I wanted to share an excerpt from a book by Étienne Gilson. He was a French philosopher and historian of philosophy. A scholar of medieval philosophy and one of the best Thomist you could ever hope to learn under.
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The section that I am quoting is from his book “The Philosopher And Theology” and it is his thoughts on the changes of the Catechism in France From 1885 – 1949.
…It must be said, moreover, that a change had taken place in the teaching of religion, in France at least, and this change was bound to bring about such accidents. What took place at the time can be summed up by saying that modern theologians were stressing more and more the importance of philosophy. Whereas the theologians of the middle ages, following the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, had often denounced the shortcomings of philosophy, their modern successors tended to insist on its necessity. But more about this later.
My present point is that to the extent that theology philosophizes, philosophy feels invited to theologize. Now for reasons tied up with the general mentality of our times, the teaching of religious knowledge had tended, and is still tending, to make a maximum use of philosophical reasoning in apologetics. The fact can be confirmed by what has happened to the teaching of the catechism in French parishes between 1900 and 1950. In 1900 French children learned their catechism; they knew it by heart and never forgot it thereafter. Priests were not then as much concerned as they are today about what the children really understood of the catechism.
They were taught with a view to the future, to the time when they would be old enough to understand it. To this day, when any hesitation on the true teaching of the Church on a certain point of doctrine occurs to someone so instructed, he always knows to what chapter in his catechism he should turn for an answer. Charles Peguy is a striking example of a French Christian whose religion always remained that of his catechism. It was nothing less and, let us not forget, nothing more. The pastor of the parish church of Saint Aignan in Orleans did a very good job of it. He simply gave Peguy to the Church.
The catechism then taught was admirable in its precision and conciseness. But things have become different. This capsule theology contained all that was required to meet the needs of a whole life. Yielding to the illusion that it was democratic to treat citizens as morons, they brought the catechism down to the level of the masses instead of raising the masses to its level. Hence the low-calorie diet that children are today fed under the name of catechism. Such a practice forgets that the catechism they are taught as children must serve them well beyond their early years.
For nine out of ten among them, the religious truth they learn from their first catechism will have to do for the rest of their lives. It should be a substantial food. One never knows whether there is not a future Charles Peguy among the children in a catechism class. One of them may be a Little Flower, a future Doctor of the Church. It is not exaggeration to say that instruction in the catechism is the most important teaching a Christian will ever receive throughout his life, however long or learned it may be. This instruction should therefore carry from the very beginning the maximum of religious knowledge it is able to bear.
The catechism of my youth aimed at nothing else. Knowing that the Christian lives by faith, and anxious to start the child as early as possible on the road to salvation, a concern that is the proper object of religious teaching, our catechism at once placed in our hands the truth of faith, the only truth that saves. This teaching was very far from belittling the resources of reason, but reason always came second after faith, the only knowledge that reaches the God of religion, the God Who saves. It is true that reason can demonstrate there is a God, but when Aristotle for the first time demonstrated the existence of a First Unmoved Mover, he had not yet taken a single step on the path to salvation.
All the philosophical demonstrations of God put together will never yield an atom of faith, and since “without faith it is impossible to please God,” no certitude coming from my own reason can replace my assent to the truth of revelation. When God tells me of His own existence and bids me to believe His word, He is offering me a share in the knowledge that He has of Himself. This is more than a matter of information; it is an invitation.
The act of faith accepts this invitation, and that is why such an act is properly a religious one, constituting by its very essence an assent to the supernatural and divine truth of which faith is in man a finite but real participation, the beginning of the possession of God’s eternal beatitude. Reason is enough for man to know there is a God, but faith is necessary for man to approach God. Besides this is the formal teaching of Scripture (Heb. 11:6): Accedentem ad Deum oportet credere quia est, et quod inquirentibus se, remunerator sit: For he that cometh to God, must believe that He is: and is a rewarder to them that seek Him. To let the God of the philosophers and of the scholars take precedence over the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to effect a substitution whose consequences can be all the more serious because it takes place in minds that may well never become those of scholars and philosophers.
What Scripture teaches is also what the old catechism used to teach. As an instance of this I shall quote the Catechism of the Diocese of Meaux, in its edition of 1885:
What is the first truth we must believe?
The first truth we must believe is that there is a God and
there can be only one.
Why do you believe that there is a God? I believe that there is a God because He Himself has revealed His existence to us.
Does not reason likewise tell you also that there is a God? Yes, reason tells us there is a God because, if there were no God, heaven and earth would not exist.
