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:
- In his early books on Augustine’s view of the people of God (1954) and on Bonaventure’s understanding of revelation and history (1955), and
- In Ratzinger’s mature works where he revisits the relationship in light of a new appreciation of the legacy of Thomas Aquinas and the heated Roman Catholic debates on the issue around and after Vatican II.
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.
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.
e.g. Der Gott des Glaubens und der Gott der Philosophen (München-Zürich: Schnell & Steiner, 1960) now in Opera Omnia, cit., vol. 3.
e.g. Einführung in das Christentum (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1968); English edition: Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004).