Catechism of the Catholic Church series
Article 8: Catechism Paragraphs 39-43
Speaking about God
This section of the Catechism begins with the question: “How Can We Speak about God?”
“Speaking about God” to everyone in the entire world is the mission of the Church according to sacred Scripture. St. Mark the Evangelist teaches: “Go into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).
The Catechism explains that a “dialogue with other religions, with (those in the fields of) philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists,” (ccc 39) is an essential part of that mission.
Several Vatican II documents also consider the matter of “speaking about God,” especially the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which courageously proclaims: “this Second Vatican Council … addresses itself without hesitation … to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today” (GS, 2). Several paragraphs later, the Constitution “invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind’’(GS, 21).
Almost 50 years after the publication of Gaudium et Spes, two different popes took on the challenge of publicly “speaking about God” with two different atheists.
On Sept. 4, 2013, Pope Francis wrote a lengthy letter to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, responding to editorials written during the summer months by Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who asked whether “the Christian God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.” Pope Francis responded with the following: “Given … that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart, the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”
On Nov. 23, 2013, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sent another letter to an atheist named Piergiorgio Odifreddi, who had written a book in 2011 entitled “Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You.” This book was a critique of Pope Benedict’s theological writings going back several decades to the 1960’s when he was a young priest-theologian.
In his response, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an 11-page letter to Odifreddi, an excerpt of which reads: “… I would like especially to note that your religion of mathematics … knows of no answer to the question of freedom, it ignores love and it does not give us any information on evil. A religion that neglects these fundamental questions is empty.” Benedict continues: “Distinguished Professor, my critique of your book is, in part, tough. However, frankness is a part of dialogue. Only thus can knowledge grow …”
The Catechism explains that like our knowledge of God, “our language about him” is limited. Therefore, since our human abilities of knowing and thinking have significant restrictions we are only able to “name God” by using creature images to refer to the Creator (ccc 40). Certain creature “perfections” like “their truth, their goodness and their beauty” reflect the infinite perfection of God (ccc 41). The writer of the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, written about 50 years before the birth of Jesus, affirms this way of thinking: “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” (Wis 13:5)
Since our human language “always fall short of the mystery of God,” (ccc 42) the ongoing challenge we face in seeking to conceptualize the image of God, “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable,” (ccc 42) is to do all we can not to confuse “who God is” with the images of humanity that we borrow to describe God.
The final idea expressed in this section of the Catechism is taken from a famous work by St. Thomas Aquinas called “Summa Contra Gentiles,” (Book 1, Chapter 30). It reads: “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.” (ccc 43).
In the previous chapter of Aquinas’s “Summa Contra Gentiles” (Book 1, chapter 29) we read the following: “… it is more fitting to say that a creature is like God rather than the converse … Since, then, that which is found in God perfectly is found in other things according to a certain diminished participation, the basis on which the likeness is observed belongs to God absolutely, but not to the creature. Thus, the creature has what belongs to God and, consequently, is rightly said to be like God. But we cannot in the same way say that God has what belongs to the creature.”
Sacred Scripture recalls the likeness between God and creature in a most magnificent way when in Genesis (1:27) we read: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Returning to the Second Vatican Council documents, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), ends the way it began: with a heartfelt appeal to the whole world, both within the Church and beyond. It calls for sincere dialogue and “frank conversation’’ (GS, 92). This is what Pope Francis and Pope Benedict provided in their response to the atheists. This is our challenge, too, as we go about meeting and greeting people from all walks of life.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.