Rationalists, for whom the supernatural order is a mere fantasy, contend that the Catholic concept of grace alienates man from his nature. The opposite error was advanced by certain modern Catholic theologians who broke with tradition and made grace virtually implicit in nature.[1] St. Thomas maintained the Catholic via media by asserting that grace does not destroy but perfects nature. A text which helps to shed light on what this means is found in St. Thomas’ commentary on Boethius’ On the Trinity: “Although man is inclined to an end by nature, yet he cannot attain that end by nature, but only by grace because of the exalted character of the end.”[2] Something in man’s nature orders him to the Beatific Vision. In this, St. Thomas agreed with St. Augustine, who had asserted that man is naturally capax Dei.[3] However, by his natural powers, man cannot achieve this sublime end to which he is ordered.

What in man is ordered to this end? St. Thomas goes to great lengths in his Summa Contra Gentiles to show that it is the presence of the intellect in man which makes him thus capable of God. This capacity is a dispositive potency which must be put into act by God himself. This “putting into act” of man’s natural capacity for God is the very purpose of grace. Far then from destroying nature, grace helps it to fulfill its proper end, which is none other than the vision of God.

To see how grace relates to nature, we will first consider man’s nature in itself (the “natural edifice”) and then briefly summarize the work of grace upon it (the “supernatural edifice”).

Man is a composite of body and soul. The soul is the form of the body and thus gives it life, being the principle of its sentient and vegetative powers. More than this, since man is a rational being, the soul has the additional faculties of intellect and will. We can thus enumerate all of man’s natural powers, beginning with the vegetative powers of assimilation, growth, and reproduction; continuing with the sentient powers of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight (external senses); memory, imagination, cogitative sense, and unifying (or common) sense (inner senses); love, hate, desire, aversion, pleasure, and pain (concupiscible passions); fear, daring, hope, despair, and anger (irascible passions); and concluding with the spiritual faculties of intellect and will. By these twenty-six powers, man is a microcosm of the universe, having every power of lower creation (mineral, vegetative, and sentient), and also the powers proper to pure spirits (angels), and even God himself, in whose image we are by virtue of our intellect and will.

Grace is not intended to destroy this natural edifice. It is intended to bring it to the supernatural end for which God created it. Grace does not even do violence to this edifice, except insofar as its wounds are in need of curing and the physician must often prescribe painful remedies to cure what is disordered.

Sanctifying grace is infused by God directly into the soul (not into any of its powers, according to St. Thomas). It is an “entitative habit” which heals man of original sin, making him truly just. More than that, the divine likeness, lost in the fall, is restored to man so that he is elevated into the supernatural, becomes truly pleasing to God, his child, an heir to his kingdom, and a partaker of his very nature. According to the Council of Trent, justification is the “sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”[4]

Along with habitual grace, man receives certain supernatural “concomitants” which reside in the various powers of the soul, not to replace them, but to give them the ability to operate in the supernatural order. In fact, without these so-called “operative habits,” man would be elevated to, but incapable of acting in, the supernatural order. These operative habits are, first and foremost, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which have God himself as their proper object. Faith perfects the intellect, giving it the power to believe all that God has revealed. Hope perfects the will, allowing it to aspire to God, its final end. Charity also resides in the will, giving the Christian the capacity to love God with a supernatural love of friendship and to love his neighbor with that same love. Thus elevated and perfected, the spiritual faculties in man can now perform acts worthy of a child of God, in reference to the Blessed Trinity.

But man in this life has not yet achieved that end. For this reason, he must not only be dynamically oriented to his end (which the theological virtues do); he must also be dynamically oriented toward the means to achieve that end. Thus a further set of operative habits is needed. These are the infused moral virtues. Chief among them are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. These four are the cardinal (“hinge”) virtues, upon which all the other moral virtues are hung. The moral virtues “do not have God as their immediate object – and in this they are distinguished from the theological virtues – but they rightly ordain human acts to the supernatural end, and in this way they are distinguished from the corresponding acquired natural virtues.”[5]

They are thus summarized: Prudence is both an intellectual and a volitional virtue. It empowers the intellect to judge rightly and the will to command right actions. The remaining three cardinal virtues reside only in the will: Temperance restrains the concupiscible passions which incline us toward disordered use of touch and taste. Justice restrains the passions in their disordered pursuit of the things of this world, and disposes us to render to each (including God), what is his due. By fortitude, man pursues the good as it is arduous or difficult to attain, therefore it properly orders the irascible passions. St. Thomas catalogues over fifty moral virtues (not an exhaustive list) which are “parts” of these cardinal virtues, explaining that “For every act in which there is found a special aspect of goodness, man must be disposed by a special virtue.”[6]

