As I mentioned in my previous post a good friend of mine recently bought me a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (along with George Carlin books!), which I have finally began to explore. Somewhere, squirreled away in storage, I have another copy my Grandmother bought me years ago but I hadn’t taken the initiative to go looking for. Never having had any type of catechesis growing up, and having spent so much time thinking of myself as a free-thinker, I’ve been less than enthused about cracking open the Catechism. But, as has pretty much been the case for everything on my journey so far, I’ve discovered that judgments formed without, you know, actually reading things, are generally incomplete. To that end I’ve begun to discover that the Catechism, like the Church as a whole, is a treasure trove.
Granted, the Catechism is a thick book. And I admit there is a hint of legalism about the whole process (any religion with lots of documents is open to that charge). Nonetheless (and I say this shamelessly given my education) legalism is not all bad. In the Jewish faith the oral law of the rabbis, semi-codified in the Talmud and the Misnnah, are not merely a commentary on the Torah (the written law) but lengthy analyses interpreting and applying a seemingly sterile and utterly inflexible body of rules into a living way of life. Legalism is the means by which you can have a fixed center, defined boundaries and rules, and yet have a legitimate, creative and flexible way to avoid becoming solely defined and trapped within said boundaries and rules. There is an old saying that rules are meant to be broken-in a variant of that I say simply that rules do not exist in a vacuum.
Having said this, I’d like to engage the Catechism in a holistic manner on two topics that are of particular interest to me. [Holistic = Do not take texts in isolation, consider what is not said, look for subtle dynamite] Without further ado:
#1: THE FALL
This is a surprisingly intense topic these days. Google the Catholic position on the historicity of Adam & Eve, and you’ll find many a webpage insisting that the Christian faith collapses entirely if it turns out the primal pair weren’t real people. And all this time I thought that was just a Protestant thing. Is it true that Catholicism insists that a snake spoke to a naked man and woman in a garden in Mesopotamia just a few thousand years ago? Mercifully, it seems this extreme is not the case. To know the formal teaching of the Church we turn to Part One, Section Two, Chapter One, Paragraph 7 of the Catechism, point 390:
The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.264 Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.
This might seem relatively straightforward, but the language here is considerably more nuanced. The phrase “figurative language” quickly dispels the ridiculous literalistic account I outline above (and thank God for that). At the same time the Church indeed holds firm that there was a “primeval event” that took place at the “beginning of the history of man.” Now the lawyer in me speaks: What does “primeval event” mean? How are we to understood the phrase “beginning of the history of man?” One commentator on a website I browsed suggested that Adam & Eve were the first humans in the sense that they were the first individuals who had souls. This is not far off from John Polkinghorne’s theory that Genesis is describing the birth of consciousness in our species. If that is the case, there might indeed have been an Adam and an Eve.
Leaving aside that vexing question, there are two more points I’d like to make. First, there appears to be a legitimate question in Biblical scholarship about whether “Adam” is to be understood as the proper name of an individual person. Catholicism does not allow for the notion that the story is simply an “everyman/everywoman” allegory, but as Richard Elliott Friedman has pointed out, from a purely literary standpoint that is more or less how they are presented (specifically he notes Adam & Eve lack any defining characteristics or traits, they are not the developed personalities of later Biblical figures). Regardless, the term “Adam” does seem to be used in a corporate sense as well as an individual sense. Commenting on the work of H. Wheeler Robinson in Introduction to Christianity the Pope Emeritus wrote
His [Christ's] existence concerns all mankind. The New Testament makes this perceptible by calling him an “Adam”; in the Bible this word expresses the unity of the whole creature “man”, so that one can speak of the biblical idea of a “corporate personality”. So if Jesus is called “Adam”, this implies that he is intended to gather the whole creature “Adam” in himself. But this means that the reality that Paul calls, in a way that is largely incomprehensible to us today, the “body of Christ” is an intrinsic postulate of this existence, which cannot remain an exception but must “draw to itself” the whole of mankind
Translation: The term “Adam” is, perhaps, more complex than we thought. The Catechism itself acknowledges this is in 7:404. In that light 7:390 of the Catechism should not be interpreted casually and lightly. Next, the Biblical text itself is also more complex than we commonly allow for. Ross Douthat writes that the claim
that the Bible offers “no evidence that Adam and Eve were anything but the ancestors of all humanity” only holds true if you engage in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 and then stop reading there. If you continue to Genesis 4 (which is just a few pages later!), the text strongly suggests that other human beings were somehow contemporaneous with the first family, and that the human race probably didn’t just descend from Adam and Eve alone.
Now one can draw two possible conclusions from these difficulties. One possibility is that the authors and compilers of Genesis weren’t just liars; they were really stupid liars, who didn’t bother doing the basic work required to make their fabrication remotely plausible or coherent. The other possibility is that Genesis was never intended to be read as a literal blow-by-blow history of the human race’s first few months, and that its account of how sin entered the world partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements — like many other stories in the Bible, from the Book of Job to the Book of Revelation — to make a theological and moral point.
