|Fourth catechesis by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn on Jannuary 8,
2006 in the cathedral of St. Stephan in Vienna. Translated by Prof. John
Is there any point in praying for good weather? In the late 1960s I
heard a lecture by a theology professor who explained to us students
that it is completely senseless to pray for good weather; since the
weather is entirely determined by inner-worldly causes, God does not
intervene and everything plays out according to natural laws. This is
why there is no point in praying for rain or sunshine.
If a mother is sick with cancer, is there any point in her children
and her husband praying for her to be healed? Suppose she is healed: has
God intervened or have the forces of nature acted in a healing way?
Suppose she is not healed: what kind of God is it that ignores the tears
of the children and the pleading of the husband? Can God not help? Then
He is impotent. Does He not want to help? Then He is cruel and
Praise of the Creator
Does God act in the world today? Our faith takes this to be an
elementary truth. To believe that God exists is also to believe that He
acts, and not just now and then, not just sometime back at the
beginning, but constantly, since everything has its origin in Him and
since He upholds everything and directs everything to its end. Is this
faith just an arbitrary assumption, a kind of drug for numbing ourselves
a little in this trying world, an "opium of the people," as Karl Marx
(1818-1883) called religion? Does this faith have any basis that shows
it to be reasonable, meaningful, beautiful, and good?
A psalm like psalm 104 is in any case beautiful, full of poetry, and
expresses the entirely spontaneous feelings of many people about their
experience of creation:
Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, thou art very great!
Thou art clothed with honor and majesty, who coverest thyself with
light as with a garment,
who hast stretched out the heavens like a tent, who hast laid the
beams of thy chambers on the waters,
who makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the
who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.
Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never
Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters
stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the sound of they thunder they took to
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place which thou
didst appoint for them.
Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass, so that they
might not again cover the earth.
Thou makest springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench
By them the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among
From thy lofty abode thou waterest the mountains; the earth is
satisfied with the fruit of thy work.
Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man
that He may brings forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden
the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man's heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon
which He planted.
In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the
The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge
for the badgers.
Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the
forest creep forth.
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they get them away and lie down in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them
all; the earth is full of thy creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things
innumerable, living things both small and great.
There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in
These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season.
When thou givest to them, they gather it up; which thou openest thy
hand, they are filled with good things.
When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away
their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created; and thou
renewest the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure for ever, may the Lord rejoice in
who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains
and they smoke!
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to Him, for I rejoice in the Lord.
Is the approach of poetry less real than the approach of science?
Yes, indeed, "may my meditation be pleasing to Him," as the psalmist
says. Is it just poetry when we rejoice like this in the Creator and His
works? Or is this poetry, this song of praise to the Creator, is it not
based on a reality lying at the foundation of everything, the reality of
the efficacious acting of the Creator? Put another way: is the approach
of poetry less real than the approach of science? Let us hear the
witness of the great Russian philosopher of religion and theologian,
Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944). He speaks of his "going home" to the faith
after wandering for ten years through the desert of scientistic atheism
(quoted by M.-J. LeGuillou, Das Mysterium des Vaters, Einsiedeln,
1999, pp. 20-212):
I was 23 years old, but for almost ten years the faith had been
ripped out of my soul; after passing through crises and doubts a
religious emptiness took possession of it. O, how terrible this
sleep of the soul, which can last a whole life long. While growing
intellectually and acquiring scientific information my soul sank
into self-satisfaction, superficiality, and vulgarity... Suddenly
the following event occurred... The evening was approaching... we
were driving through the southern prairie, bathed in the spicy aroma
of honey, grass, and hay and shining the in the mild light of the
setting sun. Off in the distance the first of the Caucasian
mountains was already blue. I saw these mountains for the first
time. I gazed eagerly on them and drank in the air and the light,
listening to the revelation of nature. My soul had for a long time
now been used to seeing in nature nothing but a dead desert
covered by a veil of beauty, worn by nature like a mask that
deceives. Suddenly my soul was filled with joy and trembled with
excitement at the thought: what if there were... what if
there were no desert, no mask, no death, what if there were instead
the mild love of the Father, all this beauty being His veil, His
love... what if the devout feelings of my childhood that I had in
living with Him, standing before His face, loving Him, trembling at
my inability to approach Him, what if my tears and my youthful
ardor, the tenderness of prayer, my childlike purity, which I had
made fun of by staining, what if all of these things were true and
the death-bringing emptiness in myself were nothing but blindness
and lies? Was that possible? Didn't I know from my years of study
that God does not exist? Could there be any doubt about this? Could
I acknowledge these new thoughts in myself without feeling ashamed
on account of my cowardice, without feeling panic in the presence of
"science" and its court of justice? O you Caucasian mountains, I saw
your ice glistening from one sea to the other, I saw your snow
reddened by the morning sun, your peaks reaching up into the sky,
and my soul melted in ecstasy. The first day of creation shone
before my eyes. There was no life and no death, just an eternal and
unchangeable Now. An unexpected feeling arose in me and surged up:
the feeling of victory over death.
