Questions Answered – February 2019
JANUARY 28, 2019 BY FR. BRIAN MULLADY, OP
Why Do We Need Grace?
Question: St. Thomas believed that man has an inborn understanding and disposition toward doing the good. What, then, is the purpose of the infusion of grace?
Answer: I really do not know where you get the idea that Aquinas thought that man has an inborn understanding. For him, as for Aristotle, the mind was a tabula rasa (blank slate) at birth. Experience of the world through the senses was the necessary foundation for the ability to abstract universal ideas and so gain science. Perhaps you mean that there was a long debate in the Church over certain expressions of St. Thomas which had their origin in a phrase he used to express the final fulfillment of truth in the mind: the natural desire to see God.
This phrase caused a great deal of theological ferment in the last hundred years, and oddly enough seems to be at the basis of many of the problems we are experiencing in the Church now. This is why the debate should occasion some analysis. There are many passages in Aquinas where he explains that the potential of the intellect for truth can only be stilled by knowing the ultimate truth in its essence, namely God. This is natural and innate in the human mind because the mind has a basic potential to know truth. It is not actually in the mind by birth as to its fulfillment. This reflects an idea which Aristotle had in his Metaphysics, which begins with the sentence: “All men by nature desire to know.” Aristotle goes on to explain that man was led into the material world of nature by wonder as to its explanation, what he called causes. Little by little, human beings progressed until they understood that the ultimate explanation of the material world of nature, what he called the final cause, could not be something material, but something spiritual, God. Man discovered this in physics and this led him to conclude there was a science beyond physics, or metaphysics. But this wonder did not stop with only knowing this cause existed, but was drawn on to know what it was. Of course, man cannot do this merely by human reason, and Aristotle went away frustrated.
Aquinas uses this argument to explain that there must be an aid given to human nature if the quest for truth is to be completed: grace and revelation. Reason can never suffice to explain the world. He asks if it is possible to know God as he is in himself, or see God. He states that those who say this knowledge is too high for man are arguing against both reason and faith.
Therefore some who considered this, held that no created intellect can see the essence of God. This opinion, however, is not tenable. For as the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else besides God; which is opposed to faith. For the ultimate perfection of the rational creature is to be found in that which is the principle of its being; since a thing is perfect so far as it attains to its principle. Further the same opinion is also against reason. For there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees; and thence arises wonder in men. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void. (Summa Theologiae I, Q. 12, A. 1)
Many theologians have either denied there is a natural desire or tried to make it an innate act of the will. This would not be possible, as acts of the will demand actual actions of knowledge, and what Aquinas is referring to is the potential of the intellect in itself. The will cannot act unless presented with goods by the mind, and this would not be innate in, say, an infant whose intellect was not developed at all. This fact also relates to the question about good. There is a natural tendency in the will for good but this is good in general. Even sinners act for good, albeit a disordered one. The will seeks by nature the satisfaction of all human powers, including the intellect. If the intellect demands grace to arrive at heaven and know God as he is in himself, then a fortiori the will also demands grace to attain the complete perfection of the intellect and man, which is what the will aims at. The answer to the question is that grace perfects, but does not destroy, nature. Aquinas summarizes: “Man is called to an end by nature that he cannot attain by nature but only be grace because of the exalted character of the end.” (Aquinas, Boethius, de Trinitate, Q. 6, A. 4, ad. 5.)
New Heaven? New Earth?
Question: What is meant by the “new heaven and the new earth”? How can there be a new heaven? It is very confusing.
Answer: The source of your question comes from the book of Revelation 21:1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” This verse reflects a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 65:17. This prophecy is followed by the prophecy of the heavenly Jerusalem in which the city has no sun or moon but only the Lamb as its light.
As with all apocalyptic literature, these verses are obscure in their meaning and have been the subject of many interpretations. Still, one Catholic interpretation of this may help. The New Jerusalem descends from God like a bride. This is the Church who is the bride of Christ and shares spousal life with him. This spousal love is characterized by a union of truth and love wrought in the souls of the members of the Church by grace. Vatican II speaks of the three persons of the Trinity as the basis of the union of the Church as a society, and states: “Thus, the Church has been seen as ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’” (Lumen Gentium 4).
The new heaven expresses the fact that by grace heaven has descended and penetrated the earth. In the sacraments, the people of God is made holy and can participate in heaven while on earth. Nature becomes super-naturalized, not in the sense that it is changed as such, but in the sense that through nature man can again arrive at God through the help of grace. The Holy Cloud, or Shekinah, which covered Sinai and showed the presence of God, has become permanent just as the veil covering the Holy of Holies was rent asunder at the death of Christ. The complete elevation of nature is realized in the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. In his body, the whole of nature is fulfilled in man. Man, body and spirit, is fulfilled in God. This fact is completed now in him and in Our Lady, but will only be finally completed in us in our own resurrection at the end of time.
The new heavens and the new earth, then, are not in any sense to be interpreted literally as the same as this earth and heaven we experience in the five senses every day. This new experience certainly has a physical or material aspect because it is experienced in risen bodies. But in this new cosmos, God will be all in all. The motion of the heavens and the earth will cease because, according to Christian cosmology, the primary moving force in nature is not matter and energy, but the love of the Holy Spirit. The material world exists for man and man exists for God. When the number chosen by God of the elect is filled, there is no need for the motion of the heavens and the earth, and they will cease.
About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered”.