Grace as a desire of the heart, evangelical focus

This is the second part of Leonardo de Chirico’s article with the Jubilee Center. You can read the first part here.

If one wants to accept Roman Catholic theology, one must tackle the “nature-grace interdependence” as soon as possible.

Roman Catholicism is steeped in an attitude of trust in the ability of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread which becomes the body of Christ, the wine which becomes the blood of Christ, the water of baptism which regenerates and the oil of the anointing which transmits grace), in the capacity of the person to cooperate and contribute to salvation by its own works, in the ability of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth.

In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “raise” nature to its supernatural endleaning on it and presupposing its intact capacity to rise.

Even if weakened or injured by sin (as Roman Catholic teaching maintains), nature retains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature.

Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is imbued with an optimism that all that is natural is honored.

The “nature-grace interdependence” has a long history in Roman Catholic theology and has been shaped by many important voices and trends. In the article “Gratia Supponit Naturam? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part I) painted a brushstroke picture of the patristic and medieval trajectories that forged the relationship, to the Thomistic accounts that solidified it over the centuries.

In the 19th century, two important Roman declarations gave it a status of authority from a magisterial point of view. First of all, the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican Council I Dei Filius (1870) affirmed the nature/supernature distinction as the normative framework of the Roman Catholic faith in the field of epistemology and in the relationship between reason and faith.

Secondly, the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) by Leo XIII raised the thought of Thomas Aquinas (of which “the nature-grace interdependence” is a pillar) as the supreme reference of Roman Catholic thought.

Thus, when we speak of the nature-grace scheme, we are dealing with a fundamental axis of traditional Roman Catholicism with the imprimatur (that is, the seal of approval) of the magisterium.

Although well-established in formal teaching, the “nature-grace interdependence” has been the subject of an important intramural debate in the 20th century. [1]

The debate was sparked by the “new theology” and saw the involvement of the best theological minds in Rome, such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

According to Duffy, “this ‘new theology’ marked the end of the static theology of nature and grace which had been in vogue since the era of the Counter-Reformation”. [3]

The perception of these new theologians was that after the Council of Trent, Thomas Aquinas’ account of nature and grace had hardened to the point of making nature and grace “extrinsic”, i.e. i.e. separated, sealed, separated from each other, resulting in a static vision of a superposition of grace over nature. In his seminal work Supernatural (1946) and subsequent books,

From Lubac argued in particular that this Aquinas’ rigid interpretation had resulted in a dichotomy between nature and gracethus losing the continuity between the two.

Nature and grace had become juxtaposed rather than integrated, grace being associated with a higher degree of nature rather than its original and omnipresent womb.

Grace had to be rethought as immanent in nature, as nature had to be reappraised as organically open and graceful.

According to this view, grace is not added to nature as if nature were devoid of it; on the contrary, grace is always part of nature as a constituent element of it. In the words of Henri Bouillard, grace is “the infrastructure of nature”, [3] not an external addition to it. Grace makes nature what it is.

For the “new theology”, therefore, grace is what constitutes nature, even before receiving salvation. There is a natural desire for God which is already a manifestation of grace. Nature is already affected by nature as part of what nature is. Grace is primary, not secondary to nature. In De Lubac’s poignant expression: grace is the “desire of the heart” of the natural man.

This line of interpretation of the Thomistic tradition was at first viewed with suspicion by Roman Catholic magisterial authorities.

Without naming it, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 expressed concerns about any possible reinterpretation of Thomistic heritage far from the patterns established by Aeterni Patris.

It is true to say that only fifteen years later, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Roman Catholic Church embraced the thrust of the narrative of the new theology of “nature-grace interdependence” in its positive vision of modernity. world, in its nuanced but redeeming understanding of world religions, and in its reiteration of man’s openness to God by virtue of his natural disposition.

By updating the traditional teaching on nature and grace, Vatican II “expanded” it to go beyond the rigid framework inherited from the 19th century and to adopt a more ‘catholic’ (encompassing and inclusive) understanding of it.

One consequence of this recent decision is that sin, already ignored in the traditional version, has become even less impactful on the general state of mind of Roman Catholic theology.

If grace is inherent in nature and by definition present in it, sin cannot be thought of as having caused a radical rift between God and humanity, but only a minor wound in the relationship.

Grace was in nature before sin and continues to shape it after sin. If sin is only a serious injury and not a state of spiritual death, then nature and grace are intertwined from beginning to end at different levels of intensity.

This current reinterpretation of the “nature-grace interdependence” that emerged from the “new theology” and was later endorsed by Vatican II is the theological context from which Pope Francis can speak of atheists going to heaven, affirm that humanity is made up of “all brothers”, whatever their faith in Christ, ask “who am I to judge? when dealing with people in irregular relationships, say “God is in every person’s life”, pray with Muslims and people of other religions assuming we are praying to the same God, and insist that mission is the joyful will to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.

From this point of view, the The gospel does not appear to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but rather access to a fuller measure of a salvation which is already given to all mankind.

All these expressions of Roman Catholicism in our time find their historical origin and their theological legitimacy in the “nature-grace interdependence” by which grace is omnipresent and active in all aspects of human life, within and within. outside of explicitly Christian influences, in the presence or absence of a professed faith in Jesus Christ.

According to this Roman Catholic view, grace has been infused in nature from the beginning and always will be.. The sacraments of the Church infuse more grace into the faithful, but even those who do not receive the seven particular sacraments live in a state of grace because of who they are, that is, natural creatures of God. intrinsically oriented towards Him.

Remember that according to Roman Catholic teaching, there is no distinction between “common grace” (i.e. providence) and “special grace” (i.e. the Salvation).

This explains the universalist tendency of the Roman conception of salvation, its optimistic view of man’s ability to cooperate with God in earning salvationand the positive vision of human religions as vessels of grace.

In Roman Catholicism, the two narratives of “nature-grace interdependence”, the “gratia supponit naturam” of medieval and modern times and the idea of ​​“grace as the desire of the heart” in our time, coexist.

The Council of Trent (16th century, endorsing the former) and Vatican II (20th century, affirming the latter) are both pillars of Roman Catholic theology. Rome does not have a static or rigid doctrinal system.

It moves without losing its fundamental commitment to “man’s capacity for God”, despite sin.

Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism. He blogs at

1. I particularly follow Stephen J. Duffy’s story, The Graced Horizon. Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992).

2. Duffy, p. 49.

3. Henri Bouillard, Conversion and Grace in Saint Thomas Aquinas (Paris: Aubier, 1944).

Barry F. Howard