If this approach is not an illusion, the question arises, what kind
of reality is it an approach to? Is this poetic-religious approach
something leading to another realm of reality that has nothing to do
with the realm that science is interested in? Karl Rahner (1904-1984)
once said: "Theology and science can in principle not contradict each
other, since from the outset they differ in their subject matter and in
their method." ("Wissenschaft und christlicher Glaube," in Schriften
zur Theologie, XV [Zurick, 1983], 26.) I too think that theology and
science need not contradict each other, but not because their
subject-matters are so different that they practically never come into
contact. I am convinced that they must come into contact without
contradicting each other. Even the poetical-mystical and religious
approach that we just saw in Sergei Bulgakov must at some point come
into contact with the scientific approach. Why this fear of coming into
contact? If it is true that the creator constantly supports, preserves,
and renews His world, if everything new that appears in the world has
come and continuously comes from His plan for creation and from His
creative power, then in some way it has to come into contact with the
reality that forms the object of the sciences. But how is this to happen
without science and theology encroaching on each other's domain but also
without them simply having nothing to do with each other?
An existential approach
In the present catechesis we are concerned with the creatio
continua, that is, with the ongoing creation, which has to do with
the same sphere of reality that the natural sciences deal with. We
cannot do without points of contact. Let us ward off the following
possible misunderstanding right from the beginning: the reality of the
creation that is now happening is not something that we can measure and
hence reach by way of empirical methods. But in acknowledging this
reality we do not contradict the scientific way of looking, for this
acknowledgment is neither irrational nor unintelligible. To believe in
creation as a present event that is happening even now is not only
meaningful, it is not contradictory, but it is ultimately the
presupposition for science having a meaningful basis. But this needs to
be further clarified and justified.
First of all I want to focus more sharply the question about ongoing
creation by proposing a third approach. At the beginning I referred to
prayer, which is meaningful only if the Creator really acts in this
world. Secondly we saw the example of the experience of beauty in
creation; such beauty provides an access to the Creator. In the radiance
of this beauty we can get a hint of and even have a moving experience of
the active presence of the Creator.
Now I want to propose a third existential approach, one that is
prominent in the proclamation of Jesus. I mean faith in divine
providence, and not in an abstract and general providence but in a very
concrete providence. Jesus teaches His disciples to have absolute trust
in this quite concrete care, extending into the smallest details, of Him
whom Jesus calls the heavenly Father. In the sermon on the mount we
Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what
you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you
shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than
clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap
nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are
you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious
can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about
clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they
neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass
of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the
oven, will He not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? There
do not be anxious... (Matt. 6: 25-31)
And in another place Jesus says much more clearly: "Are not two
sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of the will fall to the ground
without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your heard are all
numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many
sparrows." (Matt. 10: 29-31)
It is crystal clear that the Christian faith presupposes that God's
providence is not just general but is very concrete, reaching down to
the smallest and most unlikely details, even to the point that "all the
hairs of our head" are numbered. Even the death of a sparrow does not
fall outside of the care of the Creator. Is He not also concerned with
atoms, molecules, and matter? These are questions that we cannot evade
if the proclamation of Jesus and rational investigation are not going to
break entirely apart. But if faith and the scientific approach are not
going to stand next to each other without coming into contact with each
other, then of course we face a very considerable intellectual
challenge. Intellectual laziness is certainly out of place here. We can
see that faith in creation and the scientific approach complete each
other very well without interfering with each other. But that involves
an intense labor of thought, and I cannot promise you that what I will
treat in the following will be easy.
Before we turn for a closer look at the doctrine of ongoing creation,
let me mention a phenomenon that surprises me and that has in my opinion
shown itself more clearly in recent months. Just the other day one of
the news agencies reported that the actor Thomas Kretschmann, 43, who
played John Paul II in an American television production, is supposed to
have said: "I have nothing to do with the Church. I do not believe in
God, I believe in evolution, which seems to me more logical." (The
Standard, Jan. 2006, p.5.) Does this mean that evolution is a matter
of faith? The Christmas issue of Der Spiegel carried the title,
"God vs. Darwin: a religious war over evolution."
