Skip to content

We ask you, humbly: don't scroll away.

Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you.

Help Now >

Actual Grace

Free World Class Education
FREE Catholic Classes

Grace ( gratia, Charis ), in general, is a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures (men, angels ) for their eternal salvation, whether the latter be furthered and attained through salutary acts or a state of holiness.

Before the Council of Trent, the Schoolmen seldom distinguished actual grace from sanctifying grace. But, in consequence of modern controversies regarding grace, it has become usual and necessary in theology to draw a sharper distinction between the transient help to act (actual grace) and the permanent state of grace (sanctifying grace). For this reason we adopt this distinction as our principle of division in our exposition of the Catholic doctrine. In this article we shall treat only of actual grace. (See also SANCTIFYING GRACE.)

Actual grace derives its name, actual , from the Latin actualis ( ad actum ), for it is granted by God for the performance of salutary acts and is present and disappears with the action itself. Its opposite, therefore, is not possible grace, which is without usefulness or importance, but habitual grace, which causes a state of holiness, so that the mutual relations between these two kinds of grace are the relation between action and state , not those between actuality and potentiality . Later, we shall discuss habitual grace more fully under the name of sanctifying or justifying grace. As to actual grace, we have to examine: (1) its Nature; (2) its Properties. The third, and difficult, question of the relationship between grace and liberty shall be reserved for discussion in the article CONTROVERSIES ON GRACE.


To know the nature of actual grace, we must consider both the comprehension and the extension of the term. Its comprehension is exhibited to us by (a) its definition; its extension, by the complete enumeration of all Divine helps of grace; in other words, by (b) the logical division of the idea, inasmuch as the sum of all the particulars represents, in every science, the logical extent of an idea or term.

A. The Definition of Actual Grace

The definition of actual grace is based on the idea of grace in general, which, in Biblical, classical, and modern language, admits of a fourfold meaning. In the first place, subjectively, grace signifies good will, benevolence; then, objectively, it designates every favour which proceeds from this benevolence and, consequently, every gratuitous gift ( donum gratuitum, beneficium ). In the former (subjective) sense, the king's grace grants life to the criminal condemned to death; in the latter (objective) sense the king distributes graces to his lieges. In this connection grace also stands for charm, attractiveness; as when we speak of the three Graces in mythology, or of the grace poured forth on the lips of the bridegroom (Ps. xliv, 3), because charm calls forth benevolent love in the giver and prompts him to the bestowal of benefactions. As the recipient of graces experiences, on his part, sentiments of gratefulness, and expresses these sentiments in thanks, the word gratiae (plural of gratia ) also stands for thanksgiving in the expressions gratias agere and Deo gratias , which have their counterpart in the English, to say grace after meals.

A comparison of these four senses of the word grace reveals a clear relationship of analogy among them, since grace , in its objective signification of "gratuitous gift" or "favour", occupies a central position around which the other meanings may be logically grouped. For the attractiveness of the recipient as well as the benevolence of the giver is the cause, whereas the expression of thanks which proceeds from the grateful disposition is the effect, of the gratuitous gift of grace. This last-mentioned meaning is, consequently the fundamental one in grace. The characteristic idea of a free gift must be taken in the strict sense and exclude merit in every form, be it in the range of commutative justice as, e.g., in sale and purchase, or in that of distributive justice, as is the case in the so-called remunerations and gratuities. Hence St. Paul says: "If by grace, it is not now by works: otherwise grace is no more grace" ( Romans 11:6 ).

True, even gratuitous Divine gifts may still fall within the range of mere nature. Thus we petition God, under the guidance of the Church, for mere natural graces, as health, favourable weather, deliverance from plague, famine, and war. Now such natural graces, which appear simultaneously as due and gratuitous, are by no means a contradiction in themselves. For, first, the whole creation is for mankind a gratuitous gift of the love of God, whom neither justice nor equity compelled to create the world. And secondly the individual man can, in virtue of his title of creation, lay a rightful claim only to the essential endowments of his nature. Goods granted over and above this class, though belonging to the just demands of human nature in general, have for him the significance of an actual grace, or favour, as, for example, eminent talents, robust health, perfect limbs, fortitude. We would have omitted mentioning this so-called "grace of creation", had not Pelagius, by emphasizing the gratuitous character of such natural graces, succeeded, at the Synod of Diospolis or Lydda (A.D. 415) in deluding the unsuspecting bishops in regard to the dangers of his heresy. The five African bishops, Augustine among them, in their report to Pope Innocent I, rightly called attention to the fact that Pelagius admitted only the grace through which we are men, but denied grace properly so called, through which we are Christians and children of God. Whenever Scripture and tradition speak simply of grace , reference is made to a supernatural grace which is opposed to natural grace as to its contrary and lies so far beyond all rightful claim and strenuous effort of the creature that it remains positively undue to the already existing nature, because it includes goods of a Divine order, as, e.g., Divine sonship, indwelling of the Spirit, vision of God. Actual grace is of this kind, because as a means, it stands in intrinsic and essential relation to these Divine goods which are the end. As a consequence, the most important element characteristic of its nature must be the supernatural.

