Why Rooney is right about the importance of addressing heresy (although he may well be wrong about whether he is a heretic or not)

Daniel Heck
77 min readJan 20, 2023
(Water bear demons) A frustrated editor of Church Life Journal in the style of Odilon. (Image based on The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon.) Midjourney. 1/19/2023

This article is yet another one in a long series on how the priest Brother James Dominic Rooney is wrong about things like freedom, Christian hope, Pelagianism, how to exegete the Akedah responsibly, etc. Many of the same themes are reprised in his most recent article in Church Life Journal. And so a lot of my response also reprises arguments discussed elsewhere in the series. So why would I continue to engage his work here? Because while my reflections on his work do take the substantive questions seriously, I’m also interested in discourse analysis of these texts in other ways as well. So there’s something to the work of documenting the way stubborn anti-reconciling patterns worm their way back and forth through this body of work.

To help change things up a bit, here I’ll imagine what I wish the editor at Church Life Journal would have said in response to this submission. In this sense, the article also says something new. It is my answer to this question: How could an editor respond constructively, generously, and critically (all in due proportion) to a piece like this, one that is extremely hastily accusing the Notre Dame University Press of publishing blatant and ridiculous heresies … and accusing them in ways that don’t withstand even a low level of academic scrutiny?

Beyond this there are also some fresh heresy accusations flying around here, and a background debate about whether (and how) to say the “H word” of heresy at all. Part of the recent kerfluffle between Hart and Rooney has involved Hart describing Rooney as thuggish because of how aggressively and carelessly he is skittering among heresy accusations. Rooney has responded by defending the importance of heresy accusations. Still, my own sense is that Hart’s problem is less with the idea of accusing people of heresy in general, and more about whether one should do it as a “thug” or more in the style of a Mafia Don. Thugs charge around shouting heresy, hoping something will stick. But a Don just nods, and everyone knows what is implied, all while maintaining a layer of plausible deniability. So, for example, Hart comes extremely close to saying that anyone who rejects patristic universalism is some kind of heretic, but he isn’t so crude about it. Rather, he lets the reader draw the (at least reportedly) ineluctable conclusion for themselves: that only universal salvation is compatible with the traditional affirmations about God that we find in the ecumenical councils. (And therefore the majority position for a large share of church history is heretical.)

Here, even in the midst of all these fireworks, I like to imagine an editor who is willing and able to insist on a basic level of academic quality in Church Life Journal.

Unfortunately, it seems something else happened along the way.

(Pomeranian tardigrade demon.) A nursing home patient suffering forever, with deep anguish on his face. (Image based on The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon.) Midjourney. 1/19/2023

Still, in a better world than this one (a world that I believe is possible, and even possible to approximate more nearly in the near future), we might imagine this series of comments on Rooney’s most recent submission. I’ll quote and respond to most of the article below, in persona editori capitis.

…Alvin Plantinga is famous for developing a “free will” defense of moral evil which argued that God could have a reason for allowing that evil in light of God’s decision to create free persons. Logically speaking, the problem of evil is not a difficult problem to solve …

To be fair to Plantinga, he was not arguing that freedom essentially involves the ability to sin but rather only a claim about conditions of creaturely freedom. God might not be able to create free creatures without allowing that some would choose sin. And, if we limit this claim to the possibility of sin, Thomas Aquinas agrees that not even God can create a creature incapable by nature of sin (cf. De Veritate, q. 24, a. 7). If God desires to create free creatures, not even God can eliminate the metaphysical possibility that such creatures sin. And Aquinas uses this fact to show why it is that God’s grace is never given in such a way that it is irresistible. God never gives grace in such a way that we are strictly unable to reject it; all of our actions under grace remain contingent acts that could have been otherwise.

How do you want to note that none of this, so far, contradicts patristic universalism? There is no question in this debate about whether people can sin, and whether sin has bad consequences. Please make this clear in the final draft so that you aren’t further engaged in strawmanning.

The only matter at hand, in that debate, is whether it is coherent for us to claim that God (classically understood) can logically and coherently be said to create a cosmos in which finite sin results in infinite punishment. On the patristic universalist view, finite sin results in finite κόλασις (correction/punishment). Your language here uses weasel words to imply otherwise, continuing to propagate ongoing confusions.

(Leading man and the memory of brontosaurus). A nursing home patient suffering forever, with deep anguish on his face. (Image based on The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon.) Midjourney. 1/19/2023

Hard Universalism, Grace, and Creaturely Freedom

It may seem at first glance as if Aquinas’s position requires creaturely freedom to be fundamentally morally indifferent or arbitrary, indifferent to willing either good or evil by nature. But Aquinas certainly thinks none of this. Aquinas’s view of creaturely freedom (and its limits) is instead closely connected to Christian doctrine of grace. Aquinas necessarily rejects a position like “hard universalism” — the view that is necessarily true that “all are saved,” because of what this position requires in order to be true. Universalism might seem an innocent enough view: “Because God is Good,” they say, “He cannot avoid saving all.”

Do they say that? Can you cite some of their own language to this effect? The distinction between saying that God “cannot avoid saving all” and that God, definitionally, has a character such that God freely wills that “all shall be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4) has been repeatedly highlighted in the public debate around your position. We don’t want to publish more strawmanning and misrepresentation in CLJ, especially when it goes to the core of your argument.

The problem with universalism is not in their claim about God’s goodness or that God should do something to respond to sin. The deep errors of these universalists, and the reason that hard universalism is so dangerous for the faith, lie in serious mistakes the view requires concerning God’s nature and its relation to us. Universalism entails that God owes it to us, that we deserve, his grace, and he would be unjust if we were not sharers in the divine nature.

Do you have citations regarding claims that show all Christian universalists think that humans deserve God’s grace? Or any? The link above shows counter-arguments on precisely this matter. CLJ doesn’t want to promote continued strawmanning: you must address this before publication.

It is quite right to say that the possibility of eternal separation from God is not obviously defeated by telling those in hell: “You chose poorly, but at least it was your choice.” Because freedom is not ultimately valuable if misused, universalists are right that moral evils need to be defeated by what God will bring about because of permitting sin. God permits what happens in sin and its consequences, we know, only because he intends to bring about some greater good that would defeat all evil that occurred in world history. When the Lord’s Day arrives, we should be able to look back on all of our struggles with joy. The orthodox Christian can and should agree with David Bentley Hart that, “the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable” (That All Shall Be Saved, 69).

Paradoxically, the “hard universalist” gets it almost right; yet heresies are always only half-truths. What goes wrong lies not in universalism’s claim about God’s being Good, but what they imply about the way God and human beings relate.

It cannot be necessarily true that everyone will be saved unless either God cannot do otherwise than cause us to share in His life, or human beings cannot do otherwise than love God supernaturally. There are only two possible ways in which God cannot do otherwise than save all people, which correspond to those outlined in my previous essay:

Given who God is, He cannot allow us to reject grace definitively (supernatural love of God, etc.).

Given what human beings are, they cannot reject grace.

Again, there is a fundamental problem with this argument that has been publicly pointed out. If logical implication in general necessarily implies that ‘God cannot do otherwise’ than whatever is logically necessary, then we cannot speak of God’s freedom, love, or grace in a logical way at all.

In other words, if your argument holds then one cannot coherently say (L):

(L) If God is Love, in the sense that “love” and “God” are commonly understood, then it logically follows that God behaves graciously as an expression of God’s free will, not out of duty or compulsion or any force of any sort exterior to God. This is a definitional truth: it is simply an unpacking of what it means to say that God is Love in the context of orthodox, classical Christian theology.

Clearly, we must be able to draw logical inferences about the implications of grace and freedom without therefore undermining grace and freedom. To sharpen the point further, one could also say:

(F) If God is always free, then God is free in all instances.

Does this mean that God “cannot” help but be free in all instances? In a sense, yes: in the logical sense, which establishes the boundaries of the coherence of some particular model. However, does it mean that God lacks the capacity to be anything but free? (A second sense of “cannot”, which would arguably render the phrase in an internally incoherent way.) Well, not necessarily.

In this sense, a patristic universalist may or may not hold that God has a capacity to do otherwise than save all (one possible meaning of “can”) but God reliably and faithfully never uses that capacity, because God is Love and therefore chooses to graciously pursue each soul until it is finally saved. The use of “cannot” in this context is therefore functioning as a weasel word. Please avoid it in the final draft, and distinguish clearly between logical inference and material compulsion.

David Bentley Hart’s You Are Gods gives a radical picture of the relationship between creation and God’s nature, as the basis for his hard universalist views:

In TASBS, Hart offers a long series of arguments for patristic universalism. It mischaracterizes his work to suggest that YAG, a later work, provides the basis for his earlier work, TASBS, where the argument proceeds from a variety of claims. Please rephrase this, perhaps to indicate that it is “a metaphysical basis for his account of patristic universalism”.

Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God . . . grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends. Nature in itself has no real existence and can have none; it is entirely an ontological patiency before the formal causality of supernature, and only as grace can nature possess any actuality at all (xvii-xviii, emphasis mine).

At stake in the dispute about universal salvation are claims about how God in his divine nature relates to human beings. The danger lies in confusion about God’s nature. If it were literally metaphysically impossible for God to create the world and not cause it to share in his own nature; if nature “can have” no real existence if it is not sharing in God’s supernatural life; if we were deserving of being “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) merely given what we are, these claims all imply that we are naturally divine. Here we draw a line: pantheism and various other attempts in Christian history to mix up the divine nature of the Son in creation are the first kind of deep errors that lie in the background of contemporary universalist arguments as to why God must necessarily save all. Christian tradition has rightly condemned these views on both Scriptural and metaphysical grounds.

This is an abrupt transition without a clear connection to the previous section.

Please make the connections you’re trying to draw between 2 Peter 1 and Hart’s work clearer, using Hart’s own language and reading him as charitably as possible. Also, this list of semicolons is confusingly parsing a series of sentence fragments whose provenance is uncertain. Are you implying that Hart has made these claims? If so, please provide citations, and accurately reflect the language used, ideally with careful attention to context.

