in his own divine nature to all who have been redeemed by the work of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This means the life of grace which is our sharing in God’s nature and life this side of the grave; it means sharing in God’s glory beyond the grave. Thus, grace is divine glory in exile; divine glory for us is divine grace gone home. This is the mystery we will be concentrating on in subsequent blogs – the mystery of divine grace involving the mystery of human justification, the mystery of predestination, the mystery of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As we say at the heart of Gospel teaching – We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.