As a further determining factor must be added its necessary derivation from the merits of Christ's redemption ; for there is the question of Christian grace. In the Thomist theory of redemption, which considers not Christ, but the Trinity, as the cause of grace in the angels and in our first parents in Paradise, the addition of this new characteristic appears self-explanatory. As to the Scotists, they derive each and every supernatural grace in heaven and on earth solely from the merits of Christ, inasmuch as the God-Man would have appeared on earth even had Adam not sinned. But they, too, are compelled to introduce, in the present dispensation, a distinction between the "grace of Christ" and the "grace of the Redeemer" for the reason that, in their ideal theory, neither the angels nor the inhabitants of Paradise owe their holiness to the Redeemer. The addition, ex meritis Christi , must therefore be included in the notion of actual grace. But there are also merely external graces, which owe their existence to the merits of Christ's redemption -- as the Bible, preaching, the crucifix, the example of Christ. One of these, the hypostatic union, marks even the highest point of all possible graces. The Pelagians themselves sought to outdo one another in their encomiums on the excellency of Christ's example and its effectiveness in suggesting pious thoughts and salutary resolutions. They thus endeavoured to avoid the admission of interior graces inherent in the soul; for these alone were opposed to Pelagius' proudly virtuous supremacy of the free will ( liberum arbitrium ), the whole strength of which resided within itself. For this reason the Church all the more emphatically proclaimed, and still proclaims, the necessity of interior grace for which exterior graces are merely a preparation. Yet there are also interior graces which do not procure the individual sanctification of the recipient, but the sanctification of others through the recipient. These, by the extension of the generic term to specifically designate a new subdivision, are, by antonomasia, called gratuitously given graces ( gratia gratis datae ). To this class belong the extraordinary charismata of the miracle-worker, the prophet, the speaker of tongues, etc. (see 1 Corinthians 12:4 sqq. ), as well as the ordinary powers of the priest and confessor. As the object of these graces is, according to their nature, the spread of the Kingdom of God on earth and the sanctification of men, their possession in itself does not exclude personal unholiness. The will of God, however, is that personal righteousness and holiness should also distinguish the possessor. With regard to the personal holiness of man, only that interior grace is of importance which is interiorly inherent in the soul and renders it holy and pleasing to God. Hence its name, ingratiating grace ( gratia gratum faciens ). To this category belongs not only sanctifying, but also actual grace.

Taking into account, then, all the elements so far considered, we may define actual grace as a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ.

It is called a "help of God for salutary acts", because, on the one hand, it differs from permanent sanctifying grace, in that it consists only in a passing influence of God on the soul, and, on the other, it is destined only for actions which have a necessary relation to man's eternal salvation. It is further called a "supernatural help" so as to exclude from its definition not only all merely natural graces, but also, in a special manner, ordinary Divine conservation and concurrence (concursus generalis divinus). Finally, the "merits of Christ " are named as its meritorious cause because all graces granted to fallen man are derived from this one source. It is for this reason that the prayers of the Church either invoke Christ directly or conclude with the words: Through Jesus Christ Our Lord .

We have laid down above, as the most important characteristic of the nature of actual (and of every Christian) grace, its supernatural character. This was done partly because a deeper insight into its nature may be gained from the analysis of this element. As pure nature is in itself completely incapable of performing salutary acts through its own strength, actual grace must come to the rescue of its incapacity and supply the deficient powers, without which no supernatural activity is possible. Actual grace thus becomes a special causal principle which communicates to impotent nature moral, and especially physical, powers. Grace, as a moral cause, presupposes the existence of obstacles which render the work of salvation so difficult that their removal is morally impossible without special Divine help. Grace must be brought into operation as healing grace (gratia sanans, medicinalis); free will, bent towards the earth and weakened by concupiscence, is yet filled with love of good and horror of evil. The consciousness of the necessity of this moral influence may become so perfect that we beg of God the grace of a violent victory over our evil nature; witness the celebrated prayer of the Church: "Ad te nostras, etiam rebelles, compelle propitius voluntates" (Vouchsafe to compel our wills to Thee albeit they resist). In the ordinary course of things the Divine inspiration of joy in virtue and aversion from sin will, no doubt, methodically lead to the free performance of salutary acts; but the moral influence of grace can effect the temporary control of freedom in the sinner. The sudden conversion of the Apostle Paul is an illustration of this. It will be readily understood that the above-mentioned triumph over the obstacles to salvation demands in itself a grace which is natural only in substance, but supernatural in mode. Hence many theologians require even for the so-called state of pure nature (which never existed) such natural graces as are mere remedies against the fomes peccati of natural concupiscence. The end of supernatural bliss and the consequently necessary endowment with supernatural means of grace would not have existed in this state (status natura purae), but the disastrous results of an evil tendency unbridled would have been experienced to the same extent as after the fall.

More important than the moral causality of grace is its physical causality, for man must also receive from God the physical power to perform salutary works. Without it, activity in the order of salvation is not only more difficult and laborious, it is altogether impossible. The feet of a child, to draw a comparison from actual life, may be so weak that a mere moral influence, such as the holding out of a beautiful toy, will not suffice to enable it to walk without the physical support of the mother -- the use of the leading-strings. The latter situation is the one in which man is placed with regard to supernatural activity.

From the question which is to be discussed later, and which regards the metaphysical necessity of grace for all salutary acts, whether of an easy or difficult nature, it follows, with irresistible logic, that the incapacity of nature cannot be ascribed solely to a mere weakened condition and moral difficulties resulting from sin, but that it must be attributed also, and principally, to physical inability. The communication of the physical power to the soul admits, theologically, of only one interpretation, namely, that grace raises the faculties of the soul (intellect and will) above their natural constitution into a supernatural sphere of being, and thus renders them capable of substantially supernatural operations. The reason why, through our inner consciousness, we can gain no psychological knowledge of this higher activity of the soul lies in the fact that our self-consciousness extends solely to the acts, and in no wise to the substance, of the soul. From this same fact arises the philosophical necessity of proving the spirituality, the immortality, and the very existence of the human soul from the characteristic nature of its activity. Inexorable theological logic postulates the supernatural nature of the acts tending towards our salvation, because theological faith, for example, "the beginning, foundation, and source of all justification", must certainly be of the same supernatural order as the intuitive vision of God to which it ultimately leads. The necessity of the physical causality of grace, as is readily seen, is nowise dependent on the existence of concupiscence, but remains just as imperative for our first parents in their state of innocence and for the angels subject to no evil tendency. Actual grace, therefore, considered under this aspect, bears the name of "elevating grace" ( gratia elevans ), though not in a sense which would exclude from it the possibility of simultaneously fulfilling the moral function of healing grace in the present state of man. It is only after these considerations that the comprehension of the nature of actual grace in all its relations becomes possible, that we may say, with Perrone: Actual grace is that unmerited interior assistance which God, in virtue of the merits of Christ, confers upon fallen man in order to strengthen, on the one hand, his infirmity resulting from sin and, on the other, to render him capable, by elevation to the supernatural order, of supernatural acts of the soul, so that he may attain justification, persevere in it to the end, and thus enter into everlasting life.

