“Wait! The Catholic Church actually still believes in angels? That’s ridiculous!” my student bellowed from the back of the class.
Putting aside the fact that he had no qualms with us claiming that God became man and then rose from the dead, I grant that his reaction might even be normal amongst a certain kind of mal-formed Catholic. Angels are plain weird from our perspective, largely because they are the only thing in creation which are purely non-corporeal. Despite scripture’s ample testimony to their existence, most of us have not tangibly communicated with, touched, or seen one of the heavenly hosts. So, most of us just kind of remain agnostic about whether they exist or are regularly interacting with us. But St. Thomas Aquinas, aptly named the Angelic Doctor, thought that on a purely philosophical level (meaning apart from God revealing it in his word) there were good reasons to assume that angels do exist. In fact, he went as far as to say that the world’s relation to God made it fitting that God would create purely non-corporeal (spiritual) creatures. Let’s try to unpack that.
Thomas Aquinas spends a significant amount of time thinking about angels in his Summa Theologica. In Question 50 of the Prima Pars, while considering how exactly an angel exists, he gives a proof of their fittingness within God’s plan of creation. I’d like to try my best to explain them in 4 easy steps.
I. God creates with the express intention that all things be good.
God is goodness itself, which means that no matter how hard he tried (and he wouldn’t) he could not act in such a way that was contrary to his nature. We often think of it as a limitation of his nature that he cannot lie or cheat, but that is for either one of two reasons. Either we don’t understand the nature of evil or we do not have a grasp of what the word “God” really means. Evil is what we call a privation of good. That means that evil is not a thing in itself but is a descriptor we use when there is a loss of goodness. For example, darkness isn’t the opposite of light in the sense that darkness doesn’t exist in the same way as light. Quite the opposite. Darkness is the descriptor we give when there is a complete loss of light. So in this sense, darkness owes its complete existence to the corruption or loss of light. Lies and falsehood are not the opposite of truth, they are the descriptor we give when there is a corruption of truth. When someone claims that you are lying what they are claiming is that you are giving them a truth that is either corrupted or that the “facts” you gave them were completely devoid of truth.
To be God is to have the fullest perfection of all attributes. God lacks nothing. To do something immoral would be to act in a way that is less than the fullness of being he is. God cannot lie because he is truth. For God, to lie would be a corruption of his very being. But he is incorruptible, so that can’t happen. God cannot be unjust because he IS justice. Same problem. When God creates something it is impossible for him to create anything evil because he is goodness itself. That means that all things which God creates are fundamentally good.
II. Something becomes more good the closer to God it comes.
Saint Thomas says that something is more perfect (good) the more it reflects the aspects of the cause that brought it into existence. For example, microwave burritos are more perfect when they are hot because they reflect the heat of the microwave. We have all experienced the tragedy of placing a frozen burrito in the microwave for a couple of minutes only to pull it out and find that certain parts of it are still frozen while other parts are like the lava pits of Mordor. Why do we get disappointed? It’s because we know that by nature, the whole thing should be a reflection of the heating capacities of the microwave to be perfect.
Admittedly, this is a complicated analogy because there may exist various factors in determining what makes a good microwave burrito. There is probably some sociopath out there who enjoys a burritocicle from time to time. But he should seek the sacramental grace of Confession or the Anointing of the Sick. In God’s case, we only have to worry about two important aspects, his intellect and will. As stated above God doesn’t have knowledge. He is perfect knowledge. God doesn’t have love. He is love. When God creates, he creates through these two aspects of his being. So in creation, the closer a being comes to reflecting God’s intelligence and love, the more good it is. Puppies are good. They are not as good as humans because they will not stop and appreciate the beauty of a sunset as it descends behind the horizon. Human beings at least have, in their nature, the capacity to do that. Same with love. Your puppy may love you but it is by nature incapable of the spousal gift of self that the heights of human love require.
III. Intelligence cannot be the sole result of a body or corporeal thing because ideas are by nature non-corporeal and remain well after a person has thought of them.
Ideas are bound by “here” and “now”. Let’s do a little thought experiment. I want you to think of a cat who has orange fur with black stripes. He hates Mondays and loves Lasagna. He has a caretaker named John and is not a very good friend to John. Do you know who we have in mind? Keep that idea in your mind. Really focus. Now ask yourself, how much does that idea weigh? What does that idea taste like? What does it smell like? What color is the idea? If you’re really perceptive you can see what I am getting at. The idea really does exist both in my mind and in yours, but it does not have a physical existence. There is no physical way to account for or measure the idea of Garfield in your head. Which means that the nature of human intellect is not only physical.
