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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