B. The Logical Division of Actual Grace

The logical division of actual grace should enumerate all the kinds to which the definition is universally applicable. If we adopt the different faculties of the soul as our principle of division, we shall have three kinds: graces of the intellect, of the will, and of the sensitive faculties. With regard to the consent of the will we distinguish two pairs of graces: first, preventing and co-operating; then efficacious and merely sufficient grace. It must be immediately shown that all these graces are no arbitrarily invented entities, but actually existing realities.

1. Graces of the Different Faculties of the Soul

The illuminating grace of the intellect ( gratia illuminationis, illustrationis ) first presents itself for consideration. It is that grace which in the work of salvation suggests good thoughts to the intellect. This may happen in a twofold manner, either mediately or immediately. The existence of mediate graces of the mind is not only vouched for a priori by the presence of merely external graces, as when a stirring sermon or the sight of the crucifix forces the sinner to earnest reflection; it is also explicitly attested by Holy Writ where the "commandment of the Lord" is represented as "enlightening the eyes" (Ps. xviii 9), and the external example of Christ as a model for our imitation (I Pet., ii, 21). But, as this mediate grace need neither interrupt the psychological course of the law governing the association of ideas nor be of a strictly supernatural nature, its sole object will be to prepare unostentatiously the way for a grace of greater importance and necessity, immediate illuminating grace. In the latter, the Holy Ghost Himself through immediate elevation and penetration of the powers of the mind prompts the soul and manifests to it in a supernatural light the eternal truths of salvation. Though our sacred discourses be perfect masterpieces of eloquence, though our picture of the wounds of the crucified Saviour be ever so vivid and realistic, they alone can never be the first step towards the conversion of a sinner, except when God by a vigorous impulse stirs the heart and, according to an expression of St. Fulgentius (Ep. xvii, De incarn. et grat., n. 67), "opens the ear of the interior man". St. Paul acknowledges, also, that the faith which his own preaching and that of his disciple Apollo had sown in Corinth, and which, under their "planting and watering" (mediate grace of preaching), had taken root, would have miserably perished, had not God himself given "the increase". (See 1 Corinthians 3:6 : "Ego plantavi, Apollo rigavit, sed Deus incrementum dedit.") Among the Fathers of the Church none has more strongly emphasized the fruitlessness of preaching without interior illumination than the Doctor of Grace, Augustine, who says among other things: "Magisteria forinsecus adjutoria quaedam sunt et admonitiones; cathedram in caelo habet qui corda tenet" ("Instruction and admonition help somewhat externally, but he who reaches the heart has a place in heaven" -- Tract. III, 13, in I Joh.). The more speculative question may now be asked: Whether the mediate and immediate grace of the mind affects the idea, the judgment, or the reasoning. There can be no doubt that it primarily influences the judgment ( judicium ), be the latter theoretical (e.g. on the credibility of revelation) or practical (e.g. regarding the hideous character of sin). But the reasoning process and the idea ( apprehensio ) may also become a grace of the mind, firstly, because they both belong to the essence of human knowledge, and grace always operates in a manner conformable to nature; secondly because ideas are in final analysis but the result and fruit of condensed judgments and reasonings.

Besides the grace of the mind, the strengthening grace of the will (generally called gratia inspirationis ) plays not only the most important, but an indispensable, part, for no works of salvation are even thinkable without operations of the will. It may also be either mediate or immediate, according as the pious affections and wholesome resolutions are awakened in the soul by the immediately preceding illumination of the mind or by God Himself (by appropriation the Holy Ghost). Owing to the psychological interpenetration of cognition and volition, every (mediate or immediate) grace of the mind is in itself also a grace affecting the will. This twofold action -- on intellect and will -- has therefore the significance of two different acts of the soul, but of only one grace. Consequently, immediate elevation and motion of the will by the Holy Spirit can alone be considered a new grace. The Pelagians logically denied the existence especially of this grace, even if, according to the improbable opinion of some historians of dogma, they were forced by Augustine in the course of the debate to admit at least the immediate grace of the mind. Augustine threw in the whole weight of his personality in favour of the existence and necessity of the grace of the will, to which he applied the names, delectatio caelestis, inspiratio dilectionis, cupiditas boni , and the like. The celebrated Provincial Council of Carthage (A.D. 418) confirmed his teaching when it declared that grace does not simply consist in the manifestation of the Divine precepts whereby we may know our positive and negative duties, but it also confers upon us the power to love and accomplish whatever we have recognized as righteous in things pertaining to salvation (cf. Denzinger, "Enchiridion", 10th ed., n. 104, Freiburg, 1908). The Church has never shared the ethical optimism of Socrates, which made virtue consist in mere knowledge, and held that mere teaching was sufficient to inculcate it. If even natural virtue must be fought for, and is acquired only through energetic work an constant practice, how much more does not a supernatural life of virtue require the Divine help of grace with which the Christian must freely co-operate, and thus advance by slow degrees in perfection. The strengthening grace of the will, like the grace of the mind, assumes the form of vital acts of the soul and manifests itself chiefly in what are called affections of the will. Scholastic psychology enumerates eleven such affections, namely: love and hatred, delight and sadness, desire and aversion, hope and despair, daring and fear, finally, anger. This whole list of feelings has, with the sole exception of despair, which imperils the work of salvation, a practical significance in relation to good and evil; these affections may therefore develop into real graces of the will. But, inasmuch as all motions of the will may be ultimately reduced to love as fundamental feeling (cf. St. Thomas, Summa I-II:25:2 ), the functions of the grace of the will may be systematically focussed in love; hence the concise declaration of the above-mentioned Synod of Carthage (1. c.): "Cum sit utrumque donum Dei, et scire Quid facere debeamus et diligere ut faciamus" (Since both are gifts of God -- the knowing what we ought to do, and the desire to do it). But care must be taken not to understand immediately, by this "love", perfect love of God, which comes only at the end of the process of justification as the crowning-stone of the edifice, even though Augustine (De Trinit., VIII, 10, and frequently) honours with the name caritas the mere love for good and any good motion of the will whatsoever. Berti (De theol. discipl., XIV, 7), therefore, is wrong when he asserts that, according to Augustine, the only grace properly so called is the theological virtue of charity. Are faith, hope, contrition, fear, only graces improperly so called, or do they become graces in the true sense only in connection with charity?

