Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

10/5/2013 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When Pope Francis told the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari that atheists can be 'touched by grace,' he is absolutely right if he is referring to actual grace.  His response is solidly founded on Catholic dogma.  The Second Synod of Orange (529 AD) stated unequivocally that actual graces precede, even hound, those in a state of unbelief and mortal sin, their purpose then being to bring them from ungodliness to godliness.

Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

10/5/2013 (1 year ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: atheism, actual grace, Pope Francis, Scalfari, sanctifying grace


CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In his interview with the atheist founder of the Italian paper La Repubblica Eugenio Scalfari, the following discussion occurred:

Scalfari:  Do you feel touched by grace?
Pope Francis:  No one can know that.  Grace is not part of consciousness, it is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge nor reason.  Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.
Scalfari:  Without faith?  A non-believer?
Pope Francis:  Grace regards the soul.
Scalfari: I do not believe in the soul.   
Pope Francis:  You do not believe in it but you have one.   

Let us assume that this discussion pertains to supernatural grace.  We are all, after all--atheist included--recipients of natural graces.  Reason, conscience, the natural moral law in our hearts (which Bishop Lucidus in the 5th century referred to as the "first grace"), freedom, health, and prosperity are all examples of natural graces. 

If they were talking about natural grace, there would be no dispute on either side except who is the ultimate source of these natural graces and to what end they are to be used. 

The believer, naturally, would believe that the natural graces come from God the Creator.  The atheist really does not seem to have a good answer as to where these natural graces come from, since all their theories ultimately come down to the tautology: nature comes from nature.

It seems, then, that the two are talking about the order of redemption, the area where supernatural grace reigns.  This is quite certainly what the Pope has in mind since he says that "grace is not part of consciousness," that one cannot know if one is "touched by grace," and that it is something different from "knowledge or reason." 

These are indicators of supernatural graces, not of natural graces, because we are generally conscious of the natural graces.  We know whether we are rich, or famous, or healthy, or intelligent, and so forth.

Now, in Catholic doctrine, supernatural grace is distinguished into two kinds: There is sanctifying, habitual, justifying, or even "deifying" grace.  (These are different terms to describe the same underlying reality.)  But there is also a different kind of grace called actual grace. 

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church ( 2000) explains: "Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural" and "permanent" "disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love," and so to "live and act in keeping with God's call." 

The Catechism distinguishes habitual (=sanctifying=deifying=justifying) grace from actual grace.
 
Actual graces, the Catechism says "refer to God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification."  The graces involved in actual graces are transient, punctual, discrete.  Like sparks, like touches, like kisses, they come and they go.

It is difficult to know what grace--sanctifying or actual--is being talked about in this dialogue. 
Scalfari, who may not appreciate the distinction between sanctifying and actual grace, asks the question generally.  In response, the Pope does not distinguish either.  And it is difficult from the Pope's response to know what he has in mind. 

On the one hand, Pope Francis seems to suggest that grace is "the amount of light [of God] in our souls," which sounds like a metaphorical way of explaining sanctifying grace, since sanctifying deals with a state of being.  The Church also teaches that sanctifying grace can be increased, so we can speak intelligibly of things like "amount" of grace in our souls.

On the other hand, he speaks about being "touched by grace," which suggests a discrete actual grace, the grace involved in a particular act and which no longer is present after the act.

Since it is not clear what grace the atheist and the Pope were speaking about, I want to devote this article to the issue of atheists and actual graces, and the next article to the issue of atheists and sanctifying grace.

It would seem rather uncontroversial Catholic doctrine to propose that any human being--even the atheist--can be the recipient of actual graces. 

Indeed, atheists would never convert if they were not the recipient of actual graces to which they responded favorably.  Ultimately, it was their positive and free response to actual graces--very possibly without even knowing their source or even their existence--that eventually brought them to repentance, to conversion to God, and to the state of sanctifying grace by an act of faith in Christ and baptism--by water, by desire, or by blood. 

We know that atheists can and do convert; ergo, atheists qua atheists can be "touched by grace." 

There are former atheists who, with the prophet Isaiah, would acknowledge the truth:

I [God] was found by those who did not seek me.
I [God] revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.