Let us keep in mind these clear-cut and straightforward positions. Credo in unum Deum: the existence of God is here given as an object of faith included in the first article of the Apostles’ Creed; it is an object of faith inasmuch as it was revealed by the word of God Himself in Scripture.
Lastly, following on this point the teaching of Saint Paul (Rom. 1:20), the catechism adds that reason likewise says there is a God, cause of the existence of heaven and earth. Such are, in their terms and sequence, the three fundamental questions and answers that used to be taught to a child by catechism at its elementary level.
The children of this child, now grown up, have been taught perceptibly different things. In the catechism published in 1923 for the Diocese of Paris, a long article of five questions is devoted to the existence of God. Instead of asking first why we must believe there is a God, and answering that we believe it on the strength of His own word, this later catechism asks whether we are able “to know God with certainty.” The answer is, yes, “since all creatures prove to us His existence.” Indeed, creatures can be causes neither of their existence nor of their order. Hence a creator was necessary to give them their being, and to establish them in harmony.
Another argument is drawn from moral conscience, which supposes a master prescribing good and forbidding evil. A third reason can be found in universal consent, for “at all times and in all places people have believed in the existence of God.” At the end, the catechism asks whether God has Himself manifested His existence. Answer: “Yes, God Himself has manifested His existence when He revealed Himself to the first human beings, to Moses and to the prophets, and especially in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.”
The doctrine remains the same, the order has become different. The God of rational knowledge, Whose existence can be attained by various philosophical ways, is now taking precedence over the God of revelation. In the old days, we first believed that God Himself had spoken to us and then we went on to assure ourselves rationally that indeed there is a God; in 1923, the first thing we did was to make sure that the existence of God can be known “with certainty” by diverse arguments drawn from reason alone: only then did we appeal to God’s own testimony.
We even went a step further. In the catechism of 1923, the act of faith in the word of God appeared perhaps a bit late, but it did come in the end; it does not enter at all, even at the end, in the elementary catechism French children are taught today. True, the Illustrated Elementary Catechism published in Tours in 1949 begins by affirming: “I believe in God”; but it presently gives the reason for this belief, and the reason is not that God Himself has revealed us His existence, that is, His own personal existence; no, “I believe in God because nothing can make itself.”
What a decline since the catechism of 1885! If it is because nothing can cause itself to be that we believe in God’s existence, then we do not believe it, we know it. Ex nihilo nihil is not an object of faith but a philosophical proposition. It even is a proposition borrowed from Lucretius, an Epicurean materialist who directly inferred from it that nothing could be created or annihilated, so much so that the world has always existed and always will. To extract a proof of the existence of God from the negation of the very possibility of creation, it is necessary to introduce a supplementary notion between the principle and the conclusion. There is one indeed and it is that the world has been made.
Assuredly, if one agrees that the world has been made, only God could have made it, but it is not immediately evident that the world has been made; it is a philosophical conclusion to be demonstrated and the demonstration of creation is possible only on the basis of a certain notion of the existence and the nature of God which requires a prior philosophical discussion. In the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, the proof of the existence of God comes in Book I, that of the creation of the world follows later in Book II. At any rate, the implications of the problem are becoming rather complicated for young children to unravel.
Let us return to our “illustrated” catechism. When we decide to appeal to reason before appealing to faith, we should not put under the eyes of children a set of images attended by commentaries. Here is a house. Did the house make itself? No. Did this locomotive, this airplane, and this watch make themselves? No, and the answer is correct; but the catechism goes on to say: “The heavens and the stars, the sea with its fishes, the earth with its mountains, its fields, its meadows, its trees, its flowers, its animals cannot have made themselves.” And, to repeat, this also is true, with this reservation, however, that they have not made themselves if they have been made. Since the catechism adds the precision that “in the beginning there was nothing,” what is at stake is really the creation of the world, the production of its whole substance and existence.
But then the problem is entirely different from that of the building of a house by an architect, a contractor, and a more or less large number of workmen. Images showing man-fabricated products such as a watch, an engine, or an airplane, are liable to be misleading when the creation of the world ex nihilo is at stake. Is there not some danger in getting the child used to thinking that he is in possession of an unshakable rational evidence when, in fact, his conclusion rests upon a pseudophilo-sophical and worthless argument? To be sure, the creation of the world by God can be philosophically demonstrated; Thomas Aquinas has effectively demonstrated it, but his demonstration has little to do with the making of clocks or the building of houses, and there is really little hope that we can make children understand the meaning of his demonstrations.