It cannot be determined with certainty of faith whether to the graces of mind and will so far spoken of should be added special actual graces affecting the sensitive faculties of the soul. But their existence may be asserted with great probability. For if, according to an appropriate remark of Aristotle (De anima, I, viii), it is true that thinking is impossible without imagination, supernatural thought also must find its originator and point of support in a corresponding phantasm to which, like the ivy on the wall, it clings and thus creeps upward. At any rate, the harmonious agreement of the grace of the intellect with the accompanying phantasm can but be of favourable influence on the soul visited by grace. It is likewise clear that in the rebellious motions of concupiscence, which reside in the sensitive faculties, the grace of the will has a dangerous enemy which must be overcome by the infusion of contrary dispositions, as aversion from sin, before the will is aroused to make firm resolutions. Paul, consequently, thrice be sought the Lord that the sting of the flesh might depart from him, but was answered: "Sufficit tibi gratia mea" (II Cor. xii, 9).

2. Graces regarding Free Will

If we take the attitude of free will as the dividing principle of actual grace, we must first have a grace which precedes the free determination of the will and another which follows this determination and co-operates with the will. This is the first pair of graces, preventing and co-operating grace ( gratia praeveniens et cooperans ). Preventing grace must, according to its physical nature consist in unfree, indeliberate vital acts of the soul; co-operating grace, on the contrary, solely in free, deliberate actions of the will. The latter assume the character of actual graces, not only because they are immediately suggested by God, but also because they may become, after the achievement of success, the principle of new salutary acts. In this manner an intense act of perfect love of God may simultaneously effect and, as it were, assure by itself the observance of the Divine commandments. The existence of preventing grace, officially determined by the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, cap. v), must be admitted with the same certainty as the facts that the illuminating grace of the intellect belongs to a faculty not free in itself and that the grace of the will must first and foremost exhibit itself in spontaneous, indeliberate, unfree emotions. This is proved by the Biblical metaphors of the reluctant hearing of the voice of God (Jer., xvii, 23; Ps. xciv, 8), of the drawing by the Father (John, vi, 44), of the knocking at the gate (Apoc., iii, 20). The Fathers of the Church bear witness to the reality of preventing grace in their very appropriate formula: "Gratia est in nobis, sed sine nobis", that is, grace as a vital act is in the soul, but as an unfree, salutary act it does not proceed from the soul, but immediately from God. Thus Augustine (De grat. et lib. arbitr., xvii 33), Gregory the Great (Moral., XVI, x), Bernard of Clairvaux (De grat. et lib. arbitr., xiv), and others. As the unfree emotion of the will are by their very nature destined to elicit free salutary acts, it is clear that preventing grace must develop into helping or co-operating grace as soon as free will gives its consent. These free salutary acts are, according to the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, cap. xvi), not only actual graces, but also meritorious actions ( actus meritorii ). There is just as little doubt possible regarding their existence as concerning the fact that many men freely follow the call of grace, work out their eternal salvation, and attain the beatific vision, so that the dogma of the Christian heaven proves simultaneously the reality of co-operating graces. Their principal advocate is Augustine (De grat. et lib. arbitr., xvi, 32). If the more philosophical question of the co-operation of grace and liberty be raised, it will be easily perceived that the supernatural element of the free salutary act can be only from God, its vitality only from the will. The postulated unity of the action of the will could evidently not be safeguarded, if God and the will Performed either two separate acts or mere halves of an act. It can exist only when the supernatural power of grace transforms itself into the vital strength of the will, constitutes the latter as a free faculty in actu primo by elevation to the supernatural order, and simultaneously co-operates as supernatural Divine concurrence in the performance of the real salutary act or actus secundus. This co-operation is not unlike that of God with the creature in the natural order, in which both perform together one and the same act, God as first cause ( causa prima ), the creature as secondary cause ( causa secunda ). For further particulars see St. Thomas, "Contra Gent.", III, lxx.

