Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

10/5/2013 (6 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When Pope Francis told the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari that atheists can be 'touched by grace,' he is absolutely right if he is referring to actual grace.  His response is solidly founded on Catholic dogma.  The Second Synod of Orange (529 AD) stated unequivocally that actual graces precede, even hound, those in a state of unbelief and mortal sin, their purpose then being to bring them from ungodliness to godliness.

Article Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

10/5/2013 (6 months ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: atheism, actual grace, Pope Francis, Scalfari, sanctifying grace


CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In his interview with the atheist founder of the Italian paper La Repubblica Eugenio Scalfari, the following discussion occurred:

Scalfari:  Do you feel touched by grace?
Pope Francis:  No one can know that.  Grace is not part of consciousness, it is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge nor reason.  Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.
Scalfari:  Without faith?  A non-believer?
Pope Francis:  Grace regards the soul.
Scalfari: I do not believe in the soul.   
Pope Francis:  You do not believe in it but you have one.   

Let us assume that this discussion pertains to supernatural grace.  We are all, after all--atheist included--recipients of natural graces.  Reason, conscience, the natural moral law in our hearts (which Bishop Lucidus in the 5th century referred to as the "first grace"), freedom, health, and prosperity are all examples of natural graces. 

If they were talking about natural grace, there would be no dispute on either side except who is the ultimate source of these natural graces and to what end they are to be used. 

The believer, naturally, would believe that the natural graces come from God the Creator.  The atheist really does not seem to have a good answer as to where these natural graces come from, since all their theories ultimately come down to the tautology: nature comes from nature.

It seems, then, that the two are talking about the order of redemption, the area where supernatural grace reigns.  This is quite certainly what the Pope has in mind since he says that "grace is not part of consciousness," that one cannot know if one is "touched by grace," and that it is something different from "knowledge or reason." 

These are indicators of supernatural graces, not of natural graces, because we are generally conscious of the natural graces.  We know whether we are rich, or famous, or healthy, or intelligent, and so forth.

Now, in Catholic doctrine, supernatural grace is distinguished into two kinds: There is sanctifying, habitual, justifying, or even "deifying" grace.  (These are different terms to describe the same underlying reality.)  But there is also a different kind of grace called actual grace. 

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church ( 2000) explains: "Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural" and "permanent" "disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love," and so to "live and act in keeping with God's call." 

The Catechism distinguishes habitual (=sanctifying=deifying=justifying) grace from actual grace.
 
Actual graces, the Catechism says "refer to God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification."  The graces involved in actual graces are transient, punctual, discrete.  Like sparks, like touches, like kisses, they come and they go.

It is difficult to know what grace--sanctifying or actual--is being talked about in this dialogue. 
Scalfari, who may not appreciate the distinction between sanctifying and actual grace, asks the question generally.  In response, the Pope does not distinguish either.  And it is difficult from the Pope's response to know what he has in mind. 

On the one hand, Pope Francis seems to suggest that grace is "the amount of light [of God] in our souls," which sounds like a metaphorical way of explaining sanctifying grace, since sanctifying deals with a state of being.  The Church also teaches that sanctifying grace can be increased, so we can speak intelligibly of things like "amount" of grace in our souls.

On the other hand, he speaks about being "touched by grace," which suggests a discrete actual grace, the grace involved in a particular act and which no longer is present after the act.

Since it is not clear what grace the atheist and the Pope were speaking about, I want to devote this article to the issue of atheists and actual graces, and the next article to the issue of atheists and sanctifying grace.

It would seem rather uncontroversial Catholic doctrine to propose that any human being--even the atheist--can be the recipient of actual graces. 

Indeed, atheists would never convert if they were not the recipient of actual graces to which they responded favorably.  Ultimately, it was their positive and free response to actual graces--very possibly without even knowing their source or even their existence--that eventually brought them to repentance, to conversion to God, and to the state of sanctifying grace by an act of faith in Christ and baptism--by water, by desire, or by blood. 

We know that atheists can and do convert; ergo, atheists qua atheists can be "touched by grace." 

There are former atheists who, with the prophet Isaiah, would acknowledge the truth:

I [God] was found by those who did not seek me.
I [God] revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.


(Isaiah 65:1; cf. Rom. 10:20)

So, if Pope Francis is referring to actual grace, then he is absolutely right.

Indeed, he is sitting on the rock of dogma on this one.

The Second Synod of Orange (529 AD) stated unequivocally that actual graces precede, even hound, all of us.  Even those of us in a state of unbelief and mortal sin are beneficiaries of actual graces, their purpose then being to bring us from ungodliness to godliness.

With his actual graces, God acts liberally even if unseen and unfelt.  We, however, may not so liberally respond.

That an atheist--or any human being--is the recipient of actual graces does not mean that he is saved.  Though actual graces are ordered to bring someone to sanctifying grace (if in a state of mortal sin or disbelief) and ordered to increase sanctifying grace in the justified soul, actual graces, in and of themselves, are not salvific: they do not save.

Actual graces may involve very small, even incidental matters: they may be behind the first step in a journey which leads back to God.  They may involve acts that are not particular religious, acts that are not acts of worship, acts that are even mundane or even imperfect.

Actual graces are found in the sludge and mud--the sloughs of despond--of all kinds of sinners and all kind of sin.  Actual grace does double duty there.  Actual graces are no respecter of persons and easily overcome such things as boundaries of creed, color, or culture. 

Actual grace is found in brothels, in abortion clinics, in concentration camps, in the opium den--in all the hells human build for themselves when they build without reference to God.

A controversial example of this aspect of actual grace is the example that Pope Benedict XVI suggested in his book Light of the World.  He suggested that a gay prostitute infected with AIDS who decided--for the first time in his life--to use a condom and think of someone else, might have been a response to an actual grace. 

