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Grace and Catholicism, Part II: Theological Definitions


In this post, we’ll delve into definitions with the goal of clarifying the Roman Catholic understanding of grace. Admittedly, the discussion is complex and multifaceted. It must first be stated that the theological categorization of grace is never meant to detract from its mysterious and deifying activity. Rather, such reflections are undertaken—via a hermeneutic of faith seeking understanding—with the twofold purpose of clarifying and defending the Church’s essential teachings. These teachings were passed down to and through her from the beginning under the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance. The lived experience of grace, in this context, surpasses any attempt to circumscribe its essence with human language.

The paragraphs that follow build on my general and catechetical introduction in Part I of this series, which asks how to avoid dualism between “humanity” and “God” when it comes to grace. In Part II, I draw from Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma—a theological primer that synthesizes centuries of Catholic reflection about grace and other topics.[1] I should note that this post can only lay out the “bare bones” of the complex definitions and distinctions that run through this text. Please take my summary as encouragement to read more on your own, not as a definitive answer to the questions raised in Part I. My goal here is to lay a foundation so that more people can understand the intricacies of the debate on grace. Too often, we engage in conversations without making a true effort to understand the opposing side on its own terms.

To begin, let us define grace as the gift of God’s benevolence or condescension toward us. Moving from higher to lower, it bridges the gap between the two. Second, let us affirm that God has granted human beings the ability to think (reason) and the ability to make decisions (the will). Unless you posit that these gifts have become completely corrupted by sin, you must acknowledge some form of interplay between God and humanity. Catholics describe this interplay with the language of co-operation. Should the option of complete corruption entice, remember that its proponents must account for many difficulties. These include Scripture’s continual exhortations to turn from sin and do good, the fact that any person can positively change the world, and the question of how it is possible to use reasoned principles to defend reason’s corruption.

Already, the specter of heresy looms large. Pelagianism, which will be detailed in the final part of this series, is the general term for any doctrine that claims humans have sufficient power to avoid sin without outside help from God. From the time of its emergence in the fifth century, the Church has spoken out against this tendency to “err on the side of humanity” when describing grace. But the other danger is just as real: to “err of the side of God” by taking human involvement out of the equation. Such is the viewpoint that, insofar as we are human beings, we can do nothing but sin. Consequently, God’s grace transforms us only externally—it does not truly change our nature. The Catholic doctrine aims for a middle ground between these two extremes. The following definitions are essential in explaining Catholic teaching on the burning question of what humans can accomplish with and without grace.

Theoretical Distinctions

These distinctions relate primarily to the life of God and God’s interaction with the world.

(1) Uncreated Grace is God Himself, particularly as God communicates Himself through the Incarnation, through indwelling in the human soul, and through the Beatific Vision. To created beings like ourselves, these three communications of grace are perceived, because of our time-bound nature, as separate movements. Thus, we approach Uncreated Grace through (2) Created Grace, “a supernatural gift or operation really distinct from God.”[2] God meets us where we are, through means that we can relate to and understand. Catholics distinguish between Uncreated Grace and Created Grace in an attempt to accurately depict the reality that humanity is “under judgment,”[3] and not yet able to see God face to face. This distinction is related to our use of the terms “supernatural” and “natural.” Notably, such terms are not common among our Eastern brothers and sisters.[4] Many of them are concerned that separating Created Grace and Uncreated Grace leads to the notion that human beings can have “natural” existence and fulfillment outside of God.  It is absolutely correct to point out this dangerous tendency, but I do not believe it follows from the distinction between Uncreated and Created Grace. The gift given by Created Grace is Uncreated Grace.[5] These two terms are employed, as I have argued above, as a sensible way to describe how God interacts with God’s creation.

After Uncreated and Created Grace comes a distinction between (3) The Grace of God and (4) The Grace of Christ. The Grace of God was the grace given to humanity before its fall into sin. The Grace of Christ, also bestowed by God, is the grace that redeems us from sin. Both, according to Ott’s manual, “elevate the receiver into the supernatural order of being and activity. In addition, the grace of Christ has the task of curing the wound inflicted by sin.”[6] Since the Catholic theological tradition is extremely vibrant and fecund, Ott notes the legitimate and alternative opinion of Duns Scotus: that the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the fall. In this view, The Grace of Christ would be of a piece with The Grace of God, insofar as “Christ is the Head of all Creation.”[7] Jacob Prahlow has written an excellent article on the same topic,[8] and Ben Cabe, myself, and George Aldhizer have engaged in an extended discussion of this question in the comments of “Christmas without the Cross” and “Christmas without the Incarnation.”