A second pair of graces important for the understanding of the controversies on grace is that of efficacious and merely sufficient grace ( gratia efficax et mere sufficiens ). By efficacious grace is understood that Divine assistance which, considered even in actu primo , includes with infallible certainty, and consequently in its definition, the free salutary act; for did it remain inefficacious, it would cease to be efficacious and would therefore be self-contradictory. As to whether the infallibility of its success is the result of the physical nature of this grace or of the infallible foreknowledge of God ( scientia media ) is a much debated question between Thomists and Molinists which need not be further treated here. Its existence, however, is admitted as an article of faith by both sides and is established with the same firmness as the predestination of the elect or the existence of a heaven peopled with innumerable saints. As to "merely sufficient grace", Calvinists and Jansenists have, as is well known, eliminated it from their doctrinal system. They admitted only efficacious graces whose action overpowers the will and leaves no room for freedom. If Jansen (d. 1638) nominally admitted "sufficient grace", calling it "little grace" ( gratia parva ), he understood by it, in reality, only "insufficient grace", i.e. "one from which no action can result, except its insufficiency be removed by another grace" (De grat. Christ., IV, x). He did not shrink from reviling sufficient grace, understood in the Catholic sense, as a monstrous conception and a means of filling hell with reprobates, while later Jansenists discovered in it such a pernicious character as to infer the appropriateness of the prayer: "a gratia sufficiente, libera nos Domine" ("From sufficient grace, O Lord deliver us". -- Cf. prop. 6 damn. ab Alex. VIII, a. 1690 in Denzinger, n. 1296). The Catholic idea of sufficient grace is obtained by the distinction of a twofold element in every actual grace, its intrinsic energy ( potestas agendi, vis ) and its extrinsic efficiency ( efficientia ). Under the former aspect there exists between sufficient and efficacious grace, both considered in actu primo , no real, but only a logical, distinction; for sufficient grace also confers full power for action, but is condemned to unfruitfulness owing to the free resistance of the will. If, on the contrary, extrinsic efficiency be considered, it is evident that the will either co-operates freely or not . If it refuses its co-operation, even the strongest grace remains a merely sufficient one ( gratia mere sufficiens ) although by nature it would have been completely sufficient ( gratia vere sufficiens ) and with good will could have been efficacious. This ecclesiastical conception of the nature of sufficient grace, to which the Catholic systems of grace must invariably conform themselves, is nothing else but a reproduction of the teaching of the Bible. To cite only one text (Prov., i 24), the calling and the stretching-out of the hand of God certainly signifies the complete sufficiency of grace, just as the obstinate refusal of the sinner "to regard", is tantamount to the free rejection of the proffered hand. Augustine is in complete agreement with the constant tradition on this point, and Jansenists have vainly claimed him as one of their own. We have an example of his teaching in the following text: "Gratia Dei est quae hominum adjuvat voluntates; qua ut non adjuventur, in ipsis itidem causa est, non in Deo" ("It is the grace of God that helps the wills of men; and when they are not helped by it, the reason is in themselves, not in God." -- "De pecc. mer. et rem." II, xvii). On the Greek Fathers see Isaac Habert, Theologia Graecor. Patrum, II, 6 sq. (Paris, 1646).


After the treatment of the nature of actual grace, we come logically to the discussion of its properties. These are three in number: necessity, gratuity, and universality.

A. The Necessity of Actual Grace

With the early Protestants and Jansenists, the necessity of actual grace may be so exaggerated as to lead to the assertion of the absolute and complete incapacity of mere nature to do good; or, with the Pelagians and Semipelagians, it may be so understood as to extend the capacity of nature to each and every thing, even to supernatural activity, or at least to its essential elements. The three heresies of early Protestantism and Jansenism, Pelagianism, and Semipelagianism furnish us with the practical division which we adopt for the systematic exposition of the Catholic doctrine.

1. Early Protestantism and Jansenism

We maintain against early Protestantism and Jansenism the capacity of mere nature in regard to both religious knowledge and moral action. Fundamental for natural religion and ethics is the article of faith which asserts the power of mere reason to derive a certain natural knowledge of God from creation (Vatican., Sess. III, de revelat., can. i). This is a central truth which is most clearly attested by Scripture (Wisdom, xiii, 1 sqq.; Rom., I, 20 sq.; ii, 14 sq.) and tradition. Unswervingly adhering to this position, the Church has ever exhibited herself as a mighty defender of reason and its inherent powers against the ravages of scepticism so subversive of all truth. Through the whole course of centuries she has steadfastly clung to the unalterable conviction that a faculty of perception constituted for vision, like human reason, cannot possibly be condemned to blindness, and that its natural powers enable it to know, even in the fallen state, whatever is within its legitimate sphere. On the other hand, the Church also erected against presumptuous Rationalism and Theosophism a bulwark for the defence of knowledge by faith, a knowledge superior to, and different in principle from rational knowledge. With Clement of Alexandria she drew a sharp distinction between gnosis and pistis -- knowledge and faith, philosophy and revelation, assigning to reason the double role of indispensable forerunner and docile handmaid (cf. Vatican., Sess. III, cap. iv). This noble struggle of the Church for the rights of reason and it true relation to faith explains historically her decidedly hostile attitude towards the scepticism of Nicholas de Ultricuria (A.D. 1348), towards the Renaissance philosophy of Pomponatius (1513) defending a "twofold truth", towards the so-called "log-stick-and-stone" theory ( Klotz-Stock-und-Steintheorie ) of Martin Luther and his followers, so inimical to reason, towards the doctrine of the complete powerlessness of nature without grace defended by Baius and Jansen, towards the system of Hermes impregnated with Kantian criticism, towards traditionalism, which based all moral and religious knowledge on the authority of language and instruction, finally, against the modern Agnosticism of the Modernists, which undermines the very foundations of faith and which was only recently dealt so fatal a blow by Pope Pius X's condemnation. Documentary evidence has thus been produced that the Catholic Church far from being an "institution of obscurantism", has at all times fulfilled a powerful and far-reaching mission of civilization, since she took reason and science under her powerful patronage and defended their rights against those very oppressors of reason who are accustomed to bring against her the groundless charge of intellectual inferiority. A sound intellectualism is just as indispensable a condition of her life as the doctrine of a supernatural order raised above all the limits of nature. (cf. Chastel, "De la valeur de la raison humaine", Paris, 1854.)

