202. “Grace as the Heart’s Desire” A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependance (Part II)

If one wants to come to terms with Roman Catholic theology, sooner than later one needs to address the “nature-grace interdependence.” Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism that regenerates, and the oil of anointing that conveys grace), in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened or wounded by sin (as it is argued in Roman Catholic teaching), nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism that whatever is natural is graced.

The “nature-grace interdependence” has a long history in Roman Catholic theology and many significant voices and trends have shaped it. In the article “Gratia Supponit Naturam?” A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependance (Part I) (1st May 2022) I painted a brush-strokes picture of the patristic and medieval trajectories that have forged the relationship, up to the Thomist accounts that solidified it over the centuries.

In the 19th century, two important Roman pronouncements gave it an authoritative status from a magisterial viewpoint. Firstly, the First Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius (1870) affirmed the nature/super-nature distinction as the normative framework for the Roman Catholic faith in the realm of epistemology and in the relationship between reason and faith. Secondly, the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) by Leo XIII elevated Thomas Aquinas’ thought (of which the “nature-grace interdependence” is a pillar) as the supreme reference point for Roman Catholic thought. So when we talk about the nature-grace scheme, we are dealing with a fundamental axis of traditional Roman Catholicism with the imprimatur (i.e. stamp of approval) of the magisterium.

Though well established in magisterial teaching, the “nature-grace interdependence” went through a significant intra-mural discussion in the 20th century.[1] The debate was sparked by the “new theology” (nouvelle théologie) and saw the involvement of the best theological minds of Rome, such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. According to Duffy, “this ‘new theology’ marked the end of the static theology of nature and grace that had been in vogue since the era of the Counter-Reformation.”[2]

The perception of these new theologians was that, after the Council of Trent, Thomas Aquinas’ account of nature and grace had been hardened to the point of making nature and grace “extrinsic,” i.e. separate, sealed off, apart from one another, resulting in a static outlook of a super-imposition of grace on top of nature. In his seminal work Surnaturel (1946) and in subsequent books, De Lubac in particular argued that this rigid interpretation of Thomas Aquinas had brought about a dichotomy between nature and grace, losing therefore the continuity between the two. Nature and grace had become juxtaposed rather than integrated, with grace being associated with a superior degree of nature rather than its original and pervasive matrix. Grace needed to be re-thought of as immanent to nature, as nature was to be re-appreciated as organically open and disposed to grace. According to this view, grace is not added to nature as though nature is void of it; rather grace is always part of nature as a costitutive element of it. In Henri Bouillard’s terms, grace is the “infrastructure of nature,”[3] not an external addition to it. Grace makes nature what it is.

For the “new theology,” then, grace is what constitutes nature, even prior to receiving salvation. There is a natural desire for God that is already a manifestation of grace. Nature is already affected by nature as part of what nature is. Grace is primary, not secondary to nature. In De Lubac’s poignant expression: grace is the “heart’s desire” of the natural man.

This line of interpretation of the Thomistic tradition was initially seen with suspicion by the Roman Catholic magisterial authorities. Without naming it, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 expressed concerns over any possibile re-interpretation of the Thomistic legacy away from the patterns established by Aeterni Patris. It is true to say that only fifteen years later, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Roman Catholic Church embraced the main thrust of the new theology’s account of the “nature-grace interdependance” in its positive view of the modern world, in its nuanced yet redemptive understanding of world religions, and in its reiteration of man’s openness to God because of his/her natural disposition. By updating the traditional teaching on nature and grace, Vatican II “developed” it to overcome the rigid framework inherited from the 19th century and to adopt a more “catholic” (embracing and inclusive) understanding of it.

One of the consequences of this recent move is that sin, already overlooked in the traditional version, has become even less impactful on the overall Roman Catholic theological mindset. If grace is inherent in nature and by definition present in it, sin cannot be thought of as having brought about a radical breach between God and humanity, but only a minor wound in the relationship. Grace was in nature before sin and continues to shape it after sin. If sin is only a serious wound and not a state of spiritual death, then nature and grace intermingle from beginning to end at various levels of intensity.

This present-day reinterpretation of the “nature-grace interdependence” that emerged from the “new theology” and that was subsequently endorsed by Vatican II is the theological background out of which Pope Francis can talk of atheists going to heaven, argue that humanity is made of “all brothers,” regardless their faith in Christ, ask “who am I to judge?” when dealing with people in irregular relationships, say that “God is in every person’s life,” pray with Muslims and people of other religions assuming that we pray to the same God, and insist that mission is the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace. Because of this view, the Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind.

