Saint Thomas on ‘the Division of Grace’

Saint Ignatius Loyola was, before becoming a saint, a man of practical affairs, being a career soldier and aristocrat. I say “before becoming a saint” using the narrow, strict notion of the word saint, that of being someone excellently holy, for he was already a saint in the broad sense when he was baptized as an infant. When a high degree of sanctity was super-added to his soldier’s practical sense and aristocratic chivalry, he did not lose those goods he had cultivated in his earlier life; rather, they were elevated. He thus became a model and practical guide to joining contemplation and action, prayer and work.

Jesuit hagiographer, Father Pedro de Ribadeneira, wrote a biography of his holy Founder less than two decades after the Saint’s heavenly birthday. In it, he writes this of Saint Ignatius:

In matters which he took up pertaining to the service of our Lord, he made use of all the human means to succeed in them, with a care and efficiency as great as if the success depended on these means; and he confided in God and depended on His providence as greatly as if all the other human means which he was using were of no effect.

This passage, truncated and heavily paraphrased, may be the origin of the quote attributed to Saint Ignatius (and sometimes to Saint Augustine!), but not found in any of his writings: “Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.” (See this piece by Trent Horn for a discussion of the authenticity of the quote; Mr. Horn is also my source for the quote from Padre de Ribadeneira.)

Whoever said it just in the way it has come down to us was not trying to solve some controversy concerning grace, such as that which had the Jesuits and the Dominicans at each other for over a century; rather, he was giving a practical piece of advice for joining trust in God (and its ultimate expression: confident prayer) with dedicated labor. Whether Saint Ignatius said it or not, it is Ignatian in spirit.

My objective in this Ad Rem is not to give practical advice about working hard; neither is it to show my readers how to pray. (There are many excellent works on the latter, and the Church herself does a masterful job of it in her liturgy.) My goal is limited to quickly summarizing the different kinds of grace that Saint Thomas distinguished. The application of this to what I have so far written is that in praying as if everything depends on God, we are asking for grace, while acting as if everything depends on us involves cooperation with grace. Being attentive to the doctrine of grace may help to inform and strengthen both the way we pray and how we act.

In the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, Question 111, Saint Thomas takes up “the division of grace.” One might find a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of this wisdom in Monsignor Paul Glenn’s Tour of the Summa, which is online here. While Saint Thomas speaks of grace in many, many places in his works, I will confine myself to the divisions explicitly stated (and one that is clearly implied) in this particular question of the Summa.

Grace Freely Given/Grace Which Makes Pleasing. The first division is discussed in article one of that question: that between “grace freely given” (gratia gratis data) and “grace which makes pleasing” (gratia gratum faciens). The former is any grace that is given to a person for the sanctification of another. These are sometimes called “charismatic graces.” As Saint Thomas says in the seventh article of this same question, these graces are enumerated by Saint Paul in 1 Cor. 12:8-10: “To one indeed by the Spirit is given the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; to another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another interpretation of speeches.” These graces are given to a man not for his own sanctification, but for the sanctification of others, i.e., as external signs that assist other people in accepting the faith or growing in grace. By its very nature, such a help is external to the person being sanctified because only God can work interiorly on the soul. (Yes, this is an example of that “secondary causality” we have written of here and here.)

Saint Thomas tells us, in the eighth article of this question, that “grace freely given” is less noble than “grace which makes pleasing.” Once we understand what this latter is, that claim should make sense. “Grace which makes pleasing” is synonymous with what we now call “sanctifying grace” as well as “justification”; it is that category which Saint Thomas called “habitual grace” as well as “grace which makes pleasing.” It is called “habitual grace” because it is a habit — i.e., something inhering as a more or less permanent quality of soul. This habit of sanctifying grace makes its recipient holy; for, by it, we are “made partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

What about Sanctifying and Actual Grace? This is a good place to note that, in an earlier question, Saint Thomas has distinguished between what we call “sanctifying grace” and “actual grace.” Here, in question 111 (article two), he summarizes that distinction thus: “As stated above (I-II:110:2) grace may be taken in two ways; first, as a Divine help, whereby God moves us to will and to act [i.e., “actual grace”]; secondly, as a habitual gift divinely bestowed on us [i.e., “habitual grace,” “grace which makes pleasing,” or “sanctifying grace”].” The distinction here is quite clear and sharp. Actual grace is God moving the soul to act. It is transient in nature, and terminates in the performance of a salutary act, either leading us to faith and habitual grace, or (once in grace), leading us to perform meritorious acts. Sanctifying or habitual grace, on the other hand, is a quality that God infuses and that abides in the soul.

Operating/Cooperating Grace. In response to the question, “Whether grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace?” Saint Thomas says:

[As pertaining both to “habitual grace” and “actual grace”] grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating. For the operation of an effect is not attributed to the thing moved but to the mover. Hence in that effect in which our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover, the operation is attributed to God, and it is with reference to this that we speak of “operating grace.”

God is the sole mover here. The human mind is “moved and does not move.” In other words, man is passive (and receptive), while God is active. Here God operates in us, but we do not operate at all. Saint Thomas continues:

But in that effect in which our mind both moves and is moved, the operation is not only attributed to God, but also to the soul; and it is with reference to this that we speak of “cooperating grace.”

Here, the human soul both is moved (passively) and moves (actively). Because the motion of grace moves the soul to the good, and the soul thus assisted moves itself, it now cooperates with God. Yet note, our grace-influenced motion is itself called a grace: “cooperating grace.” Saint Thomas goes on to explain this:

Now there is a double act in us. First, there is the interior act of the will, and with regard to this act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover; and especially when the will, which hitherto willed evil, begins to will good. And hence, inasmuch as God moves the human mind to this act, we speak of operating grace. But there is another, exterior act; and since it is commanded by the will, as was shown above (I-II:17:9) the operation of this act is attributed to the will. And because God assists us in this act, both by strengthening our will interiorly so as to attain to the act, and by granting outwardly the capability of operating, it is with respect to this that we speak of cooperating grace.

What the Angelic Doctor is saying in the last sentence is that even our cooperation with grace is a grace, because God both assists and continually sustains us in the supernaturally salutary act.

Saint Thomas cites a passage from Saint Augustine to back up his doctrine of operating and cooperating actual grace:

Hence after the aforesaid words Augustine subjoins: “He operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates that we may perfect.” And thus if grace is taken for God’s gratuitous motion whereby He moves us to meritorious good, it is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace.

All that has been said about operating and cooperating grace thus far pertains to the category of actual grace. Here, Saint Thomas goes on to explain how habitual grace (sanctifying grace) can also be divided into operating and cooperating:

But if grace is taken for the habitual gift, then again there is a double effect of grace, even as of every other form; the first of which is “being,” and the second, “operation”; thus the work of heat is to make its subject hot, and to give heat outwardly. And thus habitual grace, inasmuch as it heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called cooperating grace.

As an “accidental form” of the soul, habitual grace gives it a new, supernatural mode of being, but it also becomes the principle of operation in the supernatural order, the principle, that is, of supernaturally meritorious good works.

Prevenient/Subsequent Grace. The third division Saint Thomas names is translated into English by means of rarely used words — at least that is the case with the first of these. “Prevenient” simply means “coming before,” while “subsequent” means “following after.” (These are also called “preventing” and “consequent” grace, but preventing here means not forestalling, but coming before. Sometimes the simpler words are more confusing!)

Saint Thomas’ proof that such a division is valid is found in his sed contra (“on the contrary”): “God’s grace is the outcome of His mercy. Now both are said in Psalm 58:11: ‘His mercy shall prevent me,’ and again, Psalm 22:6: ‘Thy mercy will follow me.’ Therefore grace is fittingly divided into prevenient and subsequent.”

Monsignor Glenn summarizes this distinction as follows:

Grace which precedes an operation or state of the soul is prevenient grace; grace which follows a prior effect of grace is subsequent grace. Grace has five effects: (a) it heals the soul; (b) it awakens the desire for good; (c) it helps carry the desire for good to the actual achievement of good; (d) it gives perseverance; (e) it conducts the soul to glory. The same grace may be subsequent to one of these effects and prevenient to another.

It is important to note here that this distinction has nothing to do with the essence or nature of grace itself, but concerns itself exclusively with the temporal effects of grace. The same exact grace is “consequent” in respect to one effect and “prevenient” in respect to another effect. Saint Thomas cites Saint Augustine in this article: “It is prevenient, inasmuch as it heals, and subsequent, inasmuch as, being healed, we are strengthened; it is prevenient, inasmuch as we are called, and subsequent, inasmuch as we are glorified.”

At a superficial glance, this distinction may strike the reader as pointless, but I believe the value of it is to illustrate the dynamism and progressive nature of the life of grace. Like natural life itself, the interior life is far from static. Saint Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion, Chap. 32: “He precedes the unwilling, that he may will, and follows the willing lest he will in vain.” The words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians may be said to all the saints: “…you are God’s husbandry; you are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). God acts in each saint as an artist, Whose graceful brush strokes last a lifetime.

Both the the Collect for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost and an oration from the ancient Litany of the Saints are fine examples of how this division of grace has been incorporated into the Church’s traditional lex orandi.

Thus concludes my quick summary of Saint Thomas on the division of grace.

“Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.” Both to pray and to act, if these be done in a salutary manner, are the effects of Divine grace. By engaging in them willingly, we are cooperating with that grace. Cultivating a love for this precious commodity should incline us both to ask for it and to work with it that we, too, might — for the glory of the Holy and Undivided Trinity — be among God’s heavenly artworks.