The Innate Qualities of the Child

Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964) was one of the greatest theologians of modern times. He was a staunch anti-modernist, who engaged and exposed the twerpy upstarts responsible for the neo-modernist Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”). Much more than a controversialist, the Dominican Friar could write of the deepest spiritual truths with a relish and lucidity that make his theology engaging to study.

In a series of three Ad Rem, I purpose to present his thoughts on “spiritual childhood.” This first selection, I think, serves a double function. Not only does the theologian establish the necessary foundation for the analogy of childhood, but he also preaches a wonderful mini-sermon on Catholic parenting.

(from Volume II of The Three Ages of the Interior Life)

What are ordinarily the innate qualities of a child? In spite of his little defects, we find in a child, as a rule, simplicity and consciousness of his weakness, especially if he has been baptized and is being raised in a Christian manner.

The simplicity, or the absence of duplicity, of a child is wholly spontaneous; in him there is no labored refinement, no affectation. He generally says what he thinks and expresses what he desires without subterfuge, without fear of what people will say. As a rule he does not pose; he shows himself as he is. Conscious of his weakness, for he can do nothing of himself, he depends in everything on his father and mother, from whom he should receive everything. This awareness of his weakness is the seed of humility, which leads him to practice the three theological virtues, often in a profoundly simple manner.

At first the child spontaneously believes what his parents tell him; often they speak to him of God and teach him to pray. Innately the child has confidence in his parents, who teach him to hope in God even before he knows the formula of the act of hope, which he will soon read in his catechism and recite morning and evening. Finally with all his heart the child loves his parents, to whom he owe  everything; and if his father and mother are truly Christian, they lift the lively affection of this young heart toward God, our Lord, and His holy Mother. In this simplicity, this consciousness of his weakness, and this simple practice of the three theological virtues, there is the seed of the loftiest spiritual life. For this reason, when Jesus wished to teach His apostles the importance of humility, setting a little child in the midst of them He said: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In recent years we have seen realized the prediction of Pope Pius X: “There will be saints among the children,” called at an early age to frequent Communion.

Later on, during the awkward age, the child often loses his simplicity, the consciousness of his weakness, and wishes to act prematurely like a man; he gives evidence of pride and duplicity. And if he delights in speaking of certain virtues, it is less of the theological virtues than of human virtues, like fortitude and courage, which lend importance to his budding personality, and a certain prudence which he does not know how to distinguish from false prudence, and which, in his attempt to hide disorders in his life, may turn into deceit.

The harsh experience of life then reminds him of his weakness; at times he meets with injustice, which shows him the value of a higher justice. He suffers from lies that are believed, thus discovering the value of uprightness. Finally, if he reflects, if he has not ceased to pray a little every day, he understands Christ’s words: “Without Me you can do nothing,” and the profound meaning of the Our Father again becomes apparent to him. He repeats this prayer of his childhood, sometimes spending ten minutes saying the Our Father once from the depths of his heart. He has again found the road of salvation.

  • Bonifacius

    Interesting. I was turned off by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange when I read the last chapter (at least I think it was the last chapter) of his book on the afterlife (“Eternal Life”?). There he speaks quite candidly about non-Catholics getting to Heaven. Maybe he was one of the “right-wing liberals”?

  • Bonifacius

    Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, in “Life Everlasting”:

    “Further, among non-Christians (Jews, Mohammedans,
    pagans) there are souls which are elect. Jews and Mohammedans not only admit monotheism, but retain fragments of promitive revelation and of Mosaic revelation. They believe in a God who is a supernatural rewarder, and can thus, with the aid of grace, make an act of contrition. And even for pagans, who live in invincible, involuntary ignorance of the true religion, and who still attempt to observe the natural law, supernatural aids are offered, by means known to God. These, as Pius IX says, can arrive at salvation. God never commands the impossible. To him who does what is in his power God does not refuse grace.”

    With this sort of “Thomism,” what need do the liberals have for the “New Theology”? Fr. Brian Harrison’s speech to your annual meeting a few years back provides a greate rebuttal to this sort of mushy, un-disciplined thinking.

  • Bonifacius: Alas! It is so terrible to read an otherwise great man, so loyal to St. Thomas, falling on his face to accommodate the new thinking that was so contrary to St. Thomas.

    This weakness in the paladins of Catholic orthodoxy explains why they were waylaid by the liberals. They had themselves imbibed some of the worse aspects of liberalism already, and didn’t even see how contrary to tradition it was.

