Catechism of the Catholic Church series
Article 6: Catechism Paragraphs 31-35
Proofs for the Existence of God
“Proofs for the existence of God” is one of the first topics considered in philosophy courses offered in most colleges and universities. In fact, among the course descriptions for new students this theme is covered in a variety of ways depending on the higher institution of learning. At the University of Richmond in Virginia, for example, it is covered in the “Philosophy of Religion” course. At Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma it is included in the “Christian Apologetics” course while at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., it is considered in “The Problem of God” course. Although I did my undergraduate studies at a state university with more than 10,000 students, my teacher for this philosophy course on “Proofs for the existence of God” was a Catholic priest.
In the seminary or prior to seminary formation, all Catholic seminarians are required to study philosophy before beginning their theological studies. Priests, therefore, are familiar with the proofs for the existence of God, especially in classical philosophy reaching back to the ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle. In the 11th century, St. Anselm formulated the ontological argument proposing that God’s existence is self-evident. It states that God is “that of which nothing greater can be conceived.” In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas developed his five arguments for the existence of God in the first part of his famous work called Summa Theologica. These included: 1. unmoved mover, 2. first cause, 3. necessary being, 4. argument from degree, and 5. the teleological argument.
The Church treats this theme of God’s existence by telling us that “the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God … in the sense of ‘converging and convincing arguments’…” (ccc 31). The Catechism explains that the twofold point of departure includes: “the physical world, and the human person.” (Ibid). In other words, our ability to recognize or otherwise encounter God’s presence in the physical world and in the human person provides us the opportunity to prepare reasonable arguments or “proofs” for the existence of God.
Regarding the physical world, paragraph 32 explains that “the world’s order and beauty” point to God’s existence. In the words that St. Paul uses when explaining the self-understanding of the Gentiles: “his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:19-20). A few hundred years later, St. Augustine challenges his audience in one of his sermons to ask questions about “the earth,” “the sea,” “the air,” and “the sky.” He finishes with his own question: “Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?” (Sermon 241).
Created realities, including the brightest of stars and planets in the heavens, the shining sun and brilliant moon overhead, the deepest ocean and the glorious mountain range with gushing streams make the existence of God eminently evident. Despite the obvious, there are so many sophisticated scientists and intellectuals at our preeminent schools and universities who close their hearts and minds to the obvious.
Paragraph 33 of the Catechism addresses the matter of proofing God’s existence based on “the human person” being open “to truth and beauty” and longing “for the infinite and for happiness.” In this state of affairs, the person asks questions “about God’s existence” and, discerning one’s “spiritual soul … “the seed of eternity we bear in ourselves,” concludes that it has “its origin only in God.”
Therefore, whether we consider the physical world or the human person, neither are self-activated nor do they control their final conclusion. Rather, “they participate in Being itself” (which is another way of saying that they “participate in God”) who is without beginning or end. The human person is able to discern this reality that “everyone calls God.” (ccc 34).
These arguments for God’s existence are expressed in a more organized way within St. Thomas Aquinas’ classic proofs for the existence of God. Those that refer to all physical things, including mountains, rocks, trees and rivers, come into being and go out of existence, no matter how long they last. Therefore, since time is infinite, there was a time when none of these things existed. But if there was nothing at that point in time, how could there be anything at all now, since nothing cannot cause anything? There must always have been, therefore, at least one necessary thing that is eternal, which is God.
This argument for the existence of God claims that everything in the universe follows laws, which must have been created by God. In other words, there is evidence of deliberate design in the natural or physical world which move toward goals, just as an arrow does not move toward its goal except by the archer’s directing it. Thus, there must be an intelligent designer who directs all things to their goals, and this is God. (see Summa Theologica, Part 1. Question 2. Article 3).
Nowadays, the Oath Against Modernism, commonly taken by candidates for the diaconate and priesthood, as well as, pastors, religious superiors, and seminary professors carry this same intent of acknowledging God’s existence: “I declare that by the natural light of reason, God can be certainly known and therefore his existence demonstrated through the things that are made, i.e., through the visible works of creation, as the cause is known through its effects.”
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.