Wednesday, April 2, 2014

BkRev: Catholicism for Dummies

John Trigilio, Jr., and Kenneth Brighenti, Catholicism for Dummies, 2nd ed., Hoboken (New Jersey), John Wiley & Sons, 2012, 414 pages

I reviewed the Catechism of the Catholic Church on December 19, 2013, here; and I focused on particular aspects (reason, mysticism, the holy spirit) in later posts in that series.

While the Catechism is generally clear, it is also sometimes difficult to read because it is condensed; it is a handbook of teachings, not a tutorial. Trigilio and Brighenti's Catholicism for Dummies corrects the problem of difficult reading. Trigilio and Brighenti's writing is clear. They cover generally the same ground that Catechism covers and in the same order:
- Part I: What Do Catholics Believe?
- Part II: Celebrating the Mysteries of Faith [the Sacraments]
- Part III: Living a Saintly Life [Ethics]
- Part IV: Praying and Using Devotions
- Part V: The Part of Tens ["Ten Famous Catholics" and so forth]
- Part VI: Appendices (a 2000-year history of the Catholic Church in about 20 pages; and a collection of popular Catholic prayers]

(I read some parts closely; I skimmed some sections; and I skipped over some sections.)

If Catholicism for Dummies covers the same subjects as the Catechism, why review it here on TME? Catholicism for Dummies is an example of one of the many actions that philosophical activists can take to disseminate their ideas to a wide audience—in this case, an audience outside Catholic academic and administrative circles. Catholicism for Dummies includes checklists, simple icons ("Remember," "From the Bible," and "Warning!") that mark special or secondary text. The format includes wide margins and aims for ease of reading.

For the most serious advocates of reason who are also activists, Catholicism for Dummies serves as a test: Has the reader failed to understand or misunderstood Catholic doctrines and practices described in more formal documents such as the Catechism?

For the few, most serious advocates of reason, another advantage of reading this book is seeing the form of arguments that a well informed Catholic activist might use to explain Catholic ideas to an audience standing in front of him. For example, the following quotation is an excerpt from a three-page explanation of the relationship of reason and faith. The title of the section is "Backing Up Your Faith with Reason: Summa Theologica."

So are having faith and hoping to be saved the same as believing in the Tooth Fairy and hoping for a dollar bill under your pillow? Of course not. The First Vatican Council (1869-1879; also known as Vatican I) taught that you need the intervention of supernatural revelation to be saved, but certain truths, like the existence of God, are attainable on your own power by using human reason. 

In the 13th Century, St. Thomas Aquinas (see Chapter 21), a philosopher, explained how the human mind seeks different kinds of truth. He said that
- Scientific truth (also known as empirical truth) is known by observation and experimentation. So, for example, you know that fire is hot by burning your finger with a lit match.
- Philosophical truth is known by using human reason. You know that two plus two equals four, for example. So if two chairs are in a room and someone says, "I'll get two more," you know by using reason that the total will be four chairs. You don't need to count the chairs after they arrive.
- Theological truth, known only by faith, is the final and highest level of truth. It can't be observed, and it can't be reasoned; it must be believed by faith—taken on God's word, because He revealed it. (pp. 33-34)

Parts of the book defend Catholicism from false charges, for example, rebutting (the authors hope) the charge that Catholics are polytheists because they worship three gods (the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). (pp. 11, 32, 51, and 101-102) This function of defense is a standard function of activists. Christian intellectual activists who do so are called "apologists" (from the Greek word for "defense," apologia).

This book has a compound theme: The Catholic Church, the authors say, is here on earth to help save your soul for heaven—and the Church, through divine inspiration and 2000 years of diligent intellectualizing, has answers for almost all relevant questions. Anything that the Church cannot explain is a mystery and requires faith. In Catholicism for Dummies, as elsewhere, the Church's advocates convey the idea that the Church is "both-and." The Church supports reason and mysticism, supernaturalism and naturalism, achieving one's own success and sacrificing to others (as well as God).

Catholicism for Dummies, like the Catechism, does not speak of "mysticism," though it does speak of the elements of mysticism: revelation; inspired Holy Scripture; the Church hierarchy's divinely-given ability (under some circumstances) to teach infallibly; and faith in all those mystical sources. 