This is non-standard use of semicolons, and worse it makes it harder to follow your argument. Instead, if you wish to associate these views with Hart (for example) please clearly say, “These claims by David Bentley Hart all imply that we are naturally divine: (insert claims, accurately represented, and with citations).” And cite your claims with relevant primary source citations.

CLJ certainly doesn’t want to be involved in lazily implying that a member of the Notre Dame faculty has made claims that they haven’t! Where the particular claims are in view, this should be made clear, and the passages should be exegeted in the context of his broader argument, and with care.

Holding that God could not do otherwise than create implies that God had unique reasons to create this world. But God’s reasons are always to exemplify his own goodness in some way. If this world were the only possible world for God to create, there is no other possible way in which God’s being could be exemplified. Yet, God’s being is infinite; something can only adequately exemplify God’s goodness fully if it were divine. The Trinitarian Persons are not distinct from the divine nature, so creation would have to be something that is God-but-not-quite. Hart explicitly concludes that the world is becoming God (YG, 15–16), distinct by reason of its temporal becoming from the Persons of the Trinity (who “are God” eternally).

For theologians like Hart, these implications are central to their views of creation, redemption, universal salvation, and grace.[1] Claims that God cannot but create and raise us to grace imply an essential relationship between God and creation. If God could do nothing other than create or redeem us, given what he is, we would be essentially related to him, which is the basis from which Hart concludes that all must be saved.

Again, this is simply not the basis from which Hart concludes that all shall be saved. Can you show Hart arguing that this is the basis of the argument in TASBS? Additionally, this citation goes to an article by Feser that doesn’t mention any of the arguments in TASBS. It is an entirely inappropriate citation for the argument made.

Additionally, what you do cite makes problems for your argument here in short order. For example, this is part of the substance of that debate that Feser cites, and the point is that there must be some sense (following Feser’s Thomism) in which human nature has divine capacity: obediential potency. If you wish to cite this article, please engage with its content, and the responses to it.

Do you really think that Feser’s analogy between a human and a computer is theologically appropriate and relevant? If so, please engage with that discussion if you wish to cite this article. As it stands, you will be taken to be insulting the intelligence of our readers, as if they are unfamiliar with the citation, or are uninterested in investigating its relevance to the point you are trying to make. We do not disrespect our readers enough to publish something like that.

Let’s first consider the arguments, then the pantheism. As I read Hart, he has two main objections against the Thomist position. The first is that the Thomist view entails, not the transformation of human beings by grace, but their replacement. If we are not by nature oriented toward the beatific vision, then in raising us to this end in a supernatural fashion, God would be substituting for us some new, non-human rational creature — just as to change a rabbit into a turnip would not be to add something to the rabbit, but rather to obliterate it and replace it with a turnip.

The traditional Thomist response to this sort of objection is to say that human beings are not, by nature, completely closed off to the beatific vision. They do by nature have what is called an “obediential potency” for it, a built-in capacity to have a supernatural end added to them. But Hart dismisses this notion as doubletalk. If we really have such a capacity, he says, then this would after all amount to a natural orientation toward the beatific vision; whereas if it would not amount to that, then we are back to the problem that, by raising us to that end, God would be replacing us with some other kind of creature rather than transforming us. The notion of an “obediential potency” is supposed to be a middle ground between these options, but, Hart insists, there is no such middle ground.

Yet that Hart is wrong about this is clear even from simple analogies drawn from everyday modern life. Consider the laptop computer on which you might be reading this. There is an obvious sense in which it is complete all by itself, with its operating system, other software installed in the factory, built-in Wi-Fi capability, and so on. Yet it has the capacity to have added to it all sorts of new software and accessories (via download, or through USB and HDMI ports and the like) — including, if it is old enough, some that had not even been invented at the time the computer was designed and manufactured. Since software and accessories of the latter sort were not even in view when the computer was designed, they cannot be said to be ends for which the computer was made. All the same, they are ends that might be added to it, because it does at least have the inherent capacity to have such ends added to it.

Your argument proceeds to act like mediation of divinity is metaphysical nonsense, but it seems to be best aimed at Feser’s computer analogy, which clearly is about the notion that metaphysical divinity could be added (precisely) as if it is a part. Perhaps your real argument is with Feser?

All these claims, however, are strictly metaphysical nonsense. There is no such thing as being divine by nature but not quite, just as there is no such thing as God having parts. God is the first cause of all, completely self-sufficient Being, whereas parts compose a whole in virtue of giving that whole existence in some way, as my arm gives me certain powers or possibilities I would not otherwise have. Whatever has parts receives something from the parts. God receives nothing. If something has parts or receives being from another, it simply is not divine in any respect. For similar reasons, it is impossible even to state coherently what it would be for something to be naturally divine but somehow potentially or not quite so. God is that being which exists necessarily, given what he is.

Anything that is not God does not exist necessarily, including anything that exists through God — contingent beings are essentially something that receives being from another, not something that exists necessarily! And there is no “not-quite-divine” middle position between being contingent and necessary. To say something is “potentially divine” is just as meaningless as saying that a contradiction is “potentially” a necessarily true proposition (2+2=4). Anyone can see that whatever is God by essence is essentially one (polytheism is necessarily false!); I am not numerically identical with God; therefore, I am not divine. Paul’s reaction in Acts 14:15 to the claim that he and Barnabas were divine was not to praise that theology!

Here it is becoming clear that your problem really is with Feser. Did you even read the work you cited?

At any rate, as you’ve noted, Hart has distinguished (in works of his that you have cited in this series of interactions) between our temporality, finitude, non-simplicity, etc and God’s divine/spiritual nature. For Hart our spiritual nature is simple, in the unity of subjectivity for example, although our fleshy nature is obviously and definitionally not. On what grounds do you think he would have a problem reading Acts 14:15 in light of his claim that we are not God, because we are in a process of becoming?

There is also strong theological reason to reject such nonsense visions of God’s nature. If God could not have done otherwise than create and redeem, that means not only that Christ necessarily became incarnate, but that also he would have suffered torture on the Cross as a necessary consequence of his divine nature. So too, all evils in history would be strictly metaphysically necessary. The Cross would reveal that the divine nature, God’s own interior life, requires the existence of evil, essentially involves suffering torture, and that God positively intended as metaphysically necessary all the evils of history from the first sin to the murder of Cain to contemporary barbarities — a frankly monstrous prospect if not even God could have done otherwise than create a world with the Holocaust in it.

Here, it would be worthwhile to engage with Hart’s “Doors of the Sea”, for example, to investigate whether you are characterizing his views accurately at all. Can you explain, in Hart’s own terms, how Hart would disagree with this characterization of his position? If not, we recommend that you seek assistance in doing so, and then respond to that. It is a very bold assertion to claim that Hart’s position is necessarily the opposite of what he espouses on these matters, and would require extensive argumentation (which is lacking) to establish the point. Perhaps narrow the focus of this article so you are just trying to actually establish this point, in the face of the counter-evidence available in Hart’s ouvre?

And it is theologically a form of Monophysitism to think that the union of divinity and humanity in Christ is itself somehow natural. Christ’s Incarnation too is not a natural or “inevitable” fact about either God the Son or mankind that was metaphysically necessary; otherwise, Christ’s incarnation “adds to” his eternal being from the Father, making him to be the Person he is (the Son) by relation to the world in addition to his relation to the Father.

The argument you are making here requires much more sensitivity to the development of vocabulary before and after Chalcedon. Also attend to de Lubac on the development of distinctions between nature and its opposites during the scholastic era. What do you make of his claims about the nature vs morality contrast, as opposed to the nature vs supernature contrast? You might also find something like Jacob W. Wood’s nuance on these matters both to be a good example to you of how to approach this, and also amenable to you in terms of its religious politics:

On the basis of the Aegidian tradition, de Lubac correctly imputed to Thomas the idea of a natural desire for the vision of God, but then incorrectly imputed to him the view that nature is active with respect to grace. A return to the delicate balance that Thomas strikes between natural appetite and natural desire can provide a way forward in present debates about de Lubac and the commentators, preserving de Lubac’s commitment to our “natural desire for a supernatural end,” alongside the commentators’ insistence that nature is passive with respect to grace. Finally, I will also suggest how contemporary theologians might begin a return, through Thomas, to Augustine’s individual and communal insights about nature, grace, and the desire for God.¹

It would also make sense to attend to Wood’s synthesis with respect to recent scholarship on this matter.² What you’ll notice quickly, however, is that the types of polemics you’re engaged in have essentially no place in any serious discussion of the development of these ideas. You may find that your perspective is defensible, and presumably substantially in line with Wood’s, and yet also find that this has little to no bearing on patristic universalism as such, and that Hart also has substantial precedent to draw on even in the scholastic period. (In this sense, he knows his target: it is, in fact, a sub-species of Thomism but not the entire tradition of Thomism, and certainly not the entirety of Catholic orthodoxy.)

Now let’s turn back to the really quite distinct Christological matters here, where “nature” should be carefully distinguished from the multiple uses of “nature” in scholastic debates. To abruptly and incautiously charge monophysitism would be inappropriate to bring into a discussion with our separated brethren in the Oriental Orthodox Church, but is even more problematic in dialogue with our fellow Chalcedonians. Note that while Hart’s universalism may be a minority position among the Eastern Orthodox, his metaphysics is decidedly not, and Fr. John Behr has lauded YAG. To go up against that body of work will require far more care than demonstrated here, and the problems are basic: you need to understand their philological arguments, or else you are (according to their considerable body of academic work) engaged in anachronistic reading by imposing later definitions on earlier discussions.

