Necessity of Instruction in the Catholic Faith: Part 4

THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD.

The knowledge of God consists in the knowledge of His perfections, His works, His will, and the means of grace instituted by Him. St. Paul bids us “increase in the knowledge of God” (Col. i. 10). Now we only know God through a glass in a dark manner; only in heaven shall we see Him face to face, and have a clear knowledge of His perfections (1 Cor. xiii. 12).

  1. The happiness of the angels and the saints consists in the knowledge of God.

Our Lord tells us that “this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John xvii. 3). This is the food of which the archangel Raphael spoke, when he said to Tobias: “I use an invisible meat and drink, which cannot be seen by men” (Tob. xii. 19). In heaven the saints and angels have an immediate knowledge of God in the beatific vision. We on earth only know God through the medium of His works and of what He has revealed to us. Our knowledge, compared with that of the saints and angels, is like the knowledge of a country that one gets from maps and pictures as compared with the knowledge of one who has himself visited it.

  1. The knowledge of God is all-important, for without it there cannot be any happiness on earth, or a well-ordered life.

The knowledge of God is the food of our soul. Without it the soul feels hungry; we become discontented. He who does not possess interior peace, cannot enjoy riches, health, or any of the goods of this life; they all become distasteful to him. Yet few think about this food of the soul; they busy themselves, as Our Lord says, with the “meat that perishes” (John vi. 27). Without the knowledge of God a man is like one who walks in the dark, and stumbles at every step; he has no end or aim in life, no consolation in misfortune, and no hope in death. He cannot have any solid or lasting happiness, or any true contentment. Without a knowledge of God a well-ordered life is impossible. Just as an untilled field produces no good fruit, so a man who has not the knowledge of God can produce no good works. Ignorance and forgetfulness of God are the causes of most of the sins that men commit. Rash and false oaths, neglect of the service of God and of the sacraments, the love of gold, the sinful indulgence of the passions, are all due to willful ignorance and forgetfulness of God. Thus the prophet Osee exclaims “There is no knowledge of God in the land. Cursing and lying and killing and theft and adultery have overflowed” (Osee iv. 2, 3). And St. Ignatius of Loyola cries out, “O God, Thou joy of my soul, if only men knew Thee, they never would offend Thee,” and experience shows that in the jails the greater part of the prisoners are those who knew nothing of God. When Frederick of Prussia at length recognized that the want of the knowledge of God was the cause of the increase in crime, he exclaimed, “Then I will have religion introduced into the country.” This is why the learning and the understanding of the Catechism, which is nothing else than an abridgment of the Christian religion, is all-important. But a mere knowledge of the truths of religion is not sufficient; they must also be practiced.

  1. We arrive at a right knowledge of God through faith in the truths which God has revealed.

It is true that by means of reason and from the contemplation of the creatures that God has made man can arrive at a knowledge of God (Rom. i. 20). “The heavens show forth the glory of God” (Ps. xviii. 2). But our reason is so weak and prone to err, that without revelation it is very difficult for man to attain to a clear and correct knowledge of God. What strange and perverted views of the Deity we find among heathen nations (cf. Wisd. ix. 16, 17). God therefore in His mercy comes to our aid with revelation. Through believing the truths that God has revealed, man attains to a clear and correct knowledge of God. Hence St. Anselm says, “The more I am nourished with the food of faith, the more my understanding is satisfied.” Faith is a divine light that shines in our souls (2 Cor. iv. 6). It is like a watch tower, from which we can see that which cannot be seen from the plain below; we learn respecting God that which cannot be learned by mere reason from the world around. It is a glass through which we perceive all the divine perfections. It is a staff which supports our feeble reason, and enables it to know God better. There are two books from which we gain a knowledge of God; the book of Nature, and Holy Scripture, which is the book of revelation.

Divine revelation

The natural Revelation of God

Strictly speaking, it does not require faith to recognize the existence of God. For those who reason properly, God’s existence is a matter of knowledge. One can know that God exists by deduction from evidence and principles observable in nature. Many thinkers from classical to modern times have affirmed the existence of God as a matter of reason (for instance Plato, Aristotle etc.)

