Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The Supernatural Order is the ensemble of effects exceeding the powers of the created universe and gratuitously produced by God for the purpose of raising the rational creature above its native sphere to a God-like life and destiny. The meaning of the phrase fluctuates with that of its antithesis, the natural order. Those who conceive the latter as the world of material beings to the exclusion of immaterial entities, or as the necessary mechanism of cause and effect to the exclusion of the free agency of the will, or again as the inherent forces of the universe to the exclusion of the extrinsic concurrence of God, quite consistently call supernatural all spiritual facts or voluntary determinations or Divine operations. There is no objection to that way of speaking provided the assertion of the supernatural so understood be not made, by a fallacious transference of meaning, to screen the negation of the supernatural as defined above. Catholic theologians sometimes call supernatural the miraculous way in which certain effects, in themselves natural, are produced, or certain endowments (like man's immunity from death, suffering, passion, and ignorance ) that bring the lower class up to the higher though always within the limits of the created, but they are careful in qualifying the former as accidentally supernatural ( supernaturale per accidens ) and the latter as relatively supernatural ( prœternaturale ). For a concept of the substantially and absolutely supernatural, they start from a comprehensive view of the natural order taken, in its amplest acceptation, for the aggregate of all created entities and powers, including the highest natural endowments of which the rational creature is capable, and even such Divine operations as are demanded by the effective carrying out of the cosmic order. The supernatural order is then more than a miraculous way of producing natural effects, or a notion of relative superiority within the created world, or the necessary concurrence of God in the universe ; it is an effect or series of effects substantially and absolutely above all nature and, as such, calls for an exceptional intervention and gratuitous bestowal of God and rises in a manner to the Divine order, the only one that transcends the whole created world. Although some theologians do not consider impossible the elevation of the irrational creature to the Divine order, v. g., by way of personal union, nevertheless it stands to reason that such an exalted privilege should be reserved for the rational creature capable of knowledge and love. It is obvious also that this uplifting of the rational creature to the supernatural order cannot be by way of absorption of the created into the Divine or of fusion of both into a sort of monistic identity, but only by way of union or participation, the two terms remaining perfectly distinct.

Not being an a priori conception but a positive fact, the supernatural order can only be known through Divine revelation properly supported by such Divine evidences as miracle, prophecy, etc. Revelation and its evidences are called extrinsic and auxiliary supernatural, the elevation itself retaining the name of intrinsic or, according to some, theological supernatural. There are three principal instances of such elevation:

  • The hypostatic union or the assumption of the Sacred Humanity of Christ into the personal dignity of the Son of God ;
  • The calling of the faithful angels to the beatific vision whereby they see always the face of the Father who is in heaven ( Matthew 18:10 ), and
  • The elevation of man to the state of grace here and glory hereafter.
  • The hypostatic union and the angelic supernatural are both closely connected with our own elevation. From St. John (i, 12-14) we know that the hypostatic union is the ideal and instrument of it, and St. Paul declares that the angels are "all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation " ( Hebrews 1:14 ). Leaving for separate treatment the auxiliary supernatural ( see R EVELATION ; M IRACLE ; P ROPHECY ), the hypostatic union ( see I NCARNATION ), and the angels' elevation ( see A NGELS ), this article deals with the supernatural order in man both in its history and analysis.

    Briefly, the history is this: From the beginning, man was raised, far above the claims of his nature, to a life which made him, even here below, the adopted child of God, and to a destiny which entitled him to the beatific vision and love of God in heaven. To these strictly supernatural gifts by which man was truly made partaker of the Divine nature ( 2 Peter 1:4 ) were added preternatural endowments, that is immunity from ignorance, passion, suffering and death, which left him "little lower than the angels " ( Psalm 8:6 ; Hebrews 2:7 ). Through their own fault, our first parents forfeited for themselves and their race both the God-like life and destiny and the angel-like endowments. In His mercy God promised a Redeemer who, heralded by ages of prophecy, came in the fulness of time in the person of Jesus Christ , the incarnate Son of God . By His Incarnation, labours, passion, and death, Jesus Christ restored mankind to its former Divine sonship and heavenly inheritance, if not to its quasi-angelic prerogatives, the virtue of Redemption being applied to us through the joint ministrations of the inner Spirit, and of the visible Church, in the form of actual helps, habitual sanctity, and the power of meriting Heaven.