How do you understand the development of the use of the terms “nature” and “hypostasis” in this context? If you hope to now engage with Christological controversies in a scholarly context, there is some basic philological work that needs to be done. This article may gesture in the right direction for you on particular Christological matters. On the other hand, much of your concern seems to relate much more directly to scholastic discussions of nature, supernature and will. On that, you may want to consider the substantial intellectual complexity that emerges around the term “nature” in the work of Aquinas and Scotus, and you may also want to consider that Suarez opted to abandon the term “nature” altogether because it was too multivocal to be a source of anything but confusion. The last thing anyone should do is assume a univocal meaning of “nature”, not only across two millennia of sacred tradition, but even at any particular moment or within a particular work.³

You should be especially careful to avoid the implications of a collapse into Nestorianism for your own position, understanding that in other contexts your language might be taken in precisely that way if others read you as aggressively and ungenerously as you are reading them.

Of course, as any competent scholar of the development of doctrine knows, these terms are not in fact univocal across the history of the development of doctrine, and the proper Catholic unity that is achieved must also account for the various heresies being opposed at various times within sacred tradition. There is a real risk of others accusing you of Nestorianism as you are accusing Hart of monophysitism, and a Catholic publication is not interested in slipping into either error. As often happens, those who ungenerously hunt for heretics often end up in heresy themselves, especially in the area of Christology. We therefore insist that you approach the development of doctrine and language around these matters with far more care. This, too, might serve as the core of a developed article in its own right. The work involved in even fully articulating this thesis is much more extensive than what you gesture at so rashly here.

“What have we that we have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7) is a philosophical truth about the way in which anything that has being, insofar as it has being, depends on God. The orthodox doctrine is that creatures are metaphysically contingent in everything they are by nature. We are not by nature divine, nor becoming or potentially or sort-of divine. All we have is received.

Doesn’t a process of becoming divine imply at least some sort of reception, perhaps even the reception of a Thomistic “obediential potency”?

Participation in the divine nature that occurs through grace is not constitutive of what it is to be a human being, but only a free decision on God’s part; “otherwise grace is no more grace” (Rom. 11:6). What we are is received, freely, and not given any essential or necessary connection between God’s nature (or any divine Person) and ours; we are metaphysically contingent beings.

You have chosen to very briefly prooftext an extremely contentious passage of scripture in Biblical Studies and Biblical Theology. Nonetheless, it is uncontroversial that Romans 11:6 is not addressing the point you make here. For reference, here it is:

11 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” 4 But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So, too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

It is especially ironic to cite this in a context where the main source you have approvingly cited is discussing an obediential potency which then leads to good works. If you wish to cite Romans 11 and Feser, perhaps consider writing a different article aiming to resolve the general issues that emerge from a proper and contextualized reading of the works you are citing. Once again, we respect our readers and we don’t allow authors to throw in citations on the presumption that no one will bother to inspect them more deeply, as if the magical aura of the footnote’s authority is what we are after. We expect that sources are cited in ways that support the argument, and our ideal readers are, in fact, the kinds of people who check the footnotes and think critically about the relationship between the substance of the citation and the substance of the argument being made.

This metaphysical truth is what led the Church to condemn the monk Pelagius, who infamously held the view that we do not need God’s help to do good, apart from the “grace” of our creation. By nature, he thought, we have free will such that we can merit our own salvation and love God supernaturally. Pelagius’s view implies that God’s grace is natural to us.

Pelagius was wrong. No free creature is such that, by its nature, it could never make a mistake or commit a moral fault. Free creatures can attain freedom from sin only with God’s help, not by nature. Similarly, loving God supernaturally — as his friends — is not an act we can perform without God’s further help, beyond creating us. Committing a sin and losing God’s grace is metaphysically possible for human beings, even with God’s grace, which is why we still need to hope and pray daily “forgive us our trespasses” even after our baptism.

The absence of citations here is also a problem, and your characterization of Pelagius seems post-Pelagian. Please cite original sources and/or scholarship in support of what is, once again, an enormously tendentious thesis. This is yet another claim which would take a whole article to begin to develop properly. To be clear, the proper development of the argument wouldn’t necessarily vindicate you, but it would at least help articulate your case in a way that invites serious scholarly engagement.

Hart has stated that this debate really has nothing to do with Pelagianism, and it isn’t clear that you’re accurately characterizing either Hart’s position or Pelagianism. Consider these chapters from “Against Pelagius”, for example. Certainly, Hart affirms that God’s grace both creates and sustains the universe. Arguably, the trouble with Pelagius here is naturally interpreted as being related to something like “deism” (as it is sometimes called): the view of a clockwork universe that God winds up and abandons. Hart’s views couldn’t be farther from “Pelagianism” as condemned here, on both the question of God’s sustaining grace, the need of God’s grace for moral action (and any action) and even on the question of universalism. The problem of “Pelagianism” here seems to be a matter of sustaining grace that is needed in an ongoing way as opposed to a merely creational grace. This rather straightforward reading goes directly against your contention, which takes the contestation with Pelagius to be about doctrinally mandating a conflation of grace with supernature. There is no such doctrinal mandate, and (at least as de Lubac has long since argued) there is good reason to question the antiquity of such a conflation.

Also, if “Pelagianism” is to be conflated with universalism, why was Pelagius apparently so anti-universalist? Please offer scholarly citation(s) and address the complexity of accurately characterizing Pelagianism, first, and the difficulties of associating it with Hart’s position when they are so clearly opposite in so many ways. Church Life Journal hopes to meet at least these sorts of minimal scholarly standards in our pages.

Perhaps it would help to review this section of Augustine’s “Against Pelagius” with care:


Since it was necessary that the Apostle Paul’s prediction should be accomplished, — “There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you,” — after the older heresies, there has been just now introduced not by bishops or presbyters or any rank of the clergy, but by certain would-be monks, a heresy which disputes, under colour of defending free will, against the grace of God which we have through our Lord Jesus Christ; and endeavours to overthrow the foundation of the Christian faith of which it is written, “By one man, death, and by one man the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive;” and denies God’s help in our actions, by affirming that, “in order to avoid sin and to fulfil righteousness, human nature can be sufficient, seeing that it has been created with free will; and that God’s grace lies in the fact that we have been so created as to be able to do this by the will, and in the further fact that God has given to us the assistance of His law and commandments, and also in that He forgives their past sins when men turn to Him;” that “in these things alone is God’s grace to be regarded as consisting, not in the help He gives to us for each of our actions,” — “seeing that a man can be without sin, and keep God’s commandments easily if he wishes.”


After this heresy had deceived a great many persons, and was disturbing the brethren whom it had failed to deceive, one Cœlestius, who entertained these sentiments, was brought up for trial before the Church of Carthage, and was condemned by a sentence of the bishops. Then, a few years afterwards, Pelagius, who was said to have been this man’s instructor, having been accused of holding his heresy, found also his way before an episcopal tribunal. The indictment was prepared against him by the Gallican bishops, Heros and Lazarus, who were, however, not present at the proceedings, and were excused from attendance owing to the illness of one of them. After all the charges were duly recited, and Pelagius had met them by his answers, the fourteen bishops of the province of Palestine pronounced him, in accordance with his answers, free from the perversity of this heresy; while yet without hesitation condemning the heresy itself. They approved indeed of his answer to the objections, that “a man is assisted by a knowledge of the law, towards not sinning; even as it is written, ‘He hath given them a law for a help;’ ” but yet they disapproved of this knowledge of the law being that grace of God concerning which the Scripture says: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”4 Nor did Pelagius say absolutely: “All men are ruled by their own will,” as if God did not rule them; for he said, when questioned on this point: “This I stated in the interest of the freedom of our will; God is its helper, whenever it makes choice of good. Man, however, when sinning, is himself in fault, as being under the direction of his free will.” They approved, moreover, of his statement, that “in the day of judgment no forbearance will be shown to the ungodly and sinners, but they will be punished in everlasting fires;” because in his defence he said, “that he had made such an assertion in accordance with the gospel, in which it is written concerning sinners, ‘These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.’ ”6 But he did not say, all sinners are reserved for eternal punishment, for then he would evidently have run counter to the apostle, who distinctly states that some of them will be saved, “yet so as by fire.” When also Pelagius said that “the kingdom of heaven was promised even in the Old Testament,” they approved of the statement, on the ground that he supported himself by the testimony of the prophet Daniel, who thus wrote: “The saints shall take the kingdom of the Most High.” They understood him, in this statement of his, to mean by the term “Old Testament,” not simply the Testament which was made on Mount Sinai, but the entire body of the canonical Scriptures which had been given previous to the coming of the Lord. His allegation, however, that “a man is able to be without sin, if he wishes,” was not approved by the bishops in the sense which he had evidently meant it to bear in his book9 — as if this was solely in a man’s power by free will (for it was contended that he must have meant no less than this by his saying: “if he wishes”), — but only in the sense which he actually gave to the passage on the present occasion in his answer; in the very sense, indeed, in which the episcopal judges mentioned the subject in their own interlocution with especial brevity and clearness, that a man is able to be without sin with the help and grace of God. But still it was left undetermined when the saints were to attain to this state of perfection, — whether in the body of this death, or when death shall be swallowed up in victory.

The persistent pattern with this article is that you move with dizzying speed from one highly tendentious and uncited (or inappropriately cited) claim to the next. The strategy is sometimes rewarded in high school debate contests, but is especially inappropriate in any serious academic context.

(Boars.) A nursing home patient suffering forever, with deep anguish on his face. (Image based on The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon.) Midjourney. 1/19/2023

Options 1 and 2 for the universalist turn out, in the end, to be very similar in confusing the relation between human beings and God. Universalists nevertheless think they can avoid these consequences by arguing that God’s free purposes cannot be achieved if God allows anyone to persist in sin forever: if God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (1 Tim 2:4) then his plan will appear to be thwarted if he allows moral evil to go undefeated and even a single person unsaved.

Nevertheless, this claim too appeals to the same basic principles as Options 1 and 2. What goes wrong is that, while it is true that God is good, God does not owe it to us either to raise us to His life or to prevent us from freely rejecting it.