In conclusion, this book is worth reading for any individual who is seriously planning, in the decades ahead, to confront the most powerful pro-mysticism institution in the USA today.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

BkNotes: Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Fides et Ratio

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (an "Encyclical Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason"), Boston, Pauline Books & Media (Daughters of St. Paul), 1998, 131 pages.

WHAT IS AN ENCYCLICAL? An encyclical is a "letter" which a pope writes to the bishops of the Catholic Church. Each bishop is responsible for disseminating the information in the encyclical to Catholics in the bishop's jurisdiction. Around the year 2000, I attended a discussion of Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) held in the main auditorium of the University of Portland, a Catholic school in Portland, Oregon, USA. The auditorium was full, with many individuals sitting in the aisles as well. On stage, a panel of Catholics spoke about the main points of the encyclical. Panel members also answered questions from some of the three hundred members of the audience, including priests, monks, and nuns, but mostly laymen. The discussion was both intense and respectful.

The Church does not consider an encyclical to be infallible unless a pope chooses to speak ex cathedra in the encyclical. (An ex cathedral announcement is one that speaks solemnly, not casually, states a doctrine of faith or morals, and applies to all Catholics.) Nevertheless, if an encyclical contains doctrines applying to the Church, then the Church expects all Catholics to give their interior and exterior assent to the doctrine ("Encyclical," A Catholic Dictionary, general editor Donald Attwater, 3rd edition, 1958, reprinted by TAN Books in 1961.)

JOHN PAUL II'S PURPOSE. In Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) writes for three purposes. First, he wants to make easier the life of those Catholic individuals who are struggling intellectually to establish truth in today's post-modernist, secular culture. Second, he wants to "restore to our contemporaries a genuine trust in their capacity to know and [he wants to] challenge philosophy [which post-modernists have damaged] to recover and develop its own full dignity." (pp. 15-16) Third, he wants to explain the nature of truth and its relation to faith as fundamental. (p. 16)

SUBJECT. The book explains the Catholic view of the relationship of faith, reason, and culture. The author also examines the relationship of theology (which relies on faith) and philosophy (which relies on reason). (p. 5) John Paul II says that ideas, especially fundamental ideas, shape culture. He speaks of "[p]hilosophy's powerful influence on the formation and development of the cultures of the West." (pp. 11 and 16) As a related insight, John Paul II also identifies the existence of "implicit philosophy" in a culture: Broad principles are held by individuals but in an unthinking or uncritical way. (p. 13)

STYLE AND STRUCTURE. At least in this English translation, John Paul II's style varies with his changes in subject. For example, the first two chapters are more difficult to read than the third chapter. The fourth chapter is easiest. It is historical, a survey of the history of Western philosophy in Christian culture.

The chapter titles show the general structure of the book:
Ch. I. The Revelation of God's Wisdom
Ch. II. Credo ut Intelligam (I believe so that I might understand)
Ch. III. Intellego ut Credam (I understand so that I might believe)
Ch. IV. The Relationship between Faith and Reason
Ch. V. The Magisterium's Interventions in Philosophical Matters
Ch. VI. The Interaction between Philosophy and Theology
Ch. VII. Current Requirements and Tasks

THEMES. The main message of the book is that truth depends on faith as its foundation. (p. 16) A prefatory statement presents the theme: 

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2). (p. 7)

One sub-theme holds that truth is metaphysically objective: Truth is out there in the world, where God has made it available to us. For example, on p. 9, John Paul II speaks of humanity "engaging" truth. Where is this truth? As the book repeatedly tells readers, truth is in God's words as he revealed them to mankind. (p. 10, sec. 2) 

Another, though often only implied sub-theme is that humans need to integrate their items of knowledge and that the total has a structure resting on a foundation, that is, on fundamental principles. For example, John Paul II refers to "fundamental questions" (p. 9); he refers to the "unity of truth, natural and revealed" (p. 48); and he speaks of "a systematic body of knowledge," saying, "... every philosophical system ... should always be respected in its wholeness." (p. 12)

A third sub-theme, but one which I infer, is the standard Catholic approach to issues: "both-and." Here is an example of the Church's even-handed, "both-and" orientation: The Church has issued more censures of Catholics formulating philosophies since 1850 than before. The reason is that defective, non-Catholic philosophers were in that century producing defective philosophies, and Catholic philosophers were responding, but with errors of their own. The Church's censures of new Catholic philosophies were "even-handed." For example, on the one hand, the Church censured both fideism (the notion that only faith is required) and radical traditionalism (the notion that only strict compliance with tradition is a suitable guide to Church policy); and, on the other hand, the Church has censured rationalism and ontologism "because they attributed to natural reason a knowledge which only the light of faith could confer." The First Vatican Council (1870) set the standard on issues about reason and faith. The Council "showed how inseparable and at the same time how distinct were faith and reason, revelation and natural knowledge of God." (pp. 69-70) 