I would not waste time in justifying my remarks if I did not know quite well how they will be construed. Some theologians find it hard to distinguish between the abstract order of doctrinal definition and the empirical order of psychological life. Unlike their master Saint Thomas Aquinas, they do not distinguish between the proposition: there are rational demonstrations of the existence of God, and the quite different proposition: all men, in all ages and under all conditions, are able to understand philosophical demonstrations of the existence of God. This is the proper time to remember the wise remark made by Gabriel Marcel, that the less one stands in need of proofs of the existence of God the easier it is for him to find them.
The order to be followed in the religious education of the child is of paramount importance here. Let us leave aside the problem of knowing whether the philosophical God demonstrated by reason is identically the religious God of salvation in Whom Christians believe. It is still a fact, according to Thomas Aquinas himself, that the certitude of faith, which rests on the infallibility of God, is more unshakable than the evidence of the first principles of human reason. If I believe in the existence of God nothing untoward will happen on the day when some unbeliever will question the validity of my proofs.
My religious life is not founded on the conclusions of any philosopher: fundatus sum supra firmam petram. But if I have first been taught to hold that God exists on the strength of demonstrative reasoning, and only later to believe it, it is to be feared that the reverse will happen. To believe and to believe that one knows are two entirely different things. In the second case, faith seems easy as long as it plays no other part than to support knowledge; but if knowledge loses confidence in itself, then a faith of this sort is liable to be swept away with it. The man who thinks he knows that God exists and then realizes that he no longer knows it also realizes that he no longer believes it.
It is both possible and legitimate to appeal to the common belief in the existence of God natural to mankind. But this is a mere fact; it is neither a matter of religious faith nor a philosophical argument. If we wish to convince the human reason, we should not be willing to offer it metaphysical trash. Should it be objected that metaphysics is too difficult for children, no one will deny it. Metaphysics is difficult for everyone, and this precisely is the reason why, according to Saint Thomas, it was necessary that even the naturally knowable truths required for salvation should be revealed.
It was, Saint Thomas says, necessarium. Among theologians, those who consider themselves better “Thomists” than Saint Thomas think it advisable to specify that this is only morally necessary: moraliter necessarium. Granted, but though of a different order, moral necessity is no less necessary than metaphysical necessity.
Thomas Aquinas saw no point in introducing the distinction. In his own perspective, which is that of the salvation of mankind in general, the distinction is vain. The will of God was not to make human salvation possible in theory only, but in practice as well.
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From this point of view, little would have been gained by making such a demonstrative truth theoretically accessible to men if, in fact, an exceedingly small number of them would have been able to understand the demonstration.
How many? Paucissimi, says Saint Thomas. Hence the advice given by him to each and every one, young and not so young, to receive the truth of God through faith pending the time they will be able to understand it. This was very wise, but it was in the thirteenth century. It would seem that since then we have discovered the art of turning out ten-year-old metaphysicians.
I owe it to the priests who taught me my religion to say that they never watered it down with pseudophi-losophy: “I believe in God because He Himself has revealed His existence to us.” When they read these words again sixty years later, those who learned to recite them by heart at the time of their youth experience the pleasant feeling of a homecoming.
Every one of those truths is as true today as it ever was, and of the same truth. I never had to unlearn a single line of this catechism of 1885, so solid, so full, so firmly grounded in a faith that was friendly to intelligence but aware of being higher in dignity; more important still, I never found in it any occasion of doubt. Let us hope that the Christians of the future will be in a position to say the same thing of the catechism they are learning today.
This tendency to stress the importance of reason is more easily understood when its origin is known. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth have witnessed the rise of a particular kind of apologetics and one that was quite new when compared with its predecessors. It was a reaction against the traditionalism of the nineteenth century, itself an answer to the anti-religious philosophism of the eighteenth. In his article “Eclecticism” in the Encyclopedia, Diderot had set the tone for the freethinkers of the future. His hero was the man who, “trampling on prejudices, tradition, antiquity, universal consent, authority, in short all that which subjugates the common mind, dares to think by himself.”
Bending before the violence of the attack, many Christians then made the mistake of fighting on the battleground chosen by their adversaries. These had set up reason against faith and religion; therefore, so they thought, reason was their enemy. They could think of no better rejoinder than, in turn, to pitch faith and revelation against reason. Since one had to choose between being a philosopher and being a Christian, one would choose being a Christian against the philosophers. Thus were born a variety of doctrines, linked together by this common spirit of reaction against philosophical reason. Such were those of De Bonald, La Mennais, Bonnetty, Bautain, and others. The most representative among them was the eloquent and popular Theatine preacher Ventura de Raulica.