This event he suggested "can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants."

The gay prostitute is mired in his sin, and is hardly saved or justified by this one act of faulty altruism, but in responding positively to this first step, he may have responded to an invisible prompting--an actual grace--of the God who so wants to bring him to the fullness of life in Christ.

To be sure, this one response is not enough.  It is perhaps the beginning of a journey back to God, to repentance, and to salvation.  That one positive response does not save, though it might incline one a little bit more to seeking the authentic good--God--and rejecting the apparent good which one has placed in front of God.

Which brings one to the point.  Actual graces in and of themselves do not save.  One can have been the recipient of a billion actual graces throughout one's life, and most of us, including atheists, probably are.  But if one is not in a state of sanctifying grace at the time of one's death, it avails one nothing.  There are many people in hell who have received actual graces while on earth.

In short, actual graces are necessary, but not sufficient for salvation.

So, yes, actual grace can touch a soul, even the soul of an atheist, even the atheist who is the most inveterate sinner.

But that's not all of it.  There is, however, another side to it. 

While God's actual grace can touch an atheist's soul, that soul can also not respond to it.  Actual graces are not irresistible.  A soul's freedom of rejection can be exercised in myriad ways.
 
He may not recognize it. 
He can parry the effort. 
He can brush it off. 
He can ignore it. 
He can outright reject it. 

Along with the good news that God wants to touch atheists with his actual graces and wants them freely to respond to them is the rule that is as true for atheists as it is for Catholics and is a necessary requirement of our human freedom:  "Many are called, but few are chosen."  (Matt. 22:14)  All of us, including the atheist, can abuse our dignity, and damn ourselves.

-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for April 2014
Ecology and Justice:
That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick: That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.



Comments


More Living Faith

John's Paul II's Doctor: I don't know how he survived the shooting Watch

Image of Pope John Paul II miraculously recovered from assassination attempt. After his recovery, he forgave his would-be killer, visiting him in prison.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The doctor to Bl. Pope John Paul II has explained that he doesn't know how the assassin's bullet intended to kill him did not do so. He also talked about the Holy Father in his last days, as he worked amid failing health. "I don't know how he survived the shooting," ... continue reading


Pope Francis calls for your 'prayer and action' to end global hunger Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Pope Francis helped launch a worldwide movement to end hunger through prayer and action. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Catholic Online with Your Catholic Voice Foundation is participating, along vwith Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA and the ... continue reading


Coptic priest added as Pope Francis' second personal secretary Watch

Image of Some say that the appointment of a Coptic Catholic priest is a sign of  Pope Francis' commitment to dialogue with the Arab and Muslim world.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Coptic Catholic priest Yoannis Lahzi Gaid has been personally chosen by Pope Francis as his second personal secretary. Lahzi Gaid is currently working in the first section of the Vatican Secretariat of State and is also one of the "translators" who reads the ... continue reading


From an Ancient Easter Homily: Jesus Christ, the Source of Resurrection and Life Watch

Image of

By An Ancient Anonymous Preacher

Thus the passion of our Savior is the salvation of mankind. The reason why he desired to die for us was that he wanted us who believe in him to live for ever. In the fullness of time it was his will to become what we are, so that we might inherit the eternity he ... continue reading


TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: Pope Francis delivers powerful Easter message Watch

Image of Pope Francis enters with his candle symbolizing the light of Christ.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Pope Francis urged Catholics to share their faith "to the ends of the Earth" during a baptism ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica. The solemn ceremony reminds us that we are called to serve amid the joy of the resurrection. The most enduring call of Christ is for us to ... continue reading


Rome already crushed with pilgrims for historic canonization of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII Watch

Image of Hundreds of thousands packed into Rome for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. This time, the numbers will be far greater.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Rome is well-packed with throngs of pilgrims who have begun a week's long vigil awaiting the most historic canonization in world history. Next Sunday, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will be canonized by Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis. ROME, ITALY (Catholic ... continue reading


BREAKING THE RULES or IS HE? Pope Francis washes women's feet and those of undetermined religion Watch

Image of This year, Francis arrived at a center for the disabled and elderly in Rome. Francis kneeled down, washed, dried and kissed the feet of a dozen people, some in wheelchairs, other with grossly swollen and disfigured feet.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Pope Francis has shown little regard for rules in regards to his papacy. The latest controversy now surrounds his washing the feet of 12 disabled and elderly people, some of who were women and non-Catholics. The pre-Easter ritual, Pope Francis is designed to show ... continue reading


'Priestly joy is a priceless treasure,' Pope Francis says Watch

Image of The pope, presiding over the first of two Holy Thursday liturgies, blessed the oils that will be used in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, ordination and the anointing of the sick.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

If a priest wants to overcome moments of sadness, exhaustion and boredom, in addition to discovering his true identity, he must head for the exit sign, going outside himself to be with God and his people, Pope Francis said during the Chrism Mass at St. Peter's ... continue reading


Who's ready for the most historic canonization in modern history?

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Are you ready for the canonization of Pope John Paul II? Vatican officials are busy preparing for the historic canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. As they prepare, it's time for use to get ready as well. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - on April 27, a ... continue reading


Pope Francis encourages people to kiss crucifix and recite simple prayer Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Pope Francis is encouraging people this holy week to pick up a crucifix, kiss it and recite the simple prayer: "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord." He wishes to remind others that Christ's passion "isn't the happy ending of a beautiful fairytale, it isn't the ... continue reading


All Living Faith News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Acts 3:1-10
1 Once, when Peter and John were going up to the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 105:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8-9
1 Alleluia! Give thanks to Yahweh, call on his name, ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 24:13-35
13 Now that very same day, two of them were on their ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for April 23rd, 2014 Image

St. George
April 23: Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter