Grace and the “Problem” of Man’s Desire for God

This problem is important in establishing the relationship of nature to grace because it offers something of a “test case” by which we can illustrate certain fundamental truths of the Catholic Faith. These truths regard man’s natural powers and the elevation of those powers by grace that he may achieve his final end, the Beatific Vision. Not only can we see these truths at work, but we can see them coalesce as harmonious parts of a greater whole which is the universal call to holiness in via and beatitude in patria.

Among the articles of the faith included in considering this problem are the necessity of grace, the gratuity of grace, man’s being capax Dei (capable of receiving God), the freedom of the will, and that, by grace, man is perfected, that is, he achieves the one end for which he was created by God. By the end of this paper, we will have seen how the proper solution to the problem at hand keeps each of these doctrines in its integrity.

We begin with the Augustinian doctrine that man is capax Dei[1]; he has a capacity to receive God. This capacity is fulfilled only in Heaven, where man achieves the purpose for which he was created. St. Augustine famously expressed it in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[2] This “restlessness” is a desire in man to find his ultimate rest in God.

While all Catholic theologians profess the existence of this desire, the “problem” comes in when the question is asked, In what does this desire for God consist and how is it fulfilled? Other questions immediately follow: Is this desire natural? If it is, then how is it that God does not “owe” us grace?

Over the years, Catholic theologians of different schools proposed solutions. Cardinal Cajetan’s (1469-1534) commentary on the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas answered the question of man’s desire for God by saying that it was no natural desire at all. Since there is nothing in man’s powers which corresponds to so high an end, then the desire cannot be natural to him. “Nature is not endowed with an inclination to something which the whole power of nature cannot arrive at.”[3]

Presuming that the desire for God is a moral desire, i.e., a desire of the will, the Cardinal rightly concluded that to posit a natural desire for God would destroy the gratuity of Grace (a “monstrous conclusion”[4]).

What he offered as a solution was that man, considered abstractly in “pure nature,” would have no desire for God at all. In such a hypothetical state, man would be content with a merely philosophical knowledge of God. But how to explain the capax Dei that he knew existed? The answer was that this man in “pure nature” never existed; he is merely an ens rationis. What did exist was Adam, created in original justice and therefore given the desire for God by grace. Therein lay the Cardinal’s explanation of man’s desire for God: This desire is not natural, not something found in man’s composite substance; it is, rather, an accident of the state in which man was first created.

The problem with this solution is that man can now be conceived to have two ends, one proper to his nature (a natural beatitude); the other, a result of grace (Heaven). This is itself a “monstrous conclusion,” since no being can have two ends, two purposes.

The next solution is that of modern theologians, Henri De Lubac and Karl Rahner. Each of them presented an alternative which avoided Cajetan’s error of the two ends, but which fell into an even worse error of drawing an artificial wedge between nature and grace. For De Lubac, it was the “supernatural finality” placed in nature. He considered this “supernatural finality” as independent of both (a) man’s creation as a spiritual being and (b) his vocation to live the divine life. “According to his solution, man can be considered in three ways. As pure nature, which is theoretical and abstract, as an individual concretized essence and as elevated to grace.”[5]

This solution is nominialistic because the man in “pure nature” it postulates never exists. This goes beyond Cardinal Cagetan’s ens rationis of man with a natural end, and proposes a non-extant category of man upon whose (nominal) existence the novel system depends.

Like De Lubac, Rahner spoke of three distinct realities: “(a) the state of nature ordered to grace; (b) the state of nature without this ordering and (c) grace.”[6] The German Jesuit has his own “wedge” between nature and grace: the “supernatural existential.”

Both of these modern theologians have vitiated not grace, but nature, by proposing man’s desire for God as something extrinsic to any of his natural faculties. He is not capax Dei; he has to be made so by the “wedge.” They fell into worse errors than Cardinal Cajetan, although they started off with the same misconception, viz., that the Capax Dei a moral desire for God.