At the root of the "both-and" approach of the Church is an intention to integrate its various positions. For example: 

The 'supreme rule of [the Church's] faith' derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others. (p. 74) 

WHAT CAN ONE KNOW, IN GENERAL? Let's look at knowledge in general first, and then at knowledge through reason. Truth is "born of ... a consonance between intellect and objective reality." (p. 75) According to John Paul II, one can know three "modes" of truth: 

(a) Sense-perceptible truths that "depend on immediate evidence or are confirmed by experimentation." (Perhaps John Paul II intends this to include knowledge of science and technology.)

(b) Philosophical truths, which are "attained by means of the speculative powers of the human intellect."

(c) Religious truths, which are partly grounded in philosophy and partly grounded in religious traditions. (pp. 42-43)

WHAT CAN REASON KNOW? John Paul II does not systematically present his views on reason. (His publication is a "letter," not a treatise.) His scattered comments about reason's capabilities do sketch reason's scope. Consider the following comments from John Paul II:

[1] The First Vatican Council teaches, then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: 'There exists a two-fold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With  regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known'. Based upon God's testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perception and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone. Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the 'fullness of grace and truth' (cf. in Jn 1:14) which God has willed to reveal in history and definitively through his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 5:9; Jn 5:31-32). (p. 18-19)

[2] But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently. (p. 22)

[3] By reading the "book of nature," John Paul II says, reason can bring an appreciation and perhaps even some knowledge of God. (p. 31) In John Paul II's comments, there is little discussion of using reason and the benefits it brings in technology for example. Why? Because the pope does not think reason is required? Or because he assumes that this reason is merely "instrumental" and not worth considering? Or because the issue is outside his subject, which is mostly religion and philosophy? I do not know.

[4] Not only is it [reason] not restricted to sensory knowledge [alone], from the moment that it can reflect critically on the data of the senses, but, by discoursing on the data provided by the senses, reason can reach the cause which lies at the origin of all perceptible reality." This ability "affirms the human capacity for metaphysical enquiry." (p. 33)

[5] The Church is "pro-reason," he says: On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason's drive to attain goals which render people's lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. (p. 13)

In my summary, John Paul II says the Church's position is to laud both faith and reason but place faith as superior because it sets the ethical and other broad contexts for what we do. Further, faith and reason working together are superior to the philosophical skepticism of the post-modernists.

WHAT ARE REASON'S LIMITS? John Paul II frequently speaks of "human reason." (p. 13) He sees it as a flawed vehicle distinguished from "divine reason," which is perfect. In general, there are two limits to reason. First, it is inherently finite and God is infinite, so there is only so much that reason can understand about God. (p. 24). Second, reason requires great toil and is wearisome (p.33). In the field of philosophy in particular there are two particular limitations of reason. First, formulations of a philosophy are shaped by their place in history. Second, every philosophy is "produced by human reason wounded and weakened by sin. This is why no historical form of philosophy can legitimately claim to embrace the totality of truth, nor to be the complete explanation of the human being, of the world and of the human being's relationship with God." (p. 68)

Despite reason's limits, it can achieve some success, but only by following three rules: (1) Be prepared for a long, hard journey. (2) Be prepared to accept help outside of one's own efforts. (3) Fear God. (pp. 30-31)

JOHN PAUL II'S VIEWS OF FAITH. Faith is not merely a virtue that the Church happens to recommend to everyone. Faith is fundamental. 

