February 27, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Central mystery of our faith

John F. Fink(Third in a series of columns)

Most people in the world today, and in history, believe or believed in God.

Christians are unique, though, in that we believe in the Trinity. People can come to belief in God through reason, but knowledge of, and belief in, the Trinity must come from revelation, especially since it seems at first glance to be contradictory, saying that something is both three and one. Since this dogma is a mystery, we cannot fully understand it.

The dogma of the Trinity is not only a mystery, it is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes so far as to say, quoting St. Caesarius of Arles, that “the faith of all Christians rests on the Trinity” (#232).

Since it is the central mystery of our faith—the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith and the source of all the other mysteries of faith—we should not take it for granted. Doctrines that depend upon the proper understanding of the Trinity were the subject of the earliest Church councils, and even today the Catholic and Orthodox Churches disagree over one aspect of the doctrine.

The dogma states that there is only one God, but that he is three persons who share one divine nature. The three persons are co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial—they share the same substance. When we make the Sign of the Cross, we profess our faith in the Trinity, and we do so in the “name” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not the “names,” because there is only one God.

Most Catholics undoubtedly accept the dogma of the Trinity without fully understanding the theology behind it. But for the record, the three persons in the Trinity are differentiated from one another by virtue of their relationships. Thus, the Father begets the Son and then the Holy Spirit is spirated by, or proceeds from, the Father and the Son. This did not happen at some time in history, but from all eternity. Otherwise, there would have been a time when the Son and the Holy Spirit did not exist.

The first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 taught that the Son of God, who became human, was “consubstantial” with the Father. The second council at Constantinople in 381 kept that expression when it formulated the Nicene Creed. That same council taught that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”

Later, the Western Church added that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son,” and this is the source of disagreement with the Orthodox Churches. They insist that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. The Catholic wording emphasizes that all three persons are one substance while the Eastern tradition emphasizes that the three persons are separate and distinct.

The differences in the wording are considered so slight that it is generally agreed that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches could come to an agreement if they could solve the other matter that keeps them separated—mainly, the role of the pope. †

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