Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
One of foundational anthropological points of the Catholic faith is that we are truth-seeking creatures. Our intellect is made for truth, and we can’t help but try to discover it. We have a special obligation as humans to seek the truth especially concerning God and his Church, and to embrace the truth we come to know (Dignitatis Humanae 1).
In our gospel reading, Jesus reminds us of the limits of the human intellect in coming to know truth. “It is the spirit that gives life,” he tells his disciples, “while the flesh is of no avail. . . [N]o one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” After all of Jesus’ emphasis on the importance of his flesh throughout John 6, it seems contradictory to hear him say that the flesh is of no avail. Is Jesus undermining what seems to be the message of the Bread of Life Discourse, a teaching that is so foundational to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist?
I don’t think he is. I think Jesus is simply emphasizing that this “hard” teaching is not something the intellect on its own can accept. Those who leave Jesus are not doing so because they are irrational or uninterested in truth; they simply think that what Jesus is teaching is not truth. The truth that Jesus offers is a truth that must be accepted in faith. Only in faith is an intellectual assent possible. Peter’s response to Jesus is revelatory: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
The Church’s teachings on the Eucharist are truths that the unaided intellect cannot grasp. In his devotion to the Eucharist, Thomas Aquinas was especially aware of this. I often think of the line from Tantum Ergo, “Praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui” (Faith supplies for all the defects where the feeble senses fail). The knowledge that Christ makes himself truly present in the bread and cup is a gift of faith, not an acquisition of the intellect. This is an especially difficult teaching in our empirical, rationalistic culture. I have heard some say that the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist smack of medieval superstition and are simply unsuited for intelligent people.
The Catholic faith tells us that God’s truth is everywhere. The Catholic intellectual tradition is built on the idea of a “sacramental worldview,” that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” as the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Any discipline can reveal something of the truth of God, and all humans, despite their faith or culture also has access to this truth. But Catholics also believe that God has revealed Godself in particular ways to the Church. Many of these revealed truths seem to conflict with the truths affirmed in our broader culture. The Church’s teachings on abortion or contraception or gay marriage or female ordination come to mind. On these and other points, like in the Eucharist, the Church might seem irrational or antiquarian. And there are some who say that if you can’t accept these teachings, you should just leave the Church. I think that is a very bad argument, because despite the difficulty of some of these teachings, being a Catholic is not just about intellectual assent to propositions–it is about union with a person, with Jesus Christ, and union with the Church, his spouse as our second reading affirms.
At the recent gathering of the Catholic Conversation Project, both Bishop Flores and Cardinal O’Malley spoke of the “connatural theologian,” the person of faith who knows the truths of the faith, not through study necessarily but through experience. “The greatest theologians,” Cardinal O’Malley said, “were the Spanish mystics.” The experience of worshiping, of receiving the Eucharist, of prayer, and of service–all of these are ways that we come to know the faith, not so much in propositional format, but the knowledge of the living Christ. As this school year begins and as the election season heats up (can it get hotter?) and as the Church comes under more attacks from the broader culture, let us be reminded of the importance of this experiential or connatural knowledge. As we come against difficult teachings or practices in the Catholic Church, let us turn to the living Christ who continually makes himself available in love to his spouse, and most especially in the Eucharist. Let us learn to seek the truth by living the life of faith so that we too may say with Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”