Not less reasonable an attitude was assumed by the Church respecting the moral capabilities of fallen man in the domain of natural ethics. Against Baianism, the forerunner of Jansenism, she adhered in her teaching to the conviction confirmed by healthy experience, that natural man is capable of performing some naturally good works without actual grace, and particularly without the grace of faith, and that not all the deeds of infidels and pagans are sins. This is evidenced by the condemnation of two propositions of Baius by Pope Pius V in the year 1567: "Liberum arbitrium sine gratiae Dei adjutorio nonnisi ad peccandum valet" ("Free will without the aid of God's grace avails for nothing but sin." -- Prop. xxvii), and again: "Omnia opera infidelium sunt peccata et philosophorum virtutes sunt vitia" ("All the acts of infidels are sins, and their virtues are vices." -- Prop. 25). The history of paganism and everyday experience condemn, moreover, with equal emphasis these extravagant exaggerations of Baius. Among the duties of the natural moral law some -- as love for parents or children, abstention from theft and drunkenness -- are of such an elementary character that it is impossible to perceive why they could not be fulfilled without grace and faith at least by judicious, cultured, and noble-minded pagans. Did not the Saviour himself recognize as something good natural human love and fraternal greeting, such as they exist also among publicans and pagans? He denied to them only a supernatural reward ( mercedem , Matt., v, 46 sq.). And Paul has explicitly stated that "the Gentiles, who have not the [Mosaic] law, do by nature [ naturaliter, physei ] those things that are of the law" (Rom., ii, 14). The Fathers of the Church did not judge differently. Baius, it is true, adduced Augustine as his chief witness, and in the latter's writings we find, to be sure, sentences which seem to favour him. Baius, however, overlooked the fact that the former rhetorician and Platonic idealist of Hippo does not always weigh every word as carefully as the wary Schoolman Thomas Aquinas, but consciously delights (cf. Enarr. in Ps. xcvi, n. 19) in antonomastically applying to the genus the designation which belongs only to the highest species. As he calls the least good motion of the will caritas , by anticipation, so he brands every unmeritorious work ( opus steriliter bonum ) as sin ( peccatum ) and false virtue ( falsa virtus ). In both cases it is an obvious use of the rhetorical figure called catachresis. With a strong perception for the ethically good, wherever it may be found, he eulogizes elsewhere the chastity of his heathen friend Alypius (Confess., VI, x) and of the pagan Polemo (Ep. cxl, 2), admires the civil virtues of the Romans, the masters of the world (Ep. cxxxviii, 3), and gives expression to the truth that even the most wicked man is not found completely wanting in naturally good works ("De Spiritu et litera", c. xxviii. -- Cf. Ripalda, "De Ente supernaturali", tom. III: "Adversus Baium et Baianos", Cologne, 1648; J. Ernst, "Werke und Tugenden der Unglaubigen nach Augustinus", Freiburg, 1871).

The ethical capacity of pure, and especially of fallen, nature has undoubtedly also its determined limits which it cannot overstep. In a general manner, the possibility of the observance of the easier natural precepts without the aid of natural or supernatural grace may be asserted, but not the possibility of the observance of the more difficult commandments and prohibitions of the natural law. The difficulty of determining where the easy ends and the difficult begins will naturally lead, in some secondary questions, to great diversity of opinion among theologians. In fundamental points, however, harmony is easily obtainable and exists in fact. In the first place, all without exception are agreed on the proposition that fallen man cannot of his own strength observe the natural law in its entirety and for a long time without occasional errors and lapses into grievous sin. And how could he? For, according to the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, Cap. xiii), even the already justified man will be victorious in the "conflict with the flesh, the world, and the devil " only on condition that he co-operate with never-failing grace (cf. Rom., vii, 22 sqq.). Secondly, all theologians admit that the natural will, unaided by Divine assistance, succumbs, especially in the fallen state, with moral (not physical) necessity to the attack of vehement and enduring temptations against the Decalogue. For could it by its own strength decide the conflict in its own favour even at the most critical moments, that power which we have just eliminated would be restored to it, namely the power to observe unaided, through the prompt victory over vehement temptations, the whole natural law in all its extent. The practical significance of this second universally admitted proposition lies in the acknowledgment that, according to revelation, there is no man on earth who does not occasionally meet with this or that grievous temptation to mortal sin, and even the justified are no exception to this law; wherefore, even they are bound to constant vigilance in fear and trembling and to never-ceasing prayer for Divine assistance (cf. Council of Trent, 1. c.). In the third question, whether natural love of God, even in its highest form ( amor Dei naturalis perfectus ), is possible without grace, the opinions of theologians are still very divergent. Bellarmine denies this possibility on the ground that, without any grace, a mere natural justification could in such a case be brought into being through the love of God. Scotus, on the contrary, spiritedly defends the attainability of the highest natural love for God. A golden middle course will easily open to the one who accurately distinguishes between affective and effective love. The affective element of the highest love is, as natural duty, accessible to the mere natural will with out grace. Effective love, on the contrary, since it supposes an unchanging, systematic, and active will, would entail the above-discarded possibility of triumphing over all temptations and of observing the whole moral law. (For further details on these interesting problems, see Pohle, "Lehrbuch der Dogmatik", 4th ed., II, 364-70, Paderborn, 1909.)

According to Jansenism, the mere absence of the state of grace and love ( status gratiae et caritatis ) branded as sins all the deeds of the sinner, even the ethically good ones (e.g., almsgiving). This was the lowest ebb in its disparagement and depreciation of the moral forces in man; and here, too, Baius had paved the way. The possession of sanctifying grace or theological love thus became the measure and criterion of natural morality. Taking as his basis the total corruption of nature through original sin (i.e. concupiscence) as taught by early Protestantism, Quesnel, especially (Prop. xliv in Denzinger, n. 1394), gave the above-expressed thought the alleged Augustinian form that there is no medium between love of God and love of the world, charity and concupiscence, so that even the prayers of the impious are nothing else but sins. (Cfr. Prop. xlix: "Oratio impiorum est novum peccatum et quod Deus illis concedit, est novum in eos judicium"). The answer of the Church to such severe exaggerations was the dogmatic Bull, "Unigenitus" (1713), of Pope Clement XI. The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, can. vii) had however already decreed against Martin Luther : "Si quis dixerit, opera omnia quae ante justificationem fiunt . . . vere esse peccata . . . anathema sit" (If anyone shall say that all the works done before justification are indeed sins, let him be anathema ). Moreover, what reasonable man would concede that the process of justification with its so-called dispositions consists in a long series of sins? And if the Bible, in order to effect the conversion of the sinner, frequently summons him to contrition and penance, to prayer and almsdeeds, shall we admit the blasphemy that the Most Holy summons him to the commission of so many sins?

