207. “Go to Thomas!” Who Will Follow the Pope’s Invitation?

Nothing could be more explicit: “Go to Thomas!” This warm invitation was issued by Pope Francis to participants of the International Thomistic Congress (Sept. 21-24) during an audience at the Vatican. In his address, the pope extolled the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as a sure guide for Roman Catholic faith and a fruitful relationship with culture. Citing Paul VI (Lumen ecclesiae, 1974) John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 1998), who had magnified the importance of Thomas’ thought for the contemporary Roman church, Francis stood in the wake of recent popes in emphasizing superlative appreciation for the figure of Thomas while adding his own.

This is nothing new. For centuries, Roman Catholicism has regarded Thomas Aquinas as its champion. His voice is often considered the highest, deepest, and most complete of Roman Catholic thought and belief. Canonized by John XXII as early as 1323, he was proclaimed a doctor of the church by Pius V in 1567 to be the premier Roman Catholic theologian whose thinking would defeat the Protestant Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the Summa theologica was symbolically placed next to the Bible as a testament to its primary importance in formulating the Tridentine decrees and canons against justification by faith alone and other Protestant doctrines. In the seventeenth century, he was considered the defender of the Roman Catholic theological system by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the greatest anti-Protestant controversialist who influenced many generations of Catholic apologists over the centuries. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris in which he pointed to Thomas as the highest expression of philosophical and theological science. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stipulated that the formation of priests should have Thomas as the supreme guide in their studies: “The students should learn to penetrate them (i.e. the mysteries of salvation) more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections” (Optatam Totius [1965] n. 17). Of recent popes, this has already been mentioned. Considering this, what could Pope Francis say but, “Go to Thomas!”

Francis indicated not only the need to study Thomas, but also to “contemplate” the Master before approaching his thought. Thus, to the cognitive and intellectual dimension, he added a mystical one. In this way, he caused Thomas, already a theologian imbued with wisdom and asceticism, to be seen as even more Roman Catholic. This mix best represents the interweaving of the intellectual and contemplative traditions proper to Roman Catholicism.

The International Congress had the exploration of the resources of Thomist thought in today’s context as its theme. Thomism is not just a medieval stream of thought, but a system that is both solid and elastic at the same time. All seasons of Roman Catholicism have found it inspiring for the diverse challenges facing the Church of Rome, including the Reformation first, the Enlightenment project second, and now post-modernity. As a result of the Congress, we will continue to hear more about Thomas and Thomism, not only in historical theology and philosophy, but also in other fields of knowledge that were once far from previous interpretative traditions of Thomas.

In recent years, we have witnessed a growing fascination with Thomas Aquinas and Thomism by evangelical theologians, especially coming from the North American context. They seem to be attracted to the “great tradition” he represents. This phenomenon should be studied because it signals the existence of internal movements within evangelical theological circles. Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries had a critical view of Thomas. In a sense, Thomas could not be avoided, given his stature and importance for theology, but he was read with selective and theologically adult eyes. Then, for various reasons, there has been a certain neglect not only of Thomas but with pre-Reformation historical theology as a whole. Today, in the face of the pressures coming from secularization and the identity crisis felt in some evangelical quarters, Thomas is perceived as a bulwark of “traditional” theology that needs to be urgently recovered. It is often overlooked that Roman Catholicism has considered Thomas as its champion in its anti-Reformation stance and also in its subsequent anti-biblical developments, such as the 1950 Marian dogma of the bodily ascension of Mary. Rome considers Thomas as the quintessentially Roman Catholic theologian and thinker.

“Go to Thomas!” is an invitation that even a growing number of practitioners of evangelical theology would take up. The point is not to uncritically study or absolutely avoid Thomas, but rather to provide the theological map with which one approaches him. It is necessary to develop an evangelical map of Thomas Aquinas. If Rome considers Thomas its chief architect, can evangelical theology approach him without understanding that Thomas stands behind everything Roman Catholicism believes and practices?  