[1] Underlying all the Church's thinking is the awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself (cf. 2 Cor[inthians] 4:1-2). The knowledge which the Church offers to man has is origin not in any speculation of her own, however sublime, but in the Word of God which she has received in faith (cf. 1 Th[essalonians] 2:13). (p. 17)

[2] It is a "fundamental truth of Christianity" that "'the obedience of faith must be given to God who reveals himself'." (p. 22) "By faith, men and women give their assent" to God's revelations, which are God's "divine testimony." (p. 22) Faith leads to certainty of knowing. (p. 23)

[3] Faith is assent to the "knowledge" that comes through one form of mystical channel or another. This opening to the mystery, which came to him [Biblical man] through revelation, was for him, in the end, the source of true knowledge. It was this which allowed his reason to enter the realm of the infinite where an understanding for which until then he had not dared to hope became a possibility. (pp. 32-33)

WHAT CAN FAITH KNOW? Faith can know ideas that are beyond man's natural limits. Ethical ideas in particular are the payoff of having faith:

The symbol [of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in the Garden of Eden] is clear: man was in no position to discern and decide for himself what was good and what was evil, but was constrained to appeal to a higher source. The blindness of pride deceived our first parents into thinking themselves sovereign and autonomous, and into thinking that they could ignore the knowledge which comes from God. All men and women were caught up in this primal disobedience, which so wounded reason that from then on its path to full truith would be strewn with obstacles. (p. 34)

Faith brings supernatural knowledge. John Paul II favorably quotes Thomas Aquinas: 

[W]hat you neither see nor grasp, faith confirms for you, leaving nature far behind; a sign it is that now appears, hiding in mystery realities sublime. (pp. 23-24)

THE RELATIONSHIP OF REASON AND FAITH. John Paul II offers a view of faith and reason that integrates the two, leaving reason as subordinate: 

[T]here is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith. The world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analyzed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process. Faith intervenes not to abolish reason's autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts. (p. 29)

Reason needs starting points that come from faith. Faith needs reason for thorough understanding of faith. 

Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way. (p. 30)

There is thus no [justification] for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope of action. (p. 30) Exploring truth (coming from faith) by using reason is noble. (p. 30)

"Right reason" (orthos logos in Greek and recta ratio in Latin) means reasoning which is logical in process and consistent with the principles of Catholic ethics (based on God's revelations). (pp. 12-13) Note the implications: Right reasoning is reasoning that operates in the context set by mysticism. This supports the Catholic position, which is that mysticism overrides reason. Reason should, whenever there is a seeming conflict, yield to mysticism. The mystery of "Christ crucified and risen" is "not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet." (p. 36)

The following passages summarize John Paul II's positions on faith and reason: 

In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence. (p. 32) 

The truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (pp. 47-48)

Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth. (p. 71)

FOR CHRISTIANS, WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PHILOSOPHY? John Paul II says philosophy has a role: "Among these ['resources for generating greater knowledge of truth'] is philosophy .... Philosophy emerges, then, as one of the noblest of human tasks." (p. 11, sec. 3) While the Church does not have an official philosophy, the Church does evaluate philosophies for their compatibility with revelation and Church doctrines. (pp. 66-67)

Two statements summarize the Catholic view of the relationship of faith and reason. First, John Paul II says that historically Christians have valued not only reason, if it was "open to the absolute" (p. 55) coming from the supernatural world, but also valued a synthesis of philosophy and theology, as in the works of Augustine and Thomas (p. 54). Further, John Paul II notes: 

The fundamental harmony between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy is once again confirmed. Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason, and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents. (p. 57)

Second, John Paul II says: ... I make this strong and insistent appeal ... that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. (p. 65)

John Paul II is not "tolerant," in the meaning of passively accepting anything. He denounces some streams of modern philosophy which, for example, emphasize reason's limits more than its strengths. He says that agnosticism, relativism, and skepticism—which Catholics reject—arise from that emphasis. (p. 14)

CONCLUSION. The Catholic position of faith and reason, as described by Pope John Paul II, is historically and philosophically sophisticated. The Church does not adopt an official philosophy. It accepts reason, as subordinate to mysticism (faith in Holy Scripture, revelation, tradition) but as useful within limits set by an ethics learned from revelation.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Five-Year Review (2009-2014)

In 2009, I started this weblog as a way of recording my notes for my next project, a broad look at the state of the war between the supporters of reason and the supporters of mysticism in the USA in our time. Until 2013, I spiraled slowly above the battlefield. I briefly looked at each of a wide range of mystics and their cultural products (mainly their books). I have been reserving—as dessert—my look at the advocates of reason. There are few of them. (I did look at the work of one supposed advocate of reason, Sam Harris, and I showed that he is a mystic.) 