(Isaiah 65:1; cf. Rom. 10:20)

So, if Pope Francis is referring to actual grace, then he is absolutely right.

Indeed, he is sitting on the rock of dogma on this one.

The Second Synod of Orange (529 AD) stated unequivocally that actual graces precede, even hound, all of us.  Even those of us in a state of unbelief and mortal sin are beneficiaries of actual graces, their purpose then being to bring us from ungodliness to godliness.

With his actual graces, God acts liberally even if unseen and unfelt.  We, however, may not so liberally respond.

That an atheist--or any human being--is the recipient of actual graces does not mean that he is saved.  Though actual graces are ordered to bring someone to sanctifying grace (if in a state of mortal sin or disbelief) and ordered to increase sanctifying grace in the justified soul, actual graces, in and of themselves, are not salvific: they do not save.

Actual graces may involve very small, even incidental matters: they may be behind the first step in a journey which leads back to God.  They may involve acts that are not particular religious, acts that are not acts of worship, acts that are even mundane or even imperfect.

Actual graces are found in the sludge and mud--the sloughs of despond--of all kinds of sinners and all kind of sin.  Actual grace does double duty there.  Actual graces are no respecter of persons and easily overcome such things as boundaries of creed, color, or culture. 

Actual grace is found in brothels, in abortion clinics, in concentration camps, in the opium den--in all the hells human build for themselves when they build without reference to God.

A controversial example of this aspect of actual grace is the example that Pope Benedict XVI suggested in his book Light of the World.  He suggested that a gay prostitute infected with AIDS who decided--for the first time in his life--to use a condom and think of someone else, might have been a response to an actual grace. 

This event he suggested "can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants."

The gay prostitute is mired in his sin, and is hardly saved or justified by this one act of faulty altruism, but in responding positively to this first step, he may have responded to an invisible prompting--an actual grace--of the God who so wants to bring him to the fullness of life in Christ.

To be sure, this one response is not enough.  It is perhaps the beginning of a journey back to God, to repentance, and to salvation.  That one positive response does not save, though it might incline one a little bit more to seeking the authentic good--God--and rejecting the apparent good which one has placed in front of God.

Which brings one to the point.  Actual graces in and of themselves do not save.  One can have been the recipient of a billion actual graces throughout one's life, and most of us, including atheists, probably are.  But if one is not in a state of sanctifying grace at the time of one's death, it avails one nothing.  There are many people in hell who have received actual graces while on earth.

In short, actual graces are necessary, but not sufficient for salvation.

So, yes, actual grace can touch a soul, even the soul of an atheist, even the atheist who is the most inveterate sinner.

But that's not all of it.  There is, however, another side to it. 

While God's actual grace can touch an atheist's soul, that soul can also not respond to it.  Actual graces are not irresistible.  A soul's freedom of rejection can be exercised in myriad ways.
 
He may not recognize it. 
He can parry the effort. 
He can brush it off. 
He can ignore it. 
He can outright reject it. 

Along with the good news that God wants to touch atheists with his actual graces and wants them freely to respond to them is the rule that is as true for atheists as it is for Catholics and is a necessary requirement of our human freedom:  "Many are called, but few are chosen."  (Matt. 22:14)  All of us, including the atheist, can abuse our dignity, and damn ourselves.

-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


Copywriter 2015 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2015
Universal:
Scientists: That those involved in scientific research may serve the well-being of the whole human person.
Evangelization: Contribution of women: That the unique contribution of women to the life of the Church may be recognized always.



Comments


More Living Faith

Give God control: 20 verses to help during anxiety and fear Watch

Image of

By Abigail James (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Terrorism, disease, natural disasters, war, violence and crime; we live in a world where we see and hear about horrors every day. People are dying every day, in your city, in my city, in a country on the other side of the world. I am afraid. It's hard not to be afraid. ... continue reading


Three type of people your life may be better off without Watch

Image of

By Hannah Raissa Marfil (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Have you ever wondered why you're wasting your energy dealing with the kind of person who brings you down? Or maybe you're the opposite - you're the one who loves too much and does not know how to say "No." MUNTINLUPA, PHILIPPINES (Catholic Online) - Reality says that ... continue reading