  • Bonifacius

    Perhaps we (I mean believers in “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus”) ironically have better allies among the radicals and liberals than among benighted neo-Thomists. My meaning: folks like the late Fr. Schillebeeckx at least were able to follow their premises to their logical conclusions in a way that Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange and his lock-step followers (the folks who think that Thomist theologians who lived before Vatican IIare, by necessity, infallible) are not. The radical and the so-called Feeneyite agree on what Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus means and implies; one accepts the truth and the other doesn’t. But the right-wing liberal cannot see past yesterday’s compromises.

  • Bonifacius

    Here is the whole citation (

    But if we are treating of all Christians, of all who have been baptized, Catholic, schismatic, Protestant, it is more probable, theologians generally say, that the great number is saved. First, the number of infants who die in the state of grace before reaching the age of reason is very great. Secondly, many Protestants, being today in good faith, can be reconciled to God by an act of contrition, particularly in danger of death. Thirdly, schismatics can receive a valid absolution.

    If the question is of the entire human race, the answer must remain uncertain, for the reasons given above. But even if, absolutely, the number of the elect is less great, the glory of God’s government cannot suffer. Quality prevails over quantity. One elect soul is a spiritual universe; Further, no evil happens that is not permitted for a higher good. Further, among non-Christians (Jews, Mohammedans, pagans) there are souls which are elect. Jews and Mohammedans not only admit monotheism, but retain fragments of primitive revelation and of Mosaic revelation. They believe in a God who is a supernatural rewarder, and can thus, with the aid of grace, make an act of contrition. And even to pagans, who live in invincible, involuntary ignorance of the true religion, and who still attempt to observe the natural law, supernatural aids are offered, by means known to God. These, as Pius IX says, [679] can arrive at salvation. God never commands the impossible. To him who does what is in his power God
    does not refuse grace. [680]

    We cannot arrive at certitude in this question. It is better to acknowledge our ignorance than to discourage the faithful by a doctrine which is too rigid, to expose them to danger by a doctrine which is too superficial.

  • Bonifacius

    Oh, drat, here is the link again (the address above includes my own parenthesis and hence won’t work):

  • Brother André Marie

    Bonifacius: There is some truth in what Fr. GGLG says, especially regarding the baptized children. No question, though, that they are Catholic, not heretical or schismatic since they cannot formally commit an act of either of those vices. Further, among those who appear to dwell in alien sects, we cannot presume to judge who is “formally” or merely “materially” in heresy or schism. I believe that is what Pio Nono was really getting at in his statements on the matter which the liberals have made hay over. (One of these follows, with the pertinent stuff emboldened.)

    Father GGLG was, as I said, one of the greatest theologians of modern times. He was also sullied a bit, it would seem, by the prevalent opinions which were leading theology astray. It’s notable that, when he argues a semi-indifferentist line, he appeals to modern theologians. The great and brilliant Thomist — who, be it noted, defends the anti-Molinist Dominican teaching on grace and predestination — descends from real scholasticism (and the doctrine of St. Thomas) into the “manual theology” of the day, which was not adequate.

    He, like so many others, seems to miss the admonition of Pope Pius IX, who said, in Singulari Quadam:

    “It must, of course, be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter it will perish in the flood.

    “On the other hand, it must likewise be held as certain that those who are affected by ignorance of the true religion, if it is invincible ignorance, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the eyes of the Lord. [Comment: absence of guilt “in this matter” does not for salvation make, as all the liberals claim.]

    Now, then, who could presume in himself an ability to set the boundaries of such ignorance, taking into consideration the natural differences of peoples, lands, native talents, and so many other factors? [Comment: Who would dare to say who is or is not FORMALLY removed from the Church’s communion by heresy or schism? — Not I.] Only when we have been released from the bonds of this body and see God just as He is (1 John 3:2) shall we really understand how close and beautiful a bond joins divine mercy with divine justice. But as long as we dwell on earth, encumbered with this soul-dulling, mortal body, let us tenaciously cling to the Catholic doctrine that there is one God, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5); To proceed with further inquiry is contrary to divine law. [!!!]

    “Nevertheless, as charity demands, let us pray continually for the conversion to Christ of all nations everywhere. Let us devote ourselves to the salvation of all men as far as we can, for the hand of the Lord is not shortened (Isa. 59:1). The gifts of heavenly grace will assuredly not be denied to those who sincerely want and pray for refreshment by the divine light.

    “These truths need to be fixed deeply in the minds of the faithful so that they cannot be infected with doctrines tending to foster the religious indifferentism which We see spreading widely, with growing strength, and with destructive effect upon souls.

