Concerning Nature and Grace (Part I)

Concerning Nature and Grace – Part I

I am a proponent of the thesis that there corresponds to human nature as such a natural end attainable by natural human powers. (My article appears in “De Lubac on Natural Desire: Difficulties and Antitheses” Nova et vetera 9 (2011): 567–624.) That end could be described as a loving contemplation of God, virtuous friendships in society, traditions of inquiry, artistic expression, etc. I do not propose here to argue for this. Rather, I propose to argue against a false practical application of this thesis.

The false practical application of this teaching is mediated by a false vision of being which is falsely (but understandably) linked with the foregoing thesis. That vision is expressed in this line: “Grace builds on nature”. This line is conceived as follows: Nature can take you so far without grace, and then grace does the rest. Nature is like the fetus in the womb; grace is like a language he learns much later. The one comes first; then after a stretch of time the other can be added. That’s the “vision of being” some people take away from the thesis above, and this vision of theirs is proximately dispositive to their pastoral advice.

In pastoral advice, they advise the following: <<He (a messed up friend) needs to get his natural life in order; then he can get on to a spiritual life. So, you (the one to be sent on an apostolate), try to get so-and-so (your messed up friend) to live in accordance with natural law. Pick one or two items of natural law at first (others later). Show your friend how his life is not in conformity with natural law and how this non-conformity will bring him misery. Only then should you introduce religion to him. After all, religion is “baggage”. So, don’t introduce religion to him right away. After all, grace builds on nature. So, unless nature gets its house in order, grace will not come. Moreover, we live in a pluralistic society. So, even if you are giving a talk to the high-schoolers at that Catholic prep school, you should not mention Catholic teaching. Just stick with the natural law.>>

The above advice is from the pit of hell. Advice most stupid, counsel most unwise. Guaranteed to fail. The Christian life is built not on “nature” as an inert entity capable of getting itself right and then being topped off by grace; rather, Christian life is built on humility. If we take steps to “shore up” a life in integrity but without the humility of dependence on God’s grace, we build for ourselves a foundation outside of Christ and upon our own inflated wills. One reason that God allows “apparently righteous” men to fall into embarrassing sins is to humble them. If humility is not the foundation, pride founds the life, and God confounds the proud.