    An analysis of the supernatural order, barely inaugurated by the Fathers, but brought to a point of great perfection by the Schoolmen and post-Tridentine theologians, discloses the various elements that make up order, that is an end, means, and laws. The end is man's destination to see God face to face and to love Him correspondingly. If, as will be shown, the intuitive vision of God is our true destiny and moreover transcends our highest natural powers, then we must be given means capable of attaining that end, that is supernatural. Those means can be no other than our own actions, but invested with a higher power that makes them meritorious of Heaven. Grace, both actual and habitual, is the source of that meriting power: while habitual grace, with its train of infused virtues or faculties raises our mode of being and operating to a sphere which is God's own, actual grace spurs us on to justification and, once we stand justified, sets in motion our supernatural powers causing them to yield good and meritorious works. In the supernatural order, as in all others, there are also specific laws. The work of man's sanctification depends in a manner on the general laws of the universe and most certainly upon the carrying out of all the moral precepts written in our hearts. Besides these laws which Christ came not to abolish, there are positive or freely established enactments ranging all the way from the Divinely appointed conditions of salvation to the revealed obligations and even the rules governing our growth in holiness. Glory and grace, being the central features of the supernatural order, special reference will be made to them both in the exposition of errors and the establishment of the Catholic doctrine.

    I. ERRORS

    The theories denying or belittling the supernatural order may be classified from the standpoint of both their historical appearance and logical sequence, into three groups according as they view the supernatural;

  • In our present de facto condition,
  • In the original status of man,
  • In its possibility and evidences.
  • To the first group belong Pelagianism and Semipelagianism. Influenced, no doubt, by the Stoic ideal and their own ascetic performances, the Pelagians of the fifth century so magnified the capacity of human nature as to pronounce natural to it both the beatific vision and the human acts by which it is merited. They were condemned by the Councils of Mileve and Carthage, 418. Less daring, the Semipelagians, censured by the Council of Orange (529), subtracted from the supernatural only certain phases of man's life as the beginning of faith and final perseverance. To this group belong also, in a manner, the false mystics of the fourteenth century, the Beghards condemned by the Council of Vienne (1312), for claiming that the rational creature possesses beatitude in itself without the help of the lumen gloriœ and Eckhart, whose identification of the Creator and the creature in the act of contemplation was censured by John XXII in 1329.

    To the second group belong the early Reformers and the Jansenist School, though in different degrees. Misinterpreting the still imperfect terminology of the Fathers who called natural, in the sense of original, the elevation of our first parents, the early Reformers held that, according to Patristic teaching and contrarily to the Schoolmen, that elevation was not supernatural. Their error, rejected by the Council of Trent (Sess. V, decretum de peccato originali, can. 1), was taken up again, but in a more refined form, by Baius who, indeed, designated as supernatural man's original condition but nullified the meaning of the word by stating that our first parent's elevation was demanded by and due to the normal condition of humanity. In spite of his condemnation by Pius V ( Denzinger, 9th ed., nn. 901, 903, 906, 922) he was followed by the Jansenist Quesnel and the pseudo-Synod of Pistoia, the former censured by Clement XI ( Denzinger, nn. 1249, 1250) and the latter by Pius VI ( Denzinger, nn. 1379, 1380, 1383). A confusion between the moral and the supernatural order, frequently found in the Baianist and Jansenist writings, was reproduced more or less consciously by some German theologians like Stattler, Hermes, Gunther, Hirsh, Kuhn, etc., who admitted the supernatural character of the other gifts but contended that the adoption to eternal life and the partaking of the Divine nature, being a moral necessity, could not be supernatural. That revival of an old error found a strong and successful opponent in Kleutgen in the second volume of his theology on the supernatural.