This argument appeals to something that has been publicly and clearly refuted, and is also mentioned above. No, to say that God always freely loves in a way that transcends duty and desert (a logical statement) in no way implies that this grace is owed. You are simply restating a prior mistake, one that is demonstrably absurd on its face, and one that has repeatedly structured your writings. If you hope to establish that the statement “God always freely loves, as a manifestation of God’s abounding grace” necessarily implies that God’s love is a duty owed to humanity, you need to argue for it. Simply repeatedly making assertions that presume this conflation is not acceptable, especially when your public interlocutors have thoroughly and repeatedly responded to this maneuver, without you responding to it in kind.

Part of the difficulty is that if your argument that conflates logic, nature and duty in this way held, then there could be no theology of grace whatsoever: to speak logically about grace would always convert the grace to duty, and it would therefore always be logically contradictory to try to speak coherently about grace (which is contrasted definitionally with duty). This would, of course, render vast swathes of theological writing throughout sacred scripture and sacred tradition incoherent.

Also recall that you haven’t actually cited Hart conflating grace and duty in this way: you are both in error and strawmanning in ways that have been publicly noted, and continue to do so. Please review the relevant discussions and literature and understand them before submitting this sort of thing to Church Life Journal again.

For example, contrary to your portrait, this is what Hart actually says in YAG:

“An intrinsic rational desire for God would constitute a “right” to God’s grace only if our nature were our own achievement. Yes, in a sense God does manifestly owe his creatures grace, within the terms of the gift of creation; but that is a debt he owes ultimately only to his own goodness.”

Or again, at the close of the first essay, this is Hart in his own words, explicitly refuting the notion that there is duty to God’s grace.

I should note, by the way, that I do accept some version of a principle of proportion between natural desires and their final ends; but the conclusion I draw from this principle is quite the opposite of the one reached by traditional Thomism. I take it to imply that the natural capacity of rational creatures — though it is a capacity that can be satisfied only through the aid of another — is formally and teleologically infinite. Thus, as Nicholas of Cusa so acutely notes, the natural desire of spiritual creatures is ultimately oriented to God not as some kind of comprehensible quiddity, but solely as the incomprehensible infinite.28 By its very nature, spiritual desire can never be formally teleologically finite, as the finite cannot be its own index of rational desirability. As Nicholas says, “Quod nisi deus esset infinitus, non foret finis desidere”: “Were God not infinite, he would not be the end for desire.” The natural desire of spiritual creatures is nothing less, in its fullness, than an infinite intention corresponding to an infinite gift. That certainly was the conviction of Gregory of Nyssa, who would never have guessed that grace and nature might be conceived of as two opposed categories, who believed instead that human nature in its very essence is meant to become an ever more radiant mirror of the divine beauty and ever fuller intimacy of the divine presence, and whom I tend to trust more than just about any other theologian on these matters. From eternity, God has brought spiritual creatures into existence in the only way that such creatures could be formed: by calling them to ascend out of the darkness of nonbeing into the infinite beauty of the divine nature. To exist as a spiritual creature is simply to have heard and (from the very first instant) responded to this total vocation. Creation is already deification — is, in fact, theogony. For that eternal act — that summoning of all created natures out of the primordial darkness — is most certainly an entirely free and unmerited gift of being, imparted to those who were not and who in themselves had no claim to be; but it is also, and no less originally, the call that awakens the gods.

To say otherwise is to imply an essential relationship between us and God. God freely offering us His life from our creation in the Garden would make God arbitrary if He then were to cause, make, or predestine anyone to hell so that they could not do otherwise, for He would undermine His own purposes to offer us salvation as a free gift to us. But this does not entail that God would not be good if He did not give us grace in such a way that nobody can reject it. Even if it is true that humans are naturally able (in a broad sense) to become partakers of God’s nature, this claim does not involve any contradiction with any individual not being an actual partaker of God’s nature. But, if Options 1 and 2 are false, there is no strict contradiction in the view that God might have good reasons to permit us to reject His grace definitively, and so it is not impossible that God has a good plan for allowing even hell.

The universalist is right to imply that God’s decision to permit moral evil could only be in view of the defeat of that evil by greater goods.

The universalist is wrong to imply we know that God’s plan would be thwarted by the presence of anyone in hell; the confusion here regards despair or presumption. God’s own reasons are not naturally accessible to us; we cannot deduce what God will do and what goods he could bring about that might be sufficient to defeat the badness obviously involved in hell. We simply can in no way fathom the limits of God’s power or what he might be able to do.

But what do you have to say to the claim that patristic universalists understand this on the basis of revelation such as 1 Tim 2:4? You are now arguing against something other than scripture.

Still, you haven’t offered any serious attempt to exegete 1 Tim 2:4 after bringing it into the discussion, and your objections to the patristic universalist readings have serious flaws, as noted above. Now you turn to an argument that might be relevant to natural reason, but which has no bearing on the basic logic of scripture. The upshot is that it remains plain, on the face, that God would not be achieving the purposes laid out in 1 Tim 2:4 if God does not achieve the purposes laid out in 1 Tim 2:4. Do you have a response that addresses this rather straightforward argument, which proceeds more-or-less from revelation and tautology? (Sometimes an apparent tautology isn’t as tight as it seems, but this is something that a contributor to Church Life Journal will show by argument, rather than simply repeatedly asserting accusations and, here, arguing against arguments from reason in the face of arguments from revelation.)

Just as it is impossible to prove there is no possible state at the end times that would defeat the badness of any particular evil we encounter in life; we have no way to conclude that God’s plan would necessarily be thwarted by the presence of anyone persisting in sin or the badness of hell. The fact someone cannot imagine what that end state might look like is no objection to its possibility. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).

This is, of course, a passage about love. Can you find a comparable one about hatred? A persistent problem of poor citations plagues this project. Please work to find the best and most appropriate citation for your claims. Otherwise, you dramatically weaken your argument.

Look, we here at Church Life Journal would really love to teach Hart a lesson. He has himself violated the norms of academic conduct among theologians with a great deal of polemical overstatement. He has all-but-called everyone who even dares to be a mere hopeful universalist heretics, and then goes around whining about people talking about heresy. Who could help but see that he is also functionally accusing “Two-Tier Thomists” of heresy (and, presumably worse in his view, ugliness)? And then he retreats to calling heresy claims thuggish when someone measures back to him what he is dishing out? What a thin-skinned bully. These guys are always happy to dish it out, but they can never take it.

Nonetheless, this particular response makes us look bad, too. We need something that is at least done to the level of a good undergraduate paper, which means that you are able to state an argument and cite relevant sources appropriately in support of your thesis. When you cite a passage about love in support here, you just set things up for them to come back and, again, use your own mis-applied sources against you.

There is necessarily no a priori philosophical response to explain God’s reason for permitting moral evil and tell us about the way in which God will defeat that evil. God’s plan is not available to us in that way. The only way we can know what reason God has for not stopping moral evil, and whether persistence of anyone in hell could possibly be compatible with the goods God aims to achieve, would be if God were to reveal that plan to us. And He has, broadly speaking.

Doesn’t sacred scripture and sacred tradition teach that God defeats evil through sinners repenting and being saved? It seems that there is rather abundant revelation available on this topic. Here, as has been noted with respect to your previous works, here and here, it seems that you are slipping far from Christian hope and Christian doctrine and into a kind of stoic fideism. Also note that while TASBS is presented as a logical argument that follows “ineluctably” from its premises, those premises are eminently theological ones that are also revealed truths, especially ones regarding sacred scripture and sacred traditions’ revelation of God as love, as impassible, simple, omnipotent, etc. So Hart’s position is not that patristic universalism follows from reason alone, but rather that it follows from Nicene Orthodoxy. Once again, you (somewhat implicitly) strawman Hart’s position here.

Fathers since Athanasius in On the Incarnation have explained the situation as one where Christ’s sacrifice was the “necessary” solution to the problem of the Fall — necessary in terms of what would constitute that defeat of sin which God had planned for our sake, not necessary in terms of God being by nature unable to do anything but die by torture. Christian revelation is built around the singular claim that God allowed the original sin of Adam and Eve — the entry point for human moral evil — because he intended to redeem humanity gloriously from sin: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem (“O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer”).

God does not act contrary to his purposes in creating humanity and allowing them to suffer, as he will achieve greater goods by allowing this. He only permitted that sin in view of what he did later to defeat the moral evil and suffering introduced by the Fall. God defeated moral evil in the atonement on the Cross, where this victory culminates in an eschatological future where Christ will be all-in-all and evil will be defeated ultimately (1 Cor. 15:28). God’s grace in Christ is then a unique act revealing his goodness, a sacrifice which was valuable precisely because it was Christ’s free gift to us. The Trinity accomplished this merely because God is “gracious and loves mankind.”

Your points about grace and freedom have been shown to be a kind of strawmanning, above and in other responses to your work. Furthermore, all of this stands as an almost immediate refutation of the stoic fideism you are presenting above: you are defeating your own prior points precisely by now turning to these areas of revealed truth, but only appear to be defeating patristic universalist points by continuing to strawman in your implications that the logic of God’s grace undermines grace and converts it to duty.

If the orthodox Christian story of the Cross is correct, universalists make a mistake in holding that God’s repair of the Fall necessarily cannot involve the possibility of anyone persisting in rejection of God’s grace forever. We know from the story of the Fall that the rupture between God and man would not have healed on its own. The Fall involved the actuality of a sin that lost Adam and his descendants God’s grace, really resulting in a state of spiritual death and personal alienation from God. If Christ had not come, we would “still be in our sins” (1 Cor 15:17).

Can you lay this out in any kind of logical way? Patristic universalists can easily grant the fall, and the need for God’s activity to repair it. (The idea that God ultimately saves all really very unambiguously makes God’s activity central.) There is really no point in the body of this paragraph where you refute a single real patristic universalist claim, even vaguely.

