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).

203. “Praedicate Evangelium” – Envisioning the Roman Catholic Church of the Future

The constitution of a country is a kind of identity card for the country itself. Its different components, its various articles, the procedures that are enacted… they all create a window into what the country stands for and what its rules are. Since a country’s identity is reflected in every change of the constitution, any change signals a modification in the self-understanding of the entity.
 
The Roman Curia is governed by a kind of constitution that is issued by the Pope as the Head of the Church and Head of the State of the Vatican. It contains the rules that preside over the functioning of the Vatican departments and offices, which are at the service of the universal mission of the Roman Pontiff. It is the blueprint of the Vatican institution and is centered on the office of the Pope and practically implemented by the Roman Curia.
 
The recent promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (PE) on 19th March 2022 gives the opportunity to examine how the Roman Catholic Church understands and organizes her institutional life as far as the present and the future are concerned.[1] More importantly, PE shows the inherent connection between the theological vision and the institutional outlook of the Roman Church, at least from the viewpoint of the Curia. Prior to PE, the Roman Curia operated under the constitution Pastor Bonus issued by John Paul II in 1988 and so it is also interesting to notice the changes after 25 years. The constitution defines the Roman Curia as “the institution which the Roman Pontiff ordinarily makes use of in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office and his universal mission in the world.” Furthermore, it states: “The Roman Curia is composed of the Secretariat of State, the Dicasteries and other bodies, all juridically equal to each other.”
 
Of course, PE is a juridical document and some interest and expertise in canon law is needed to come to terms with its contents.[2] The focus of this article will not so much be on the institutional re-arrangement of the Roman Curia and its organizational structure, but rather, on the theological vision that sustains it and that constitutes its framework. In what follows, I will try to look at PE from two different angles: the reordering of institutional priorities that it envisages and the significance of those priorities for the overall life of the Roman Catholic Church.Evangelicals are not always aware of the institutional picture and pay little attention to it. However, Rome is a big institution and one cannot come to terms with it without considering it. Therefore, this will be an exercise of evangelical discernment applied to the changing structure of the Roman Curia.
 
The Reordering of Priorities
“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel, n. 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church.[3] What kind of reformation did he have in mind? In some sense, PE is the institutional answer to the question asked at the beginning of his pontificate.In a nutshell, Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of his Church has to do with the increase of “synodality,” i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The Pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger role in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the particular churches, to ensure that they act better together. According to him, reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic in the internal organization of the Roman church in a synodical outlook. PE spells out what it means for the Pope to think and act toward this kind of reformation.
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope wrote: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (n. 27). Now 9 years after The Joy of the Gospel, PE is the tool by which the Pope wants mission to be at the center of the Vatican institutional life and not just a set of activities run by the Vatican institutions. It is a change of symbolic and conceptual significance.
 
PE attempts to make the Roman Curia at the service of mission. This concern is made clear by the prominence given to the Dicastery for Evangelization, which is the first in order of the departments of the Curia.[4] The Dicastery for Evangelization (directly chaired by the Pope with two pro-prefects in the sections into which it is divided) is formed through the merger of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization[5] and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The Pope himself takes full and direct responsibility to lead it. It has never happened before that the Pope would reclaim such a position and have such direct involvement.
 
In the list of PE, the Dicastery for Evangelization is followed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (which historically always had the first position among the old Congregations). The reverse of the order between the two is significant. The latter dicastery is followed by the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, which was previously a simple Office, that of Apostolic Charity. The triadic order is therefore: evangelization, doctrine, charity. The more prominent role of “charity” is signaled by the institutional upgrade from Office to Dicastery.
 
It is worth pausing for a moment and reflect on the order that is envisioned by PE. Evangelization comes first and takes priority over doctrine. Evangelization is to become the first concern of the Roman Curia. Doctrine seems to be at the service of evangelization, no longer the other way around as has been the case for centuries. The Roman Curia is no longer supposed to be primarily a defensive structure guided by a body watching over doctrine, but needs to become an outward vector at the service of the mission of the Church. The shift is indicative of the new trajectory Pope Francis wants his church to move even beyond his time.
 