Religious war over evolution?
How has this strange "sacralization" of a scientific theory come
about? How did it happen that this scientific theory is, as far as I
know, the only one whose name ends in "-ism." There is no "Einsteinism"
corresponding to Einstein's relativity theory, and earlier there was no
"Newtonism" and later no "Heisenbergism." Why then Darwinism? The
American philosopher and historian of science, Stanley L. Jaki, has said
that it is an urgent task to liberate the evolutionary theory of Darwin
along with its later development in the form of Neodarwinian theory
"from what is not science there," lest it turn into an ideology and
cease to be real science. ("Non-darwinian darwinism," in Pascual,
L'evoluzione: crocevia di scienza, filosophia e teologia [Rome,
Whoever wants to start a religious war over evolution does a
disservice to science far and wide. To make the issues of evolution into
instruments of war against belief in creation has nothing to do with
scientific method and spirit, just as the dialectical materialism of
Marxism with its allegedly "scientific" atheism had pitifully little to
do with real science.
Needless to say, whoever is not satisfied with slogans and prejudices
cannot avoid intense intellectual exertion. But it is worth the trouble.
In what follows I would like to invite you to take three intellectual
steps that will enable you to get some idea of what ongoing creation is.
Even if these steps do not prove this belief, they at least show that
this belief does not contradict reason.
Before attempting these steps I would like once again to point out
what ongoing creation is not. The German theologian Ulrich Luke, who has
worked intensely on this subject, raises the question whether ongoing
creation, when compared with the creation of the beginning of all things
(creatio ex nihilo), is simply "a project of improvement
undertaken by the great craftsman, the Creator out of nothing? Is the
creatio continua something like a maintenance contract that is
entered into at the time of the purchase of a product with a view to
preserving the quality of the product, a kind of maintenance contract
for the creatio originalis (beginning of creation)?" ("Creatio
continua," in Theologie und Glauben 86/1996, 283.) Often
people have the idea that ongoing creation means that God is adjusting
and fixing His creation. If the acting of the Creator is understood as a
kind of improving, then we get the idea that we only need to recognize
Him where there are gaps in our knowledge, so that He can plug in the
gaps that lie beyond the reach of our scientific knowledge.
The three steps that we now undertake will show us a different way.
The first step is as it were a step back, a step in which we take
distance to what goes on in the everyday practice of the sciences. It is
a philosophical reflection on "contingency," which has in fact great
existential importance for our life. There are many things about natural
events that used to be un-understandable and inexplicable and that today
have been explained by scientific research and thus become
understandable. It is not God the Creator who appears in these
scientific explanations but "only" material causal connections. The more
explainable things become, the smaller the residue of the unexplainable.
Is God's "space" getting "narrower"? No wonder that Der Spiegel
concluded the above-mentioned article with the words: "It is getting
tighter around the Creator" (p. 147). This is why it is important to
remember that faith in the Creator does not start at the point at which
our knowledge stops, but rather starts just where we do indeed have
knowledge. The right approach is to consider all that we do know today.
And that is, thank God, very much. We should not look towards that which
remains inexplicable, trying to leave there some place for God, but we
should look towards what we do know. And we should ask: what is the
ultimate basis of this?
One thing we know with certainty, with philosophical, rational
certainty: all that we observe in material beings once did not exist.
The sun came to be, so did the moon, the earth, and life in all its
forms, including man and reaching down to you and me. Material things
that once were not, will one day pass away. What once came to be does
not exist through itself. It is unstable in its existence, it can and it
will pass away. And so it is meaningful and necessary to ask: what holds
all of this in being? We have to try to answer this question.
Can we enter into this thought? Nothing that exists as matter exists
"necessarily" but could as well not exist. The sun could have not come
to be. The same holds for me. I am because I came to be. Philosophy
calls this the contingency, the non-necessity of being. What then keeps
us in being, why do we exist? Why do we not fall back into nothing?
Psalm 104 answers: "When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when
thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust" (verse
29). Philosophy and theology call this preservation in being the
continuing or ongoing creation. God holds in being everything that is.