    To the third group belongs the Rationalist School from Socinus to the present Modernists. While the foregoing errors proceeded less from a direct denial than from a confusion of the supernatural with the natural order, the Rationalist error rejects it in its entirety, on the plea of philosophical impossibility or critical non-existence. The Syllabus of Pius IX and the Vatican Constitution "De fide catholica" ( Denzinger, n. 1655) checked for a while that radical Naturalism which, however, has reappeared lately in a still more virulent form with Modernism. While there is nothing common between Rosmini and the present Modernists, he may, all unwittingly, have paved the way for them in the following vaguely Subjectivist proposition: "The supernatural order consists in the manifestation of Being in the plenitude of its reality, and the effect of that manifestation is a God-like sentiment, inchoate in this life through the light of faith and grace, consummate in the next through the light of glory " (36th Rosminian proposition condemned by the Holy Office, 14 Dec., 1887). Preserving the dogmatic formulæ while voiding them of their contents, the Modernists constantly speak of the supernatural, but they understand thereby the advanced stages of an evolutive process of the religious sentiment. There is no room in their system for the objective and revealed supernatural: their Agnosticism declares it unknowable, their Immanentism derives it from our own vitality, their symbolism explains it in term of subjective experience and their criticism declares non-authentic the documents used to prove it. "There is no question now," says Pius X, in his Encyclical "Pascendi" of 8 Sept., 1907, "of the old error by which a sort of right to the supernatural was claimed for human nature. We have gone far beyond that. We have reached the point where it is affirmed that our most holy religion, in the man Christ as in us, emanated from nature spontaneously and entirely. Than this, there is surely nothing more destructive of the whole supernatural order."

    II. CATHOLIC DOCTRINE

    From the above documents, it may be summarized in three points: (1) The fact of man's elevation to grace and glory as against the Pelagian error ; (2) the supernatural character of that elevation as against the Protestant and Jansenist theory; and (3) as against Rationalism, its possibility and the validity of its credentials.

    1

    The fact of man's elevation, probably alluded to in the likeness of God imprinted in Adam ( Genesis 1:26 ), in the tree of life from which he was barred in consequence of his sin ( Genesis 3:22 ), and in the intimate union of man with God, as described in the Sapiential and Prophetic books, has its full expression in the discourses of Jesus Christ ( John 6 and 14 - 17 ), in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel compared with John, ii and iii, and in the introduction to several Epistles like I Cor., Eph., and I Pet. The direct and face-to-face vision of God is our future destiny ( 1 Corinthians 13:12 ; 1 John 3:2 ). In this world we are not in name only but in very fact the sons of God ( 1 John 3:1 ), being born anew ( 1 John 3:7 ) and having the charity of God infused in our hearts by the Holy Ghost who is given to us ( Romans 5:5 ). The emphasis laid by the early Fathers on man's deification has been shown elsewhere ( see A DOPTION ). In view of all this it is not true that the Fathers had not even a name to designate the supernatural, as is often asserted by modern critics. De Broglie (Le surnaturel, p. 45) shows that there were at least four different phrases to express the supernatural gifts : hyper physin (above nature ), adscititia (superadded), exothen tes ousias (foreign to the essence ), charis, charismata (gratuitous).

