by Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.
One teaching of our Catholic Faith that helps us to understand our Complete Dependence
on God in living the Christian Life, is the
Church's Teaching on Actual Grace.
Catholic Theology tells us that all Creatures are dependent
on God, not only for their Creation and for their Conservation in Being . . . but also for their every action, their very Operation and
Motion and Movement. Divine Assistance, Divine Movement is Absolutely Necessary if the Creature (Man or Angel) is to do anything, to
inaugurate any action and carry it through to a Successful Conclusion. (The Christian Life, F.L. Cunningham, O.P. p.258).
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Sanctifying Grace/Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Statements like the above we may find hard to comprehend, because we know so little about Man and even less about
God. Yet the above statement is True both in
the Natural Order and the Order of Grace. In the Natural Order we do not give Life to
ourselves; that Life comes from the Divine Source of all Life
Who creates the Soul at the Moment of
Conception. So too, in the Supernatural Order, the
Divine Life of Grace is Infused into the Soul by the
What about our Activities? In the Natural Order we get things done, we Work, we Study, we Walk, we Think, etc. But we do not do any of
these Actions alone. They are our Actions; but we are only the Secondary Causes of
those Actions. Their Primary Cause is the Supreme Being Who
gave us Existence, Conserves us in Being, gives us the Capacity for Action, and Activates that Capacity.
SANCTIFYING GRACE gives us Supernatural Life, and the
Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit give us the Capacity for
Supernatural Action; but ACTUAL GRACE
is necessary to bring that Capacity into Action. That is, Actual Grace is necessary for
each-and-every Act of any Christian Virtue.
The Church Herself assures us of this important fact:
Concerning the Assistance of God: It is a Divine Gift when we both think aright and restrain our steps
from Falsity and Injustice; for as often as we do Good, God works in us and with us, in order that we may Act
(Council of Orange, Can. 9).
God's Causality and Man's Freedom
Some of the above statements may seem to involve a Problem, even a
Contradiction. How can Man be Free in his Actions, and be responsible for them,
if God is the Primary Cause of those Actions?
We have to state clearly that we are dealing with a Mystery that never in this Life will
we fully comprehend, for we are dealing with the Action of an Infinite God. Yet,
God has created the Human Will such that
He, and only He, can Move the
Will from-within without destroying its Freedom. Theologians speak of our dependence on
God in this matter in this way:
In the Supernatural Order the Divine Motion preparing us for Action, moving us to Action, producing
the Action within us, is called Actual Grace. This Divine Movement which is Actual Grace is not to be understood in terms of
Extrinsic Assistance, like an Extra Oarsman furnishing just enough more power to give the boat headway, or an Extra Horse whose help
makes possible the pulling of a load too heavy for one alone. It is more far-reaching than that. It is an Intrinsic Movement in the
Order of First Cause which, in its own Order, is the Cause of the Action yet leaves our Causality intact, indeed produces or makes
possible our Causality (Walter Farrell, O.P. - Comp. to Summa, II, 425)
In a word, God not only Enlightens the Intellect
and Strengthens the Will; it is God Who sets
these Two (2) Faculties within us into Activity without taking away our Freedom. Yet,
as we will see, Man can Resist or Ignore those
In every Meritorious Act, God enters by
His Grace in moving the Will towards
Good and enables Man to do the Good Act
whatever it may be. This is simply a Transient Influence, a Divine Impulse, that leaves the
Will perfectly Free to act or
not act. God never compels Action, nor
Interferes with Freedom of Choice. But the fact that our Free Deliberate Acts are co-produced
by the Grace of God and our Free Will,
is clear from the Council of Trent which speaks of the Repentant
Sinner returning to God
by Freely Assenting to and Cooperating with Grace (Denz. 797). And Saint Paul,
writing to the Philippians, reminds them of this Dependence, for it is God Who of His
Good Pleasure works in you both the Will and the Performance (2:13).
Actual Graces Have Three Main Functions
To Prepare the Way for the First Infusion of Sanctifying Grace (for those with the use of Reason), and to
Restore the State of Grace when Lost through Mortal Sin.
One who is a Non-Believer and without Sanctifying Grace, can do nothing of himself to
receive that Divine Gift. Of his own Natural Powers alone he can do nothing to prepare his
Soul for Grace.
God must take the Initiative by means of Actual Grace which precedes the
Act of the Will on the part of Man. No one can come
to Me said our Divine Savior, unless the
Father . . . draw him (John 6:44). With the Help of that
Initial Grace, however, Man can prepare himself to receive
Sanctifying Grace. As Fr Garrigou-Lagrange explains, that Initial
Grace first Enlightens the Intellect, then Touches the Will and causes a Sudden Desire for
the object proposed through the Representation of the Intellect, and this is the Inspiration that opens the heart as the
Heart of Lydia was opened to attend to the things said by St Paul (Acts 16:14).