The Catholic doctrine on this point obstinately adhered to through all the centuries, is so clear that even an Augustine could not have departed from it without becoming a public heretic. True, Baius and Quesnel succeeded in cleverly concealing their heresy in a phraseology similar to the Augustinian, but without penetrating the meaning of Augustine. The latter, it must be conceded, in the course of the struggle with self-confident Pelagianism, ultimately so strongly emphasized the opposition between grace and sin, love of God and love of the world, that the intermediary domain of naturally good works almost completely disappeared. But Scholasticism had long since applied the necessary correction to this exaggeration. That the sinner, in consequence of his habitual state of sin, must sin in everything, is not the doctrine of Augustine. The universality of sin in the world which he contemplated, is not for him the result of a fundamental necessity, but merely the manifestation of a general historical phenomenon which admits of exceptions (De spir. et lit., c. xxvii, n. 48). He specifically declares marital love, love of children and friends to be something lawful in all men, something commendable, natural and dutiful, even though Divine love alone leads to heaven. He admits the possibility of these natural virtues also in the impious: "Sed videtis, istam caritatem esse posse et impiorum, i.e. paganorum, Judaeorum, haereticorum" (Serm. cccxlix de temp. in Migne, P.L., XXXIX, 1529).

2. Pelagianism

Pelagianism, which still survives under new forms, fell into the extreme directly opposed to the theories rejected above. It exaggerated the capacity of human nature to an incredible degree, and hardly left any room for Christian grace. It amounted to nothing less than the divinization of the moral forces of free will. Even when it was question of acts tending to supernatural salvation, natural will was declared able to rise by its own strength from justification to eternal life. Rank naturalism in its essence, Pelagianism contained, as a logical consequence, the suppression of original sin and the negation of grace. It laid down the proud assertion that the sovereign will may ultimately raise itself to complete holiness and impeccability ( impeccantia, anamartesia ) through the persevering observance of all the precepts, even the most difficult, and through the infallible triumph over every temptation, even the most vehement. This was an unmistakable reproduction of the ancient Stoic ideal of virtue. For the self-confident Pelagian, the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation", served, properly speaking, no purpose: it was at most a proof of his humility, not a profession of the truth. In no other part of the system is the vanity of the Christian Diogenes so glaringly perceptible through the lacerated cloak of the philosopher. Hence the Provincial Synod of Carthage (418) insisted on the true doctrine on this very point (see Denzinger, nn. 106-8) and emphasized the absolute necessity of grace for all salutary acts. True, Pelagius (d. 405) and his disciple Caelestius, who found an active associate in the skilful and learned Bishop Julian of Eclanum, admitted from the beginning the improper creative grace, later also a merely external supernatural grace, such as the Bible and the example of Christ. But the heresiarch rejected with all the more obstinacy the inner grace of the Holy Ghost, especially for the will. The object of grace was, at the most, to facilitate the work of salvation, in no wise to make it fundamentally possible. Never before had a heretic dared to lay the axe so unsparingly to the deepest roots of Christianity. And never again did it occur in ecclesiastical history that one man alone, with the weapons of the mind and ecclesiastical science overthrew and annihilated in one generation an equally dangerous heresy. This man was Augustine. In the short period between A.D. 411 and A.D. 413 no fewer than twenty-four synods were held which considered the heresy of Pelagius. But the death-blow was dealt as early as 416 at Mileve, where fifty-nine bishops, under the leadership of St. Augustine, laid down the fundamental canons which were subsequently (418) repeated at Carthage and received, after the celebrated "Tractoria" of Pope Zosimus (418), the value of definitions of faith. It was there that the absolute necessity of grace for salvation triumphed over the Pelagian idea of its mere utility, and the absolute incapacity of nature over supreme self-sufficiency. When Augustine died, in 430, Pelagianism was dead. The decisions of faith issued at Mileve and Carthage were frequently renewed by ecumenical councils, as in 529 at Orange, lastly at Trent (Sess. VI, can. ii).

The beautiful parable of the vine and its branches (John xv, 1 sqq.) should have been sufficient to reveal to Pelagianism what a striking contrast there was between it and antecedent Christianity. Augustine and the synods time and again used it in the controversy as a very decisive proof out of the mouth of the Saviour Himself. Only when the supernatural vital union of the Apostles with the vine ( Christ ) planted by the Father is established, does it become possible to bring forth supernatural fruit; for "without me you can do nothing" (John, xv, 5). The categorical assertion of the necessity of grace for the holy Apostles themselves brings home to us still more forcibly the absolute incapacity of mere fallen nature in the performance of salutary acts. All supernatural activity may be concretely summed up in the three following elements: salutary thoughts, holy resolves, good actions. Now the Apostle Paul teaches that right thinking is from God (II Cor., iii, 5), that the righteous will must be based on Divine mercy (Rom. ix, 16), finally that it is God who works in us, "both to will and to accomplish" (Phil., ii, 13). The victorious struggle of St. Augustine, which earned for him the honourable title of "Doctor of Grace", was merely a struggle for the ancient Catholic truth. Pelagianism was immediately felt in the Christian community as a thorn in the flesh and as the poison of novelty. Before all the world Augustine could attest: "Talis est haeresis pelagiana, non antiqua, sed ante non multum tempus exorta" ("Such is the Pelagian heresy, not ancient, but having sprung up a short time ago." -- De grat., et lib. arbitr., c. iv). In fact, the teaching of the most ancient Fathers of the Church, e.g. Irenaeus (Adv. haer., III, xvii, 2), did not differ from that of Augustine, although it was less vigorous and explicit. The constant practice of prayer in the ancient Church pointed significantly to her lively faith in the necessity of grace, for prayer and grace are correlative ideas, which cannot be separated. Hence the celebrated axiom of Pope Celestine I (d. 432): "Ut legem credendi statuat lex supplicandi" ("That the law of prayer may determine the law of belief" -- See Denzinger, n. 139). It is clearly evident that the Fathers of the Church wished the universally expressed necessity of grace to be undertood not merely a moral necessity for the strengthening of human weakness, but as a metaphysical one for the communication of physical powers. For in their comparisons they state that grace is not less necessary than are wings for flying, the eyes for seeing, the rain for the growth of plants, etc. In accorance with this, they also declare that, in as far as supernatural activity is concerned, grace is just as indispensable for the angels not subect to concupiscence, and was for man before the fall, as it is for man after the sin of Adam.