204. Nature and Grace in the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger – A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (III)

The relationship between nature and grace is the framework that explains how mankind and God cooperate in bringing about salvation. In Roman Catholicism, the interdependence between the two is such that grace intervenes to elevate nature to its supernatural end, fully relying on its untainted capacity to be elevated and even to contribute to the process. Even if wounded by sin, Roman Catholic theology argues that nature maintains the ability to be graced because nature is always open to grace (the traditional view) and because grace is indelibly embedded in nature (the contemporary view).
 
In previous articles, I sketched the nature-grace interdependence both in its medieval (mainly Thomistic) account, i.e. “Gratia Supponit Naturam”? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part I) and in its post-Vatican II and present-day one, i.e.“Grace as the Heart’s Desire” – A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part II). The two versions coexist in Roman Catholicism, indicating that Roman Catholic theology is neither a static nor a monolithic system. It also shows that for all their particularities, the two accounts differ in accents rather than basic theological assumptions. Both approaches uphold the view that we as creatures have a “capacity for God” inspite of sin and that grace comes to us in different forms and intensities because it already lies in us.
 
To further expand the analysis of the nature-grace interdependence in Roman Catholicism, it might be of some interest to look at how an outstanding Roman Catholic theologian like Joseph Ratzinger (1927- ) has accounted for and developed the theme in his work. Ratzinger’s importance does not need to be argued: a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), an eminent professor in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope Benedict XVI (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation, Ratzinger is one of the most authoritative voices of Roman Catholic theology today. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.
 
The opportunity to sample his views of the nature-grace relationship is offered in a recent book by Simone Billeci, Gratia Supponit Naturam nella teologia di Joseph Ratzinger (Trapani: Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2020; Grace Supposes Nature in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger). In this important piece of scholarship, Billeci discusses the significance of Ratzinger’s historical and theological contribution to the exploration of the theme. Specifically, Ratzinger has worked on the interdependence in a twofold way:

  1. In his early books on Augustine’s view of the people of God (1954) and on Bonaventure’s understanding of revelation and history (1955)[1], and
  2. In Ratzinger’s mature works where he revisits the relationship in light of a new appreciation of the legacy of Thomas Aquinas[2] and the heated Roman Catholic debates on the issue around and after Vatican II.[3]

Ratzinger as Interpreter of Augustine and Bonaventure
In a sense, the vocabulary of the entire discussion was framed by Augustine, whose famous On Nature and Grace (415 AD) contains reference to both nature and grace individually and to their relationship. In writing against the Pelagians, who had an optimistic view of nature and a correspondently lower appreciation of grace, Augustine wants to highlight the supremacy of grace over nature. One limit of the way the whole issue was framed is that it neglects to mention sin and leaves it out of the big picture. True, Augustine has a somewhat radical view of the fall and the consequences of sin, but in comparing and contrasting “nature” and “grace” and not referring to sin in framing the relationship, he gives the impression that it all revolves around an ontological issue, i.e. the properties of nature as distinct from those of grace and vice versa, rather than presenting the discussion in the historical and moral trajectory of a good creation having fallen into sin and in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Augustine has a proper view of “natura decaduta,” i.e. fallen nature, but his overall title Nature and Grace and the structure of his argument are still dependent on ontological categories.

It is no surprise that Ratzinger follows the Augustinian discussion on nature and grace by grappling with it in ontological terms rather than in historical and moral terms. For him “neither pure nature, nor pure grace” is the crux of the matter. Nature is never purely nature detached from grace, and grace is never purely grace existing outside of nature. The biblical emphasis in its historical sequence, i.e. God’s creation, the disruption of sin, and God’s salvation, is swallowed in the abstract and ontological distinctions and relationships between nature and grace, more defined by Christianized patterns of Greek thought than the biblical flow of salvation history.

In studying Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s theology of revelation and history, Ratzinger focuses on the insistence of the medieval Franciscan monk that is summarized in the sentence“gratia non destruit sed perficit naturam,” i.e. grace does not destroy but perfects nature. The overall framework is still characterized by the Augustinian imprinting which underlies the ontological properties of nature and grace. Bonaventure understands grace as an upward move, an upgrade of nature that elevates it to a perfected state. Nature is open to be graced and, in perfecting nature, grace does not destroy it, but relies on it. Put in this way, nature and grace appear to be two steps in the chain of being, one implying the other, rather than a story of creation/fall/redemption culminating in the consummation of all things according to God’s plan.