    Note that Pius IX’s concern was not how dangerous it was “to discourage the faithful by a doctrine which is too rigid,” but the heresy of indifferentism.

    The real solution is to trust in the providence of God to bring all the elect into the Society of the Elect (the Church), to commend all to the mercy of God without denying the justice of God or the essential character of membership in Chirst. That’s the more “Dominican” thing to do, rather than to engage in Jesuitical casuistry to make an end-run around revealed truth. It’s also much more consistent with the beautiful theology of Father GGLG himself, in his masterful two-volume work which I’ve excerpted.

  • Bonifacius

    Not being judgmental as to who is formally and who is only materially outside the Church is one of my big problems. Maybe I overreact to the tendency among so many Catholics to presume innocence and hence say that everyone *must* be materially heretical or schismatic, etc. It seems to me that a Protestant does not need to know that Catholicism is true in order to be a formal heretic. He need only realize that his own sect/heresy is his own private idiosyncrasy and not the revelation of Christ. If he acknowledges that and does not seek what the Truth is (even if he does not realize that that Truth is Catholicism), it seems to me that he is formally heretical.

    Then there are judgment calls — where we go by our best judgment of appearances while admitting that we might be wrong. In some cases it seems easy to ascribe innocence, but not in others. If some poorly catechized peasant in Ethiopia only materially subscribes to monophysitism, I see nothing to object to. On the other hand, how someone like C.S. Lewis could be “invincibly ignorant” of Catholicism despite his friendship with Tolkien and his own considerable erudition and logical powers is beyond me. In other words, I would be more wary of a C.S. Lewis than of an Ethiopian peasant woman because it seems that Lewis’ errors were ones he had every opportunity to correct and did not.

    From what I have read, the impression I get from most of the literature on your website is that children who have reached the age of reason become responsible for seeking the Truth and denying error. This is all the more true, it seems, in those Protestant sects that proclaim the individual’s right of private interpretation. What I mean is that if the newly adult Christian is supposed to act as his own religious authority, he is under an even greater subjective obligation to screen his beliefs for error. And God would no doubt supply sufficient grace to such a searcher to convict him of error. Who knows how many people who have left Protestant sects (often to end up in lives of vice, but that’s another story) have actually been prodded by grace to renounce heresies they had once believed only materially? Even if it is impossible to judge in a particular case, need we presume that the average modern Protestant is only materially in heresy? As regards any number of individual beliefs, sure, but as regards the major and glaring, self-contradictory, irrational tenets of Protestantism, the ones that defy right reason and the natural law, need we think that formal heresy on these points is hard to come by?

    In any case, even if they are only materially in heresy, it seems those heresies are precisely the ones that most stand in the way of a perfect act of contrition (total depravity, “once saved always saved,” etc.).

    Thank you for your insights and for any corrections you could give me.


  • Brother André Marie

    Bonifacius: All that you say points to the fact that we need to affirm loudly and clearly that there is no salvation outside the Church and not follow this affirmation up with the usual list of “exceptions,” which make all of us (Catholics and non-) comfy and complacent. It was that sort of thing that made Father Feeney react strongly: Here we have a dogma staring us in the face, and the clergy and faithful alike are explaining it away until it means nothing anymore, like the religious communities after Vatican II that “reformed themselves out of existence.”

    Subjective considerations (e.g., material, formal) are real, yes. Theoretically, they are the domain of moral theology. Concretely, they are the domain of the father confessor and, of course, God. But in its preaching to and teaching an ignorant world (and her own children), the Church needs to emphasize the objective truth. ‘Twas always thus, but in the face of extreme skepticism, cynicism, subjectivism, and the like, the need is all the greater.

    I, too, am more skeptical of C.S. Lewis than of your Ethiopian friend. But when we remember its not ours to “grant” invincible ignorance to anybody, we stick to the objective truth and leave the rest to God. It’s actually humble, and causes many fewer mental vexations.

  • Bonifacius

    Yes, I agree with you. What I said above smacks too much of cultural favoritism. Why should I exempt Ethiopian peasants? God sent the Ethiopian eunuch and St. Philip to meet each other for a reason. It’s the same reason that the Church sends it missionaries to all peoples (not just to Oxford) — because the orthodoxy of a poor Ethiopian peasant woman matters to God as much as the orthodoxy of an Oxford don does. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be an Ethiopian Catholic Rite today — yes, even the “ignorant natives” are called upon to respond to the True Faith and accept it when offered and pray for it when it is not to be found.

  • Peccator


    I take it this constitutes the first of the three Ad Rem on Spiritual Childhood secundum Dom GLG. Where, please, are #s 2 and 3?