For example, the typical patristic universalist could simply say:

W know from the story of the Fall that the rupture between God and man would not have healed on its own. The Fall involved the actuality of a sin that lost Adam and his descendants God’s grace, really resulting in a state of spiritual death and personal alienation from God. If Christ had not come, we would “still be in our sins” (1 Cor 15:17). But precisely because he has come we can now say as a revealed truth that, “As in Adam all die, so in him all will be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22).

They literally just have to continue to cite the text you’re citing, without stopping at a sentence fragment, and need not have any problem at all with the rest of what you say here. We Catholics have really been working very hard to recover from the critiques that we abuse and ignore scripture and just prooftext it here and there, sprinkling it on our theology like confetti. If we publish this, it will be deeply embarrassing in the sense that it seems to prove their point all too well.

The gift of God in the Garden, grace, was given freely and lost freely. To say otherwise would be to impugn the goodness of God for having created creatures in a way that they could not do otherwise than fail. Naturally, God could have prevented original sin from affecting Adam’s descendants, just as he could have prevented it from occurring. But God does not act contrary to his intentions for human nature in allowing humans to suffer original sin, as he is merely allowing them to suffer the natural consequences of their actions, in keeping with his intentions that they naturally exercise free choice in attaining to happiness, natural or supernatural. If my great grandfather was given an immense gift, and spent all the money, impoverishing his descendants, our situation is deplorable on his account, not because of his benefactor.

See above. Patristic universalism and Hart’s metaphysics allow for failure precisely within the process of becoming. Hart’s claim that you have cited is better read as a claim for the capacity of a kind of temporal minimalism (in his metaphysics) to account for all of the various problems you highlight: in essence, his claims can be understood to be that “becoming” vs “Being” provides his theology with what it needs to hold these sorts of traditional claims about freedom, a ‘pre-temporal’ fall, etc, when taken in an orthodox way.

(Omega Pig.) A nursing home patient suffering forever, with deep anguish on his face. (Image based on The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon.) Midjourney. 1/19/2023


Maximus the Confessor was one of the great defenders of the orthodox faith against subtle confusions regarding divinity and humanity in Christ. His eschatology gives us the right way for thinking about God’s permission of evil. Maximus did not entirely reject the mistaken doctrine of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa of universal restoration, or apokatastasis. What God is going to do to defeat evil is not to make us become God by nature, which is impossible, but to make Christ be all-in-all (1 Cor 15:28). Beginning from a firm distinction between grace and nature, Maximus proposed that union with Christ will defeat even the badness of hell.

Please review current scholarship on Maximus and the character of the grace-nature distinction here. What are the terms of the current debate? While we aren’t just here to toot our own horn, it wouldn’t hurt to engage substantively with the differing view expressed in Jordan Daniel Wood’s recently-published work, The Whole Mystery of Christ, from right here at Notre Dame Press. If you don’t have the time or space to engage with the scholarly literature explicitly, the next best thing is to humbly note the contours of the present debate and to articulate your non-expert perspective’s relationship to it.

Please also be aware that the presence of a firm distinction between grace and nature at points in the writings of Maximus doesn’t necessarily mean that the distinction is precisely the one you are now wanting to draw. Please attend carefully to context, the development of language and meaning, the whole operation of the system of thought, the interlocutors of Maximus, and the contours of contemporary secondary literature in your consideration of these matters. We aim to engage with scholarship respectfully on its terms here at Church Life Journal, and simply making bald assertions based on a fragment of text here and there is far from the standard we hope to meet.

Since Christ’s Person is divine, union with Christ’s humanity brings all persons into contact with God’s nature through the hypostatic union of natures in one Person. Even as human persons and their nature will remain distinct from his on the Last Day, we will all, even the damned, become sharers in the divine nature insofar as we come into a union with Christ made possible on the basis of God’s Incarnation. For Maximus, universal restoration will be a final state where: “divinization will be present in actuality to all, transforming all human beings unto the divine likeness, in a manner proportionate to each, to the extent that each one is receptive of it.”[2]

Here, for example, please consider the development of the use of “hypostasis” as it relates to earlier uses of “nature”, especially as “nature” relates to “genesising/genus/kind”, by way of the classical notion that no being can genesis another kind of being. (After all, goats don’t give birth to flowers.) Darwinian evolution also raises interesting problems here that may be worth engaging, especially because it represents an argument from mediation that (in some ways) resembles Feser’s analogy between “obediential potency” and a mechanical computer-like mediation between the “human computer” and its possible upgrades. Perhaps you’d like to challenge Feser regarding the implications of his analogy, especially as it seems to support transhumanism/posthumanism? This would represent an appropriate engagement with the material that interests you in this particular round of engagement with Hart, and perhaps there are possible connections that can be drawn between YAG and TASBS. Still, this seems more likely to pit you and Hart together against Feser’s approach to the mediation of natures.

It would also be worthwhile to engage Luke’s genealogy, in Luke 3, which closes by calling Adam the Son of God in a construct that is directly parallel to the way it calls Seth the Son of Adam. From conversation with you, you seem to interpret this genesising of Adam spiritually, and it is worth considering the spiritual nature of God’s parenthood of all humanity in light of this. Also consider ancient constructs of the flesh-soul-spirit distinction here, especially as Hart understands it: the ancients, as Hart has argued, saw spirit/breath as a different kind of rarified matter. In short, there is a lot of work to do here on your spiritual reading of some texts, your fleshy reading of others, and the proper relationship between Hart’s claims and a classical patristic theological anthropology.

On the final day, “[nothing in all creation] shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31, 39) — and that includes the damned. What God intends to achieve (the free union of all in Christ) is therefore potentially compatible with the persistence of some in hell. But Maximus distinguishes: “Nature does not possess the principles of realities that transcend nature, just as it does not possess the laws of things that are contrary to nature.” Consequently, to the blessed, union with God will allow them to share in “the divine and incomprehensible pleasure of God,” whereas to those who did not preserve grace in their hearts, union with God “[produces] unspeakable pain and suffering.”[3] What God does for all is suited essentially to cause joy and happiness — the fact that God’s action bears suffering for the damned is entirely accidental, a product of their own choices.

What Maximus proposes is that, if free choice is natural to us (which it is), then God’s union with us in Christ necessarily does not abolish whatever concrete human nature we bring with us to the afterlife. God repairs the body and soul of all the dead, as far as is possible without destroying their freely chosen self. Just as God did not remove the possibility of failure when he created Adam and Eve in the Garden, God’s grace does not necessarily bring about our free conversion; God’s plan was always to give grace such that we can reject it, given our free nature.

Is it coherent to discuss choice atemporally? If not (and it seems on the face that this is impossible, at least in terms of gnomic deliberation) then what conception of freedom do you suppose Maximus is working with? Here again we have a topic that is worth an article in its own right, but it is difficult to reconcile the apparently voluntarist/libertarian notion of freedom involved in the idea of humans rejecting grace, here, with atemporality (aidios eternity).

Thus, if we failed to cooperate with grace here on earth, our union with Christ will produce pain given that we, by nature, are made to find our ultimate happiness in God alone; as the Catechism claims, “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC §1035). But Maximus also argues that God only allows these kinds of evil in view of what he intends to accomplish. God’s plan, in the end, will bring about greater goods than all the history of evil in the world, including the potential case of anyone persisting in their sin forever.

Would Hell Be Worth It?

Maximus does not deny that the final and everlasting state of the damned is painful — “more punishing and terrible than any punishment” (as he puts it in a letter) — and yet God does not allow this because he hates the damned, but rather because he loves them.[4] The pain is not good, certainly. What is good is its cause: union with Christ. And that union is good for the damned, even if they cannot perceive it as such. Indeed, the damned (by definition) see the world wrongly — the damned perceive the Good himself as hateful and painful. We should not trust the damned in their perception of whether their state is good for them. To the contrary, we should look at things from the perspective of God and the blessed.

Why should we not consider the perspective of those who suffer in Christ? This seems gravely morally deficient.

Christ’s resurrected body still bore scars — the mark of the nails and his pierced side. The Fathers hold that his resurrected followers do so as well: “Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ’s name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body” (St. Augustine, City of God XXII). The saints who bear scars are not sad that they bear them; the scars bring joy, dignity, and beauty.

Some therefore argue that the situation of the disabled in paradise is similar. Precisely insofar as disabilities might serve to bring scorn or difficulties in life, disabilities can be linked constitutively with spiritual perfection. As the saints’ external scars might constitute signs of triumph, so too disabilities.

The situation of the damned might be analogous. The damned remain spiritually impaired in their relationship with God — in their will. While their sin impedes their flourishing supernaturally, their situation in union with Christ makes them better off than if they lacked it. Theirs is the only kind of union which they can possibly have with Christ, given that this impairment is essential to their personality. But the fact that there could have been something better for them does not mean that their evil is not defeated after they arrive in the eschaton.

This conflation of disability and sin is deeply morally disturbing. We expect disability advocates will be up in arms over this if we are foolish enough to publish it. Furthermore, it bears an extremely uncomfortable resemblance to the erroneous views of the disciples in John 9:1. Similarly, is “sinner” an enduring personality type, or can sins be repented of and turned away from? The Church has never held that “sinner” is a personality type, although this perspective can be found in various ancient sources in close proximity to the Church in the development of orthodoxy.

The damned are better-off in the resurrection precisely because of being in union with Christ, since the damned are closer to now him than to themselves, an eternal scar within the Heart of Jesus. On the true scale of value, the divinization and glorification that the damned undergo is enough to defeat any evil that persists.

Is damnation compatible with union with Christ? How, for example, does scholarship on 1 Cor view the role of union with Christ and its relationship to salvation? (The two are deeply and closely connected.)

