Sense and Nonsense: Angels

“For who will dare to say or believe that it was not in God’s power to prevent both angels and men from sinning? But God preferred to leave this in their power, and thus to show both what evil could be wrought by their pride, and what good by His grace.” —St. Augustine, City of God

During a series of talks on the Creed last summer, John Paul II devoted a good deal of attention to God as “Creator of things seen and unseen.” In this context, the Holy Father gave some of the clearest teachings on the angels that we have seen, in some time. “Modern” theologians, of course, seem to be embarrassed by the angels, let alone about the pope talking about them. Yet, even Aristotle, who wondered about “separated substances,” reminded us that we should pay little heed to those who admonish us to study only the “human things.”

One of the things I recall most vividly from Chesterton’s famous book on St. Thomas Aquinas, now happily being brought out in a new edition by that contemporary wonder, Ignatius Press (see The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. II, 1986), was his fascination with the attention Aquinas gave to the angels. “St. Thomas,” Chesterton observed,

was especially interested in the nature of angels, for the same reason that made him even more interested in the nature of men. It was a part of that strong personal interest in things subordinate and semi-dependent which runs throughout his whole system: a hierarchy of lower and higher liberties.

This is it, of course, the “lower and higher liberties.”

One of the things I love about this pope, I must confess, is his joyful willingness to teach what is in fact contained in the deposit of faith. I would rashly venture to say that not a single parish priest, theologian, religious, or bishop has written or preached a serious sermon on the angels in the past decade. Oh, I am sure there are a few exceptions. Ann O’Donnell sent me Father Paul Quay’s essay “Angels and Demons: The Teaching of IV Lateran” (Theological Studies, March 1981), but still, I am mostly right. The Holy Father, however, is very clear. He does not at all attempt to explain away the angels as some kind of literary form, or as a myth constructed out of some poor primitive’s imagination. He also speaks of fallen and good angels as if they were our neighbors — which indeed they are. Without the pope, the fundamentalists, bless them, would have a monopoly on topics such as angels and the end of the world.

In the small library here at the Jesuit Community at Georgetown, I chanced recently to come across a book by Gustav Davidson, wonderfully entitled A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels. This book is some 360 pages long and cites from all sorts of amazing sources, like the Verum Jesuitarum Libellum (you skeptics did not know there could be such a thing, right?); The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses; The Secret Books of Egyptian Gnostics; and The Book of the Angel Raziel. Well, these are just the things we have always wanted to read.

In this Dictionary, then, we come across one Chebo, “one of the 72 angels ruling the 72 quinares of the Zodiac,” and “Reapers,” who are found in Matthew 13:29. Longfellow wrote a poem called “The Reapers and the Flowers,” wherein the “Reaper” is the Angel of Death, one Azrael. We also find Ravadlediel in the Ma‘asseh Merkabah, who is an angelic guard at the third Heavenly Hall. Too, there is Mashit[h], who is the “angel appointed over the death of children,” no doubt a busy fellow in the abortion societies in which we live.

We can be overly amused by these things, I suppose. Yet, the Holy Father sees in the angels a valuable and fundamental teaching, as all realities are, also for our own thought. In the conclusion to his talks on the angels, John Paul II observed:

In a progressive and organic way, we have been able to admire, struck dumb with wonder, the great mystery of the intelligence and love of God, in his action of creation, directed to the cosmos, to the human person, and to the world of pure spirits … We have been enlightened about one of the greatest problems that perturbs man and characterizes his search for truth: the problem of suffering and of evil. At the root, there is no mistaken or wicked decision by God, but rather his choice — and in a certain manner the risk he has undertaken — of creating us free, in order to have us as friends. Evil too has been born of liberty.

Again, who tells us these things but the pope? And how difficult it is to find anyone, especially among us Catholics (especially among us clergy), willing to appreciate the wonder of it all as John Paul II does?

The risk involved in creating angels and men free, in Chesterton’s “hierarchy of lower and higher liberties,” struck dumb with wonder, in the very act of creation — such things we again need to ponder. We can properly reflect on them if we recall that higher beings than ourselves exist. Yet, the “felix culpa,” which resulted in the Incarnation of the Son of God, as Augustine knew, could bring a far more wondrous salvation, one in which, as John Paul II so beautifully said, we were free enough even to be friends with God. This, indeed, seems to be the only ultimate risk worth taking, both on the side of God and on the side of angels and men.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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