Ratzinger’s interpretation of Bonaventure appreciates the dynamic movement of the perfecting of nature by grace. There is indeed a movement, and therefore a story, and not just the juxtaposition of two ontological realities. However, in spite of that, the underestimation of the impact of the fall and sin shows that it is not yet the Bible’s story to shape the overall understanding of nature and grace. In Bonaventure and in Ratzinger’s examination of him, it is not the biblical nature, i.e. creation, as it is permeated by common grace, that then falls in sin and whose only hope is in the special grace of redemption. It is still the kind of nature that is thought of in philosophical terms, and it is still an objectified kind of grace that is added to it.

Ratzinger’s Reception of Thomas Aquinas
The third part of Billeci’s study deals with Ratzinger’s interpretation of the nature-grace interdependence in Thomas Aquinas. After surveying Aquinas’ interpretation of the nature-grace motif, which does not significantly differ from the aforementioned accounts, Billeci offers a summary of what it means for Thomas to recognize the impact of the fall on man’s nature and what it is that grace does in response: “The kind of nature that subsists after sin is that of man who, from his first instant, had God as his ultimate end, was therefore able to know him and to love him at a supernatural level and who had been called to live in intimate fellowship with Him in beatitude. The deprivation of his highest possibility to reach that end leaves him in a nasty state of unsatisfaction to which the renewed gift of grace will be able to bring remedy” (p. 245).

We are here confronted with the nuances of Aquinas in a nutshell. On the one hand, he reiterates the natural openness of nature to grace; on the other, he argues that after the fall grace still relies on nature’s residual ability to be graced by way of healing it and elevating it to its supernatural end. The primary metaphor is that of “healing” a wound rather than “regenerating” the dead. Be it “integra,” i.e. integral and whole, or “corrupta,” i.e. corrupted and fallen, nature maintains the capacity for grace that opens up the possibility of human merit and the mediation of the sacraments of a human agency, i.e. the church. According to this Thomistic view that Ratzinger makes his own, it is rejected that salvation come by faith alone in Christ alone because human nature is still open to cooperate with grace even in its corrupted state. Grace is necessary but not sufficient to attain salvation because nature is weakened but not spiritually dead.

In the final part of the book, Billeci discusses other themes of Ratzinger’s theology in light of the nature-grace interdependence. By contesting modern accounts of reality that want to get rid of God and his grace from Western civilization, Ratzinger often criticizes “naturalism,” i.e. the widespread idea that nature is a self-contained mechanism that makes God’s involvement in the world redundant if not dangerous if man is understood to be free and autonomous. From another angle, Ratzinger applies the nature-grace interdependence to support the conviction that the Christian faith is “reasonable,” i.e. it does make sense according to “natural” criteria of right and wrong, good and evil. These reasonable (natural) criteria are supplemented and corroborated by the exercise of faith, i.e. grace at work in making sense of the world. Grace presupposes a weakened but still sufficiently reliable nature.

As already indicated, Ratzinger endorses the view that there is “neither pure nature, nor pure grace.” His dense historical studies and theological reflections remain in the traditional categories of Roman Catholicism since they have been received in the Thomistic interpretation of Augustine’s Nature and Grace and they continue to be discussed in present-day Roman Catholic theology. Instead of applying biblical categories in approaching “nature” and “grace,” the Roman Catholic tradition, in all its nuances and subtleties, is framed in ontological terms rather than historical and moral ones in the context of biblical revelation. Instead of taking into account the radical disruption of the fall and sin, Rome has preferred to view it in a milder way so as to safeguard nature’s inherent ability to cooperate with grace and the church’s role of mediating agency through the sacraments. Instead of receiving God’s grace as a divine gift that reaches us from outside, Rome has instead built a theological system whereby grace is always to be found within us. With all his theological acumen, Ratzinger’s theology perfectly fits the Roman Catholic nature-grace interdependence.  