If you hope to develop a doctrine that union with Christ has no necessary relationship to salvation, be aware that this is a novel, radical, and deeply tendentious construction. It has an especially troubling relationship to the traditional understanding of the Eucharist. It isn’t appropriate to suddenly assert such a radical theological novelty in the close of an article in which you are purportedly defending orthodoxy. A detailed argument for this sort of theological novelty could be an interesting exercise, perhaps placed in the mouth of Screwtape, Scabtree or another demon in a narrative. Otherwise, you may find yourself on the wrong side of the heresy debate that you have escalated here. It wouldn’t be the first time in Church history that the half-truths of an overly eager heresy hunter ended up being expanded and expounded and overstated until it turned out that the plank is in the hunter’s eye.

From the perspective of the blessed, the presence of the damned need not be a cause for sadness, but for rejoicing. Even if the damned cannot understand it, they are still beloved in the eyes of God and others. As we see in this life, disabilities do not make someone’s life worthless. Unlike the way that the world treats disability, mental illness, or despair as making lives worthless or hopeless, Christians see “Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor,” as Mother Teresa was wont to say.

She liked to tell the story of dreaming that she went to paradise only to be turned away by St. Peter with the words: “There are no slums in heaven!” Her response was that she would go back and bring the slums back with her. Non-coincidentally, she also referred to those in sin as the “spiritually poorest of the poor.” We know taking care of the poor or disabled here below allows the saints to rejoice in the image of Christ in those who suffer (“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Matt 25:40). “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11) could then be literal truth, the blessed and God caring for the damned in eternity.

We do not yet know whether there will be anyone in hell, but we can know that there is a possibility that an all-good God can make something good come of it, if there were. From God’s eyes, the fact someone is in hell need not be tragic since he is eternally united with that person insofar as they can receive his love. And this is all we can need to show in order to understand the way in which hell is possibly compatible with God’s goodness: that it is possible that there is a situation where God allows hell and all evil is defeated from his own point of view. Things might not be as bad as we imagine.

I will simply refer to the more thorough response to the spiritual formation and moral problems involved with this, here. We can add these to the problems above, which include possible heresy on your part with respect to the notion that union with Christ lacks any soteriological implications.

Perhaps as part of your writing process you will review the catechism with respect to the Eucharist, as well as some commentaries regarding the role of ‘Being in Christ’ in 1 Corinthians.

Standing on that cliffside, looking out back to Mount Zion, you now hold your beloved close to you, having saved them from casting themselves into the abyss. It is true that the desire your beloved has to throw themselves away is still there. Their pain sits inside and, some scars being so deep, their suffering might never fully go away. Yet, while they are in pain, I know that they can feel me with them. Far from serving as an obstacle to keep us apart, that pain and brokenness is part of what keeps us together. You will never leave or let go as long as your beloved needs you — and you will need each other forever. From my perspective, being forever with someone I love and cannot now lose is cause not for disappointment but rejoicing. You sit, side-by-side, holding onto each other as the Sun rises.

There is a cold and tragic beauty to this, and a kind of romantically heroic egotism. According to this surreal vision it seems that the absolute and temporally deified human will, insuperable in its capacity to overcome even God, has become the one true God.

Nonetheless, it seems profoundly remote from the heart of Christian hope as it is expressed, for example, in Spe Salvia. Your eschatology breathes an altogether different air.

And…scene. Our imagined editor’s temporal aion has, at last, come to its end. No longer engaged in the process of becoming, we can only hope that his brief and fantastical suffering has ended. May his soul rest in peace, wherever imagined beings go when their work is done.

[1] Jacob W. Wood, To Stir a Restless Heart: Thomas Aquinas and Henri de Lubac on Nature, Grace, and the Desire for God, ed. Matthew Levering and Thomas Joseph White, Thomistic Ressourcement Series (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 358.



De Lubac’s Early Work

Henri de Lubac, SJ, was aware of the Aegidian tradition and relied upon it throughout his career to help him articulate his doctrine of a natural desire for a supernatural end. The importance of this tradition in questions of natural desire had been known and discussed throughout his formation, and in the first article de Lubac wrote on nature and grace (1931), he explicitly references Berti’s branch of the Aegidian tradition as a helpful means of upholding the natural desire for a supernatural end without lapsing into Baius’s and Jansen’s “strict debt” of grace. The topic addressed in that article concerned the possibility of a state of pure nature, defined as a state in which man is neither called by desire nor ordered by grace to the beatific vision. By maintaining the call but denying the ordering, Berti’s branch of the Aegidian tradition protected the supernaturality and gratuity of the vision. By contrast, Baius denied the possibility of a state of pure nature because he denied that the call has a properly natural end; Jansen denied the possibility of a state of pure nature because he denied that the ordering to our final end is properly gratuitous.

De Lubac returned to the Aegidian tradition in his second article on nature and grace (1934) in order to defend the tradition from criticism by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP. Garrigou-Lagrange had effectively accused Berti’s branch of the Aegidian tradition of Baianism for failing to distinguish between a natural order with a naturally achievable end and a supernatural order with a supernaturally achievable end; anyone who postulates a natural desire for a supernatural end naturalizes the vision of God. In response, de Lubac added to his previous support for Berti’s Aegidianism an argument from authority: not only had Berti’s branch of the Aegidian tradition denied a strict debt of grace on God’s part, but in combining the affirmation of a natural desire for a supernatural end with the denial of a strict debt of grace, it gave the authentic interpretation of Thomas Aquinas. Quoting a text of Robert Bellarmine, which de Lubac takes as a summary of the entire scholastic tradition, de Lubac notes that the vision of God “is natural with respect to desire, but not with respect to achievement.”170 The implication is that it was Garrigou-Lagrange (following Cajetan) who naturalized the end of man, not Berti.


When in 1946 de Lubac republished the two aforementioned articles on nature and grace in part one of Surnaturel, he bolstered his previous support of the Aegidian tradition with a more detailed defense against the criticism of Garrigou-Lagrange. Calling the Aegidian tradition “the Augustinian School par excellence,” De Lubac claims that Garrigou-Lagrange’s criticism confuses two distinct questions: the supernaturality of man’s end and the gratuity of the means of obtaining it. The Aegidian tradition had never called into question the supernaturality of man’s final end nor had its members ever suggested that God has any “debt” of offering glory to humanity (that was Baius’s position). The whole question of a “debt” (albeit a debt of fittingness) concerned the means (grace), not the end (glory).

If all de Lubac did in Surnaturel was continue his support of Berti, there would have been significantly less controversy in the years that followed. However, where in his previous articles de Lubac relied on Berti’s branch of the Aegidian tradition exclusively, he includes in Surnaturel several positive references to Marcelli. With Marcelli, de Lubac acknowledges a distinction between man considered “as a species” and man considered “in the image of God.” As a species, man can be considered apart from a supernatural end, but insofar as human nature is created in the image of God, it must be a) endowed with reason, and b) called to the vision of God. De Lubac does not explicitly attribute this position to Marcelli. But based upon this Marcellian distinction de Lubac goes on to quote Marcelli thus: “from the fact that God ordered man to the vision of himself as to his ultimate end, by establishing [man] in his image, it follows that a state of pure nature is impossible.”175 Following this application of the species/image distinction to Marcelli’s understanding of human nature, de Lubac proceeds to deploy the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta and God’s potentia ordinata distinction in support of the gratuity of grace:

We could not dream of contesting, [Marcelli] says in the name of his entire school, that God could, by his absolute power, designate such an other end for man as pleases him; that is enough for man not to have any right to require anything [from God], since if the introduction of the concept of “ordered power” renders hypotheses objectively realizable, it does not confer any new title at all to a creature of which it could boast.

With the deployment of the absoluta/ordinata distinction in concert with the species/image distinction, de Lubac thus sets up the first two steps of Marcelli’s argument. He does not, however, draw the conclusion explicitly.

De Lubac’s use of Marcelli leaves de Lubac’s thought subject to a certain ambiguity at this point in his career. Does de Lubac intend for us to draw a conclusion that he is unwilling to state, namely, that a man who was not called to the vision of God would be a man who was not made in the image of God? Or has he not read Marcelli thoroughly enough so that a) he confuses Marcelli’s position with that of Berti, or b) he does not realize the full extent of the consequences of Marcelli’s position? De Lubac does not answer these questions in Surnaturel. In fact, the difficulty of answering them is compounded by the fact that his earlier defenses of Berti also appear in Surnaturel. Intellectual charity suggests that we not accuse de Lubac of embracing an extreme position without sufficient evidence to do so. But his use of Marcelli does at least raise an important question as to his precise understanding of the natural desire for a supernatural end.

“Duplex hominis beatitudo” and “Le mystère du surnaturel”

After Surnaturel, de Lubac clarified his thinking about nature, grace, and the desire for God in two articles that appeared before the end of the 1940s. The first, “Duplex hominis beatitudo,” published in 1948, defends his Aegidian reading of Thomas. The second, “Le mystère du surnaturel,” published the following year, develops de Lubac’s relationship with the Aegidian tradition by shifting his primary emphasis from Berti and Marcelli to Lafosse.

In “Duplex hominis beatitudo,” de Lubac takes up the question of those passages in the Thomistic corpus in which Thomas seems to speak of the possibility of a happiness that is proportioned to human nature. Calling into question the idea that these passages can be thought of as describing the end of man in a hypothetical state of pure nature,179 de Lubac argues that the only “natural” happiness of which Thomas speaks “is an imperfect, worldly, and temporal happiness.” By isolating natural happiness within the context of the present life, and thus identifying the vision of God as the only possible end for man in Thomas’s writings, the article supports de Lubac’s Aegidian reading of the Thomistic tradition.