Frodo Baggins and St Therese: The Little Way Through Middle Earth Watch

Image of Frodo alone, while weighed down by the burden of the Ring, is not tempted to use it for his own long term glory, until at the last moment he weakens and the Ring's power infests his heart. 
Frodo is humble, but he is not weak, and what keeps him from being weak is his obedience

By Fr Dwight Longenecker

In giving us a humble hero Tolkien reminds us that it is the foolish things of God which overturn the wisdom of the world. Things are not what they seem. The small ones turn out to be mighty while the mighty are fallen. It is the secret agents of the world who ... continue reading


Drinking the Chalice of the Lord: Facing Suffering, Struggle and Failure Watch

Image of All of those who bear the name Christian are invited to follow the path of Jesus' struggle, to walk along with Him on the way of His rejection. We too are invited to climb the mountain of His great saving act of unmerited selfless Divine love. Golgotha beckons.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

James was the son of Zebedee and brother of John. From faithful stock, we see in this encounter that some forms of zeal may indeed be genetic. In fact, the zeal in both of these brothers caused the Lord to name them the Sons of Thunder.(Mk 3:14-17) However, human ... continue reading


Making a Lenten Retreat with Pope Francis: Learning from Elijah Watch

Image of There is a mystery here, deep and profound, yet as simple as the broom tree encounter of our teacher Elijah. God is searching for men and women who will surrender their lives in love to Him in this hour. Often, it takes the depletion of all of our own efforts and resources before we are willing to give up - and give in - to Him. When we do, the life of true faith begins. It is there we learn to hear the God of surrendered love in the whisper of the wind. It is there that we learn the Faith of Elijah, under the broom tree.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

In many respects, our life on this earth is a classroom of love and a continual invitation to holiness. As we age, we are given the opportunities we need to receive the graces we need to empty ourselves of all that clutters up our life - so that we can be free to ... continue reading


Pope Francis opens the Vatican to the homeless Watch

Image of The homeless are now being welcomed into the Vatican and are sleeping there overnight in sleeping bags donated by Pope Francis.

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)

Pope Francis has opened the Vatican to the homeless, providing them with sleeping accommodations. The number of homeless there has doubled in the past six months as the Pontiff makes a difference in the lives of so many people. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - ... continue reading


Your Catholic Voice Foundation (YCVF) Reports - what your generosity did for Syrian and Iraqi Christians in 2014!

Image of YCVF has helped thousands in need. You can be part of this success too. Help now!

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Your Catholic Voice Foundation 2014 Report - Last year, caring, devoted Catholics such as you made thousands of donations to care for Christians in Syria and Iraq. At this time, Your Catholic Voice Foundation would like to report how your donations made a ... continue reading


New rules for Vatican finance offices include protection for 'whistleblowers' Watch

Image of Publishing the new statutes in Italian on its Web site, the new rules governing the Vatican's finances went into effect on March 1. Pope Francis approved the statutes

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Those who find evidence of wrongdoing in the finances governing the Vatican will be protected under new rules. The guidelines governing the guidance, oversight and control of Vatican financial and administrative activities will include the power to levy ... continue reading


Former atheist shares with the world his unbelievable journey finding Jesus Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Journalist and Pastor Lee Strobel led a "narcissistic and profane" life before his conversion to Christianity in 1981. The former atheist spent two years interviewing experts and exploring theology, when he became overwhelmed by the evidence for Jesus Christ's ... continue reading


Catholic-raised beef. Yep, that's a thing! Watch

Image of A nun's life is filled with unexpected joys and happiness. For the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburnga, ranching and prayer fit perfectly.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

When many Americans think of monks and nuns, they imagine brown or black-clad cloistered people who do nothing but pray all day in perfect isolation from the rest of the world. It's a common misconception and perhaps it dissuades many from a life that is actually ... continue reading


All Living Faith News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

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

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10
5 Yahweh says this, 'Accursed be anyone who trusts in ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
1 How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 16:19-31
19 'There was a rich man who used to dress in purple ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for March 5th, 2015 Image

St. John Joseph of the Cross
March 5: St. John Joseph of the Cross was born about the middle of the ... 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