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from issue no. 10/11 - 2009

Reflections on the mystery and the life of the Church

If everything is grace there is no longer grace

The distinctions are essential especially in a time in which Gnosticism is the evident alternative to the reality of faith

by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP

Above Jesus and Peter, detail of <I>The washing of the feet</I>, by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Above Jesus and Peter, detail of The washing of the feet, by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Ten years recently passed since the signing of the joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of justification, that is on the issue around which the schism of the Protestant Reformation centered. On 31 October 1999, after careful examination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the present Cardinal Walter Kasper and the Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation, Ishmael Noko, signed the document attesting to a consensus between Lutherans and Catholics on basic truths about the doctrine of justification. At the Angelus on the feast of All Saints’ Day, recalling the tenth anniversary of the signing, Benedict XVI reiterated that those truths “lead us to the heart of the Gospel and to the essential issues of our lives. We are accepted and redeemed by God and our existence is part of the horizon of grace, led by a merciful God who forgives our sin and calls us to a new life in the footsteps of his Son; we live of the grace of God and are called to respond to His gift”.
In fact, if one re-reads the Declaration and the texts of clarification that accompanied it, one finds clear and effective expressions of how the Christian faith is communicated in the world. A phrase of Saint Thomas Aquinas, contained in the Annex, thus sums up the whole heart of Christian life: “Grace creates faith not only when faith is born in a person, but for as long as faith lasts” (“Gratia facit fidem non solum quando fides de novo incipit esse in homine, sed etiam quamdiu fides durat”, Summa Theologiae II-II q. 4 a. 4 ad 3).
Today, the absolute necessity of grace for every moment of the Christian experience, and the dynamics of its action, seem to have disappeared from theological debate and preaching. On this point, even in the ordinary pastoral, one notes confusions, ambiguities, misconstruction, misunderstandings, which are indications of a general obfuscation regarding the terms and basic criteria of Christian doctrine and the life of faith, and they risk misleading the people of God.

A first level of confusion is to be seen in the widespread conception that divine grace is a given acquired a priori by every person, to the point of identifying it outright with the inner light of the human creature. Widespread expressions of a similar conception also appear when equal salvific value is attributed to all good deeds and all the religious paths of mankind, as if all that is religious could be attributed unequivocally to the Holy Spirit. Or when the character of a Christian people or nation is taken for granted, as if the Christian faith were a kind of religious substratum already implicit in a determined ethnic, tribal or national identity.
Some identifications are to be proposed with discernment and without forcing. Because one is born Jewish, one is born Muslim, but one is not born Christian. One becomes Christian, through baptism and the faith, as already recognized by Tertullian. One does not make Christians, as members of other religions can be made, by merely generating them. Many parents today realize this, and perhaps suffer from it: it is not assumed that their children even when they receive a good Christian education, have the gift of faith. The environment, catechesis, can help. But no sociological condition can replace the attraction of grace, which calls to itself the personal freedom of everyone. Personal commitment is required for the life of faith.
The generalizations and clichés that take the gift of grace for granted are symptoms of the general misconception of some essential distinctions, always recognized and taken into account in the teaching and pastoral of the Church, such as that between the natural order (or order of creation) and the supernatural one of grace. For Saint Thomas, every created being has a nature that impels it toward its goal, and also the capacity to achieve this goal. This also applied to human nature, before it was wounded by original sin. After the fall of sin, God with redemption has not only healed from sin, but brought about the adoption of men as sons through the sacrifice of His only Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. As Saint Paul writes to the Galatians, “when the completion of the time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law, so that we could receive adoption as sons. As you are sons, God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son crying, ‘Abba, Father’; and so you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir, by God’s own act” (Gal 4, 4-7). It means that in the freedom of redemption brought about through Christ there is a second gratuity of God, more admirable than the gratuity of creation. In the creaturely condition, wounded by original sin, man experiences his own failure in striving for the accomplishment of his natural goal. The aspiration to accomplishment marks the entire human condition. The very nature of man, marked by original sin, is in itself an open question, that does not know its own answer. And the answer that God has brought about through His Son Jesus Christ was not imaginable, it is superabundant, it could not be demanded out of the claims inherent in the nature of man. As Saint Paul writes in the first Epistle to the Corinthians,the things that the Lord has prepared for those who love Him did not arise from the heart of man (cf. 1Cor 2, 9).

Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, frescoes by Giotto

Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, frescoes by Giotto

Another misrepresentation about what Péguy called “the mystery and operation of grace”, is the habit of seeing grace everywhere, which seems very popular in ecclesiastical circles, even among many authors and speakers who consider themselves experts in spiritual matters. It is true that also Saint Theresa of Lisieux, on her deathbed, repeated the phrase “everything is grace” to express her surrender into the arms of divine mercy. The same expression is found on the last page of Bernanos’s Diary of a country priest. But often the very expressions intended to affirm the necessity and freedom of the action of grace end by spreading misleading ideas and confusing minds. As in the case of boring meetings full of formalism that are rhetorically described as “acts of grace” without scrutiny, maybe even before beginning. Thus a misleading image spreads, as if grace were some kind of rain that falls indiscriminately on all reality and embraces all things. Or even a seal impressed by statute on any ecclesiastical activity. Whereas in the economy of salvation, the promise given to everyone is communicated in a sacramental manner, that is through the predilection of a particular, as the ordinary practice of the sacraments in the life of the Church also shows.
The misuse of terms and expressions relating to grace can also bring about consequences far from harmless. Recently, in the Italian debate on the moral behavior of politicians, someone went as far as to write (quoting a non-existent phrase of Augustine) that “everything is grace, even sin”. The Bishop of Hippo, in reality, wrote that “for those who love God all things work together for good, even sins”. In relation to our wounded nature, grace has a threefold effect: it heals, it strengthens, it elevates. It is not sin as such that is grace, but sin, through repentance and conversion, can be an occasion of God’s forgiveness. When one tells one’s sin and asks forgiveness, one recognizes one’s wretchedness and is not tempted to become proud.
Whereas to identify grace with sin is totally alien to the Christian faith, a perverse concept that one rather finds in Gnosticism and Gnostic parodies of Christianity. All the doctrines, even the modern hey are the aberrant theories whereby one must drink from the poisoned chalice of evil to overcome death, because the light comes from the darkness, the way to heaven passes through hell, grace comes through sin, redemption is achieved through perversion, and the world is saved through mistake. The basic idea is that God is the unity of opposites. Good and evil are both in God and from God, because without opposites there is no progress. Without Lucifer there is no liberation, there is no salvation.
It is no accident that, referring to Gnosticism, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “It – and not atheism, which nullifies God because it must reject the images of Him made so far – is the true antagonist of the reality of faith”.

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