"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.


After the time of St. Thomas moral theology often followed the order of the Decalogue, of which many precepts are negative. The saint himself follows the order of the virtues, theological and moral, showing their subordination and interconnection. These virtues he sees as functions of one and the same spiritual organism, functions supported by the seven gifts which are inseparable from charity. Thus moral theology is primarily a science of virtues to be practiced, and only secondarily of vices to be shunned. It is something much higher than casuistry, which is mere application to cases of conscience.

Thus charity, which animates and informs all the other virtues and renders their exercise meritorious, appears very clearly as the highest of all virtues, and the most universal of all virtues, in the exercise of which every Christian reaches perfection. [1042] Thus moral theology is identified with the spiritual life, with the love of God and docility to the Holy Spirit. Thus asceticism, which teaches the method of practicing virtue and shunning sin, is subordinated to mysticism, which teaches docility to the Holy Spirit, infused contemplation of the mysteries, and intimate union with God. And the exercise of the gifts, particularly of wisdom and knowledge, which make faith penetrating and savory, is a normal element in all Christian life, quite distinct from extraordinary favors, such as visions and stigmatizations.

Article One: Habits [1043]

Habits, moral habits, are operative qualities, that is, principles of activity, either acquired or infused, distinct from sanctifying grace, which is an entitative habit, infused into the very essence of the soul, whereas operative habits are received into the faculties of the soul. This description applies to good habits, to which are opposed bad habits or vices.

St. Thomas studies habit, in its nature, its subject, and its cause. To distinguish one habit from all others, his dominating principle is that each habit is specifically proportioned to its object, [1044] each under its own special viewpoint. [1045] This principle is of capital importance, illumining as it does all questions that follow: on the theological virtues, on the moral virtues, on the gifts of the Spirit. [1046] Here we give a brief summary of this Thomistic doctrine. [1047].

1. Habits can be considered as forms which we receive passively. Then they are specifically distinguished by the active principle which produces them. Thus infused habits come from God as participations in His own inner life; acquired habits arise either from the demonstrative principles which engender them (scientific habits): or from repeated virtuous acts regulated by reason (moral habits).

2. Habits considered formally as habits are divided by their relation, favorable or unfavorable, to the nature in which they reside. Thus, whereas infused habits are always favorable to grace, acquired habits may be either favorable to human nature, and are then called virtues, or unfavorable, in which case we call them vices.

3. Lastly, habits may be considered in relation to their mode of operation, and are then distinguished by their formal object, infused habits by an object essentially supernatural, acquired habits by an object naturally attainable. "Habits," says St. Thomas, "considered as operative dispositions, are specifically distinguished by objects specifically different."

Some theologians, under the influence of Scotism and Nominalism, say that infused virtues may be specifically distinct from acquired virtues by their active principles, even while they have the same formal object. In this view, the formal object of the infused virtues, even of the theological virtues, would be attainable by the natural forces of our faculties, supposing that divine revelation be proposed to us exteriorly in the pages of the Gospel, and be confirmed by miracles which are naturally knowable.

Thomists, and also Suarez, forcefully reject this interpretation, saying that it approaches Semi-Pelagianism by compromising the essentially supernatural character of all infused virtues, including the theological virtues. If without infused faith the formal object of faith can still be attained, faith itself either becomes useless, or is at best useful only as a means to make the act of faith more easy (Pelagianism): or at least presupposes its beginning [1048] as coming from our nature without the support of grace (Semi-Pelagianism). If faith's formal object is attainable by the natural force of our intelligence, aided by natural good will, after reading the Gospel confirmed by miracles, then Paul would be wrong in calling faith "a gift of God." Why should infused faith be necessary for salvation, if acquired faith suffices to attain the revealed mysteries?

Hence the commentators insist that the three distinguishing viewpoints outlined above are inseparably connected. A virtue, then, is not infused virtue unless these three qualities are found in it simultaneously:

1. it is producible by God alone.
2. it is conformed to grace, our participation in the divine nature.
3. it has an object essentially supernatural, inaccessible to our natural faculties.

To disregard this third point is to approach Nominalism, which considers concrete facts, not the inner nature of things.

Article Two: Classification Of Virtues

Some virtues are intellectual, some are moral, some are theological. The intellectual virtues [1049] are five: three in the speculative order, namely, first principles, science, and wisdom, and two in the practical order, prudence [1050] and art. [1051].

Moral virtues are perfections, either of the will or of the sense appetite. In dividing them St. Thomas is guided by the ancient moralists, Aristotle, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. All moral virtues are reduced to the four cardinal virtues: [1052] prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. Prudence, though it is an intellectual virtue, is likewise a moral virtue, because it guides both the will and the sense appetite in finding the right means in attaining an end. Justice inclines the will to give everyone his due. Fortitude strengthens the irascible appetite against unreasonable fear. Temperance rules the concupiscible appetite.

The theological virtues [1053] elevate our higher faculties, intellect and will, proportioning them to our supernatural end, that is, to God's own inner life. [1054] Faith makes us adhere supernaturally to what God has revealed. Hope, resting on His grace, tends to possess Him. Charity makes us love Him, more than ourselves, more than all else, because His infinite goodness is in itself lovable, and because He, both as Creator and as Father, loved us first. The theological virtues, therefore, are essentially supernatural and infused, by reason of their formal objects, which without them are simply inaccessible.