Without this support the contingent world would not be. The power of
holding everything in being cannot be in turn a material power. It
cannot be a material energy, cannot be a measurable reality, otherwise
it too would have to be held in being by something, and this in turn by
something else, and so on ad infinitum. This why the Jesuit
philosopher Rainer Koltermann says: "The preserving power can ultimately
only be something that is not in turn held in being by something else."
It cannot be a power that has come to be, a finite and limited power, a
measurable energy; it can only be a power that does not draw its power
from another source. It must be an absolute power, beyond all time,
infinite. "These characteristics are essential for God." (Koltermann,
Grundzuege der modernen Naturphilosophie. Ein kritischer Gesamtentwurf
[Frankfurt, 1994], 134.)
It is this power that we call the creatio continua, the
ongoing creation. This is what "holds the world together from within."
If God were to "let go" of creation, it would back into the nothingness
from which it came. It does not exist through itself, it is held in
Our world is a world of becoming
From this follows a further thought, still within the setting of this
first step. It is not only the being of all things that is preserved by
this primordial source, this power of the Creator, but the capacity that
all things have of acting efficaciously is also preserved by the
primordial acting of the Creator. For the power of things to act is also
contingent, is not necessary, could be otherwise. The ultimate cause for
the power of acting on the part of creatures cannot be in turn some
innerworldly acting, some finite and created energy. God acts so as to
be "all in all," as St. Paul says, but not in the sense that He is one
cause among others, but rather in the sense that He is the efficacious
cause supporting and empowering all creaturely acting. This is the way
in which we can understand the powerful line in the Letter to the
Hebrews: "He upholds the universe by His word of power" (Heb. 1:3), He
upholds everything that is and everything that acts.
This is the first step, which is perhaps not so hard to follow. The
idea that all spatio-temporal being in creation is supported by the
eternal and omnipresent being of the Creator can be rationally
understood, or at least can be seen to be not absurd. But what about
that creative activity which is more than just preservation? What do we
make of God's creative power when something really new appears, such as
life and especially man? Does the Creator bring about the "leap" from
lifeless to living matter, or from animal to man? Are we back to those
individual acts of creation which Darwin thought had been made
superfluous by his theory of natural selection?
Let us venture upon a second step. There is no doubt but that our
world is a world of becoming in which the cosmic development and the
evolution on our planet has made it possible for us human beings to be
alive today. In the course of this becoming some really new things break
through. Can "more" arise out of what is "less"? Can what is lower
produce on its own power what is higher and more complex? It would be
absurd to say such a thing, even if this is often said to be the case.
Nothing in our experience lends support to the idea that what is lower,
acting without anything that directs and organizes it, can all by
itself, and quite by accident, produce what is higher.
So then we do have to accept "particular creative acts"? But how can
they be observed? How do they show themselves? Here we have to make a
simple distinction that is commonly overlooked, the distinction between
conditions and causes. All kinds of conditions were necessary for life
to be able to arise on our planet and without these no life would be
possible. But these conditions only set the stage for the emergence of
life; they are not the creative cause of life. They "collaborate" with
the emergence of life, but you cannot derive from them the new reality
in the developing world that we call life. For life to arise there must
be the creative act of God, the divine spark.
Scientific research working along its own line does not come across
this divine spark, this "let there be...and so it was," as we read in
Genesis 1; with ever greater precision and nuance it tries to grasp the
conditions necessary for the new reality of life to be inserted into the
process of becoming. Since the research into the conditions for life has
made such tremendous strides, some people think that it has unlocked the
entire reality of life itself. The conditions really do enable life to
appear and in this sense they are co-causes, but they are not the
creators of life. Let me try by means of two examples taken from human
life to make clear what I mean.
a) A great deal of reading and thinking, of gathering ideas and
discussing them, goes into preparing this catechetical series. Then the
ideas are written down and finally delivered to the audience. There are
many conditions for all of this, conditions without which the catecheses
would not be possible. My brain has to be more or less working, I have
to have time for preparing the catecheses; my sense organs have to
perform their service; pen and paper are needed; so is the microphone
that we use here in the cathedral. These are all conditions, they lend
support to the coming to be of the catecheses, but they do not produce
them. The new thing that comes to be here (it is not absolutely new)
requires these conditions but it is not made by them. Neither my pen nor
the microphone, nor even my brain have made the catecheses. These things
were in a certain sense co-causes, each of them important, but they were
not the creators of the catecheses.