To complete this theoretical or macro-level discussion, we can draw a simple distinction between (5) External Grace and (6) Internal Grace. External Grace is a benevolent act of God that disposes us toward Internal Grace. For example, Jesus’s words and deeds were External or Objective acts which cause Internal or Subjective effects on human beings throughout time and space. A similar process occurs with the examples of the saints. As Paul states, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6).[9]

Practical Distinctions

Thus far, our conversation has been predominantly philosophical and theological. The second half of this piece moves toward the practical realm by asking what happens when a person receives the Eucharist from a priest.  This act involves two types of grace: (7) Sanctifying Grace (Gratia Gratum Faciens) and (8) Gratuitously Given Grace (Gratia Gratis Data). I will let the words of our Angelic Doctor introduce the topic:

As the Apostle says in Romans 13:1, “Things that are from God are well-ordered.” Now as Dionysius says in De Caelesti Hierarchia, the order of things consists in some things being led back to God through other things. Therefore, since grace is ordered toward man’s being led back to God, this is done in a certain order, namely, with some being led back to God by others.

Accordingly, there are two kinds of grace:

(a) One kind of grace is such that through it a man is himself joined to God, and this is called Sanctifying Grace (gratia gratum faciens)

(b) On the other hand, the second kind of grace is such that through it one man cooperates with another in order to be led back to God. Now a gift of this sort is called Gratuitously Given Grace (gratia gratis data) … it is given not in order that the man himself should be justified by it, but rather in order that he cooperate in the justification of others.[10]

It would take many classroom sessions to parse out this twofold distinction. In our example, the priest is a minister of Gratuitously Given Grace, which the recipient receives as Sanctifying Grace. Sanctifying Grace—particularly that received in the Sacraments—is the foundation of what it means to identify ourselves with Christ. Sanctifying Grace is sometimes what people refer to when they speak of grace in general.

Sanctifying Grace is most fully realized when it becomes incorporated into our thoughts and actions. This incorporation is called Habitual Grace (9), “a constant supernatural quality of the soul which sanctifies man intrinsically and makes him just and pleasing to God.”[11] Our Protestant brothers and sisters may feel quite alarmed at this point. Perhaps they will be less concerned when I point out that Habitual Grace is not automatic, nor is it attained by human efforts alone. Rather, Habitual Grace develops through various life events and experiences—the model of a journey to God. God is the Source and Summit of this journey. Humans, nonetheless, are the ones walking.

On this journey, we experience Actual Grace (10). Actual Grace is any “intervention by God by which the powers of the soul are stirred up to perform a salutary act which is directed to the attaining or preservation or increase of Sanctifying Grace.”[12] We get into theological disputes about merit primarily at the level of Actual Grace, when we try to describe exactly how a “salutary action” leads us to God. As I mentioned above, no one will deny that good works are part and parcel to the Christian life. Further, no one would say that good works lead us away from God. Is it very difficult to draw the connection that doing good leads us closer to the one who is Goodness itself?

As a teaser for the next part of this series, I will briefly outline the contours of Actual Grace from the Catholic perspective. Actual Grace influences our lives. It does so with the mind and will as reference points. All of this happens within four interrelated frameworks:

(a) Prevenient Grace precedes and affects a deliberate act of the will.

(b) Subsequent Grace accompanies and supports the deliberate act.

(c) Sufficient Grace gives a person the power to accomplish the salutary act.

(d) Efficacious Grace ensures that the salutary act is accomplished.

Take a moment to think about these four categories. Where do you find your own theological tradition standing? Do you believe, for example, in a combination of (c) and (d) without (a) and (b)? If so, you may be less convinced about the power of the human will to make “deliberate acts.” Do you focus more heavily on (a) (b) and (c) while feeling uncomfortable with (d)? If so, you may be worried about the possibility that God is determining our actions—meaning we are not truly free. What do you see in these four distinctions, and do you agree with their placement under the tenth and final category of Actual Grace? Congratulations, you have concluded today’s mental weightlifting!

Next time, we continue to build on the foundation established here by discussing the doctrine of merit.

Link to Part I

Link to Part III

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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