Although de Lubac does not devote a large amount of space in “Duplex hominis beatitudo” to his own argumentation, preferring to let the array of texts he references from the Thomistic corpus speak largely for itself, we can see how the article contributes to de Lubac’s Aegidian reading of Thomas if we compare what de Lubac says in it to the exegesis of Thomas given above in chapters 2–5. As we saw above in chapter 2, Thomas used the earthly nature of Aristotelian beatitude as an initial means of harmonizing Aristotle’s vision of human happiness with Christian revelation in his Commentary on the Sentences. In this sense, de Lubac is right to point out the temporal nature of Aristotelian beatitude. However, we saw above in chapter 3 that while Thomas realized as a matter of historical record that Aristotle’s understanding of happiness was confined to this world, Thomas did not think that Aristotle’s understanding of the act which constitutes human happiness, taken in itself, needed to be confined to this world. Since Thomas admitted that it was possible for separated substances (whether angels or separated souls) to know God by analogical contemplation, Thomas had to develop his understanding of natural desire precisely to exclude the possible objection that such contemplation constitutes the final end of the human person. While Thomas was ultimately able to do so by introducing Avicenna’s condition, “insofar as possible,” into natural desire, thereby developing a uniquely Augustinian approach to our desire for God, the very conditionality of that desire allowed for the possibility that, absent the gift of grace, our natural desire might in actual fact come to rest in the terminal development of the active principle in human nature.

Thomas’s acknowledgement that Aristotelian beatitude need not be confined to this world brings us to a second difficulty with “Duplex hominis beatitudo.” Although de Lubac’s citation of texts in the article is fairly comprehensive, there are two important texts which de Lubac does not cite: In II Sent., d. 33, q. 2, a. 2, and De malo, q. 5, a. 3. In both of these texts, Thomas addresses the fate of children who die in original sin only. In spite of the differences between these two texts concerning Thomas’s explanation of how these infants do not suffer, we saw above in chapters 2 and 5 respectively that the texts are consistent in their description of the act that Thomas supposes these children to perform: Thomas supposes that children who die in original sin only occupy a state after this life in which they enjoy perpetually the good which Aristotle thought we could only enjoy temporally. Although Thomas does not describe these children as occupying a state of “pure nature,” since he envisions them within the present order of Providence, it is not entirely correct to say that all instances of natural happiness in Thomas’s writings are therefore confined to this world. Even if one does not agree with Thomas on the fate of unbaptized children, it remains true as a matter of Thomistic exegesis that Thomas thought that they occupied a historical state of perpetual analogical contemplation, rather than a hypothetical one. This means that Thomas could and did envision an historical state in which human natural desire reached the terminal development of the active principle in human nature.

Be that as it may, de Lubac proceeds in “Le mystère du surnaturel” to apply his Aegidian reading of Thomas to a resolution of the ambiguities with his use of Marcelli in Surnaturel. As in Surnaturel, de Lubac continues to see the context for his discussion of a natural desire for a supernatural end in sixteenth-century responses to the errant Augustinianisms of Baius and Jansen; he continues to employ a distinction between man considered “in his species” and man considered as made in the image of God;184 he alludes to the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta and God’s potentia ordinata to describe God’s ability to make humanity in a state of pure nature. As in Surnaturel, therefore, this line of thought would seem to bring de Lubac to the doorstep of Marcelli’s impossible possibility. De Lubac even goes beyond Surnaturel and rejects out of hand Berti’s idea that human nature’s calling to the vision of God is necessary; he affirms unequivocally with Marcelli the idea that human nature’s calling to the vision of God is contingent. It would seem, therefore, as if “Le mystère du surnaturel” should be read as a clarification in which de Lubac solidified a commitment to Marcelli.

However, there is reason to take caution before suggesting that de Lubac’s articulation of the natural desire for a supernatural end in “Le mystère du surnaturel” should be aligned with Marcelli. If we look beneath the surface of words that appear to align with Marcelli, we find very quickly that the conceptual framework undergirding those words is no longer that of Marcelli; it is that of Lafosse.

Spiritual nature, de Lubac now explains, radically differs from lower natures. Other natures have a fixed end which they achieve by their natural powers, while spiritual nature lacks a determined end in itself. When God chooses to create a spiritual creature, he therefore has to do two things: 1) decree an end for that spiritual nature;188 2) create concrete individuals (that is, persons) who share in that nature and desire its end. This process results in a certain tension between nature and the persons who possess it. Their nature, considered in itself, lacks an end and so is a mystery; the persons with that nature, on the other hand, have a single, determined end, which gives definition to their nature insofar as it has been received by them in history.191 To consider humanity “in its species” is not to consider human nature apart from its intellectuality; it is to consider human nature apart from the decree of God establishing an end for human nature, and so to consider human nature apart from any natural or supernatural call. To consider human nature “in the image of God” is not, as it was for Marcelli, to consider human nature with the addition of intellectual powers; it is to consider the consequences arising from creating individual members of an intellectual species who possess the powers inherent in that species: they have intellect and will, as they would in any hypothesis, but they also possess an element of mystery arising from the primary indetermination of the nature which they have received.193

Two consequences follow from this Lafossian view of human nature. The first is that even though de Lubac now clearly acknowledges the possibility of a state of pure nature in which humanity is neither called nor ordered to the vision of God, reflection by natural reason on that hypothetical state is rendered practically useless for the purpose of expounding the natural law in this historical state.

… When you postulate another order of things, then whether you like it or not, you postulate at the same time another humanity, another human being and, if I may so speak, another me.… Between this man who, according to the hypothesis, is not destined to see God and the man who I am in reality, between this futurible [man] and this existing [man], there is nothing more than an entirely ideal, an entirely abstract identity. Then again, perhaps this is already conceding too much. For the difference between these two does not just concern individuality; it concerns nature itself.

In that other state, man technically possesses the same nature as we do in this state, provided that we abstract our consideration of human nature from the question of nature’s end and view the nature itself as a mystery. But since any rational reflection on a nature has to be based upon the end which God has decreed for it, and since God has decreed a different end for human nature in that state, there is next to nothing that nature in that state can tell us about nature in this state.

Although de Lubac’s Lafossian anthropology therefore makes it impossible to derive an account of the natural law by reflection on pure nature, it would be open to the possibility of deriving an account of the natural law by reflection on nature as we presently experience it, were it not for a second consequence. The second consequence is that even in this historical state it is not possible to demonstrate by natural reason that the end of human nature is the vision of God. Since, as for Scotus, the end of human nature depends upon a voluntary decree of God, Revelation is a necessary precondition in order for us to give a teleological account of human nature with any certainty. To unaided human reason, human nature possesses an irreducible air of mystery.197 Any attempt to reduce this mystery to a “system,” such as had been the case in the great systems of the Dominican and Jesuit Thomists, necessarily compromises some essential aspect of it.199

This second consequence seems to ignore the fact that the Aegidian doctrine of a natural desire for a supernatural end was founded upon arguments which Giles of Rome thought were metaphysically demonstrable and, in his words, “unassailable.” It similarly seems to ignore the fact that two of the principal representatives of the Aegidian tradition referenced in the course of de Lubac’s career drew up systems which were every bit as elaborate as those of the Dominicans and Jesuits: Berti (in 10 volumes) and Marcelli (in 7 volumes). But, as we shall see with reference to de Lubac’s future work, it was an essential—if peculiar—feature of Lafosse’s understanding of human nature’s indeterminacy, and one which de Lubac, in his embrace of Lafosse, came to accept.

Humani Generis and “the Twins”

In 1950, the year after “Le mystère du surnaturel,” Pope Pius XII weighed in on the controverted question about the natural desire for a supernatural end by censuring those who “corrupt the true gratuity of the supernatural order, since they affirm that God cannot establish beings endowed with intellect, without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.” Although de Lubac was widely interpreted as the intended object of this condemnation, he himself denied that his thought fell within it.201 Apart from the question of the personal intention of Pius XII, which is difficult if not impossible to ascertain, part of the difficulty in assessing de Lubac’s place with respect to this condemnation concerns the nuanced tradition upon which he was relying, and the manner in which his thought had already undergone three stages of development with respect to this tradition. As we have seen, the entire Aegidian tradition affirmed the existence of a natural desire for a supernatural end, but that tradition did not universally agree as to how such a desire should be articulated. To review:

• In his early articles, de Lubac voiced support for Berti. Berti relativizes the debitum. Humanity would be endowed with intellect and called by desire to the beatific vision in any hypothesis, but would not necessarily be ordered to it by grace; de potentia absoluta, God might create humanity for the beatific vision without giving it the means of attaining that end.

• In Surnaturel, de Lubac voiced an ambiguous support for Marcelli. Marcelli relativizes nature itself. In any hypothesis in which humanity is endowed with intellect, it must be called by desire and ordered by grace to the beatific vision; de potentia absoluta, God might create humanity without calling or ordering it to the beatific vision, but that would require making humanity without intellect.

• In “Le mystère du surnaturel,” de Lubac followed Lafosse. Lafosse relativizes the debitum as well as nature’s end. Humanity would be endowed with intellect in any hypothesis, but would be neither called by desire nor ordered by grace to the beatific vision in every hypothesis. Even if God created human nature and called it to the vision of himself, de potentia absoluta, God might create humanity for the beatific vision without giving it the means of attaining that end.

Carefully read, Humani generis condemns the view that humanity, in any hypothesis in which it is endowed with intellect, must be both ordered and called to the beatific vision. This view was not universally shared among the theologians of the Aegidian tradition. Only Marcelli falls under the condemnation in a strict sense. Berti allows for a state in which humanity is not ordered to the beatific vision by grace even if it is called there by desire. Lafosse allows for a state in which humanity is neither called by desire nor ordered by grace. Marcelli, however, requires that in every hypothesis in which humanity is endowed with intellect, God must call and order it to the beatific vision—and that is precisely what Humani generis condemns.

Was de Lubac’s natural desire for a supernatural end condemned by Humani generis? As expressed in the publication nearest to its promulgation, “Le mystère du surnaturel,” certainly not. With Lafosse, de Lubac acknowledged the possibility of a state in which man, endowed with intellect, is neither called nor ordered to the vision of God. As expressed previously in Surnaturel, perhaps. If de Lubac intended fully to support Marcelli’s idea that in any state in which human nature is endowed with intellect it must be called and ordered to the beatific vision, then yes; if de Lubac did not realize the consequences of Marcelli’s position (as we may suspect from his failure to state the conclusion at that time or to reject Berti), then no. A more careful interpretation would be to say that Humani generis condemned what in actual fact is Marcelli’s position, that there is a chance that de Lubac supported Marcelli in 1946, and that whatever the case may be about de Lubac’s support for Marcelli in 1946, he had moved on by 1950 and abandoned Marcelli for Lafosse.