By this same rule St. Thomas distinguishes the infused moral virtues from acquired moral virtues. [1055] This distinction, of capital importance yet too little known, must be emphasized. The acquired moral virtues do indeed incline us to what is in itself good, not merely to what is useful or delectable. They make man perfect as man. But they do not suffice to make man a God's child, who, guided by faith and Christian prudence, is to employ supernatural means for a supernatural end. Thus infused temperance, say, is specifically distinct from acquired temperance, as, to illustrate, a higher note on the key board is specifically distinct from the same note on a lower octave. Thus we distinguish Christian temperance from philosophic temperance, and evangelical poverty from the philosophic poverty of Crates. Acquired temperance, to continue with St. Thomas, [1056] differs from infused temperance in rule, object, and end. It observes the just medium in nourishment, so as not to harm health or occupation. Infused temperance observes a higher medium, so as to live like a child of God on his march to a life that is eternal and supernatural. It implies a more severe mortification, which chastises the body and reduces it to subjection, [1057] not merely to become a good citizen here below but rather a fellow citizen of the saints, a child in the family of God. [1058].

This same difference between infused and acquired is found likewise in prudence, justice, and fortitude. Yet we must note that acquired virtue facilitates the exercise of infused virtue, as, to illustrate, finger exercises facilitate the musician's art which resides in the musician's intellect.

As the acquired virtues in the will and sense appetite, justice, namely, and fortitude, and temperance, are inseparable from prudence, so the infused virtues are inseparable from charity. Faith and hope can indeed continue to exist without charity, but they no longer exist in a state of virtue, [1059] and their acts are no longer meritorious. And whereas all moral virtues, infused or acquired, must preserve a medium between excess and defect, the theological virtues have no medium properly speaking, because we can neither believe too much in God, nor hope too much in Him, nor love Him too much. [1060].

Article Three: The Gifts

This entire supernatural organism, all the virtues, moral and theological, spring from sanctifying grace, as the faculties of the soul spring from the soul. And this supernatural organism has its complement in the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. These gifts, too, must be classed as habits, infused habits, which dispose us to receive with docility and promptitude the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, as, to illustrate, the sails dispose the ship to receive impulse from the wind. [1061] Charity, which is "poured out in our hearts by the Holy Ghost who has been given to US," [1062] is the inseparable source of these gifts, which, with charity, grow all together and simultaneously, like the five fingers of the hand. [1063].

Article Four: The Vices

Vices are habits that turn us from God and incline us to evil. [1064] They have four sources: ignorance, more or less voluntary; passions, if unruled; pure malice, evidently more grave; the demon, who acts on the sense faculties to suggest evil. God can never be the cause of sin or moral disorder, though He is the first cause of the physical entity of the act which is morally sinful, [1065] and though, by the deserved withdrawal of grace, He allows the sinner to be blinded and hardened.

From selfishness, the unregulated love of self, from what St. John called "concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes, and pride of life," come the seven capital sins, enumerated by St. Gregory in this order; vainglory, envy, wrath, avarice, sloth, gluttony, and lust. [1066] From these capital sins arise others, often more grave, hatred of God, for example, and despair, because man does not all at once reach complete perversity.

Article Five: Sin

Sin is a deed, a word, a desire, against the eternal law. Admitting this definition of sin by St. Augustine, St. Thomas studies sin, not only in its causes, but in itself as act. As to be expected, he distinguishes sins specifically by their objects, [1067] whereas Scotus distinguishes them rather by their opposition to virtues, and Vasquez by their opposition to precepts.

What distinguishes mortal sin from venial sin? The answer of St Thomas is profound. The idea of sin, he says, [1068] as applied to mortal and venial, is not a univocal notion, is not a genus divided into species, but is found analogically in both. Mortal sin is a turning away from our last end, is simply against the law, and is in itself irreparable, whereas venial sin is not a turning away from our last end, but a disorder in the use of means, and is rather beside the law than against it, halting us on our road to God. It is therefore reparable.

Mortal sin [1069] deprives the soul of sanctifying grace, reduces our natural inclination to virtue, and deserves eternal punishment, because without repentance it lasts forever as habitual sin, and hence draws on a punishment which also lasts forever. Yet not all mortal sins are equal in malice, the worst being sins directly against God: apostasy, despair, hatred of God.

Venial sin tarnishes that brightness given to the soul by acts of virtue, but not that of sanctifying grace. [1070] But it can lead imperceptibly to mortal sin [1071] and merits temporal punishment. [1072] A feeble act of virtue contains an imperfection, which is not, like venial sin, a privation, but only a negation of desirable perfection, a lack of promptitude in the service of God. [1073].

Original sin [1074] is specifically distinct from actual sin which we have been speaking of. It is the sin of nature, transmitted with nature. It is voluntary in its cause, the sin of the first man. It consists formally in the privation of original justice, by which our will was subject to God. [1075] Materially, it consists in concupiscence. It resides, as privation of grace, in the essence of the soul, before it infects the will and man's other powers. [1076].

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