[1]Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirchen (München: Karl Zink, 1954) and Offenbarungsverständnis und Geschichtstheologie Bonaventuras (1955). The English edition of both books can be found in his Opera Omnia (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder Verlag, 2011), vol. 1 and 2 respectively.

[2]e.g. Der Gott des Glaubens und der Gott der Philosophen (München-Zürich: Schnell & Steiner, 1960) now in Opera Omnia, cit., vol. 3.

[3]e.g. Einführung in das Christentum (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1968); English edition: Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004).

202. “Grace as the Heart’s Desire” A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (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 Interdependence (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 interdependence” 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).

201. “Gratia Supponit Naturam”? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (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 interdependence.” 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).

189. A Biography of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Is It Also A Radiography of Roman Catholicism?

Like it or not, “there is no way to escape Thomas”. With this annotation, the Canadian historian Bernard McGinn introduces his book Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). The volume is by one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity and has an original cut. It is not an introduction to Aquinas, nor an essay on the Summa as such, but is instead a biography of this outstanding work. The Summa consists of one and a half million words and is divided into 2668 articles. Moreover, it has had over a thousand commentaries in history (only the Bible has received more), thus becoming a catalyst for theological and philosophical thought over the centuries.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, it was conceived by Aquinas to be an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church—and it was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death. The Jesuit Bernard Lonergan called the Summa a “synthesis of medieval culture”.

Thomas Aquinas’ World
In the first chapter, McGinn explores the intellectual world in which Thomas Aquinas lived. He particularly emphasizes the role of scholastic theology, i.e. a teaching method and style centered on the analysis of different quaestiones (issues, questions) on the basis of the waving and screening of various auctoritates (authorities). Scholastic theology had become a coherent and teachable model of inquiry. The leader of this tradition was Peter Lombard (1096-1160) with his Sentences, a work which had become the standard textbook of theology at the medieval universities and that Thomas commented upon extensively.

The second chapter presents a succinct biography of Thomas and a quick introduction to his writings (over a hundred works attributed to him). Here, McGinn argues that the traditional association of Thomas Aquinas with Aristotelianism must be intertwined with the impact of Platonism on his thought through Boethius and Dionysius the Areopagite and, above all, Augustine. In Thomas, the easy classifications do not respond to the complexity of his philosophical and theological universe.

The Summa is a full-fledged scholastic work. Each article of which it is composed poses the question to be examined, exposes a series of arguments contrary to the position one wants to support, cites an authoritative text, argues in favor of a solution and, finally, responds in detail to possible objections. Beyond the scholastic structure of the argument, in Thomas the central point is his acceptance of the Aristotelian starting point according to which science (and therefore also theology) is “certain knowledge through causes”. The entire procedure is guided by reason, which does not reach to revealed truths (like the Trinity), but which for everything else (including the existence of God) is the instrument for knowing. Reason proceeds in a circular motion: it starts from (Aristotelian) principles, argues up to conclusions, and returns to principles with a deeper understanding of the principles themselves. Even “sacred doctrine”, for Thomas, works in a similar manner. It is clear that, at the bottom of this approach, one finds the recognition of the full feasibility of human reason as a natural capacity. Although touched by sin, human reason remains the reliable instrument for all knowledge (even knowledge of God).

Exitus-Reditus, But Where is Sin?
To understand the heart of the theology of Aquinas, very enlightening pages are dedicated to the movement of the Summa based on the exitus-reditus model: all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). This is the macro-structure of the Summa and the grand-motif of Thomistic theology. The movement starts with God and goes back to Him as a circle.

In this Thomist view there are two basic problems, which McGinn does not discuss and which can only be briefly touched on. The first is the cyclical, rather than linear trend of its trajectory: the Bible presents a plotline not of returning to the starting point, but of arriving at a goal that is no longer the starting point. The New Jerusalem is not the initial garden of Eden; the eschaton is no longer “in the beginning”. The Omega of the story is no longer its Alpha. In the biblical plot there is a historical-redemptive progress from creation to the new creation, more than a return to the origin.

