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: http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com/

1 comment:

  1. The mystical experience is the onset of the mystical state, a state which is also known as higher consciousness. It is truly a gift like not other attainable through "the analysis of the obvious". Those are words given to us by Alfred North Whitehead. Why is this important to present? Because we know some things fully, innately, while other things are known only on the surface, superficially. Such is the case with consciousness. We know our ordinary consciousness but do not know what is known as higher consciousness. It can be attained "through the analysis of the obvious". That is the only way to get to that higher state. It is there where we get to understand and know the mystical state of mind. It is a gift like no other....

    Emmanuel Karavousanos


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