All these expressions of the Roman Catholicism of our time find their historical origin and theological legitimacy in the “nature-grace interdependence” whereby grace is pervasively present and active in all aspects of human life, inside and outside of explicitly Christian influences, in presence or absence of a professed faith in Jesus Christ.

According to this Roman Catholic view, grace is infused in nature from the beginning and will ever be so. The sacraments of the Church infuse more grace in the faithful, but even those who do not receive the seven particular sacraments live in a state of grace because of who they are, i.e. natural creatures of God inherently oriented toward Him. Remember that according to Roman Catholic teaching, there is no distinction between “common grace” (i.e. providence) and “special grace” (i.e. salvation). This explains the universalist tendency of Rome’s view of salvation, its optimistic outlook on man’s capacity to cooperate with God to merit salvation, and the positive view of human religions as vessels of grace.

In Roman Catholicism, both accounts of the “nature-grace interdependence,” the “gratia supponit naturam” of the medieval and modern ages and the idea of “grace as the heart’s desire” in our time, coexist. The Council of Trent (16th century, endorsing the former) and Vatican II (20th century, affirming the latter) are both pillars of Roman Catholic theology. Rome has no static or rigid doctrinal system. It is moving without losing its fundamental commitment concerning “man’s capacity for God,” in spite of sin.


[1] I am following in particular the account given by Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon. Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992).

[2] Duffy, p. 49.

[3] Henri Bouillard, Conversion et graçe chez saint Thomas d’Aquin (Paris: Aubier, 1944).

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201. “Gratia Supponit Naturam”? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependance (Part I)

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with a section interestingly entitled “Man’s Capacity for God” and deals with the foundational issue of whether or not men and women are naturally open to God and recipients of His grace. The answer of the Catechism is “yes,” and this affirmative answer is the backdrop of the Roman Catholic way of relating nature and grace. Indeed, one of the axes of the Roman Catholic system is the “nature-grace interdependance.” Briefly put, here is a way to introduce it:
 
“[T]he spheres of nature and grace are in irreversible theological continuity, as ‘nature’ in Roman Catholicism incorporates both creation and sin, in contrast to the Reformed distinction between creation, sin, and redemption. This differing understanding of sin’s impact means grace finds in nature a receptive attitude (enabling Roman Catholicism’s humanistic optimism), as against a biblical doctrine whereby entrenched sin leaves us unaware of our reprobate state. Nature is seen as ‘open’ to grace. Although nature has been touched by sin, it is still programmatically open to be infused, elevated, supplemented by grace. The Roman Catholic “mild” view of the Fall and of sin makes it possible for Rome to hold a view of nature that is tainted by sin but not depraved, obscured but not blinded, wounded but not alienated, morally disordered but not spiritually dead, inclined to evil but still holding on to what is true, good and beautiful. There is always a residual good in nature that grace can and must work with. After Vatican II, more recent interpretations of the nature-grace interdependence go as far as arguing that nature is always graced from within. If traditional Roman Catholicism maintained that grace was added to nature, present-day Rome prefers to talk about grace as being an infrastructure of nature. In spite of the differences between the two versions, the interdependence is nonetheless underlined.”[1]
 
This brief description highlights the fact that Rome has historically built its theological system along the lines provided by the nature-grace interdependence. It is therefore useful to better grasp the historical trajectory of the Roman appropriation and elaboration of that relationship. An old but still significant article by Johannes Beumer (1901-1989), a Jesuit theologian at the Gregorian University of Rome, covers much ground in sketching such a history up to the first half of the 20th century[2] and can be the starting point for some further comments and evaluations.
 
Gratia supponit naturam” (grace supposes nature) is the traditional expression that encapsulates the nature-grace interdependence as it is envisioned by Roman Catholic theology. It conveys the idea that man is capable of receiving grace as a natural desire and disposition. As nature is open to grace, so grace is in continuity with nature. The two are distinct but intertwined.
 