In a similar way we can say, indeed we have to say that the great
"leaps" by which evolution climbed higher and higher had in each case
necessary conditions which however could not be the creators of the new
realities. They are true co-causes but not the real creative cause. The
great theologian, Cardinal Leo Scheffczyck, who died on December 8,
2005, says: "Thus evolution can in a way be understood as creation that
does not shut out or annul creaturely collaboration but rather gives it
full play: for on this view the act of something new coming into being
presupposes the presence and the activity of creaturely reality with all
of its proper energy, dynamism, and causality. Thus we are speaking here
of a total act shared by God and creature." ("Gottes fortdauernde
Schoepfung," in Schwerpunkte des Glaubens [Einsiedeln, 1977],
b) The second example is even clearer, since it has to do with the
supreme case of the coordination of creaturely conditions and divine
creative act: the coming to be of a new human being. If it is true that
each human being is unique, then this uniqueness is not just the genetic
uniqueness which keeps one human being from being completely identical
with another one; it must instead be the unrepeatability of the person,
which is most clearly expressed in the irreducible dignity of the
person. Each human being has this dignity and has it independently of
his origin, gender, accomplishments, or state of health. We say that
this dignity inheres in man as a creature made "in the image and
likeness of God" (cf. Genesis 1:26).
No doubt the parents are real co-causes of the new human child.
Without them there would be no child. But they do not "produce" the new
person, who is not a "product" of the parents, even though the new human
person would not exist without his parents. The new reality that appears
in the world as a new human child comes to be, as Scheffczyck put it, by
means of a "total act shared by God and creature." This act is not
equally shared, but rather shared in such a way that the parents, acting
as cause on their level, contribute everything proper to themselves,
while God causes the new human being by creating what only the divine
act can create, namely a new person with an immortal soul and with a
unique calling from God and for God.
Within this perspective of divine causality God does not act as a
deus ex machina, as someone who plugs holes, who is invoked to
explain that which is "not yet" explained. We do not think of His acting
as an occasional intervention coming from the outside, but rather as the
transcendent creative activity of God who alone makes it possible for
our world to "hold together" and to rise, in accordance with His plan,
step by step higher, so that really new things appear in it and finally
man appears in it.
Whoever wants to replace the Creator's realization of this plan by a
totally autonomous evolution, inevitably either ascribes some mythic
creative power to evolution, or else abandons any attempt at rational
understanding and explains everything as the blind play of arbitrary
chance. This is what I called the "abdication of reason" in my New
York Times article of July 7th, 2005.
And now I attempt the third step that can throw a little more light
on the ongoing creation. We are at the beginning of the year celebrating
the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. His creative genius
stimulates me to the following perhaps somewhat light-hearted thought.
For some time now I have been looking for analogies and comparisons to
help make sense of the incredible variety and abundance of creation.
Where does this boundless, playful abundance of life forms come from,
indeed where do the forms of lifeless matter come from? Can all of this
be explained in terms of means-end relations? Hardly. Some things can be
explained in this way, but there is in nature far more than usefulness,
there is also at work–such is the irresistible impression we get the
more closely we explore nature–a lavish delight in variety, in beauty,
and even in what is bizarre, frightening, uncanny, none of which
conforms to the purely rational order of means and ends. The thought
keeps coming to me that the Creator takes pleasure in the play of this
And so I venture this suggestion: why should this variety and
abundance not derive from His inexhaustible creativity? I was helped
here by thinking of Mozart. All of his works are "contingent," they
could as well have not come into being (which would have been very
unfortunate for mankind). Most of them came to be for particular
purposes, in response to commissions and orders. But many just came from
the creativity of genius, including those which were commissioned.
Purpose and beauty do not break apart here. A work of art may have a
purpose, but it is more than its purpose. Works of art do not create
something new out of nothing, they rather rely on models and in the case
of music on pre-given harmonies, musical laws, the themes and melodies
of other composers, they develop further what is already there; and yet
each work of art is unique. The thought came to me that Mozart developed
music further, and yet created unique works. No one would think that his
works organized themselves. We admire and love and revere Mozart.
Ideological evolutionism, hard-nosed materialism that it is, strikes me
by comparison as dismal and unimaginative. Would it not be a good thing
to consider one time the theory of evolution in the light of the
creative power of a Mozart? Would we not draw closer to the Creator and
to the way He plays His inexhaustible melodies in His creation?
But beautiful as this thought may be, in the next catechesis we have
to deal with the urgent question of why there is so much suffering in
creation, so much that is cruel and terrible.
(© Kardinal Christoph Schönborn)