The second problem is that, in the Thomist scheme of exitus-reditus, the breaking of the covenant (and therefore the breach of sin) is missing. There is creation (going out), there is redemption (coming back), but sin is missing. Obviously Thomas has a theology of sin, but sin has no “architectural” importance. It is inside the back-and-forth movement, without a directional upheaval. For this reason, the Thomist tradition has been able to summarize its own worldview with the adage: “grace does not remove nature, but perfects it”; between nature and grace there is a distinction of order, but not a breach caused by sin. For this reason, Thomism does not have a tragic understanding of sin and its consequences. For this reason, the relationship between nature and grace in Thomistic Roman Catholicism underestimates the effects of sin and has an optimistic view of human capacities in cooperating with salvation. The grace of reditus corresponds to the nature of the exitus, but what about sin? In the context of this overall optimism, the Roman Church has built its inflated self-understanding and its sacramental mediation.

In light of these remarks, it is perhaps clearer why the new wine of the Protestant motif of “creation-fall-redemption” cannot fit in the old skin of Thomism of the exitus-reditus motif. Sin entered the world and altered it to the point that redemption is not an elevation of nature nor an addition to it, but can be biblically explained in terms of regeneration, life out of death, light out of darkness, salvation out of reprobation. Therefore, one can begin to perceive why the difference between Thomism and the evangelical faith touches on a crucial, structural, foundational point, even in the presence of terms and themes that are sometimes overlapping.

The Summa at the Core of the Roman Catholic System
The second part of the book is dedicated to the biography of the Summa across the centuries, from the first wave of Thomism immediately following Thomas’s death up to the neo-Thomism of the 19th-20th century. McGinn remembers in particular Tommaso de Vio, Cardinal Gaetano, at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who clashed with Luther. It is well known that the German Reformer had an unquestionably negative understanding of Thomism. For him, Thomas was “the source and foundation of all heresy, all error and the obliteration of the Gospel”. It is also interesting that at the Council of Trent a copy of the Summa was placed next to the Bible, symbolically signifying the elevation of Thomas’s work to a source of authority for the Roman Church. No wonder Thomas was recognized as a “doctor of the church” by Pope Pius V in 1567. From that point on, Thomas became an immovable cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology. On the basis of the Summa, the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine would have built his anti-Protestant apologetics that became standard up to the first half of the 20th century. Neo-Thomism found in Leo XIII a pope who wrote the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), in which he officially elevated the thought of Thomas Aquinas to be the normative theological system for Roman Catholicism.

McGinn recalls the controversies over the “modernists” who were not so much opposed to Thomas as to a “triumphalistic” or “authoritarian” form of Thomism. In the twentieth century, McGinn identifies four strands of Thomism still existing in the Roman Church:

  • “Strict-Observance Thomism” (in the wake of Aeterni Patris: R. Garrigou-Lagrange, the “sacred monster of Thomism”);
  • “Recovered Thomism” (M.-D. Chenu, Y. Congar, H. de Lubac);
  • “Metaphysical Thomism” (J. Maritain, E. Gilson);
  • “Transcendental Thomism” (P. Rousselot; J. Maréchal, K. Rahner).

Although Thomism is a legacy that is variously assimilated and understood, its permanent and pervasive influence on Roman Catholicism is undeniable. McGinn refers to the fact that Aquinas is cited in the texts of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) 734 times (the second most cited father is Augustine with 522 citations) and is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) 61 times. Moreover, according to Thomas G. Guarino in The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought; again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight”. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism, but always within the same tradition expanded in dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome. Furthermore, John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) is a quintessentially Thomist reflection on the relationship between faith and reason.

Although no longer monumental (perhaps) and certainly not monolithic, Thomism is still “substantial” for Roman Catholicism, representing its main theological backbone. Giving the Summa a central place in the work of Thomas Aquinas and coming to terms with its “biography” allows us to access the radiography of what lies at the heart of Roman Catholicism then and now. When we deal with the Summa and its impact across Church history we should be aware of the fact that we are not dealing with a generic work belonging to the “Great Tradition” which is common to all strands of Christianity. We are dealing with a specific account of it that Roman Catholicism consistently calls its own.