The Catholic intellectual world (and beyond) is no doubt still mourning last week’s passing of Ralph McInerny. McInerny’s death, aside from providing an opportunity to reflect on his own legacy, also invites us to reflect on the body of learning known as Thomism....
Aquinas unfailingly maintained humanity’s need for grace. While he remained generally optimistic about man’s natural capacities, Thomas knew that man is destined for much more than a purely natural relationship with God as first cause. The human creature is destined for a relationship with God as adopted son or daughter through grace. Thus, Thomas was careful to maintain a clear distinction between the natural order and supernatural order, a distinction that never confused God’s agency with ours.
This distinction between the supernatural and natural orders has become incredibly blurred in contemporary theology. The consequences of this approach, which is certainly not novel, can be seen in the failed theological projects of Western theology.
Pelagius maintained that supernatural help is unnecessary to reach God, exalting nature and depreciating man’s need for grace. Luther denied the natural order to the benefit of the supernatural, but grace became completely alien to the human creature. These two extreme positions are found again and again throughout the course of Western theology, and both are popular in various incarnations even today. The Thomistic approach seeks a via media between these extremes, which preserves both man’s capacity for grace and his fundamental inability to produce it or its effects himself.
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