Catholicism’s Rich Understanding of God

Despite our differences, it is often said that Catholics and Protestants at least agree on some big things, like the divinity of Jesus and the triune nature of God. That’s true, but one could contend that Catholicism has a richer understanding of who God is and how we relate to Him than many Protestant denominations, […]

Catholicism’s Rich Understanding of God
Catholicism’s Rich Understanding of GodCatholicism’s Rich Understanding of God

Despite our differences, it is often said that Catholics and Protestants at least agree on some big things, like the divinity of Jesus and the triune nature of God.

That’s true, but one could contend that Catholicism has a richer understanding of who God is and how we relate to Him than many Protestant denominations, especially those in the Calvinist Reformed traditions. Here are a few reasons why.  

Radical presence and absence

God’s simultaneous visibility and hiddenness is at its most intense in the Eucharist. There, we encounter Christ in the fullness of His divinity and the fullness of His humanity. Yet, our eyes see bread and out tongues taste bread. Our stomachs digest bread. But with the eyes of faith Catholics discern God’s presence in the bread, in the church sanctuary, and in themselves.

This duality is what drives the agony and ecstasy of so many saints. For example, consider these lines from St. John of the Cross’ poem, “By the Waters of Babylon,” which are soaked in so much sadness,

By the waters of Babylon
I sat down and wept,
And my tears
Watered the ground,
I took off my holiday robes,
Put on working clothes,
And hung my harp
on a green willow,
laying it there in hope
of the hope I had in you.
There love wounded me
And took away my heart.

Those lines pulse with a palpable sense of loss, grief over God’s absence. Yet that same saint can also write these lines in “The Living Flame of Love,”

O living flame of love
That tenderly wounds my soul
In its deepest center! Since
Now you are not oppressive,
Now consummate! if it be your will:

Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!…
O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
The deep caverns of feeling,
Once obscure and blind,
Now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
Both warmth and light to their Beloved.

Here we have the ecstasy of union, the burning fire of love consuming St. John of the Cross’ soul. This great saint experienced both extremes of a relationship with God, both divine absence and divine presence, and His experience of God was that much richer for it. One needs this sense of God’s complete presence and total hiddenness in order to truly encounter God as humans in a still-fallen world.

Radical freedom

The Church teaches that God really created us, which means that we really have a free will, not an illusion of one, as Calvinism compels us to believe. Although there are other Protestant traditions that also believe in free will, it is best explained within Thomistic philosophy.

In his book, the Analogia Entis, Catholic theologian Erich Przywara explains how extensive our freedom is. According to Przywara, our freedom to impose order on the world reflects the ‘infinity of possibilities’ in material creation. This free will also mirrors God’s own supreme dominion over the world, as St. Gregory of Nyssa notes in his essay on Virginity, “Being the image and the likeness, as has been said, of the Power which rules all things, man kept also in the matter of a Free-Will this likeness to Him whose Will is over all.”

God is the source of our free will and permits our free choices even when they are directed against Him:

God’s ever greater proximity to the creature is the cause of an ever greater independence on the creature’s part. What is more, this setting apart of the creature from God, as the most proper revelation of God’s bounty, happens in such a way that the creature, thus set apart, seems almost to assume the features of God: appearing as an original ground of itself, as a creative cause, as a generous cause, and as providence for others, even to the point that the creature is permitted to contradict God (Analogia Entis, 293-294).

It may sound strange to say that God’s proximity brings about our greater independence, but this is just another way of saying that God made us His special creatures by making us in His image, and giving a free will, fitting for those bearing His image. By believing in a free will like this, Catholicism recognizes God’s greatness in a way that is missed by the Calvinist tradition’s denial of free will.

The mystical union

The Catholic and Orthodox spiritual traditions soar to heights beyond what most Protestant traditions can conceive. From the earliest times there has been the conviction that not only are we called to salvation and friendship with God, but a mystical union. This is expressed above in St. John of the Cross’ poetry. His contemporary, St. Teresa of Avila, also experienced it, recounted in her autobiography. The critical moment came at the hands of a seraphim angel with a spear: 

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.          

This idea of a union is built upon the Church Fathers belief in divinization or theosis, the belief that we participate so deeply in God’s being that we become like Him. Here is how one of the earliest Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus, described it in Against Heresies:

For we cast blame upon Him, because we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods; although God has adopted this course out of His pure benevolence, that no one may impute to Him invidiousness or grudgingness. He declares, “I have said, ‘You are gods; and you are all sons of the Highest.’ But since we could not sustain the power of divinity, He adds, “But you shall die like men,” setting forth both truths — the kindness of His free gift, and our weakness, and also that we were possessed of power over ourselves.


Each of the above builds on the previous ones. God in His great love for us, condescends to be present to us. Yet God, as God, remains wholly Other. Thus, there in His essence He must in a sense always remain hidden from us. In the Eucharist, God comes to us in both ways, as radical visibility and radical hiddenness.

God is nearer to us than our inmost, as St. Augustine said. God is present to us in our inmost depths, giving us the gift of a free will, which allows us to make choices that distance us from God. Sometimes, it’s not that God has hidden from us but that we have hidden from Him, like Adam and Eve cowering in the Garden of Eden.

Of course, that same free will allows us to make the decision for God, to go all in, so to speak, even to the point of participation in His very being.

There is a sort of a back and forth, a rhythm or great symphony, to all of this. God comes to us, but also remains withdrawn. We withdraw Him only to seek Him ever more. We ascend and descend. He descends to us and ascends. We seek and find Him. He seeks and finds us as well.

St. Paul puts it a different way in his speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17:24-28,

The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.

He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

Much like the water on the shore, we flow out from God, only to be drawn back into the ocean.

Photo by catherine dionne on Unsplash