I love the way Catholics interpret the Bible, can I tell ya? In any case, while I remain convinced that an absolute literalist interpretation of Genesis simply does not hold water (see Commonweal for some insight), I hardly believe Church teaching has been put in jeopardy by science or history. Indeed, as Douthat has also written, there are multiple theological avenues that can understood 7:390 of the Catechism in a coherent manner. And, put in context, Paragraph 7′s overaching concern is the reality of human sin. As Rev. Rutledge once put it, whoever Adam was, we know for sure who he is (us).
*Incidentally, 7:388 notes that an understanding of original sin was only properly derived at in the “rearview mirror”-through the lens of the Christ-Event, as James Alison has so aptly noted.
*The topic of what “death” means in Paragraph 7 is another topic altogether (the whole physical death being a direct cause of sin still nettles me) but I will point out here that the Catechism does not seem to assert that humanity was created in a state of pure immortality prior to the Fall. Indeed, the Tree of Life is also mentioned in the Genesis narrative, which leads me to think-the spirit of Irenaeus and the words of N.T. Wright-transience was still part of the pre-Fall state.
#2: HELL/MORTAL SIN
Reflection #2. We turn to Part I, Section 2, Chapter Three, Article 12, Part 4: Hell. See # 1035:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
I’d quibble a bit over the phrase “eternal separation”, as I prefer the Eastern understanding of Hell as existing in God’s presence, but given that understanding seems to be held by several Catholic theologians (including Fr. Barron) I’m inclined to say its metaphorical and move on. The deeper issue has to do with the denizens of Hell. Here, it becomes quite important to read the Catechism holistically. # 1035 states that it is those of those who “die in a state of mortal sin” who ‘descend’ into hell. What exactly does this mean? For that, we turn to Part Three, Section One, Chapter One, Article 8 (getting annoyed yet? Welcome to the legal world!), where we read the following:
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”131
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.”132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
That’s a lot to unpack and digest. And I’m well aware that Catholics are regularly mocked by Protestants and others for distinguishing mortal sins from venial sins, but I have always found the distinction helpful, and in more recent years quite profound. It is not simply a question of a degrees (as a felony is to a misdemeanor) but something much deeper and more profound. A mortal sin, to use legalese, consists of 3 elements: It must be a grave matter, it must be done with full knowledge, and it must be done with complete consent. It sounds simple enough. But how simple is it really? My Grandfather always said that properly understood it is very difficult to commit a mortal sin. Some would go so far as to say impossible. I don’t go that far-as # 1861 says it is a “radical possibility.”
Yet, as noted in #s 1859 and 1860, the Church does acknowledge that apparently free choices are often not so free after all, especially when social, biological, cultural and genetic factors are taken into account. Indeed in Part Three, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 5, we read the following:
2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
Two takeaways here. First, the Catechism is considerably kinder-I’d dare say even more optimistic-than those whose idea of a good pastoral response to a suicide is to muse that we “Don’t know what happens between the bridge and the water.” Second, and to the point here, the Catechism acknowledges the reality of “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, and grave fear” as diminishing one’s free responsibility. In essence, Church teaching is not standing in defiant opposition to the determinants that limit our freedom more than we ourselves often admit. If anything I think my Grandfather was right-under Church teaching it is far from easy for one to commit a mortal sin. Again, not impossible. But not easy. As Rowan Williams (I think) put it those who truly intend to turn the moral world upside down are really rather few and far between.
One more thing needs to be said here. The Catechism declares that “a willful turning away from God…and persistence in it until the end” is necessary for consignment to Hell (# 1037); that the teachings of hell are above all else “a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny” (# 1036) and the duty of the Church is to pray for God’s mercy (# 1037). This is, as I have said before, a responsible and reasonable approach. Overconfidence on the matter of final salvation-in either direction-poses grave dangers. Though I recognize the evangelical criticism of this view, Orthodox spirituality advises (wo)man to be on guard against hell until the moment of death. Responsibility and humility are not nurtured in overconfidence.
*On a related note, Vox-Nova has an excellent commentary on the media uproar about the remarks made recently by Pope Francis. I’d blame the media for never getting things right, except they are catering to a soundbite generation, and a soteriology that can be collapsed into soundbites would immediately raise alarm bells for me. The Economist has also addressed this.
*The Catechism also addresses the question of Christ Descending into Hell, another area where the Western understanding (“Christ descended into hell not to deliver the damned” seems to butt up against my more Eastern understanding (that the Lord in some sense reached out to all the spirits in prison). Without delving into the “Holy Saturday controversy” again, I will say that #634 (“The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.”)-is the real meat and is perfectly congruent with the Eastern understanding. Whether there are in fact any damned that Christ did not (does not?) deliver is another question, and-perhaps-an open one.