Here we find ourselves past the midway mark of Lent, and we may have to renew our sense of purpose in this holy endeavor. One of the best ways to do this might be to focus not on our own actions (or “non-actions” in the case of things we give up), but, rather, on God’s action. For Lent is useless if God does not act in us. Learning something of how He acts in the faithful should help us to cooperate with the divine activity in our souls.
The Church’s doctrine on grace is not sufficiently studied or meditated upon by the faithful, even those who glory in the name of traditionalist. If we know not to be Modernists, who either deny the difference between nature and grace or make the latter implicit in the former; or (semi-)Pelagians, who diminish or deny the necessity of grace; or Naturalists, who deny the supernatural order entirely; we as yet do not — most of us, anyway — sufficiently know or love what orthodoxy has to teach us on this most important subject.
Let us begin with some useful definitions, which I have garnered from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Grace (in general) — a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures (men, angels) for their eternal salvation, whether the latter be furthered and attained through salutary acts or a state of holiness.
Actual Grace — a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ.
Sanctifying Grace — a quality strictly supernatural, inherent in the soul as a habitus, by which we are made to participate in the divine nature.
Sanctifying grace, which is also called “habitual grace” and “justification,” is a habit that abides in our souls permanently. Yes, it can be destroyed by mortal sin, but, aside from that, it will remain there as the principle of our supernatural actions. Actual graces, on the other hand, are transient helps which terminate in the performance of some salutary act, hence the name. They help us to enter the state of grace by calling us to faith and repentance. They also move us to the performance of meritorious acts when we are in the state of grace. While the sanctifying grace is the principle of merit, it is not capable of moving us to perform supernaturally meritorious works. For that, we need actual grace.
To see how practical the doctrine of grace is, I will explain it in terms of the scholastic axiom “grace perfects nature,” borrowing some paragraphs from a paper already on our web site, but little read.
Man is a composite of body and soul. The soul is the form of the body and thus gives it life, being the principle of its sentient and vegetative powers. More than this, since man is a rational being, the soul has the additional faculties of intellect and will. We can thus enumerate all of man’s natural powers, beginning with the vegetative powers of assimilation, growth, and reproduction; continuing with the sentient powers of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight (external senses); memory, imagination, cogitative sense, and unifying (or common) sense (inner senses); love, hate, desire, aversion, pleasure, and pain (concupiscible passions); fear, daring, hope, despair, and anger (irascible passions); locomotion; and concluding with the spiritual faculties of intellect and will. By these twenty-six powers, man is a microcosm of the universe, having every power of lower creation (mineral, vegetative, and sentient), and also the powers proper to pure spirits (angels), and even God himself, in whose image we are by virtue of our intellect and will.
Grace is not intended to destroy this natural edifice. It is intended to bring it to the supernatural end for which God created it. Grace does not even do violence to this edifice, except insofar as its wounds are in need of curing and the physician must often prescribe painful remedies to cure what is disordered.
Sanctifying grace is infused by God directly into the soul (not into any of its powers, according to Saint Thomas). It is an “entitative habit” which heals man of original sin, making him truly just. More than that, the divine likeness, lost in the fall, is restored to man so that he is elevated into the supernatural, becomes truly pleasing to God, his child, an heir to his kingdom, and a partaker of his very nature. According to the Council of Trent, justification is the “sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.” [See the original paper for references.]
Along with habitual grace, man receives certain supernatural “concomitants” which reside in the various powers of the soul, not to replace them, but to give them the ability to operate in the supernatural order. In fact, without these so-called “operative habits,” man would be elevated to, but incapable of acting in, the supernatural order. These operative habits are, first and foremost, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which have God himself as their proper object. Faith perfects the intellect, giving it the power to believe all that God has revealed. Hope perfects the will, allowing it to aspire to God, its final end. Charity also resides in the will, giving the Christian the capacity to love God with a supernatural love of friendship and to love his neighbor with that same love. Thus elevated and perfected, the spiritual faculties in man can now perform acts worthy of a child of God, in reference to the Blessed Trinity.
But man in this life has not yet achieved that end. For this reason, he must not only be dynamically oriented to his end (which the theological virtues do); he must also be dynamically oriented toward the means to achieve that end. Thus a further set of operative habits is needed. These are the infused moral virtues. Chief among them are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. These four are the cardinal (“hinge”) virtues, upon which all the other moral virtues are hung. The moral virtues “do not have God as their immediate object – and in this they are distinguished from the theological virtues – but they rightly ordain human acts to the supernatural end, and in this way they are distinguished from the corresponding acquired natural virtues.”