The First Vatican Council teaches: “The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be certainly known by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things; “for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20), but that it pleased His wisdom and bounty to reveal Himself, and the eternal decrees of His will, to mankind by another and a supernatural way: as the Apostle says, “God, having spoken on diverse occasions, and in many ways, in times past, to the fathers by the prophets; last of all, in these days, has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is to be ascribed to this Divine Revelation, that such truths among things Divine as of themselves are not beyond human reason, can, even in the present condition of mankind, be known by everyone with facility, with firm assurance, and with no admixture of error.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, Chap. 3)

“The Catholic Church, with one consent, has also ever held and does hold that there is a two-fold order of knowledge, distinct both in principle and also in object; in principle, because our knowledge, in the one, is by natural reason, and, in the other, is by Divine faith; in object, because, besides those things to which natural reason can attain, there are proposed, for our belief, mysteries hidden in God, which, unless Divinely-revealed, cannot be known.

Therefore, the Apostle, who testifies that God is known by the Gentiles through created things, still, when discoursing of the grace and truth which came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17), says: “We speak of the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world unto our glory; which none of the leaders of this world knew … but to us God has revealed them by His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” (1 Cor. 2:7-9). And the only-begotten Son himself gives thanks to the Father, because He has hidden these things from the wise and the prudent, and has revealed them to little ones (Matt. 11:25).

And reason, indeed, enlightened by faith — when it seeks earnestly, piously, and somberly — attains by a gift from God some understanding of mysteries, even a very fruitful one; partly from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows, partly from the relations which the mysteries bear to one another and to the last end of man. But reason never becomes capable of apprehending mysteries as it does those truths which constitute its proper object. For the Divine mysteries by their own nature so far transcend the created intelligence that, even when delivered by revelation and received by faith, they remain covered with the veil of faith itself, and shrouded in a certain degree of darkness, so long as we are pilgrims in this mortal life, not yet with God; “For we walk by means of faith, and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7).

But although faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind. And God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. The false appearance of such a contradiction is mainly due, either to the dogmas of faith not having been understood and expounded according to the mind of the Church, or to the inventions of opinion having been mistaken for the verdicts of reason.» (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, Chap. 4)

“And not only can faith and reason never be opposed to one another, but they are of mutual aid one to the other. For right reason demonstrates the foundations of faith, and enlightened by its light, cultivates the science of Divine things; while faith frees and guards reason from errors, and furnishes it with manifold knowledge. Therefore, so far is the Church from opposing the cultivation of human arts and sciences, that it in many ways helps and promotes them. For the Church neither ignores nor despises the benefits of human life which result from the arts and sciences, but confesses that, as they came from God, the Lord of all science, so, if they be used rightly, they lead to God by the help of His grace. Nor does the Church forbid that each of these sciences, in its sphere, should make use of its own principles and its own methods. But, while recognizing this just liberty, it stands watchfully on guard, lest sciences, setting themselves against Divine teaching or transgressing their own limits, should invade and disturb the domain of faith.” (ibid.)

The same First Vatican Council teaches: “If anyone shall say that the One True God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be certainly known by the natural light of human reason through created things; let him be anathema.” “If anyone shall say that Divine faith is not distinguished from natural knowledge of God and of moral truths, and therefore that it is not requisite for Divine faith that revealed truth be believed because of the authority of God Who reveals it; let him be anathema.”

God has in His mercy in the course of ages often revealed Himself to men (Heb. i. 1-2).

God has often communicated to men a knowledge of His perfections, His decrees, and His holy will. Such revelation is called supernatural, as opposed to the natural revelation of Himself that He makes through His creation in the external world.

God’s revelation to man is generally made in the following way: He speaks to individuals and orders them to communicate to their fellow-men the revelation made to them.

