A Roman Catholic View of Nature and Grace Part 1.
A Roman Catholic View of Nature and Grace Part 2.
Aquinas was the problem; the Reformation was the solution.
I’m continuing to work through Gregg Allison’s work, “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”.
A proper evangelical assessment of Catholicism will treat Catholic theology as a coherent, all-encompassing system with one of its two key tenets being the nature-grace continuum that underscores the less-than-devastating impact of sin on nature, which, as a consequence, retains some capacity to receive, transmit, and cooperate with grace.
Specific theological doctrines and practices in which the outworking of this understanding of the nature-grace continuum can be seen are:
Epistemology (the way of knowing): Catholicism expresses openness to all truth, whether that comes, for example, from Scripture and Tradition, or from Christianity and noble religious elements of non-Christian religions. Also, it elevates human reason (the realm of nature) as the essential element of the image of God, while also emphasizing the ability of human reason apart from grace to understand general revelation and theistic proofs so as to become convinced of the existence of God.
Biblical interpretation: The words of Scripture—or, more specifically, the things to which the words of Scripture point (the realm of nature)—contain hidden meanings and are capable of communicating those deeper meanings as divine truths (the realm of grace).
Doctrine of humanity: The Catholic system is characterized by a “moderate optimism regarding man’s ability [the realm of nature] to be stirred by grace and to cooperate with its elevating process.” … “Moreover, considering his ontological receptivity for grace, man is viewed as an intrinsically religious being in whom grace ‘is experienced as a part of man’s own self.’” One manifestation of this characteristic is Adam and Eve’s reason (in their original created state) exercising a controlling influence over their feelings/ passions and bodily desires.
Doctrine of sin: Catholic theology believes that, with the introduction of sin, this original structure of human nature was disrupted, with the lower aspects of Adam and Eve’s nature usurping the role of reason. Yet the Catholic system does not believe that sin’s impact was so devastating that human nature lost its capacity for grace.
Doctrine of salvation: Catholic theology views the process by which God rescues fallen human beings as being synergistic, that is, a cooperative venture between divine grace and human effort (the realm of nature), aided by grace, to work so as to merit eternal life. Moreover, it considers the operation of salvation to be an infusion of divine grace into people, by which their very nature is transformed.
This point dovetails with Catholic theology’s understanding of the goal of salvation as deification, or the process by which human nature, through grace, becomes more and more like God. If this process is interrupted through engaging in mortal sin, it can be restarted through the sacrament of Penance by which grace is conveyed again for the perfection of human nature. Finally, if this process is not completed in this earthly lifetime, that is, if grace has not fully elevated human nature to perfection before death, existence after death in purgatory promises to finish the purification procedure.
Sacramental theology: Catholicism maintains that created elements in nature—for example, water, oil, bread and wine—are capable of transmitting divine grace as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are administered. Moreover, these elements (the realm of nature), when consecrated (the realm of grace), are effective in conveying grace ex opere operato, that is, just by their administration as sacraments.
Also, it views the Eucharist as conferring incorruptibility on the body and thus serving as a foretaste of the resurrection. Finally, Catholic theology understands the bread and the wine (the realm of nature) to be offerings to God by the Church (the realm of grace).
Ecclesiology: For the Catholic system, grace must be concretely expressed in nature, and the highest tangible expression of grace (after Jesus Christ himself) is the Catholic Church. This aspect is especially seen in the Church’s association of the forgiveness of sins with its priesthood. Indeed, by the sacrament of Holy Orders, men (the realm of nature) are consecrated so as to be able to administer the sacraments (the realm of grace).
Hierarchy: The Catholic Church is characterized by hierarchy, specifically between the laity (on the low end) and the clergy (on the high end), with a hierarchical structure also existing among the clergy between deacons (on the lowest end), priests (in the middle), and bishops (on the highest end). A hierarchy is also generally in evidence between the faithful (on the lowest end), the religious (the middle), and the saints (the highest end).
Moral theology: Catholic theology believes that the four cardinal human virtues (the realm of nature)— prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice— are understood, appreciated, and practiced by human beings apart from grace, which functions not to create but to purify and elevate these virtues. It also emphasizes that natural law— a law derived from the realm of human nature and known by human beings through reason, enabling them to know right from wrong— still functions, despite human sinfulness, in a somewhat intact manner to guide human choices.
Doctrine of Mary: “Mariology expresses . . . the quintessential characteristics of the Roman Catholic nature-grace motif.” Mary, as a fully human being, is in the realm of nature; however, due to her immaculate conception, her human nature is not fallen, and, through her cooperation with grace, it remained unfallen throughout her life. Accordingly, in Mary’s nature, grace found complete openness and full capacity for cooperation, leading to the incarnation of the Son of God and her meritorious sufferings at the foot of the cross.
Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 962-1005). Crossway. Kindle Edition, pgs 50-52 in the printed edition.
Admittedly, this is a very quick and incomplete overview. And each of these topics can and should be fleshed out to a greater degree (and Allison does this to a small degree, but many of these topics are worthy of monographs of their own).
But it shows the pervasive nature of how the Roman Catholic understanding of “grace” affects the Roman Catholic view of itself.
Man and creation were not “very good” as we are told in Genesis 1:30. Man and nature were “incomplete”. “Grace” was added as sort of “a divine extension of nature” (“donum superadditum”) in order to “complete” nature.
This “grace” was lost in the fall of man. But now, thanks to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, this “grace” is available in the world through one source, and only one source, through “the Church that Christ Founded” (i.e., in the sacraments, available only through the priesthood and hierarchy) – and through this grace provided, we (fallen humans) may reach back into the divine realm and eventually (“if we are good enough”) we may “partake of the divine nature”.
This notion of “grace and nature” is why Roman Catholicism functions the way it does, and why the Roman Catholic Church thinks the way that it does.
And this is why, even if 99% of Roman Catholics choose to go their own way, there will still be some in Rome who see their own importance in maintaining this system.