They are thus summarized: Prudence is both an intellectual and a volitional virtue. It empowers the intellect to judge rightly and the will to command right actions. The remaining three cardinal virtues reside only in the will: Temperance restrains the concupiscible passions which incline us toward disordered use of touch and taste. Justice restrains the passions in their disordered pursuit of the things of this world, and disposes us to render to each (including God), what is his due. By fortitude, man pursues the good as it is arduous or difficult to attain, therefore it properly orders the irascible passions. St. Thomas catalogues over fifty moral virtues (not an exhaustive list) which are “parts” of these cardinal virtues, explaining that “For every act in which there is found a special aspect of goodness, man must be disposed by a special virtue.”
Besides the supernaturally infused moral virtues, there are also the acquired moral virtues that are natural and are virtues in the strict sense; that is, they are acquired by repeated actions. This important distinction I explain in The Mystery of the Moral Virtues. If you ever wonder why some Catholics look “bad” compared to “good” non-believers, please read it.
Besides the virtues, we also have another set of operative habits called the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. These perfect the virtues, while the virtues perfect the man. (How the gifts perfect the virtues, and which one perfects which, are discussed in The Relationship between the Virtues and the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.)
Let me conclude with a series of questions and answers about grace.
Can man merit (or “earn”) the grace of justification? No. To say otherwise is to deny the fundamental concept of grace, namely that it is an unmerited, that is to say, a gratuitous gift of God. There is nothing in man’s natural powers that suits him to merit this purely supernatural elevation.
What about a “perfect act of contrition”? Is that not earning or meriting grace? No! This is a perfect example of the relationship between actual grace and sanctifying grace. By moving our faculties to the performance of salutary acts, actual grace leads us to, gets us in, or increases in us the grace of justification, or “habitual grace.” The graces of conversion, compunction, and divine charity that are implicit in the “perfect act of contrition” absolutely require the divine assistance of actual grace.
Can we merit actual grace, whether or not we’re in the state of grace? Strictly speaking, no. But here we can make a distinction between strict merit (called condign merit) and the “quasi-merit” that we call congruous merit. The Catholic Encyclopedia thus explains the difference: “Condign merit supposes an equality between service and return; it is measured by commutative justice (justitia commutativa), and thus gives a real claim to a reward. Congruous merit, owing to its inadequacy and the lack of intrinsic proportion between the service and the recompense, claims a reward only on the ground of equity.” By congruous merit, we can procure actual graces and even temporal blessings that help us in working out our salvation. We can and should pray for these helps. Praying for such graces not only merits them (congruously), but also, as Saint Augustine says, disposes our souls to receive God’s gifts. The “equity” that is spoke of in the definition of congruous merit, applies to those in the state of grace.
When we are in the state of grace, can man merit an increase of sanctifying grace? Can we merit Heaven? Yes to both! The Council of Trent defined, “If any one saith . . . that the justified man by good works . . . does not truly merit [vere mereri] an increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life — if so be, however, that he depart in grace — and also an increase in glory; let him be anathema.” When our souls are posessed of sanctifying grace and the infused virtues, we can operate in the supernatural order. We can “lay up” to ourselves, “treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal” (Matt. 6:20).
I conclude with a brief consideration of the distinction between Saint Paul’s statement that Abraham was justified by faith, and Saint James’ statement that Abraham was justified by works. Abraham’s faith (living faith, that is, faith working by charity), a free gift of God’s grace, justified him. It brought him into the state of sanctifying grace. But his act of obedience to God in immolating Isaac (or being willing to, anyway, and making all the necessary preparations) made him “more just,” or “justified him still.” In other words, he grew in grace or became holier by this good work done in the state of grace. He did not merit the grace of conversion or of justification, but he did earn its increase after God justified him, and, in so doing, he merited a greater reward in Heaven.
Saint Thomas Aquinas divides actual grace into “operating” and “cooperating” grace. By operating grace, God moves the soul. By cooperating grace, we work with God. Cooperating grace is Saint Thomas’ name for merit. In this sense, as in the case of Abraham, even our merits are graces.