Thus God spoke to Abraham, Noah, and Moses. He sent Noah to preach to sinful men before the Flood, He sent Moses to the Israelites when they were oppressed by Pharao. Sometimes God spoke to a number of men who were assembled together, as when He gave the law to the people on Mount Sinai, or when Our Lord was baptized by St. John and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, a voice being heard from heaven: “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.” Sometimes God revealed Himself through angels, as for in stance to Tobias through the archangel Raphael. When God spoke to men, He took the visible form of a man or of an angel, or He spoke from a cloud (as on Sinai), or from a burning bush, as He did to Moses, or amid a bright light from heaven, as to St. Paul, or in the whispering of the wind, as He did to Elias, or by some interior illumination (Deut. ii. 6-8). Those to whom God revealed Himself, and who had to bear witness before others to the divine message, were called messengers from God, and often received from Him the power of working miracles and of prophecy, in proof of their divine mission. (Cf. the miracles of Moses before Pharao, of Elias, the apostles, etc.)

Those who were specially entrusted with the communication to men of the divine revelation were the following: the patriarchs, the prophets, Jesus Christ the Son of God (Heb. i. 1), and His apostles.

Revelation is to mankind in general what education is to individual men. Revelation corresponds to the needs of the successive stages of human development, to the infancy, childhood, and youth of mankind. The patriarchs, who had more of the nature of children, needed less in the way of precepts, and God dealt with them in more familiar fashion; the people of Israel, in whom, as in the season of youth, self-will and sensuality were strong, had to be trained by strict laws and constant correction; but when mankind had arrived at the period of manhood, then God sent His Son and introduced the law of love (1 Cor. xiii. 11; Gal. iii. 24). Of all those who declared to men the divine revelation, the Son of God was pre-eminently the true witness. He says of Himself, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, that I should bear testimony to the truth” (John xviii. 37). He was of all witnesses the best, because He alone had seen God (John i. 18). The apostles also had to declare to men the divine revelation. They had to bear witness of what they had seen, and above all of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts x. 39). With the revelation given through Christ and His apostles, the revelation that was given for the instruction of all mankind was concluded.

Revelation was necessary because, in consequence of original sin, man without revelation has never had a correct knowledge of God and of His will; and also because it was necessary that man should be prepared for the coming of the Redeemer.

The three Wise Men would never have found Christ if He had not revealed Himself to them by means of a star; so mankind would have lived far off from God, and would never have attained to a true knowledge of Him, if He had not revealed Himself to them. As the eye needs light to see things of sense, so human reason, which is the eye of the soul, needs revelation to perceive things divine (St. Augustine). Original sin and the indulgence of the senses had so dimmed human reason that it could no longer recognize God in His works (Wisd. ix. 16). This is proved by the history of paganism. The heathen worshipped countless deities, idols, beasts, and wicked men, and his worship was often immoral and horrible, as in the human sacrifices offered by him. The gods were often the patrons of vice. The greatest men among the heathens approved practices forbidden by the natural law. Thus Cicero approved of suicide, Plato of the exposing to death those children who were weak or deformed. Their theories when good were at variance with their practice. Socrates denounced polytheism, but before his death told his disciples to sacrifice a cock to Esculapius. Many of the best of the heathens recognized and lamented their ignorance of God. Besides, without a previous revelation the Saviour would have been neither known nor honored as He ought to have been known and honored; it was fitting that He should be announced beforehand, like a king coming to take possession of his kingdom. We ought indeed to be grateful to God that He has given us the light of revelation, just as a blind man is grateful to the physician who has restored his sight. Yet how many there are who willfully shut their eyes to the light of revelation even now!

The Second Vatican Council gives this summary of the notion of Divine Revelation: “2. In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.