PE is not a detailed plan yet, but from the institutional perspective, it signals a significant change of priority. It is as if what was envisioned in The Joy of the Gospel has come to fruition. Through the re-structuring of the Roman Curia, evangelization and mission are now at the institutional center of the Vatican. The legacy of Pope Francis is a subject open to various interpretations. Doctrine has never received much attention by Pope Francis. Many of his critics have pointed out the doctrinal confusion if not failure in his leadership.[6] Other aspects of his reign are receiving some pushback. Whatever one thinks of him, PE is perhaps his most important and lasting contribution and something that all people inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church will have to deal with.[7]
 
What Does Evangelization Mean?
Given the importance of evangelization and mission in the new outlook of the Roman Curia, it is important to grapple with the theology of evangelization that lies at the heart of PE. “Evangelization” seems to be a popular word in Catholic circles. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (and also referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics, too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization.” It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. With PE, evangelization is given institutional importance.
 
“Evangelization” is a word that Rome has re-signified in order to suit its theological vision of embracing the world and in order to fulfill its calling to be, as Vatican II says, a “sign and instrument of the unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). A similar genetic modification has occurred with  other words that have historically belonged to the Evangelical vocabulary, e.g. “conversion,” “unity” and “mission.” These words are some examples of the way in which Roman Catholicism can maintain the same spelling, while giving these terms a distinct Roman Catholic meaning.[8]
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, the “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (n. 36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel, something is missing: while the objective Good News of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason, nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims, the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n.16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254). 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. According to Francis, therefore, evangelization and mission are the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.
 
The word “evangelization” is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization, now in an embedded form in the Roman Curia. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.
 
Apart from Evangelii Gaudium, the most recent encyclical All Brothers (2020) is another window  into Pope Francis’ theology of evangelization. In this document, Francis pleads the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. Although it does not directly deal with evangelization, it nonetheless shapes the missiological framework of Francis’ theology of evangelization.
 
Among other issues, All Brothers raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved. Evangelization is surely impacted by this assumption.
 
Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelization cannot escape from being shaped by this shallow Christology.
 
Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers,” there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race”(Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to All Brothers, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.
 
After sampling the theology of evangelization in Francis’ programmatic documents, it is useful to compare it with standard evangelical accounts of evangelization. According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation,” “historical and biblical Christ,” “persuasion,” and the emphasis on one’s personal reconciliation to God.
 
What “evangelization” is talked about in PE? The immediate answer is that of The Joy of the Gospel and All Brothers, and this is not really good news for Evangelicals. The word is the same, but the meaning is far different.[9] In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that with PE the Roman Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for: it is a flawed view of what “preach the Gospel” means according to the Bible.


[1] So far the text of PE is only available in Italian. This explains why the document has so far received less attention than what it would deserve.
[2]An introductory presentation of PE can be found in G. Ghirlanda, “‘Praedicate Evangelium’ sulla Curia romana”, La Civiltà Cattolica 4123 (2/16 aprile 2022) pp. 41-56 and O.A.R. Maradiaga, Praedicate Evangelium. Una nuova curia per un tempo nuovo (Roma: Pubblicazioni Clarettiane, 2022).
[3]Cfr. A. Spadaro – C.M. Galli (edd.), La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Brescia: Queriniana, 2016).
[4]Here is the list of the dicasteries as they are arranged by PE: Dicastery for Evangelization; Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Dicastery for the Service of Charity (formerly the Office of Papal Charities); Dicastery for the Eastern Churches; Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Dicastery for the Causes of Saints; Dicastery for Bishops; Dicastery for the Clergy; Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life; Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue; Dicastery for Culture and Education; Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Dicastery for Legislative Texts; Dicastery for Communication.
[5]The Council for Promoting the New Evangelization was created by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
[6]See my “‘Confusion’ and ‘Failure’: Other Roman Catholic Blows Against Pope Francis”, Vatican Files (March 1st, 2019) and “Is the Pope Catholic?”, Unio Cum Christo (2022) forthcoming.
[7]As an aside, another important nuance that PE introduced has to do with the possibility for a lay person to preside over a dicastery, and this by virtue of the principle that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission” received by the Pope with the conferral of office.
[8]In my book Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021), I explore words such are “generation,”“justification,”“cross,” etc. showing that the way these words are understood by Rome is significantly different from their biblical meaning.On Rome’s attempt at redefining biblical words, see my article “Left Without Words. How Roman Catholicism is Reshaping the Evangelical Vocabulary,”Vatican Files (April 1st, 2013).
[9]In Same Words, Different Worlds, cit. I argue that while Rome uses the same words of the gospel, its account of the gospel is flawed because the Roman Catholic Church is not committed to Scripture Alone as its foundational principle and therefore its understanding of the Bible is determined by non-biblical sources.

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).

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?