This Italian monk, who preached in French with convincing zeal, gave in 1851 a series of sermons entitled Philosophical Reason and Catholic Reason. The title alone says enough. Grounded on faith and tradition, “Catholic reason” is good. On the contrary, philosophical reason is evil because it considers itself “by that which it is and can naturally do, without the assistance of a reason other and higher than itself, as able to acquire by reasoning all essential truths, either speculative or ethical.” To the philosophical reason of ancient times “abject in its origin, absurd in its method, unhappy in its results, evil in its consequences,” the eloquent Theatine opposed “Catholic reason, which alone is fortunate enough to avoid error, to possess truth, because it is based first and foremost on the teaching and the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”
It is in the perspective of such traditionalisms, almost all of which have been censured in Rome, that we should read the decision of the Vatican Council on the possibility of knowing the existence of God by the sole light of the natural reason. At that very moment, the pendulum began again to swing in the opposite direction. In his collected sermons of 1851, Ventura de Raulica had quoted in support of his own opinions a rather curious letter addressed by the Bishop of Montauban to Augustin Bonnetty, director of the Annales de philosophie chretienne. Among other things, the Bishop said: “We are granting to reason more than its due if we attribute to it the knowledge of God by way of demonstration.” The Vatican Council, in other words, restored to the natural reason its proper rights and solemnly confirmed its power to attain a rationally demonstrated knowledge of God.
This was the history of a generation prior to ours and, in the time of our youth, we knew nothing of it. Hence our surprise to find ourselves confronted, within the Church, with a school of philosophers for whose existence we could not in any way account. We did not know that they represented a rationalist reaction against the answer of traditionalism to the challenge of eighteenth-century philosophism. Naturally we were astonished to meet Christian teachers who made it a point not to believe in the existence of God or in any conclusion of natural theology demonstrable by the light of human reason such as those that theologians, with Thomas Aquinas, call “preambles to faith.” Thus, in the face of all that which the traditionalists had considered inaccessible to reason unaided by revelation and faith, this new school of theologians maintained, on the contrary, not only that the reason is by itself capable of knowing it, but even that we cannot know it in any other way.
This attitude was all the more bewildering because essentially religious motives were at its origin. It was a sort of apologetic rationalism. In those early years of the twentieth century, when science was supreme and nothing was respected that was not strictly scientific, it is understandable that zealous priests should have resented the discredit in which Catholic writings were held by so many unbelievers. By setting faith aside, they were hoping to attract the attention and gain the respect of the non-Catholic scientists and philosophers. The history of their endeavor to sever philosophy from theology has not yet been studied as it deserves to be. Not that they wanted to achieve this separation as the Averroists of the thirteenth century had done, by despairing of bridging the gap between their philosophy and their religion; on the contrary, it was their ambition to show forth the perfect agreement spontaneously achieved between religion and philosophy by a reason that was wholly independent of faith.
These masters were justified in stressing the power of the natural reason to know such truths as the existence of God, His oneness, and the like, without resorting to the light of revelation. It is more difficult to understand why, following the pendulum to the end of its swing, they deemed it necessary to posit as impossible an act of religious faith in the existence of God. Still, this is precisely what they did. In 1925, in the seventh edition of an elementary treatise on philosophy for use in Catholic schools, one could read this remarkable proposition: “The existence of God cannot be the object of an act of divine faith.” One could well be surprised. The Vatican Council had taught that the reason was capable of knowing by itself and with certainty that God exists, that is to say, of demonstrating His existence. But that Council did not forbid belief in the existence of God nor did it declare that such an act of faith was impossible.
The incident was in itself of no importance. It deserves to be mentioned here only because it is witness to a state of mind that was rather widespread in those days and that has not completely disappeared in our own day. Such a state of mind suggests that men should be taught the proofs of the existence of God rather than be invited to take at their face value the words of their daily prayers: “I believe in God, Father almighty . . .” For indeed how could they believe in Him without believing that He exists? It is not difficult for us to see how these diverse attitudes are linked together when we read in the same philosophy textbook written for Catholic schools that at first revelation was “morally necessary” to mankind to preserve its patrimony of speculative and moral truths, but that it is not “physically” necessary, all the more so as to believe in some of these revealed tenets has become impossible. Here are young Christians convinced that, even if they wanted to do so, they could not believe in the existence of God. Were it not for the priceless aptitude of students not to take seriously everything that their professors say, one would feel frightened at the thought that such opinions could have been conceived, written, and taught in some Christian schools at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The most remarkable aspect about this doctrine is that it did not provoke any protestations….