Q: Although I keep coming across the term “deism,” I am having trouble understanding it. It clearly involves what people believe about God, but I am having trouble being more specific. Are there any deists today?
A: Deism is a type of belief in God—but just barely. It tends to present God as a master builder, creating an intricate machine called “creation.” This operates according to built-in laws and does not require God’s ongoing attention or revelation.
For a deist, God sets the world in motion and then goes fishing—so to speak. This is not the God revealed in the Bible, a God who communicates through people and is passionately interested in how they use their God-given freedom.
Deism was most popular in Western Europe during the Enlightenment (18th century). Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were deists. A few people saw deism as a more grown-up religion than belonging to some Christian denomination because they felt that human freedom required this kind of independence from God.
Deists tended to see all religious observances as vain superstition, a rejection of reason and its ability to explain how the world works. Our country’s Declaration of Independence speaks of “the Laws of Nature,” “Nature’s God” and the “Supreme Judge of the World.”
Deism is not atheism, but it is always in danger of slipping into atheism. According to deists, God is very aloof, slightly interested in the whole cosmos but not having any significant concern about individual people and places. In time, some people will ask, “Who needs such an aloof God? Isn’t atheism simply more honest?”
The term “Enlightenment” suggests that the deists who favored such an aloof God were smarter than people who believe that God can and does communicate through human beings.
Deists tended to regard Jesus’ Incarnation, the Trinity and sacraments as insignificant. They saw miracles as an offense against human intelligence. Scripture was useful to promote order in society but not to reveal God. According to them, nature does that completely.
In his encyclicals Concern for the Social Order (1987), The 100th Year (centenary of Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum), plus Faith and Reason (1998), Pope John Paul II suggested that the Enlightenment actually set the stage for some of the human family’s greatest tyrannies.
Why? If human rights are seen not as God-given but rather as created by the State, then they can easily be canceled when “progress” (another favorite Enlightenment term) demands it. Everything put forward as progress is not necessarily that. A blind belief in progress (without asking “For whom?” or “At what cost?”) is, in fact, a form of superstition.
In the January 2005 issue of First Things, Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote “The Deist Minimum.” This article offers a short history of deism, including its influence on American civic religion.
Dulles notes: “Although deism portrayed itself as a pure product of un-aided reason, it was not what it claimed to be. Its basic tenets concerning God, the virtuous life, and rewards beyond the grave were in fact derived from Christianity, the faith in which the deists themselves had been reared. It is doubtful whether anyone who had not been brought up in a biblical religion could embrace the tenets of deism. The children of deists rarely persevered in the faith of their parents.”
He later writes, “It was impossible to enter into communion of life and love with the cold and distant God of deism.”
To my knowledge, you will not find a First Deist Church of Des Moines (or of any other place), but the ideas behind deism are still accepted by many people.
Who Owns a Parish?
Q: An ethnic parish in our diocese has been governed for many years by a parish board of directors and is now in conflict with our bishop regarding its finances. Does a diocese really “own” its parishes?
A: I cannot speak to the specific case you cite because within the Catholic Church in the United States, the legal ownership of church property varies from state to state. I can summarize what the Code of Canon Law says about the ownership of parish property, indicating the Church’s view of this issue.
A parish owns its property, movable goods and financial accounts. Canon 532 says: “In all juridical matters, the parish priest acts in the person of the parish, in accordance with the law. He is to ensure that the parish goods are administered in accordance with Canons 1281-1288.”
Canon 1255 says: “The universal Church, as well as the Apostolic See, particular Churches [dioceses and archdioceses], and all other public and private juridical persons are capable of acquiring, retaining, administering and alienating temporal goods, in accordance with the law.” Parishes are included in the term “public juridical persons.”
A diocese can establish general rules for all parishes or particular rules for a certain parish regarding financial matters, within the limits of the Church’s universal law.
When a parish has been lawfully suppressed, its assets ordinarily revert to the local diocese or archdiocese. In two recent cases, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati assigned such assets to nearby parishes whose boundaries now included the territory of the suppressed parish.
The issue of parish ownership is very much in the news these days since the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, and the Dioceses of Tucson and Spokane have filed for bankruptcy in view of damages sought in pending clergy sex-abuse litigation.
Could parishes not named in these lawsuits be sold to pay for a judgment against the diocese? Dioceses are arguing “no” because they do not own these assets outright. Properties owned directly by a diocese (for example, a seminary, diocesan offices or land for future parishes) would be subject to sale to pay for legal judgments against a diocese.
On February 7, 2005, Catholic News Service reported that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Portland, Oregon, has scheduled a hearing on this issue for May 9. Many courts and dioceses will be closely watching this hearing and the subsequent ruling.
Q: Why does God allow things like the December 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean to happen? In biblical times, it would be blamed on the sins of the people. It is hard to do that now. Are natural disasters a judgment on God’s part? How can we account for them if God is loving and just?
A: Let’s start with the fact that this tsunami killed over 300,000 people, disrupted countless lives and caused immense property damage. The earth’s tectonic plates shift, causing tsunamis and earthquakes. Volcanoes and lightning sometimes kill people. In these situations, the physical order created by God is being followed. Unfortunately, people also lose their lives.
Whoever points to these facts as proof that God does not exist or that God is terribly callous about human suffering needs also to explain why many people who believe in a compassionate God respond compassionately. A generous response will not bring people back to life, but it does witness to the God of life and of compassion.
A deist understanding of God (see question above) tends to move toward atheism when faced with natural disasters. A biblical approach moves toward greater compassion.
In their book God Is Close to the Brokenhearted: Good News for Those Who Are Depressed (St. Anthony Messenger Press), Sisters Rachel Callahan, C.S.C., and Rea McDonnell, S.S.N.D., write: “God does not want innocent suffering. God does not test a family with untimely death. God does not punish a nation with a typhoon. God does not cause, does not even permit these tragedies.
“Instead, God waits with us in hospital rooms, stands in the breadline among the hungry, cries with those made homeless by earthquake. God is neither testing us nor punishing us.”
In the face of great suffering, people move toward either bitterness or compassion.
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