After four years of sampling various forms of mysticism, I turned to a closer look at one institutional advocate of mysticism, the Catholic Church. It is wealthy. It sends representatives into every major sector of the society of the USA. It is large and growing. It has long historical and intellectual roots. It is philosophically sophisticated and articulate.

In the last half year or so, I have recorded—in various book reviews and essays—my notes on the Catholic Church and particularly its scattered views of reason and mysticism. For example, I have examined The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the long book that the Church uses as its handbook for educating Catholics, especially new members of the Church.

From my preliminary study of the Catholic Church and its role in the war of mysticism against reason, I have tentatively concluded that financially, socially, politically, and intellectually, the Catholic Church is the most formidable movement working for mysticism in the USA today. Now I am ready for my next step: To determine the Church's exact position on mysticism versus reason and then to find out what steps Catholics are taking to spread their ideas. Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) present's his official position in 1998. My next post, perhaps in a few weeks, will review it.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Catechism's View of the Holy Spirit's Role in Catholicism

The previous post, on February 4, 2014, frequently mentions the role of the Holy Spirit in various forms of mysticism, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What is the Holy Spirit? What actions does it take? What is the significance of the Holy Spirit in Catholicism's mystical worldview?

The Catechism devotes Part One, Section Two, Chapter Three to the Holy Spirit. The title is "I believe in the Holy Spirit." The Catechism also includes many other references to the Holy Spirit, as shown in the Index.

WHAT IS THE HOLY SPIRIT? The Holy Spirit is a "person," one of the three "persons" in the mysterious Holy Trinity of God (the Father), Jesus (the Son of God), and the Holy Spirit (which emanates from God). (Catechism, pars. 236 and 684) 

We can know of the Holy Spirit through his effects. (par. 688) In historical order, the Old Testament Bible initially revealed God the Father, the first person of the Trinity. Next, the New Testament Bible revealed Jesus the Son, the second person. The New Testament also revealed the existence of the Holy Spirit by identifying some of its actions and attributes, though in less detail than the Father and the Son. (par. 686)

SYNONYMS AND SYMBOLS. The Holy Spirit appears more frequently in the New Testament than a casual reader might realize at first. In the New Testament and in Catholic literature generally, synonyms for "Holy Spirit" are "Paraclete" (Consoler), "Spirit of Truth," and "Spirit" with various attributes such as "Spirit of promise." (par. 692) 

In the Bible, symbols for the Holy Spirit are: the "Finger of God" (700), fire ( 696), the "Hand of God" (699), the dove (701), the seal (698), water (694), and cloud and light (697).

WHAT DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT DO? In historical times, the Holy Spirit was the "principal author" of Holy Scripture (304). It illustrates his repeated role in bringing knowledge to men.

In our time, the Holy Spirit acts in various ways among individual men on earth. The Holy Spirit can: awaken faith (684) enable men to communicate with Christ (683), help men grow in spiritual freedom (1742), teach praying (741, 2652), reveal God (687), reveal the Trinity (244, 684), be a source of holiness (749), and give "gifts" (charisma, in Greek), that is, special abilities such as "speaking in tongues" (768, 798-801, 1830)

The Holy Spirit also has particular roles to take within the Church (the community of believers, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit [pars 797-798]). The Holy Spirit has the special tasks of unifying the Church (813), directing the Church (768), supporting the Church (747), participating in the liturgy (1091-1109), providing the living memory of the Church (1099), and taking responsibility for the Church's mission (852).

Perhaps most importantly, the Holy Spirit "kindles faith in us," specifically faith in Jesus Christ. (par. 683) Beyond that, the Holy Spirit conveys information from the Father and the Son (the other two "persons" of the mysterious Holy Trinity). (par. 684) While the Holy Spirit enables us to know some things about the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit reveals nothing about himself. (par. 687) 

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT? Of the three persons of the mysterious Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least known but perhaps (Catholics say) most present among Catholics. The Holy Spirit is, one can infer, primarily a conveyer, an enabler of God communicating with and thereby guiding man. In effect, the Holy Spirit is the form in which God is present on earth, in particular aiding the Church in its mission of saving souls. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the bridge between the supernatural world and the natural world. The Holy Spirit provides a structure of integration in the Catholic worldview—making Catholicism a more formidable opponent of reason.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What is the Catholic Catechism's view of mysticism?