There is need of special refutation of Pelagius's presumptuous contention that man is capable of avoiding unaided during his whole lifetime all sins; nay, that he can even rise to impeccability. The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, can. xxiii), with much more precision than the Synod of Mileve (416), answered this monstrosity with the definition of faith: "Si quis hominem semel justificatum dixerit . . posse in tota vita peccata omnia etiam venialia vitare, nisi ex speciali Dei privilegio, quemadmodum de beata Virgine tenet ecclesia, anathema sit" (If anyone shall say that a man once justified . . . can, throughout his life, avoid all sins, even venial, unless by a special privilege of God, as the Church believes of the Bl. Virgin Mary, let him be anathema ).

This celebrated canon presents some difficulties of thought which must be briefly discussed. In its gist it is an affirmation that not even the justified, much less the sinner and infidel, can avoid all sins, especially venial ones, through his whole life except by special privilege such as was granted to the Mother of God. The canon does not assert that besides Mary other saints, as St. Joseph or St. John the Baptist, possessed this privilege. Almost all theologians rightly consider this to be the sole exception, justified only by the dignity of the Divine maternity. Justice is done to the wording of the canon, if by tota vita we understand a long period, about a generation, and by peccata venialia chiefly the semi-deliberate venial sins due to surprise or precipitancy. It is in no way declared that a great saint is unable to keep free from all sin during a short interval, as the interval of a day; nor that he is incapable of avoiding for a long time with ordinary grace and without special privilege all venial sins committed with full deliberation or complete liberty. The same must be said with still greater reason of mortal sins, although the preservation of baptismal innocence may be of rare occurrence. The expression, omnia peccata , must be understood collectively, as applying to the sum, and not distributively, as meaning each individual sin, which would no longer be a sin if it could not be avoided in every instance For the same reason the words, non posse , designate not a physical, but a moral impossibility of avoiding sin, i.e. a difficulty based on insuperable obstacles which only a special privilege could suppress. The meaning is, therefore: The observer of a long series of temptations in the life of a just man will find that at some time or other, today or tomorrow, the will held captive by concupiscence will succumb with moral necessity. This may be due to negligence, surprise, weariness, or moral weakness -- all of which are factors that do not completely destroy the freedom of the will and thus admit at least of a venial sin. This hard truth must naturally grieve a proud heart. But it is precisely to curb pride, that most dangrous enemy of our salvation, and to nourish in us the precious virtue of humility, that God permits these falls into sin. Nothing incites us more powerfully to vigilance and perseverance in prayer than the consciousness of our sinfulness and infirmity. Even the greatest saint must, therefore, pray daily not out of hypocrisy or self-deception, but out of an intimate knowledge of his heart: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt., vi, 12). A holy Apostle had to acknowledge of himself and his intimate friends: "In many things we all offend" (James, iii, 2). Boldly, could the hagiographer in the Old Testament raise the question not difficult of answer: "Who can say: My heart is clean, I am pure from sin?" (Proverbs, xx, 9). This view, defended by the Bible, was also the constant sentiment of the Fathers of the Church, to whom the proud language of the Pelagians was unknown. To the latter's consideration Augustine (De nat. et grat., xxxvi) presents the impressive thoughts: "Could we bring together here in living form all the saints of both sexes and question them whether they were without sin, would they not exclaim unanimously: 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us'?" (I John, i, 8.)

3. Semipelagianism

Semipelagianism is an unsuccessful attempt to effect a compromise between Pelagianism and Augustinism, attributing to mere nature and its capabilities a somewhat greater importance in matters pertaining to salvation than Augustine was willing to concede. Several pious monks of Marseilles (hence also the name of "Massilians"), John Cassian (d. 432) at their head, held (about A.D. 428) the following opinion of the relationship between nature and grace:

  • A distinction must be established between "the beginning of faith" ( initium fidei ) and "increase in the faith" ( augmentum fidei ); the former may be referred to the natural power of free will, while increase in the faith and faith itself can only be the work of Christian grace.
  • Nature can merit grace through its own efforts, but this natural merit ( meritum naturae ) is only founded in equity, it does not confer, as Pelagius contended, a right in strict justice.
  • "Final perseverance" ( donum perseverantiae ) specifically can be secured by the justified with their own strength, and is therefore not a special grace.
  • The bestowal or denial of baptismal grace in children is dependent on their conditional future merits or demerits, which the Omniscience of God foresaw not historically, but hypothetically from eternity.
Although this last propositi

Join the Movement
When you sign up below, you don't just join an email list - you're joining an entire movement for Free world class Catholic education.

Saint of the Day logo
Prayer of the Day logo

Catholic Online Logo

Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.

Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.