The proper solution to the problem keeps nature real and grace both necessary and gratuitous, while maintaining that man has only one end to which he is called. This is St. Thomas’ solution that man’s desire for God is in the intellect, not in the will. Following the Aristotelian axiom that “all men by nature desire to know,” he offers that man naturally desires to know God as first cause:

“Besides, there is naturally present in all men the desire to know the causes of whatever things are observed. Hence, because of wondering about things that were seen but whose causes were hidden, men first began to think philosophically; when they found the cause, they were satisfied. But the search did not stop until it reached the first cause, for ‘then do we think that we know perfectly, when we know the first cause.’ Therefore, man naturally desires, as his ultimate end, to know the first cause. But the first cause of all things is God. Therefore, the ultimate end of man is to know God.”[7]

In subsequent passages of the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas goes on to show that a rational creature cannot be satisfied with a mere philosophical knowledge of God (the hypothetical “natural end” of Cajetan), but must know him in such as way that it leaves no knowledge to be further desired. Such a knowledge cannot be attained by the philosopher, nor the man with a “vague knowledge” of God garnered from creation. To St. Thomas, even the knowledge of God by faith cannot satisfy this desire for God, since this knowledge only inflames his desire the more (hence, St. Teresa of Avila’s “muero porque no muero.”[8]) What can satisfy man’s desire? St. Thomas answers that “it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to come in this life.”[9] Rather, it is to know God in Heaven, and in His very essense. This immediate knowledge of God is thus expressed by St. Paul: “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known.”[10]

St. Thomas’ solution to the problem has preserved for us the truths we proposed to examine at the beginning of this paper:

The gratuity of grace. This position could be accused, at first blush, of denying the gratuity of grace, given that it proffers a supernatural end to a natural faculty. However, such is not the case. As a natural agent, the intellect is the passive principle of man’s end. It has a dispositive receptive potential for the knowledge of God, one which cannot be put into act by its own power. This is analogous to the role of human parents participating with God in the begetting of new life. The parents provide the material cause, which has a dispositive receptive potential to be animated by an immortal soul, but God must infuse that formal cause. (This answers Cardinal Cajetan’s objection, cited above, that “Nature is not endowed with an inclination to something which the whole power of nature cannot arrive at.”)

Nothing in this Thomistic solution to the problem presumes that God “owes” it to His creature to actualize this potency. It would be just of Him not to do so.

The necessity of grace. God’s aid is necessary in this system. Without God’s prevenient and consequent grace both calling man to Faith, and sustaining him through the rest of the necessary stages in the process of justification, the dispositive receptive potential in the intellect will never be put into act.

Man’s being capax Dei. In placing man’s desire for God in the intellect, St. Thomas has given us the faculty in man which is ordered to God (that which was elusive to Cardinal Cajetan) “‘The natural desire is an inclination: the ordering of potency [in this case, the intellect] to its act, to its object, a tendency.’ Every potency has a natural desire of its act.”[11] It should be noted that this is not an appetitive motion or an “act” of the intellect. The intellect “desires” heavenly beatitude as a rock “desires” the ground when lifted above it.

The freedom of the will. In this system, the will remains free. “[M]an allows himself to be justified by grace by the disposition of his consenting will to the action of God.”[12]

That by grace, man is perfected, that is, he achieves the one end for which he was created by God. Perhaps it is in respecting this truth so completely that the Thomistic answer has succeeded in untying the Gordian Knot. “Man is called to an end by nature that he cannot attain by nature, but only by grace because of the exalted character of the end.”[13] We say “so completely” because the natural inclination in man, the necessity of grace, and the supernatural character of the end are clearly outlined as the terminus a quo, the terminus ad quem, and the via. All other solutions have failed in undermining one or more of these important foundation points.

[1]. “The mind is the image of God, in that it is capable of Him and can be partaker of Him.” St. Augustine, De Trinitate, XIV:8.

[2]. Confessions I,1,1, cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 30.

[3]. Cajetan, Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, I-II, 3, 8, cited in Mullady, O.P., S.T.D., Fr. Brian, Man’s Desire for God (Bloomington: 1stBooks, 2003), 2.

[4]. Class Notes, “Lesson One: The Natural Desire to see God – History,”

[5]. Class Notes, “Lesson One: The Natural Desire to see God – History,”

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 25, as cited in Class Notes, “Lesson Two: The Natural Desire to See God – Solution,”

[8]. St. Teresa of Avila, poem, “Vivo sin vivir en mí.”

[9]. Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 48, as cited in Class Notes, “Lesson Two: The Natural Desire to See God – Solution,”

[10]. 1 Cor. 13:12.

[11]. Mullady, 12. The first part of the passage is a citation from the class notes of Fr. Quintin Turiel, O.P., Il problema del destino umano in San Tommaso.

[12]. Ibid. 20.

[13]. Class Notes, “Lesson Two: The Natural Desire to See God – Solution,”