By Don Fier
Having considered the Prologue of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) in our previous installment, we will now turn our attention to the first of the Catechism’s four pillars: “The Profession of Faith.” It is the longest section of the CCC, comprising 39% of its total volume, and is foundational for the rest, for it is essential to know God and what He has done before we consider how man can and ought to respond. As is the case for each of the four major parts of the CCC, it is composed of two sections. The first, as expressed by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, “lays…the foundation of the subject, while the second further develops the particular themes which it embraces.”
The opening section of Part One “expounds revelation, by which God addresses and gives Himself to man, and the faith by which man responds to God” (CCC, n. 14). Its emphasis is on man’s capacity for God.
Before going any further, we should first ask ourselves, “What does it mean to believe? What is faith?” The CCC tells us immediately: “Faith is man’s response to God, Who reveals Himself and gives Himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” (n. 26). Is not man’s search to comprehend the ultimate meaning of life the age-old question that tugs at the heart of each of us? At various points in life, do we not all ask ourselves questions like: “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose in life?” “Where am I going?” Man’s search for the answers to these questions is taken up without delay in Part One of the Catechism.
God has written the natural desire for happiness into the heart of all mankind. St. Augustine tells us, “We all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated.” But where does happiness lie? So many people have bought into a false definition of happiness — they seek it in the trappings of worldly enticements such as riches, fame, sex, or power. But genuine happiness is not found in any of these things. Here is a telling account by Fr. John Hardon, SJ, which illustrates the stark reality of this truth.
Says Fr. Hardon: “One of the most unhappy men I ever met was in New York State on his square-mile estate. A multimillionaire, he had in the process of amassing so much wealth lost his Catholic Faith. As we drove in his limousine, driven by the chauffeur, through twenty miles of garden, he kept repeating, as he sipped from a glass of cider in one hand and held on in the automobile with the other, ‘This is all for my pleasure, all for my pleasure.’ But I found out from my four hours of conversation with him that he was terribly unhappy.”
True happiness comes only in knowing and loving God, for “God created man in His own image” (Gen. 1:27). Our very nature is such that our minds want to know the truth and our wills desire to be happy. As the Catechism teaches, “Man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (n. 26). After a long search, St. Augustine came to realize this truth and penned the beautiful, often-quoted expression we find in his Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” And Holy Scripture tells us: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for You, O God. My being thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:1-2).
Evidence that true happiness can be found in God alone is readily apparent by observing those who are close to God — happiness and joy virtually radiate from holy, saintly people, even in the midst of great trials and sufferings. Just think of two recently declared blesseds, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II. All who encountered them couldn’t help but sense a deep inner peace and joy. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.” In other words, ultimate happiness awaits the attainment of the Beatific Vision, of seeing God face to face.
Man’s inner yearning for God in the depths of his heart is universally apparent in that he has always been a religious being. “Throughout history . . . men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth” (CCC, n. 27). While it is true that not everyone acts on his religious instincts due to the lure of riches and fame, selfishness, indifference, scandal — in a word, because of sin — the religious tendency and desire for true happiness remain, perhaps deeply buried and ignored. “Although man can forget God and reject Him, He never ceases to call every man to seek Him, so as to find life and happiness” (CCC, n. 30).
The Catechism next takes up the question of whether man can know God by reason alone. Since God is infinite and our intellect is finite and limited, we cannot know God fully. There are mysteries of the faith that are beyond our comprehension that we can come to know only through God’s Revelation. However, the CCC teaches with certitude that we can know of God’s existence and prove certain of His attributes or perfections by natural reason in two ways: the physical world and the human person (n. 31). In fact, the First Vatican Council, convoked in 1868, dogmatically teaches in its Constitution on the Catholic Faith that “Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.”
By reflecting on the world of nature created by God, we can come to know Him naturally. Who can behold the wonder and beauty of nature, the changing of the seasons, the stars in the sky, without realizing that there is an Infinite Being, whom we call God? How could there be a universe with such unity and order and so much diversity unless there was a Supreme Intelligent Being, the Prime Mover and First Cause, whom we call God? In a beautiful Easter sermon St. Augustine explained: “The beauty of the Unchangeable Creator is to be inferred from the beauty of the changeable creation.” As Fr. Hardon puts it, “…the beauty, power, wisdom, and goodness in the world are a proof of the beauty, power, wisdom, and goodness of God. He made the world and keeps it in constant existence as a reflection of His own divinity.”
Man can also come to know of the existence of God and furthermore discern he has a spiritual soul through the yearnings and aspirations that are part of his very being. He cannot help but question himself about God’s existence as a result of the “voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness” (CCC, n. 33). Man’s natural faculties, then, “make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God” and “can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason” (CCC, n. 35). There is great wisdom in the spiritual axiom: “Faith builds upon and perfects reason” (Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, n. 43).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. With the full blessing of Raymond Cardinal Burke, Fier is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)