Contrasting the infused and acquired moral virtues will aid us in understanding how grace elevates but does not destroy nature. According to Fr. Aumann, “The natural or acquired virtues are habits in the strict sense of the word. They do not give the power to act (for the faculty has that already), but they give facility in operation. The supernatural or infused virtues give the power to act supernaturally (without them it would be impossible, apart from an actual grace), but they do not give facility in operation.”[7]

If it were true that grace destroyed nature, then there would be no need for the acquired moral virtues. Our effort, in fact, would be unnecessary, since we would have an extrinsic cause to give facility to our operations without the exercise of our natural powers. However, this is not the case. Regenerated man must still work by the sweat of his brow to acquire virtue. This is true not only at the beginning of conversion, but all through the spiritual life, for the “heroic virtue” of the saints consists in the exercise of these moral virtues. By justification, man has an impressive suit of supernatural armor, but he must still choose to use his weaponry. Therefore, nature must work with grace.

One additional set of supernatural operative habits given to the soul with the infusion of habitual grace are the Gifts of the Holy Ghost: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. These gifts reside habitually in the soul, but are actuated by the special movement of the Holy Ghost. Their activity is recognized by a relative ease in operation. Often they are compared to the virtues in this fashion: The virtues are like oars, whereby we “row” with great effort. The gifts are like sails which catch the wind of the divine Paraclete. And whereas the virtues perfect the faculties of man, the gifts perfect the virtues. Father Aumann schematizes the gifts as they perfect our natural edifice:

Cognitive faculties:

speculative intellect:

  • deeper insight into divine truths: Understanding
  • proper judgment concerning truths of faith: Knowledge
  • judgment according to divine norms: Wisdom

practical intellect:

  • decisions regarding human actions: Counsel

Appetitive powers:

volitional appetite (the will):

  • in relation to others: Piety

sensitive appetites (the emotions):

  • proper use of the irascible emotions: Fortitude
  • proper use of pleasure emotions: Fear of the Lord[8]

So far, we have omitted mention of actual grace. Actual graces are transient helps which terminate in the performance of some act. They help us to progress to the state of grace by calling us to faith and repentance, and lead us to the performance of meritorious acts in the state of grace. Indeed, while the state of grace is the principle of merit, it is not capable of moving us to perform supernaturally meritorious works. For that, we need actual grace.

Since what we are treating of here is an assertion of St. Thomas, it would help, before concluding, if we were to look at one instance in which he uses this axiom. Near the beginning of the Summa, while discussing the nature and extent of sacred doctrine, the great Dominican asks the question, “Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument?” and answers in the affirmative. One of his objections is that the argument will either be from authority or from reason. An argument from authority would be unbefitting of the dignity of sacred doctrine, since authority is the weakest argument. On the other hand, an argument from human reason is unworthy of the noble end of theology.

He replies to this by saying that human authority is the weakest argument, but divine authority is the highest, therefore, arguments drawn from revelation are the strongest and not unbefitting the dignity of theology. And neither is argumentation unworthy of its end, for human arguments are not used to “prove faith,” (i.e., to establish the articles of faith) but only to “make clear other things that are put forth in this doctrine” (i.e., to draw secondary conclusions from those articles and coordinate them, the task of theology). He goes on: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: ‘As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring’ (Acts 17:28).”[9]

Thus reason is not vitiated or enslaved by grace, but given freedom of activity in its proper domain and then ennobled and drawn to a higher end than something merely natural. What is said here of reason is true of all the faculties of the human soul and the body as well, so that man’s entire nature is perfected by grace.


Aquinas, Thomas, St., Summa Theologiae, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003. Online, available at: http://www.newadvent.org/summa.

Aumann, Jordan, O.P., Spiritual Theology. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1980.

Mullady, O.P., S.T.D., Fr. Brian, Man’s Desire for God. Bloomington: 1stBooks, 2003.

[1] This is the view of Rahner and, to a lesser extent, de Lubac.

[2] In Boeth. De Trinitate, 6,4, ad 5, cited in Mullady, O.P., S.T.D., Fr. Brian, Man’s Desire for God (Bloomington: 1stBooks, 2003), 19.

[3] “The mind is the image of God, in that it is capable of Him and can be partaker of Him.” St. Augustine, De Trinitate, XIV:8.

[4] Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Chapter 7, http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct06.html.

[5] Aumann, Jordan, O.P., Spiritual Theology (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1980). Online; available at: http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/aumann/st/st04.htm.

[6] Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 109, a. 2., cited in Aumann, Op. cit.

[7] Aumann, Op. cit.

[8] Aumann, Op. cit.

[9] Summa theologiae, I, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2.