Today, in the United States of America, the Catholic movement may be the largest, most influential, and most dangerous movement on the mysticism side of the war between reason and mysticism. In its instruction manual for new members, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church has distilled its views on reason and mysticism, as well as many other subjects. In the preceding post, I outlined the Catechism's view of reason, which is a minor part of Catholic epistemology presented in the Catechism. 

This post, below, examines the main part of Catholic epistemology: mysticism. For the notes that this post collects, I am using the classifications I suggested in an August 26, 2009 post here.

MYSTICAL SOURCES. The Catechism does not use the term "source" or even the term "mysticism" (as defined in this weblog). Nor does the Catechism present a systematic view of mysticism, that is, the various ways in which believers acquire "knowledge" outside of reason. The Catechism does, however, frequently speak of God (or his earthly incarnation, Jesus) as the origin of words designed for man's guidance. 

In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: 'Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness [as Jesus], became like men'. (paragraph 101)

God's actions on earth 2000 or more years ago "communicate" to believers today: 

Christ's whole earthly life—his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking—is Revelation of the Father. (par. 516)

Intermediate sources, such as the Bible, pass God's Word in some way to ordinary believers. The Catechism describes intermediate sources, though without using that term. Intermediate sources might—in electrical terminology—also be called "transmitters" or "repeaters".

Following is a brief list of various ways (channels, routes) in which God directly or indirectly sends his messages to men. One element, the Holy Spirit, appears frequently in the communication process. A later post will describe the Holy Spirit.

MYSTICAL WAY 1: GOD TALKS TO THE CHURCH NOW. The Bible records historical instances in which God spoke to particular individuals, such as Moses. The writers of the Catechism say God continues to talk to the Church, who is "the Spouse of his beloved Son" (paragraph 79). Note that here, and elsewhere in the Catechism, "the Church" refers to all the believers together. It does not refer to the Church's hierarchy alone.

The Father's self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: 'God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son'. (par. 79)

Nothing in the context for the passage quoted above indicates that the Catechism is speaking of "conversation" metaphorically. The passage means what it says.

MYSTICAL WAY 2: GOD SPEAKS THROUGH HOLY SCRIPTURE. The Bible is "the word of God." God talks with his children through Scripture. (par. 104) "God is the author of Sacred Scripture." The men who wrote the Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit. (par. 105) "God inspired the human authors of the sacred books." (par. 106) "Still, the Christian faith is not a 'religion of the book'," that is, a believer should not interpret the text with literalism alone. Understanding scripture requires Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, to open the minds of the readers of scripture. (par. 108)

In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. 'For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression'. (par. 110)

Reading sacred scripture requires a double form of mysticism: 

'Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written'. (par. 111)

Holy scripture also provides an example of Christians valuing integration, here called "unity." 

Different as the books [of the Bible] which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover. (par. 112) 

The unstated premise here is that God is integrated in all his actions and therefore we can expect to see connections in the world and in Scripture. The Catechism speaks of "the unity of the divine plan." (par. 128) and identifies the cause of unity within scripture: "The unity of the two Testaments proceeds from the unity of God's plan and his Revelation." (par. 140)

MYSTICAL WAY 3: CHURCH TRADITION. The handing of an idea or practice from one individual to another and so on down through history is a tradition. It may be written, oral, or institutional. (An institution is an organization which the founders of the organization designed to continue beyond their own lives.) The Catechism explains that the information that Jesus's apostles  handed to later generations was information which the apostles learned by: (1) listening to Christ; (2) observing Christ's way of life and works; and (3) learning "at the prompting of the Holy Spirit." (pars. 76) "The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition." (par. 83)

The tradition of the Church (as the group of believers, including the hierarchy) interacts with holy scripture. The Catechism advises: 

Read the Scripture within 'the living Tradition of the whole Church'. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture ('according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church'). (par. 113, deleting original emphasis on the first sentence) 

MYSTICAL WAY 4: APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION. Bishops have a special place in the Church. A bishop is an administrator of a diocese, which is a geographic territory of the worldwide church. (A diocese is divided into parishes, each of which ideally has its own church building and a priest.) Spiritually more important is the teaching role of each bishop. He is responsible for educating the believers in his sheep flock. Collectively, bishops, when assembled and joined by the pope, are infallible in their decisions. Bishops are successors to the original apostles of Jesus. Bishops, the Church believes, speak for Christ:

Hence the Church teaches that 'the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ'. (par. 862)