Now, since human beings are a body-soul composite, it is impossible to have a pure intellect in us. This means that your soul is intimately dependent upon your brain and all of its functions for its own intelligence. But the fact that human beings are always bound by their senses brings up a bit of a gap in creation. In other words, if humans could come to a perfect knowledge without having to go through their senses, they would be closer to God and therefore more good because God is pure spirit. For us, this is a limit, an imperfection in our nature. So how do we close that gap? Well implicit in the question is the very answer.
All lower orders of creation find what they lack in the higher orders of creation. Plants have the power of nutrition but not locomotion or sense experience. Your Phicus does have the power of photosynthesis but most plants are not very capable of voluntary locomotion. They may twitch here or bend in this particular direction to catch a little more sun. But they are not actively choosing to do “this” or “that”. Well, where are we to find what they are lacking? We find them in the higher order of creation. Animals do have the nutritive capacities (though the nutrients come from a different source) of plants AND they have the capacities for locomotion and sense experience. But alas, Animals do not have the capacity for rational thought or rational love. One’s puppy may become very familiar with the tree it urinates on every day. But that same puppy will hardly give a thought to the nature of treeness and delve into the efficient causes of its existence. Only human being can do that. One can easily train an elephant to pick up a paintbrush with its trunk and paint the contours of an image it recognizes. But it will not paint with rich symbolic meaning and pass the tradition on to apprenticing elephants. So we see here that even though animals are amazing, they are limited in their thinking by sense experience and cannot go beyond the immediate. They are by nature irrational. Where might we find what animals are lacking? Once again we find them in the higher order.
Humans have capacities for both nutrition and locomotion. Additionally, we have the capacity for sense experience. But the difference is that we make up for what is lacking in the lower order with our capacity for rationality. Human beings can fathom the mystery of the cosmos in a way that goes beyond our basic need for survival. The Basilica of St. Mark in Venice has no immediate bearing on my survival today or tomorrow unless I am the architect or laborer. Sadly that position was filled several hundred years ago. And yet there is something so utterly necessary to humanity about these great works of art because they render us somehow more human. The point here is that our capacity for meaning and love, especially when it is not emotionally satisfying, as in the case of loving a pissy teenager, go beyond what is strictly necessary for our survival. These capacities reflect the image of God in us. Sadly even these capacities have their limits. Although our capacities can go beyond the necessities of survival, they are still bound by the limits of our corporeal nature. Try as you might to listen to an interesting 3-hour night class lecture, your attention span will only last as long as your butt does in the seat. You can try to untangle the inner mystery of the Trinitarian processions with your Orthodox brother, but you’re going to need to stop pretty soon after your stomach starts to grumble. We are worse off when trying to tackle the limitations of our rational capacities. We need to encounter something with our senses. But we may be mistaken in seeing something different than what was actually present. We may mishear someone because they are mumbling. We may have a chemical imbalance that renders our emotional capacities compromised. And worst of all, we can only know a couple of things at a time because we are always bound by “here” and “now”. So, Saint Thomas says, Where do we find what is lacking in humanity? Remember that we are trying to work our way up to the ultimate good (perfect, infinite, never-limited knowledge and love) that God is. You guessed it.
IV. It is fitting that God create a creature that is purely spiritual intellect and will, not bound by space and time, but still limited by the fact that its understanding is not infinite like God’s. These creatures we call angels.
Whereas human knowledge is always bound by space and time, or in the case of faith, by God’s direct revelation, angels have near perfect knowledge of any single thing they choose to focus on. We have to mentally take away the elements of a tree in order to get at its nature or “treeness”. An angel, because it is not bound by space or time, see’s the nature of a tree without having to even work through its physical properties. They are so above space and time that it belongs to them to manipulate them for God’s glory if he asks. But as great as angels are (and I do mean it when I say that the dumbest angel is 10 times smarter than Einstein and Hawking combined) their knowledge is not infinite. They cannot foresee the future. They cannot know the deepest mysteries of what it means to be God. They cannot create new natures in things. Angels cannot create new animals that come into being. Angels cannot create new souls. Even they have their limitations. Only God who is beyond the orders of creation is capable of that. They are not limitless. Even the angels are afraid to tread too deeply into the mystery of the source of all being.
To summarize, the argument goes as follows. God creates everything to be good. Something is more good the closer it comes to reflecting God’s infinite intellect and will. Human beings are perfectly capable of rational thought. The problem is that our rational thought, even though it comes from an immaterial soul, is ultimately limited by our corporeal nature. The hierarchy of creation tells us that our limitations are accounted for in the higher order of creation. Therefore, it is fitting that God create a higher order of creation than humans which itself has its own limitations in its reflection of God. This order of creation is called angelic.
The next time someone asks you whether or not you actually believe that angels exist, tell them that even on a purely philosophical level it is most fitting that they do exist.
Let us pray that our angles who mercifully guard and guide God’s Church would inspire us to strive for holiness, that we would ever give it The Ol’ Catholic Try.