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The Virtues And Grace

November 24, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


“Given the finite condition of man and his checkered history,” observes Dr. Donald De Marco, “one might think that humility, a human virtue of such evident appropriateness, would be easy to appropriate. It should be the first lesson we learn from self-reflection!” (The Heart of Virtue [THV], p. 116).
Yet, is it not rather the correlative vice – pride — that is on display in far too many of us? As an anonymous pundit once remarked: “Many would be scantily clad if clothed in their humility” (ibid.). Indeed, given our fallen human nature and the culture of secularism and individualism in which we live, it is not surprising that many see in themselves talents, abilities, and a self-aggrandizing importance that does not correspond with reality.
The virtue of humility, as we saw last week, derives from the cardinal virtue of temperance (it moderates our desire for greatness) and is fundamental to the spiritual life — in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is “the foundation of the spiritual edifice” (Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q. 161, art.5, ad 2).
Based on self-knowledge, “true humility enables us to see ourselves as we are in the eyes of God,” explains Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, “not exaggerating our good qualities and not denying the gifts we have received from God” (Spiritual Theology [SpT], p. 301).
St. Augustine maintains that humility is the first, second, and third most important factor in religion — when it is lacking, other virtues only appear to be present in a soul (cf. THV, p. 119).
Fr. Aumann explains elegantly why those who live lives of heroic virtue have an apparently exaggerated quality of humility and consider themselves to be the greatest of sinners. As they grow in perfection, “the saints receive from God ever-increasing knowledge of His infinite perfections, and as a result of that knowledge they perceive with ever greater clarity the infinite abyss between the grandeur of God and their own littleness and weakness. Mary, the greatest of all God’s creatures, was also the humblest” (SpT, p. 302).
In his recently published book, Dying and the Virtues (DaV), Dr. Matthew Levering draws on the teaching of the Angelic Doctor to argue convincingly that “suffering and death help to foster humility because the process of dying weakens our grasp upon the goods of this world (cf. STh II-II, Q. 161, art. 3)” (p. 131).
In his Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, St. Thomas recognizes that, in general, “the human will tends toward two things, namely, to life and to honor” (§ 66). Dr. Levering rightly notes that persons in the throes of suffering at the impending approach of death “have to give up both life and worldly honor” (DaV, p. 131), which, of course, is a profoundly humbling experience.
“The issue,” states Dr. Levering, “is whether we will accept this humbling with a free and loving obedience to God’s will, accepting that our time has come to die. Only if we die obediently in this sense can the humbling associated with death become in us true humility. By stripping away our life and honor, suffering and dying provide a great opportunity for Christ-like humility, a reversal of the pride that turns us away from the love of God” (ibid.).
In a sense, then, we are able to imitate the humility of our loving Savior who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8) in accordance with His Father’s will.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) completes its brief, but instructive treatment of the four cardinal virtues by making reference to a beautiful text from St. Augustine:
“To live well is nothing else but to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind; and, as arising from this, that this love must be preserved entire and incorrupt, which is the part of temperance; that it give way before no troubles, which is the part of fortitude; that it serve no other, which is the part of justice; that it be watchful in its inspection of things lest craft or fraud steal in, which is the part of prudence” (De moribus eccl. 1, 25, 46; as cited in CCC, n. 1809).
Under the subheading of “The Virtues and Grace,” the Catechism goes on to state that “the human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts, and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good” (CCC, n. 1810).
Inherent in this statement is an important principle of the spiritual life, namely, that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects and elevates it” (SpT, p. 66). As such, before we begin our consideration of the Catechism’s next major topic — the three theological virtues — it would be instructive to examine more rigorously the meaning of sanctifying (habitual) grace and its relation to virtue.
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, defines sanctifying grace as “the supernatural state of being infused by God, which permanently inheres in the soul. It is a vital principle of the supernatural life, as the rational soul is the vital principle of a human being’s natural life. It is not a substance but a real quality….It is called sanctifying grace because it makes holy those who possess the gift by giving them a participation in the divine life” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 488).
In slightly different terms, Fr. Aumann defines sanctifying grace as “a supernatural quality, inhering in the soul, which gives us a physical and formal participation, although analogous and accidental, in the very nature and life of God” (SpT, p. 67).
An effect of sanctifying or habitual grace, as attested by Sacred Scripture, is that it elevates us to the status of children of God and heirs of Heaven. “We are children of God,” proclaimed St. Paul, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). Likewise, in his exhortation before the Areopagus, the Apostle to the Gentiles insisted that we “are indeed his [God’s] offspring” (Acts 17:29) when we abide in His friendship.
The state of sanctifying grace elevates us so far above the natural order that St. Thomas has said, “The minimum degree of sanctifying grace in one individual is greater than the natural good of the entire universe (cf. STh I-II, Q. 113, art. 9, ad 2)” (SpT, p. 67). Indeed, persons in the state of grace “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
Elsewhere, the Angelic Doctor says, “Grace is nothing else than a participated likeness of the Divine Nature” (STh III, Q. 62, art. 1), and “Grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us” (STh II-II, Q. 24, art. 3, ad 2).

The Gate Is Wide

What, then, is the vital connection between sanctifying grace and the infused virtues (and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit)? “Grace, which is the formal principle of the supernatural life,” says Fr. Aumann, “is rooted in the very essence of the soul in a static manner. The [infused] virtues and the gifts, which are dynamic elements of the supernatural organism, reside in the human faculties or powers and elevate them to the supernatural order” (SpT, p. 67).
This is critically important to understand because “acquired moral virtues, however heroic and perfect, could never attain the formal object of the infused virtues” (SpT, p. 81), which is ultimately the beatific vision.
It is through grace that “the soul is constantly receiving from God its supernatural life, as the embryo in the womb is constantly receiving vital sustenance from the mother” (SpT, p. 76). Moreover, “the infused virtues are like properties flowing from sanctifying grace, and when grace is destroyed they are also destroyed. Only faith and hope can remain, and they are in an unformed and imperfect state [except if a person sins directly against these two virtues, in which case even they are lost]” (SpT, p. 84). (Note: This distinction will be examined in more detail in upcoming installments when the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are covered.)
Thus, it is sanctifying grace that gives us the capacity for supernatural merit — and the virtues and gifts provide powerful aids for those in the state of grace. As Fr. Aumann very bluntly states, “Without sanctifying grace, the most heroic natural works would have absolutely no value for eternal life. A person who lacks grace is a corpse in the supernatural order, and the dead can merit nothing. Supernatural merit presupposes radically the possession of the supernatural life. This principle is of the greatest importance in practice. While people are in mortal sin, they are incapacitated for meriting anything at all in the supernatural order” (SpT, p. 74).
These words bring to mind a verse from Sacred Scripture: “The gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 8:13-14).
As reinforced by the Catechism, “It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil” (CCC, n. 1811). As we begin the penitential season of Lent, these words are well worth our serious reflection.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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Fr. James Schall passed away today. A Jesuit priest & Georgetown professor, he served as mentor & model to a numberless many (including me). With penetrating insight & wit, he pointed us to Christ & those great Catholic minds we mustn't forget.

Fr. Schall, requiescat in pace.

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