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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200. Who is Afraid of “Liquid” Roman Catholicism?

April 1st, 2022
Since the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the expression Liquid Modernity (2000), the adjective “liquid” has been applied to almost all phenomena, e.g. liquid society, liquid family, liquid love, etc. In our world, liquidity seems to describe well the vacillating, uncertain, fluid and volatile feature of contemporary life. Everything is mobile, plastic and soft; nothing can be put into solid, stable and lasting casts.

To the already wide range of associations, liquidity has been added as a descriptor for a specific religious tradition, i.e. liquid Roman Catholicism. George Weigel, a conservative American intellectual, talks about it in a worried tone in his article “Liquid Catholicism and the German Synodal Path” (First Things, 16th February 2022).

For some time, Weigel and other exponents of US Roman Catholic traditionalism have expressed their frustration (to put it mildly) at the massive injection of liquidity into Roman Catholicism by Pope Francis. The uncertain teaching on doctrinal and moral subjects of primary importance; a kind of intolerance towards the pre-conciliar liturgy; the constant pickaxing of the Roman Catholic institution with repeated criticism of clericalism; the ways the pope acts outside the box that destabilize customs; the welcoming and merciful message at the expense of the doctrinal and moral requirements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc. All this makes Francis a “liquid” pope who is liquifying an institution that has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.

In addition to Francis, Weigel sees other troubling sources of liquidity in the Roman Catholic church. The article indicates Weigel’s alarm at the requests that are emerging from the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church, including a series of conferences of the Catholic Church in Germany to discuss a range of contemporary theological and organizational questions. Supported by the majority of German bishops, these requests include celibacy becoming optional for clergy (married life being the other option), opening ministries to women (the diaconate first, then one day the priesthood perhaps), recognition (with ecclesiastical blessing) of homosexual unions… these are just some of the proposals that are about to arrive at the Vatican and that have the strength to detonate a bomb in the Roman Catholic Church. There are growing concerns all over the Roman Catholic world about the German “Synodal Path.” In this regard, Francis’ liquidity is just a pale version of the turbo-liquidity that is coming from Catholic Germany.

Weigel and the circles of US Catholic traditionalism witness these processes of liquefaction horrified. For them, Roman Catholicism is a canonically compact religion, sacramentally coherent, institutionally stable, doctrinally integrated. They have in mind a Roman Catholicism that is more “Roman” than “Catholic”, anchored to its unchangeable dogmas, tied to its consolidated tradition, characterized by fidelity and obedience on the part of the faithful, and centered on its ecclesiastical hierarchies. Liquid Roman Catholicism, for them, is a pathology of catholicity that runs the risk of Protestantizing Rome and dispersing its uniqueness in the bewildering contemporary age.

It is interesting to observe these internal conflict dynamics in Roman Catholicism from the outside. Often, in the past, Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted evangelical fragmentation with Roman Catholic solidity, denigrating the former and exalting the latter. It was not a credible argument in the past, but it is even less so today. Roman Catholicism is as divided internally as any other religious movement of global reach. Moreover, traditional Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted the stability of Rome with the volatility of the Reformation. This argument too was superficial and one-sided and it is even more so now. Roman Catholicism goes through significant transformation processes. The fact that Rome is deemed to be “semper eadem” (always the same) needs to be seen in light of its ongoing updating and development.

The key elements to come to terms with in this issue are twofold. First, one needs to consider the dual nature of Roman Catholicism which is, at the same time, “Catholic” (liquid) and “Roman” (solid). Its genius has always been to combine the two faces in order to make them coexist and reinforce each other. Today it is its liquidity that seems to be prevalent, but its solidity will not fail as Roman Catholicism is both. The second key element is the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which fostered change, as a recent article by Shaun Blanchard has reminded us (Commoweal, 14th March 2022). Vatican II has given Roman Catholicism such an injection of liquidity that today it is impacting the solid structures of Rome as never before. Will the long term outcomes of Vatican II be able to liquefy them completely? Unlikely. 

Rome will remain liquid and solid, perhaps in a different arrangement than their present-day combination, but still “Catholic” and, at the same time, “Roman.” Weigel and other Roman Catholic traditionalists dream of a return to a more “Roman” Catholicism: but have they not yet understood that their religion is also increasingly “Catholic” at the same time?

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