    2

    The gratuitous or supernatural character of the beatific vision was placed in bold relief by St. Paul ( 1 Timothy 6:15 ) and St. John (i, 18 and vi, 46). St. Irenæus merely paraphrases their teaching in the famous sentence : "Homo a se non videt Deum; ille autem volens videtur hominibus quibus vult, quando vult, quemadmodum vult; potens est enim in omnibus Deus" (Contra hæres., v, 20). Neither can one read such passages as Eph., i, 16-19 and iii, 14-21; Col., i, 10 sq.; II Pet., i, 4; etc., without realizing that the supernatural character of the intuitive vision applies likewise to present charity "which surpasses all knowledge ". The transcendence of the supernatural order, not only above our present de facto condition, but also above our native constitution viewed philosophically in the elements and properties and exigencies of human nature, is not emphasized in early Christian literature, which deals not with abstractions. St. Paul, however, describing the rôle of the Redeemer which is to renovate, repair, and restore, comes very near the point by hinting that our present, clearly supernatural elevation is but a return to the no less supernatural condition of the "old Adam"; and while the point is not fully discussed by the Fathers before the Pelagian controversies concerning original sin, yet some passing remarks by St. Irenæus (Contra hæres., III, xviii, 1, 2) and St. John Chrysostom (X Homily on St. John, 2) show that there is no chasm between the early Fathers, St. Augustine, who presented a bold, if not finished, delineation of the supernatural as such, and the Schoolmen and post-Tridentine theologians (as Soto, "De natura et gratia"; Ripalda, "De ente supernaturali"; Francisco Suárez, "De variis statibus") who carefully distinguished the various states of human nature. Ripalda's opinion to the effect that the beatific vision which is de facto supernatural to the whole actual creation might become natural to some possible higher creature, has never been formally condemned by the Church ; it is however unanimously rejected by theologians, as it seems less conformable to Scriptural sayings and tends to destroy the absolute transcendence of the supernatural order.

    3

    The philosophical possibility and the critical ascertainment of the supernatural order are the central point of Christian apologetics. Against the prejudicial views of the Rationalists who pronounce it inexistent, or unnecessary, or mischievous, or even impossible, Christian apologists urge, and to good purpose, the critical value of the records on which it rests, its quasi-necessity for the correct conduct of life, the profits it brings to its recipients, and the utter want of foundation of its so-called antinomies. Having thus cleared the ground, they proceed to collect and interpret and organize the various data of Revelation, the result being a harmonious and truly grandiose system of overlife. From the commonly received axiom that "grace does not destroy but only perfects nature " they establish between the two orders a parallelism that is not mutual confusion or reciprocal exclusion, but distinction and subordination. The Schoolmen spoke freely of nature's possibilities ( potentia obedientialis ) and even conations ( appetitus naturalis ) towards the supernatural. To those traditional methods and views some Christian writers have, of late, endeavoured to add and even substitute another theory which, they claim, will bring the supernatural home to the modern mind and give it unquestionable credentials. The novel theory consists in making nature postulate the supernatural. Whatever be the legitimity of the purpose, the method is ambiguous and full of pitfalls. Between the Schoolmen's potentia obedientialis and appetitus moralis and the Modernist tenet according to which the supernatural "emanates from nature spontaneously and entirely" there is space and distance; at the same time, the Catholic apologist who would attempt to fill some of the space and cover some of the distance should keep in mind the admonition of Pius X to those " Catholics who, while rejecting immanence as a doctrine, employ it as a method of apologetics, and who do this so imprudently that they seem to admit that there is in human nature a true and rigorous necessity with regard to the supernatural order and not merely a capacity and suitability for the supernatural such as has at all times been emphasized by Catholic apologists " (Encyclical "Pascendi").


    More Encyclopedia

    The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

    Catholic Encyclopedia

    Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

    No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

    Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

    Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


    Newsletters

    Newsletter Sign Up icon

    Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

    Daily Readings

    Reading 1, First Corinthians 1:1-9
    1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of ... Read More

    Psalm, Psalms 145:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
    2 Day after day I shall bless you, I shall praise ... Read More

    Gospel, Matthew 24:42-51
    42 'So stay awake, because you do not know the day ... Read More

    Saint of the Day

    Saint of the Day for August 28th, 2014 Image

    St. Augustine of Hippo
    August 28: St. Augustine of Hippo is the patron of brewers because of his ... Read More

    Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

    Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

    Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


    Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

    Follow us on Twitter