Where does this understanding come from? From the patristic age, there are several interwoven threads, but the contours of the motif are still loose and undefined. Both in the West (e.g. Ireneaus and Athanasius) and in the East (e.g. Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great), there is a talk of grace “perfecting” nature as well as the recognition of the pervasive consequences of sin which have marred that disposition of nature to be elevated by grace. These two elements somehow co-exist. While the Fathers contain some ambiguities in this respect, their main focus is to underline the power of grace to perfect the Christian life, i.e. the life of someone who has already received God’s grace, not natural life per se. Theirs is not an abstract reference to nature as such but to the kind of nature that has already been touched by grace and continues to be impacted by it.
 
In the East, however, the stress is increasingly put on the participation of nature to grace as an inherent capacity that is maintained regardless of sin. In Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus and the Pseudo-Dyonisius, there is a growing insistence that grace cannot work apart from the assumption that nature is disposed to receive grace, welcome it, and be perfected by it. In their view, there is a harmony between nature and grace. Obviously, in this theological understanding, the impact of sin recedes from the fore and becomes less relevant than in a Church father like Augustine. What is prominent is the continuity between nature and grace and their interdependence.
 
In the Medieval period, it is Albert the Great (1200-1280) who teaches that we are by nature disposed to receive grace and that grace presupposes what is natural in us. His famous sentence is “what is in nature is also in grace” (“sicut est in naturis, sic et in gratia”). In his view, grace does not distance oneself from nature nor does it modify nature; rather, grace perfects nature. Along this line, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) coins the phrase “grace presupposes nature” (“gratia praesupponit naturam”). At this point, sin has disappeared from the forefront of the discussion and its impact is no longer seen as having involved a radical breach or a tragic disruption.
 
According to Beumer, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the one who has theologized the relationship more forcefully, giving it its mainstream Roman Catholic outlook in the Second Millennium. Building on what had already been envisaged by the preceding Medieval theologians, Aquinas believes that grace needs nature as its substrate, as its logical presupposition, and as the substance that could receive it. Between nature and grace there is concordance. Grace fits nature and vice versa. Sin, though formally acknowledged, is swallowed in nature and considered a weakness or a sickness of nature which nonetheless maintains its original openness to it and capacity for it.
 
It is in the subsequent development of the Thomist tradition (e.g. Bellarmine and Suarez) that one finds an account of the relationship that stresses the distinction between nature and grace, while maintaining their organic link. In Scholastic Thomism grace is seen as the added gift to nature, which can function even without grace. Grace is super-natural, placed on top of nature, as if it were an added layer. In this scholastic view, nature can exist without grace but grace cannot exist without or apart from nature. One consequence of this Thomist account is that the difference between “natura pura” (pure nature) and “natura lapsa” (fallen nature) is even more blurred than in previous versions of the relationship. Sin is always formally acknowledged, but its effects are considered as not having entailed the breaking of a covenant and therefore having brought about spiritual death. Nature is still intact as it has always been since its beginning. Grace is supernaturally added to a nature that has never lost its openness to it. The addition is aimed at elevating nature to a supernatural end, i.e. a higher and superior status. Only secondarily and incidentally, grace deals with the problem of sin. The latter is a kind of road accident that has not stopped the elevation journey; it has only made it more difficult. Ultimately, there is no tension between nature and grace, but harmony and coordination.
 
Beumer’s historical sketch ends here, but the Roman Catholic development of the “nature-grace interdependence” does not stop there. The 20th century saw a significant theological debate over the exact interpretation of the Thomistic understanding of the relationship.
 
Before entering the contemporary Roman Catholic discussions on nature and grace, some provisional conclusions can be drawn from this bird’s eye view of the issue. In all its variations up to the 20th century, the “nature-grace interdependence” has shown how impactful it is on the Roman Catholic view of the (lack of) gravity of sin. Without a tragic view of sin, Roman Catholic anthropology tends to be optimistic in man’s natural possibility to cooperate with salvation, and salvation itself looks like an addition wrought by grace rather than a regenerating miracle of God who brings about life where death reigns. As the opening section of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with its reference to “man’s capacity for God”, the whole theological system of Rome is shaped around it and away from the gospel.
 
 
(to be continued) 
 


[1]L. De Chirico, Same Words, Different Worlds. Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021) p. 105.

[2]Johannes Beumer, “Gratia supponit naturam. Zur Geschichte eines theologischen Prinzips,” Gregorianum 20(1939) pp. 381-406, 535-552. I had access also to the Italian translation provided by Simone Billeci, Gratia supponit naturam. Storia di un principio teologico (Venezia: Marcianum Press, 2020).

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