  1. God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom. 1:19-20). Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. Then after their fall His promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (see Gen. 3:15) and from that time on He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom. 2:6-7). Then, at the time He had appointed He called Abraham in order to make of him a great nation (see Gen. 12:2). Through the patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, He taught this people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by Him, and in this manner prepared the way for the Gospel down through the centuries.
  2. Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, “now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God (see John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as “a man to men.” (3) He “speaks the words of God” (John 3;34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave Him to do (see John 5:36; John 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal. The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13). Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind” (Dei Verbum, 2 – 6)

Even since the death of Our Lord and His apostles, God has often revealed Himself to men by means of the so called private revelations. Instances of these subsequent private revelations are the appearances of Our Lord to Blessed Margaret Mary, and of Our Lady at Lourdes, Fatima etc. Many of the saints have had such revelations, i.e., St. Francis of Assisi, to whom Our Lord appeared upon the cross, and St. Anthony of Padua, in whose arms the Child Jesus deigned to rest. These private revelations were more especially given to those who were striving after perfection, in order to encourage them to greater perfection still. Yet God sometimes revealed Himself to wicked men, i.e., to Baltassar in the handwriting on the wall (Dan. v. 5, seq.). Hence a private revelation given to any one is not necessarily a mark of holiness. These revelations, moreover, were no further continuation of the Public Divine revelation intended for the instruction of the whole of mankind, which ended with the death of the last of the apostles; they are rather a confirmation of truths already revealed. Thus Our Lady, when she appeared at Lourdes, proclaimed herself the “Immaculate Conception,” so confirming the dogma which Pius IX had defined four years previously, and the countless miracles and cures that have taken place there have established the truth of the apparition. Yet it is always possible that the malice of the devil may introduce deceptions into private revelations. No one is therefore bound to give to private revelations (even though they have been approved by the Church) the same belief as to Divinely revealed truth. Approved private revelations are trustworthy because of the guarantee which gives the Church, however the Church cannot give the same guarantee of authenticity of a private revelation, as she gives it to the truths of the Public Divine Revelation.

“Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Christian faith cannot accept ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such ‘revelations’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 67).

The Doctor of the Church, Saint John of the Cross, says: “In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word-and he has no more to say… because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behaviour but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty” (No. 65; Saint John of the Cross,The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 22).

We can summarize the theme of private revelations as follows:

  1. The authority of private revelations is essentially different from that of the definitive public Revelation. The latter demands faith; in it in fact God himself speaks to us through human words and the mediation of the living community of the Church. Faith in God and in his word is different from any other human faith, trust or opinion. The certainty that it is God who is speaking gives me the assurance that I am in touch with truth itself. It gives me a certitude which is beyond verification by any human way of knowing. It is the certitude upon which I build my life and to which I entrust myself in dying.
  2. Private revelation is a help to this faith, and shows its credibility precisely by leading me back to the definitive public Revelation. In this regard, Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV, says in his classic treatise, which later became normative for beatifications and canonizations: “An assent of Catholic faith is not due to revelations approved in this way; it is not even possible. These revelations seek rather an assent of human faith in keeping with the requirements of prudence, which puts them before us as probable and credible to piety”.

Hence, ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation has three elements: the message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals; it is lawful to make it public; and the faithful are authorized to accept it with prudence.

God grants private revelations so that they may have an edifying effect for the life of the Church. The give rise to new devotional forms, or deepen and spread older forms. There must be a nurturing of faith, hope and love, which are the unchanging path to salvation for everyone. We might add that private revelations often spring from popular piety and leave their stamp on it, giving it a new impulse and opening the way for new forms of it. Private revelations have an effect even on the liturgy, as we see for instance in the feasts of Corpus Christi and of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Cardinal Ratzinger said about private revelations the following: “In every age the Church has received the charism of prophecy, which must be scrutinized but not scorned. On this point, it should be kept in mind that prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future. A person who foretells what is going to happen responds to the curiosity of the mind, which wants to draw back the veil on the future. The prophet speaks to the blindness of will and of reason, and declares the will of God as an indication and demand for the present time. In this case, prediction of the future is of secondary importance. What is essential is the actualization of the definitive Divine Revelation, which concerns me at the deepest level. The prophetic word (of a private revelation) is a warning or a consolation, or both together. In this sense there is a link between the charism of prophecy and the category of “the signs of the times” (Public Revelation and private revelations, “The message of Fatima”, 2000).