"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


We will dwell here on the chief difference between the doctrine of St. Thomas and that of many modern theologians, inspired less by him than by Suarez. On the fact of the reviviscence of merits, there is no controversy, since the definitions of Trent [976] imply this truth. The controversy is concerned with the manner and mode of this reviviscence.

Suarez [977] maintains, and with him many modern theologians, that all past merits revive in equal degree as soon as the penitent is justified by absolution, even though his attrition is barely sufficient to let the sacrament have its effect. If we represent his merits, for example, by five talents of charity, then under absolution, even if attrition is just sufficient, he recovers not only the state of grace, but the same degree of grace, the five talents which he had lost. The reason given by Suarez is that these merits remain in God's sight and acceptance, and since their effect, even as regards essential glory, is only impeded by the presence of mortal sin, they must revive in the same degree as soon as that impediment is removed.

St. Thomas, [978] and with him many ancient theologians, expresses himself in fashion notably different. The principle which he often invokes in his treatise on grace, and explains also elsewhere, [979] runs thus: Grace is a perfection, and each perfection is received in a manner more perfect or less according to the present disposition of the subject. Hence in proportion to the intensity of his disposition, attrition or contrition, the penitent receives grace, and his merits revive, sometimes with a higher degree of grace, as probably did St. Peter after his denial, sometimes with an equal degree, and sometimes with a lower degree.

The question is important, and the answer must be sought in what is true, not in what may seem to be more consoling. It is particularly important in the spiritual life. If an advanced soul commits a grave sin, it cannot again begin its ascent at the point where it fell, unless it has a really fervent contrition which brings back the same degree of grace as that which it lost, and must otherwise recommence its climb at a point possibly much lower. Such at least is the thought of many older theologians, notably of St. Thomas. We will quote here a passage [980] which seems to have been in some measure forgotten.

It is clear that forms which can be received in varying degrees owe their actual degree, as we have said above, [981] to the varying dispositions of the receiving subject. Hence the penitent receives grace in a higher degree or in a lower degree, proportionate to the intensity or to the remissness of his free will against sin. Now this intensity of the will is sometimes proportioned to a higher degree of grace than that from which he fell by sin, sometimes to an equal degree of grace, and sometimes to a lower degree. And what is thus true of grace is likewise true of the virtues which follow grace.

This passage, let us note, is not merely a passing remark. It is the very conclusion of the article. In that same question, a little farther on, [982] he speaks thus: "He who rises in a lower degree of charity will receive his essential reward according to his actual measure of charity. But his accidental reward will be greater from the works he did under his first measure of grace than from those he does in his second and lower degree of grace."

Banez seems to understand these words in a sense too restricted, which would exclude reviviscence in regard to the essential reward. Billot [983] seems to exaggerate in the opposite direction. Cajetan, in the following passage, keeps well to the thought of St. Thomas. "When grace revives, all dead merits revive too, but not always in the same quantity, in their power, that is, to lead the man to a higher degree of glory as they would have done had he not fallen. This is the case of a man who, having risen from sin in a degree of grace lower than was his before his fall, dies in that state. The reason for this lower degree of reviviscence is the lower degree of disposition in him who rises." [984].

To this explanation of Cajetan, Suarez gives no answer. But the Salmanticenses [985] and Billuart [986] explain St. Thomas well. The latter writes as follows:1. Merits do not always arise in that degree which they had before, since they revive in proportion to the present disposition.

2. Also as regards their quantity, merits revive according to the present disposition. This does not mean, as Banez thinks, that the same essential glory is now given to the penitent by a twofold title, first by reason of his present disposition, secondly by reason of his now revived merits. What it does mean is this: There is conferred on the penitent, in addition to that degree of essential glory which corresponds to his present disposition, a sort of right to additional glory corresponding to his preceding merits.

To conclude. Merits revive, even as regards their essential reward, not always in a degree equal to what they formerly had, but in proportion to the penitent's actual disposition. He who had five talents and has lost them, can revive on a lower level, and can die on that level, and hence will have a degree of glory proportioned, not to the five talents, but to some lower degree of charity, whereof God alone knows the proportion, as God alone can measure the fervor of man's repentance.

Index Top



To buy "Reality" as a new book, click here