For the Sinner who has Lost Sanctifying Grace through
Mortal Sin, a similar situation exists. By his own Natural Powers alone he can do nothing
to bridge the Infinite Gap between the Natural and the Supernatural. He cannot even turn to
God in Prayer unless he
First is moved by Actual Grace to recognize his sorry state of
existence, and to desire to return to Friendship with God. No
one can say Jesus is Lord, except in the Holy Spirit (1Corinthians 12:3). But here again
God takes the Initiative and Prepares the Way with Actual
Grace. I have not come to call the Righteous, but Sinners to repentance
(Luke 5:32). Even the Hardened Sinner will not be denied the necessary
Actual Graces to return to God. Whether or
not he Cooperates with those Graces is another matter.
The return of the Sinner can involve a series of Actual
Graces which can be Accepted or Rejected. For example,
God Enlightens the Mind of the
Sinner so that he sees the Evil of what
he has done. That First Grace is a
Free Gift of God. The Sinner did not seek it.
He can Accept that First Grace or
Reject it. He can admit to himself that he
has done Wrong, or he can Justify
his Conduct and Ignore the Grace received.
In this Series of Actual Graces, One begets
Another. If he Accepts the First
Grace, further Graces will not be
wanting . . . Graces Strengthening the Will
. . . moving to Repentance, etc. Each step of the way back is preceded by and
Aided by an Actual Grace.
To bring about the Increase of Sanctifying Grace by Activating the Infused Virtues and the Gifts of the
One who possesses the Gift of Sanctifying Grace
with the Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit has the Basic Capacity of
Meriting an increase of that Grace, but he needs further
Help from God in the form of Actual
Graces to perform Virtuous Acts that bring that increase. Each time any of
the Christian Virtues or Gifts of the Holy Spirit
are Activated, God enters in by His Grace Enlightening
the Mind as to what is Good and
True, and moving the Will to seek that
Good by performing the Good Act in question.
A household example might help here. An electric light bulb has the Capacity of giving Light, but it will not give Light until
the electric current is turned on. Similarly, while the Soul in the
State of Grace has the Capacity of Supernatural Virtuous
Acts, it will not Activate that Capacity without an added Help from
God. That is, every Supernatural Act on the
part of Man, be it a Thought of the Mind, or a Decision of the
Will, must be set-in-motion by a previous Actual
Grace on the part of God, leaving Man Free to Cooperate with that
Grace or Reject it.
God is at work in you, both to Will and to Act (Philippians 2:13).
Fr Antonio Royo, O.P. speaks of this in his Theology of Christian Perfection”:
Every Act of an Infused Virtue and every Operation of the Holy Spirit presupposes a previous
Actual Grace which has set that Virtue or Gift in motion, although not every Actual Grace produces an Act of Virtue (for at times a
Sinner rejects that Grace.) The Actual Grace is nothing other than the Divine Influence which has moved the Infused Habit to its
Operation (p. 42).
As we have seen, by means of Divine Grace, God
shares with us His Own Divine Life and His Own Divine
Activity. By means of Actual Grace,
God Acts in-us and with-us. While
He is the Primary Cause of the
Good we do, He requires (of all who have
the use of Reason) that we Cooperate with His Action.
God does not Act in us, says Saint Augustine,
as if we were Lifeless Stone or Irrational Creatures without Free Will.
Because of our Human Freedom, we can Resist that Grace,
we can turn-away-from the Light, we can let the Desires
of the Flesh and of the Ego
Overshadow that Light causing us to Choose
Our Will rather than God's . . .
Our Plan rather than His. Yet, God so
values Human Freedom that He will never take it away, even when Man uses it to his own
Destruction. Because of this Human Weakness
Saint Paul warned: "We entreat you not to accept the Grace of God in vain
(Corinthians 6:1). By our own Indifference, or
Sloth, or Resistance we can
Fail to cooperate-with, or not remain open-to, the Operation of
God's Grace in the Soul. We do not mean that
God cannot overcome our Resistance if
He so Wills. For at times our
Human Will is carried along by His Grace in
such a way that unfailingly we do what He Wills, and yet we do it Freely. Theologians
refer to such Actual Graces as Efficacious Graces.
When that Actual Grace is Resisted or
Ignored, it is called Sufficient Grace. It was
Sufficient to Dispose one to Perform a Meritorious Act, but since that
Actual Grace was Resisted, that
Meritorious Act did not follow.
We can see from all this the importance of Cooperating with God's Grace, and of
Praying for the Grace always to be open to
God's Action in the Soul. When we say that
every Person that comes into this World receives Sufficient Grace for Salvation,
it is Sufficient in the above sense. Each Person is given Sufficient Interior Divine Lights and
Impulses to Judge what is Right and to do
what is Good, sufficient to bring him to the proximate disposition for action, i.e. to the
point where action is immediately possible to us . . . awaiting only the Cooperation of the Will.
So if it is Rejected, we have only ourselves to blame.
We have said that God is the Primary Cause of
our Good Acts. What about our Sinful Acts?