An idea closely related to tradition as mysticism is the concept of "authority." Objectively defined, authority is an expert's ability to "author" judgements about issues in a particular area of knowledge. Such an authority must meet certain qualifications. The rationale for accepting the authority of the Church is not objective rationale but supernatural: the Church is the body of Christ, who is its head. (par. 669) The authority of the Church—for example, in interpreting Scripture— leads Church members to believe in Christianity. The Catechism quotes Augustine: "But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me." (par. 119) 

MYSTICAL WAY 5: MAGISTERIUM. The ideas of apostolic succession and authority are related to the idea of "magisterium." This is the ability of the Church to correctly interpret the "sacred deposit" (Scripture plus Tradition from the apostles) and teach the Church accordingly. The interpreters and teachers here are the bishops in consultation with the bishop of Rome, the Pope. (par. 85) The Holy Spirit assists the bishops in their interpretation.

The interpretations made by bishops are not merely subjects for discussion among Catholics. The Church intends Catholics to follow their bishops' advice. Based on the words of Jesus in scripture, the Church expects "the faithful [to] receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms." (par. 87)

A dogma is a statement which the Church makes and expects "irrevocable adherence" to accepting on faith. The statement must consist of "truths" already "contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these." (par. 88)

A Catholic Dictionary explains: "Magisterium" is "[t]he Church's divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion ...." The Biblical citation for that authority is Matthew 28, 19-20. "This teaching is infallible ...." The Church specifies certain conditions for producing infallible statements; the Church does not claim that everything said by every member of the Church in general or the hierarchy in particular is infallible. There are two levels of magisterium. 

(Level 1) The solemn magisterium is that which is exercised only rarely by formal and authentic definitions of councils or popes. Its matter comprises dogmatic definitions of ecumenical councils or of popes teaching ex cathedra, or of particular councils, if their decrees are univerally accepted or approved in solemn form by the pope; also creeds and professions of faith put forward or solemnly approved by pope or ecumenical council. 

(Level 2) The ordinary magisterium is continually exercised by the Church especially in her universal practices connected with faith and morals, in the unanimous consent of the Fathers … and theologians, in the decisions of Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense … of the faithful, and various historical documents in which the faith is declared. All these are founts of a teaching which as a whole is infallible. (Donald Atwater, general editor, A Catholic Dictionary)


The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without errorThus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism [gift] of the infallibility in matters of faith and morals. (par. 890) 

This infallliblity applies to the pope in certain circumstances, and to "the body of bishops" when they and the pope meet in ecumenical councils. (par. 891)

MYSTICAL WAY 7:  "SENSE OF FAITH" (CHURCH CONSENSUS). In various forms, consensus is yet another way of reaching "knowledge" of the supernatural or of the application of supernatural principles to human life. 

In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a 'supernatural sense of faith' the People of God, under the guidance of the Church's living Magisterium, 'unfailingly adheres to this faith'. (par. 889)

[T]he faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth. (par. 91)

The whole body of the faithful…cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, 'from the bishops to the last of the faithful,' they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. (par. 92) 

There is also an implication in the Catechism that ecumenical (worldwide) councils of bishops reach truth through consensus. (par. 242)

MYSTICAL WAY 8: COMMUNICATION THROUGH COMMUNION. The Catechism suggests too that believers can gain knowledge from the supernatural by a communion with Christ: 

Believers who respond to God's word and become members of Christ's Body [the Church], become intimately united with him: 'In that body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe, and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his Passion and glorification'. (par. 790)  

MYSTICAL WAY 9: PERSONAL CHANNELS OF MYSTICISM. The Catechism says man has two personal channels of mysticism: 

When he listens to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience, man can arrive at certainty about the existence of God, the cause and the end of everything. (par. 45)

Students of philosophy may recognize these two channels as the mystical routes that Kant cites: a sense of awe that comes from viewing the starry skies above, and the inner voice of conscience. (See Ch. 7, "Kant," of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here.)

SUMMARY. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states or implies at least nine ways in which "knowledge" in some form can pass from the supernatural world to the believers living in this world. Some sources of that knowledge are direct. Others are "repeaters" in the transmission lines from the other world to this world. These descriptions of mysticism are scattered throughout the Catechism; they far outnumber descriptions of reason. Truly, Catholic Christianity is a religion, that is, a worldiview formed on principles acquired from supernatural sources.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here: