Last week I introduced the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church and pointed out the “definition” of God as being everlasting truth and love. A God of truth and love is nothing like the hard-nosed punisher-God of my youth, so I looked into the history of Catholic notions of God.
Vatican II (the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, held in four sessions between 1962 and 1965) marks the beginning of a new understanding of God. For hundreds of years before Vatican II, an old God of power and mystery dominated Catholic teaching. Then in the decades after Vatican II, God emerged gradually as a warmer, more reachable deity, coming into an integrated theology in the 1994 catechism. The change is important and as best I can tell, largely underappreciated.
Amazingly, the last major edition of a Catholic catechism that bears formal approval by a papal commission, therefore becoming a universal statement of Catholic doctrine, appeared in 1566 after the Council of Trent—almost 450 years ago. Local catechisms flourished in the interim. The Baltimore Catechism published in 1891 was widely used in the United States. I remember using it in grade school in the 1950s. The Catechism of St. Pius X, published in 1908 in Italian, was used mostly in Italy. Translated into English by The Right Reverend Monsignor John Hagan in 1910, it is now available on the Internet.
In addition to the catechisms, there are two noteworthy encyclopedias of Catholic teaching. The Catholic Encyclopedia, published from 1907 to 1914, contained articles by scholars from many parts of the world. A New Catholic Encyclopedia appeared in 1967; it was edited by faculty at the Catholic University of America. A second edition came out in 2003, and it reflects Vatican II and the 1994 catechism. Like local catechisms, these encyclopedias are not official statements of doctrine.
An Old God
Before Vatican II, God is most commonly identified by listing attributes. The Catholic Encyclopedia has perhaps the longest list, attributing our knowledge of God to two sources: natural reason (philosophy) and faith (as revealed through scripture and Church teaching).
From natural reason, God is infinite, meaning infinite in every perfection including “rationality, truth, goodness, intelligence, wisdom, justice, holiness, etc.” God exists as a unity—one infinite being. God’s nature is pure simplicity, which excludes every kind of composition—God is not a composition of finite characteristics. God is a personal being, meaning He is intelligent and free and distinct from the created universe.
From faith, He is the creator of the universe and is omnipotent, eternal, immense, and incomprehensible, and He is infinite in every perfection. It may not be possible to list all the perfections of God, but the encyclopedia outlines some primary ones.
God is eternal and immense, transcending time and space. God is immutable and omniscient, and His knowledge is true. God has a divine and free will, and its primary object is His own infinite goodness.
God guides the world, and He knows who will be saved and who will not. He foresees and permits the final defection of some to eternal punishment.
Written at about the same time but condensed for the laity, the Catechism of St. Pius X intones that God is omnipotent and that he created heaven and earth and all things contained therein, i.e., the entire universe.
The Baltimore Catechism adds that God sees us and watches us, that He knows our most secret thoughts, words, and actions, and that He is just in His rewards and punishments.
These descriptions recall for me the religion of my youth, in which we were all warned of God’s infinite power, His commandments, the Church’s authority here on earth and the eternal damnation awaiting those who strayed.
A New God
The Catholic Church does not like to profess change, and there are many who would no doubt say a God of truth and love is contained in prior teaching. For example, The Catechism of The Council of Trent begins identifying God as omnipotent, and it ascribes primacy to that characteristic. Yet in the final paragraphs of the relevant section it describes the Trinity as an omnipotent Father, a wise and truthful Son and a loving Holy Ghost.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to notice the new emphasis in the new catechism. A God of truth and love is not foremost a God of power, a God to fear and obey. Instead, He is a God to follow, talk with and grow into. We are familiar with truth and love, and there are hardly any among us who would seriously deny affinity for those two attributes. God’s omnipotence and judgment seem now to be riding in the back seat.
Truth is a complex notion, to be sure, yet most of us know when we are living lies, pretending toward things that are not real, that waste valuable resources of time and energy. Like truth, love permeates not only major themes in our lives with friends and family, but it also calls us to compassion and charity for strangers. And love implies forgiveness. Both attributes are worthy of study and reflection on a continuing basis.
Older people sometimes retreat into selfishness and walled-in lives, but a God of truth and love offers a way into a larger, fuller life, even as our bodies begin to fail and break. A reader need not be a Catholic to appreciate the change in modern Catholicism. Anyone can study and use these ideas about God, just as we can with ideas from other spiritual traditions.
A God of truth and love offers spiritual awakening for those of us formerly stuck in the dry learning of the local catechisms. In a word, the new emphasis offers hope at a time in life when it is most needed.