Divine Providence: A Doctrinal Overview

This Ad Rem is a “teaser.” It’s a section of the talk I will give in a couple of days at the Saint Benedict Center Conference. (If you are not coming, feel free to pre-order the CD’s and DVD’s of the talks. Downloadable MP3’s will be available after the conference.)

Note: Some of these comments in this section of my talk will be deliberately redundant.

THE Holy Trinity, in total and sovereign freedom, created the entire universe out of nothing. That is to say, the Creator was without any necessity or compulsion in His act of creation. God’s sole motive in creating was His own benevolence, that is, His goodness and love. The ultimate purpose of Creation is God’s own Glory. (So far, each of these sentences constitutes an article of faith that is de fide definita.) Secondarily and subordinated to His own glory, God created for the beatification or happiness of His rational creatures, that is, for man. This truth is clearly taught in scripture and the fathers. It is de fide catholica. But man’s beatitude itself is directed to God’s glory, so these two ends — one primary and essential, the other secondary and subordinate — are really of a piece with one another.

So what is divine providence? According to Blessed Severinus Boethius, who is quoted by Saint Thomas in the Summa, “Providence is the divine plan itself, seated in the Supreme Ruler, which disposes all things.” According to Saint John Damascene, providence is “the will of God by which all things are ruled according to right reason.” Providence is primarily and in a more restricted sense the plan that exists in the Divine Intellect by which creation will achieve its end, namely (as we already said), His glory. Secondarily, and in a looser sense, Providence is God’s actual implementation of that plan. This secondary sense is more properly called God’s “governance” of creation.

The Dictionary of Catholic Theology by Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo, gives us this nutshell definition:

providence, divine (Lat. providere or praevidere — “to see in advance”). The plan conceived in the mind of God, according to which He directs all creatures to their proper end. It is a part of prudence and refers mainly to the means to be chosen with reference to the end; it resides in the intellect, but presupposes the willing of the end; it precedes the government of things, which is the practical execution of providence.

Against the materialists, fatalists, pessimists, and deists of the eighteenth century, the Church defends divine providence (Vatican Council, DB, 1784), which shines out in the pages of Holy Scripture (cf. Wisd. 14, Matt. 6), and in the writings of the Fathers (…).

Reasons: (a) There is in the world an order and a tendency to the end; but this order, like all cosmic reality, must pre-exist intentionally in the mind of the First Cause. (b) God is not only the Efficient Cause, but also the Final Cause of all things, and as such must have conceived the means of directing back to Himself as to their supreme End, all created things. [Explain this sentence…]

No creature escapes this providential order, since providence is bound up with the divine causality and, like it, is universal. Therefore, free will also is subordinate to divine providence (Matt. 6:30), which does not disturb the order of nature, but conserves and directs it, using necessary causes to produce necessary effects and contingent causes, as human wills are, to obtain contingent and free effects. Physical and moral evil, which we see in the world, is not opposed to divine providence, if we consider: (1) that it is permitted, not caused directly by God; (2) that it depends on the deficiency of finite being; (3) that it is to be examined not in an isolated and particular way but in the framework of the universal order, which may demand the sacrifice of this or that particular thing.

Some of these ideas will be further explained as we proceed.

In 1208, the Waldensian heretics were given a profession of faith with contained the following:

“By the heart we believe and by the mouth we confess that the Father also and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, concerning whom we are speaking, is the creator, the maker, the ruler, and the dispenser of all things corporal and spiritual, visible and invisible. …” (Denz. 421)

The Council of Trent (on Justification) CANON VI, also teaches us about Divine Providence, under the aspect of God’s permissive will and evil:

“If any one saith, that it is not in man’s power to make his ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of Himself, in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less His own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let him be anathema.” [Break down.] Here we see the idea of God’s permissive will whereby He allows evil to exist without positively willing it.

Vatican I teaches us about the sweep of Divine Providence:

“God protects and governs by His Providence all things which He hath made, ‘reaching from end to end mightily, and ordering all things sweetly’ [Wisdom 8:1]. For ‘all things are bare and open to His eyes,’ even those which are yet to be by the free action of creatures” (Denz. 1784).

According to Saint Thomas, all things are subject to God’s providence. He cites as supporting text for this, the same passage from book of Wisdom we just saw used by Vatican I; that passage says of Wisdom, “She reacheth therefore from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly” (8:1) What Saint Thomas says in this connection regarding the presence of evil in the universe is worth quoting. It expands on what the author of the Dictionary of Theology wrote:

Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution. Thus Augustine says (Enchiridion 2): “Almighty God would in no wise permit evil to exist in His works, unless He were so almighty and so good as to produce good even from evil.”

While God does not wish even physical evil in itself and directly, he does will it to procure some greater good, such as the punishment or conversion of a sinner. Moral evil he does not will at all, either as an end or as a means to an end. He permits it passively only in consideration of man’s freedom. As Ludwig Ott puts it, “In the final end, moral evil will serve the supreme aim of the world, the glorification of God, in as much as it reveals His mercy in forgiving and His justice in punishing.”

According to Saint Thomas, God has immediate providence over all things. This means, in the words of Msgr. Glenn that, “Since all positive being is from God, everything has a place in God’s providence. And this in no mere general way, but in particular, in individual, down to the last and least detail of being and activity.” Yet, we are not robots or pre-programmed androids, as divine providence does not impose necessity on all things that God infallibly foresees. Some things He foresees as necessary, but others, as contingent. Thanks to this distinction of necessary and contingent things, human liberty is preserved, for human acts are all contingent on man’s free will.

God’s Providence is fixed. It is a plan (that is, a type or schema) that has existed in God’s mind from eternity and is therefore immutable, or unchangeable. Upon learning of this, some people ask why we should pray, or attempt in any other way to change things for the better. The answer to this is what we just said: that God foreknows all, some things as necessary (which He has positively willed to be so), and some as contingent (including things contingent upon the free will of rational agents). For us not to pray because God foreknows what will happen is like not walking because God knows we will get there eventually or not eating because God knows we will not starve to death. God, in his Wisdom, foresees both the ends and the means — and many of those means are acts of our free will. So when we work in the apostolate, or do anything for God’s glory and the salvation of souls, we are freely cooperating with God’s eternally fixed plan for disposing all things for His glory.

Theologians distinguish between three gradations of providence based upon their object: “general providence” which extends to all creatures, even inanimate ones, followed by “special providence” which applies to rational creatures, followed lastly by God’s “most special providence,” which applies to the elect. In these last two categories, the doctrine of grace enters into the question, as directing man to his last end entails the supernatural end of the Beatific Vision, for which grace is necessary. Because of this, Dominicans and Jesuits have fought tooth-and-nail over the particulars of the doctrine. But we do not have the leisure to enter into that historical controversy here.

For Saint Thomas, the way that the rational creature is directed to his end is by law. So, both the natural law and the supernaturally revealed law of the Old and New Testaments were given to man by the heavenly law-giver so that man could achieve his end, which, as Saint Thomas explicitly says, is happiness or beatitude. This fits in perfectly with the purpose of all creation from eternity: giving glory to God. A Psalm verse comes to mind here: “The Lord is sweet and righteous: therefore he will give a law to sinners in the way” (Ps. 24:8).