Is God the Cause of those too? As we pointed-out,
God so values Man's Free Will that
He allows Man to Choose his own destiny even if that means his own
Eternal Damnation. (What a Frightening Thought
in todays Pro-Choice Society!) When Man
Rejects Grace and Chooses something
Sinful, God the
Creator preserves him in-being, and even moves him according to his Own
Choice . . . enabling the Sinner to carry out the
Sinful Action. But God in no way is the
Cause of the Sinful Choice which is the
Sin. In fact, God gave him Sufficient
Grace to Choose otherwise. In every
Sin that Man Commits he
Rejects an Actual Grace offered by
God to draw him to, and enable him to Choose,
the Good. Sin is the
One and Only Thing of which Sinful Man is the
Total Cause. After Repeated Rejections of God's Grace,
the Sinner's Heart can become
Hardened, and his Mind Blinded
to the Lights and Inspirations received. Then,
only a Special Gift of God's Mercy will penetrate that
Blind Resistance. But with God all things are possible
To Preserve the Gift of Grace received at Baptism lest it be Lost through Grave Sin.
We need Actual Grace not only to recover Sanctifying
Grace Lost by Grave Sin, and to Activate the
Infused Virtues (as we have seen), but also to Resist Temptation. It is common
Catholic Teaching that one in the State of Grace
with the Help of Actual Grace can
Avoid all Mortal Sins; but that no man without a
Special Privilege from God such as was given
to the Blessed Mother can Avoid all Venial
Sin. This was defined by the Council of Trent (Sess. VI on Justification, Can. 18). It is also common
teaching that one who Loses the State of Grace
through Grave Sin, and Deliberately remains in that state, cannot remain long without
committing additional Grave Sins, for as St Gregory the Great says,
a Sin not at once taken away by Repentance, by its weight drags us down to other Sins
(Cf. St Thomas:Prima Secundæ Partis,109,8)
Consequently, due to the Weakness of our Nature our Weakened Will and Clouded Understanding, along
with the Rebellion of our Lower Nature against Reason no man, relying on his Natural Strength alone, can observe the Commandments
of God for any length of time and avoid all Serious Sin (ibid. a. 4).
Once one receives the Gift of Sanctifying Grace, he needs (because of the
Weakness of Human Nature, and the Many Sources of
Temptation) the frequent Help of
Actual Grace to remain in the State of Grace and
Persevere in the Practice of Virtue. And a
Very Special Gift of God is needed over and above
Sanctifying Grace for the Grace of Final Perseverance. The reason
for this is that Sanctifying Grace does not do away with the
Weakness of the Will. However Just and
however Perfect a Man may be, says Fr Antonio Royo, O.P., he is always
able to Sin, and for that Reason needs, over and above the Infused Virtue of Perseverance, the Special Grace of Final Perseverance which
the Council of Trent calls that great Grace (ibid. 472)
When we face God on the Day of Judgment, one of our big surprises will be to discover
how much God's Grace was the Cause of the Good
we did and the Evil we avoided . . . how much was Accomplished by
God's Helping Hand. We will be amazed at how Continually and Completely
God's Enlightening and Strengthening Graces
have surrounded and accompanied us all through Life. At times, no doubt, we were aware of some Special
Help from God; but we will discover on Judgment Day that for every
time we recognized God's Help, there were
Countless Hundreds of Times it remained Hidden and
For this reason, we are Tempted at times to take the credit ourselves for jobs well done,
for Patience in Trials, for
Fidelity to Duty, etc. On the Day of Judgment we will see how much
God's Grace was the Motivating and Strengthening Force behind it all . . .
Graces which we did not Resist or
Reject. Every person who comes into this World receives not only
Sufficient Grace for Salvation, but
Sufficient Grace for Sanctity.
This is the Will of God, your Sanctification (1Thessalonians 4:3).
Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is Perfect (Matthew 5:48).
God is continually, through Actual Graces,
seeking to provide means for our Spiritual Growth; but so many of
His Invitations go Unheeded. So many times
our Pride, our Selfishness, our
Sensuality get in the way. If we had accepted with
Faith and Resignation that Trial,
that Disappointment, that Set-Back which
God permitted for the purpose of providing us with the opportunity of Practicing
Virtue, we would have made Real Progress. But by giving-way to
Anger or Resentment, by
Protesting and Complaining, we
Failed to Cooperate with the Graces that
accompanied that Trial.
The more we understand the Church's Teaching on Divine
Grace, the more we see how Completely Dependent we are on God, both for
what WE ARE, and for what WE DO. Gods Gift of
SANCTIFYING GRACE is responsible for all that We Are that is pleasing to
Him, and His Countless Gifts of
ACTUAL GRACES are the Principal Cause for all
that We Do that is Pleasing to Him. Would
that we could say with Saint Paul: By the Grace of God I am what I am, and His Grace in
me has not been fruitless (1Corinthians 15:10)