Pope Francis, in his General Audience of June 7th, has raised another theological controversy. Various commentators have offered their own two cents, including this writer in an article on LifeSite, but here are some further thoughts: First, what the Holy Father said, in translation from various sources (the full English translation has yet to be posted on the Vatican webpage):
Dear brothers and sisters, we are never alone. We can be far, hostile; we can even say we are ‘without God.’ But Jesus Christ’s Gospel reveals to us that God cannot be without us: He will never be a God ‘without man’; it is He who cannot be without us, and this is a great mystery! God cannot be God without man (original: Dio non può essere Dio senza l’uomo): this is a great mystery!
I have written previously that the two hallmarks of theology, according to the Thomist Josef Pieper, are clarity and precision, both of which reach their apex in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the patron of theologians, indeed of Catholic schools and universities in general.
The two terms themselves ask for definition:
With clarity, one’s meaning comes through to the mind of the hearer or reader. Truth is conveyed, so that what one means to say, one says.
With precision, one conveys neither more nor less than one’s meaning, literally ‘cutting away’ (pre-scisso) whatever is unnecessary or obscures one’s meaning.
If a text is ambiguous or imprecise, especially in theology, one must use one’s reason, and one’s own knowledge of theology and tradition, to explain the text.
In the present case, it is true that since Man’s creation, God cannot be ‘God’ without Man, for there is now an eternal covenant between God and his creatures, for whom He wills only the good, especially for those made in His image (men and angels), and this ‘good’ includes at its most fundamental level the good of existence. Saint Thomas does ponder whether God could annihilate anything He has created, and concludes that He in theory could, but would not, out of His beneficent love (which does raise the question whether therefore He really could).
However, prior to creation, God was indeed fully ‘God’ without Man, and had no need to create anything at all, whether angels, men, brutes or planets, for as the Catechism declares in its opening paragraph, God was “infinitely perfect and blessed in himself” and that He “in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life”. The act of creation was therefore one of pure, altruistic love, willing the good of creatures by bringing from nothingness into the great goodness of existence.
So in the end, God is God with or without Man, and is only God ‘with Man’ because He has chosen to be so, not from any need, or aspect of His nature.
To delve further into the metaphysics of God, as a supreme Being of pure existence, it should be noted that God cannot in any strict sense ‘change’, and He underwent no modification of His being either in creation, nor even in the Incarnation. To imply any change in the nature or being of God (which are both one in Him) would be to fall into the notion of ‘process’ theology, that God grows and develops, becomes more ‘perfect’, with His creatures, sort of like a human parent.
Such a view would paint a very imperfect and erroneous idea of God, as some sort of Being-in-potency who needs His creation to be Who and What He is. Rather God is and always has been Who He is, the I Am Who Am, before Abraham, before Adam, before everything. God exists eternally as a perfect Trinitarian communion, as we celebrate this Sunday, the communion of Persons upon which, or upon Whom, all other communions are based, not least the human family, the most perfect societal image we have of the Trinity this side of heaven.
We should assume that the Holy Father does not mean to propound error, and was speaking colloquially, as is sometimes his wont. Alas, however, the passage above seems already to be making its rounds, like the much misconstrued and misapplied ‘who am I to judge’, taken out of context. Hence, we should be able to provide the ‘context’ for ourselves and those who ask.
Yes, it is a ‘work’ to do so, and one could argue that we should not have to do so, and readers might wish that the Holy Father would apply more clarity and precision to his texts, but things are what they are. He has his own reasons for saying and speaking the way he does, and all we can do is continue to pray, and interpret his more ambiguous statements as best we can, in the light of the previous two millennia of Church teaching going back to the revelation of Christ Himself, from which not even the Pope can deviate to change in any substantial way.
In the end, it is the Holy Spirit Who guides the Church into the ‘fullness of truth’, and we need not fret nor become despondent. God can speak through ambiguity, even the imperfections, of human teachers (thankfully so, for how imperfect are we all!). The truth always wins out in the end, even if the route taken be somewhat ambiguous and circuitous, at times.
So on that note, a very blessed and joyous solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity to one and all…
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto