Catechism of the Catholic Church series
Article 7: Catechism Paragraphs 36-38
Made in God’s Image
Animals are “thinking beings” according to the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776). Using different terminology, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), comes to the same conclusion. Nowadays, all academic institutions of higher education have their share of animal cognitive researchers. Most, however, are leery about putting too much effort into the study of animal consciousness.
In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible we are told, almost casually, that “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
This truth, the Catechism teaches, is the basis of our ability to know God through “the natural light of human reason” (ccc 36). More than this, without such capacity we “would not be able to welcome God’s revelation” (ccc 36).
Here we are talking about humanity’s cognitive ability, which is the kind of reason employed by the sciences.
Unlike the rest of creation, including all the animals in the world, we alone are designed in God’s image. Horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys and deer are not made in the image of God. We are. We can choose between right and wrong. Animals cannot. We are able to reason, but animals cannot. We can talk to God. We can pray to God. Animals cannot talk or pray to God.
Some would disagree with these conclusions, including the two philosophers mentioned above.
Sacred Scripture, however, addresses how God regards us humans. In the prayer of Psalm 8:6-7 we read: “You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them rule over the works of your hands, put all things at their feet.”
Made in God’s image with cognitive abilities, we “rule over” God’s creation but everything in creation has something of the Creator inherently in it. The Catechism teaches: “All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God” (ccc 41). Thus, we “rule over” creation with care, as good stewards. Why? Because the fingerprint of God, indeed the breath of God, is somehow attached to all that God created. This stewardship therefore must always include our very selves. Why? Because God knew us, not only before we were born but even before we were conceived, as we learn from the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). God had a purpose for our lives before we took our first independent breath at birth. God thought of us even before our parents conceived us. Thus the importance of good stewardship over our lives as well.
If we were not made in God’s image, we would not have the capacity to know God. In fact, we would not have been able to comprehend God revealing himself to us through his creation. Nor would we have had the ability to accept God’s covenant throughout Sacred Scripture, especially his promise to us through Abraham, and his chosen people, Israel. Neither would the hope of Israel’s salvation been kept alive by such holy women identified in the Old Testament as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith and Esther.
With this said, however, the Catechism points out that, although we come to know God through human reason, there exists “many obstacles” (ccc 37). “Original sin,” for example, clouds our perceptions and causes us to entertain feelings of doubt. Being “enlightened by God’s revelation,” on the other hand, not only helps us grasp certain matters that go beyond natural reason but also helps guarantee that “religious and moral truths” are not so easily mixed with error. (ccc 38).
The Church defends the ability of human reason to know God, but this ability is not limitless. While our intellectual gifts may assist us in becoming sensitive to the reality of God’s existence, the natural gifts are not enough to grasp the fullness of who God is. Still, taking time to reflect on the wonders of nature and the world of color which God created, like the details of the Grand Canyon rock formations or the vastness of the night sky or the incredible beauty of the sun rising or setting, can move one onward to more inspiring realities. When we examine the different forms of animal life, plant life, and humanity itself, we discover that God, in addition to being the great Painter, is also the great Sculptor.
Then there is the beauty of human art like the awesome work of Michelangelo’s creation scene, the depiction of the crucifixion from the brush strokes of Raphael and the famous Last Supper from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci.
And what about the matter of conscience? Can we not come to know God through our natural inner-inclination to seek what is good and right and just? We know through the use of natural reason, for example, that causing harm to another is wrong. We know too that lying, cheating, stealing and murder is unacceptable behavior.
Whatever the object of our reflection, “the good” and “the beautiful” well up within us sentiments of longing to experience more than what the limitations of the world has to offer. This affirms the teaching of the Catechism that we “experience many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone” (ccc 37).
Our ability to know God “with certainty” through the use of human reason is made possible only by our having been made in the “image and likeness of God.” This, however, do not exhaust all the ways in which we might come to know God. Rather, it gives us the proper disposition to be receptive to God’s revelation. “Without this capacity,” the Catechism teaches, “human beings would not be able to welcome God’s revelation” (ccc 36).
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.