De Lubac’s shift from Marcelli toward Lafosse is developed in his subsequent works on the natural desire for a supernatural end, “the Twins”: Augustinisme et théologie moderne (1965), and Le mystère du surnaturel (1965). Those works were originally intended to be elaborations of de Lubac’s previous publications: Augustinisme et théologie moderne was supposed to be an expansion of part one of Surnaturel, in which de Lubac’s ambiguous support for Marcelli originally appeared; Le mystère du surnaturel was supposed to be an expansion of the article by the same name, in which de Lubac made the turn from Marcelli toward Lafosse. Looking back on these texts, de Lubac later reflected that although he had expanded them he had not changed “the least point of doctrine.” That may be true with respect to Le mystère du surnaturel, but it is certainly not the case with respect to Augustinisme et théologie moderne.

While large sections of Surnaturel are repeated verbatim in Augustinisme et théologie moderne, de Lubac actually went back and substantially edited the section in which he praises the Aegidian tradition so as to soften his references to Marcelli. His references to Marcelli remain intact materially: he still refers to the species/image distinction;208 he still associates being made in the image of God with being called to the vision of God; he still deploys the potentia absoluta/ordinata distinction while leaving the conclusion to be drawn from it unspoken. Yet if we read de Lubac’s “additions” carefully, we find that he uses them to empty Marcelli’s terms of any force that they might have had, by introducing the Lafossian understanding of the species/image distinction he had developed in “Le mystère du surnaturel”:

For someone like Lafosse, like Bellelli, like Berti, the [image of God] is above all, as it was for St. Augustine and for all the Fathers, as well as for St. Thomas, the soul itself, considered in its superior part, with its natural powers of reason and free will.… If the consideration of “image” adds anything to the consideration of “species,” it is solely in the sense that it is a more complete and more concrete view of the same reality.

More tellingly, de Lubac also eliminates the necessary connection between possessing intellect and will and being called to the vision of God. Immediately after he refers to the Aegidians as Augustinians “par excellence,” we read, concerning their tradition:

They also do not preoccupy themselves with drawing up a system of thought; like Giles of Rome long ago, they base themselves on Scripture and hardly seek to know what can or cannot be demonstrated by reason. When they discuss this last point, they are happy to be restrained: “Our opinion is this: the possibility of the beatific vision cannot be proven demonstrably by the light of natural reason alone.”

This observation develops the critique of metaphysical demonstrations and of systems which de Lubac first suggested in “Le mystère du surnaturel.” There, it was confined to a series of general critiques of the Dominicans and Jesuits. Here, de Lubac goes so far as to suggest that Giles of Rome himself was unconcerned about metaphysical arguments, and that the Aegidian tradition as a whole was unconcerned about systematizing in theology.

At this point, de Lubac commits two historical errors. The first is with regard to Giles of Rome. As we saw above, Giles was intentional about engaging in the very kind of metaphysical demonstrations from which de Lubac seeks to dissociate him. The second is with regard to the Aegidian tradition. Systematization was as much a concern of that tradition as any other; Aegidians could boast such systematizers as Berti and Marcelli, both of whom bequeathed to the Order multi-volume systematizations for use in seminary education covering all of the scholastic treatises, and written in the same style as the scholastic treatises of Dominican and Jesuit Thomists from the same era. Where, then, does de Lubac get the idea that “the possibility of the beatific vision cannot be proven demonstrably by the light of natural reason alone”? If we follow up the reference for the quotation he uses to support the idea, we find that it is taken from Lafosse, and that on the page preceding it, Lafosse had expressed the same idea as de Lubac.214 Lafosse’s opinion represents not the common opinion of the entire Aegidian tradition, but the particular thought of Lafosse as distinct from other significant members of the tradition. Thus Lafosse says, as quoted in a footnote by de Lubac:

Since, therefore, this elevation cannot be known naturally, neither consequently can our innate appetite for the beatific vision [be known naturally]. Wherefore the arguments, which we make to prove this sort of appetite, are not purely physical and natural arguments, but theological and radically supernatural [arguments], insofar as they are based upon revelation and the faith by which we believe that man has been elevated by God to the supernatural order and to the level of grace and glory. They are nevertheless partly physical and natural: insofar as it is shown by probable argument that man ought to have been elevated to a supernatural end, and consequently that he desires it naturally.

In short, Lafosse thinks that we cannot demonstrate by natural reason the concrete possibility that human nature has been called to beatific vision, because there is nothing in human nature which necessitates its having been called to the beatific vision. Arguments seeking to demonstrate that we have in fact been so called, and based on our present experience of natural desire, can and will only ever be probable. Our elevation to the beatific vision is a supernatural mystery; only faith can teach us about it with certainty.

A more systematic and overt presentation of de Lubac’s Lafossian anthropology can be found in Le mystère du surnaturel. Here again, de Lubac makes clear that he agrees with Lafosse that the calling of human nature to the beatific vision is contingent and that this calling creates in man a natural desire for the vision of God. This enables de Lubac to take up the question of Humani generis explicitly. Need humanity in all hypotheses be called to the beatific vision? De Lubac’s response is negative. All the same, does a natural desire for the vision of God, which results from an ontological call, constitute a positive ordering to the beatific vision? De Lubac’s response is emphatically negative. There is an infinite distance between our capacity for the vision of God with the desire that results from it, and the sanctifying grace which orders us to that end. God remains free in every hypothesis in which he has called us to the beatific vision not to give us the means of fulfilling a call which has been contingently imprinted on our nature.

Since Lafosse admitted the possibility of a state in which humanity is not called to the vision of God, de Lubac also feels constrained to speculate as to what our end in such a state might look like. He suggests two possibilities, both of which he acknowledges to be inconclusive. In the first hypothesis, human life would culminate in the natural knowledge of God. However, this knowledge cannot constitute a final terminus to human nature because abstractive knowledge in fact increases our desire for vision rather than quieting it. Human nature would therefore terminate in a limitless search, spurred on by its unfulfilled desire. There could be “a certain joy” in this search, but then again, it would seem ultimately frustrating to search forever without growing closer to the object of our search. In the second hypothesis, man would not be spurred on by his knowledge of God, but rather by his ignorance of God. We would wait in the darkness of expectation, hoping that we might one day achieve the satisfaction of our soul’s capacity for the vision of God, without knowing whether such a satisfaction were possible.221 This too is problematic because if the goal of this natural hope is not reached, the result will be despair. Human nature not called to the beatific vision must have as its telos some definite act, but de Lubac ultimately acknowledges that he is unable to come to a definite conclusion as to what that act is supposed to be.224 Lafosse had never said what he thought the end of human nature would be in a state in which it was not called to the beatific vision. De Lubac is unable to do so either.


I would like to conclude this relecture of the Thomistic commentators and of de Lubac by proposing a constructive answer to the question with which we began in the introduction: to what extent can the two sides in the contemporary nature/grace debate be brought together? In order to answer this question, we need to distinguish, as in the introduction, between the historical question of what Thomas Aquinas thought, and the speculative questions about nature, grace, and the desire for God which Thomas Aquinas, the Thomistic commentators, and de Lubac all considered. I will begin by discussing the extent to which de Lubac’s historical studies accurately represent Thomas and the Thomist tradition. Then I will proceed to consider the extent to which de Lubac’s thought can be reconciled with that of the Thomistic commentators.

De Lubac’s Relationship to the Thomistic Tradition

De Lubac’s relationship to Thomas and the Thomistic tradition can best be considered in terms of several theological themes:

The end of man’s natural desire. De Lubac was correct to note a certain divergence in Cajetan’s work from that of Thomas on the question of natural desire: Thomas ultimately affirmed the existence of a natural desire for the vision of God, while Cajetan, and a number of scholastics after him, denied it. However, de Lubac’s account of this divergence was not entirely accurate. Cajetan did not err in suggesting that natural desire (to use Thomas’s language) has a naturally achievable act as its terminal development, provided that God leaves it unassisted by grace. Cajetan did err in his understanding of how Thomas related natural desire to natural appetite. Cajetan thought that the formal, active principle in nature has a specific desire, and the material, passive principle in nature has a conditional appetite. Thomas, following Augustine, thought the reverse. Cajetan thereby restricted natural desire to a naturally achievable end in a way that Thomas, from the Summa contra Gentiles onwards, had not. For Thomas, the soul naturally desires the complete fulfillment of its natural appetite insofar as is possible; explicitly, it desires its own happiness, while implicitly it desires the vision of God.

Activity and causality. Insofar as de Lubac’s doctrine of natural desire posits an activity in man toward the vision of God, his doctrine bears the strongest affinity with the Aegidian tradition. Giles of Rome agreed with Thomas that man has a natural desire for the vision of God, but criticized Thomas for not affirming any positive aptitude in matter for form, nor any positive aptitude in the human soul for the vision of God. De Lubac explicitly embraced the Aegidian tradition and used it in support of his understanding of natural desire, but he seems to have been unaware of the fact that its doctrine of natural desire was developed—at least initially—by a student of Thomas Aquinas in conscious distinction from Thomas. Consequently, de Lubac thought that Thomas and the Aegidian tradition had the same doctrine of a natural desire for the vision of God, when in fact they do not.

Obediential potency. De Lubac suggests that obediential potency was a later development misattributed to Thomas. As a matter of historical record, obediential potency preceded Thomas in the Parisian tradition from Philip the Chancellor to Bonaventure, although de Lubac is correct that Thomas seldom used the term. Since Thomas affirmed matter’s complete passivity with respect to form, and nature’s complete passivity with respect to grace, he had no need for a separate potency in nature to account for its openness to grace.227 Thomas does very occasionally use the term potentia obedientialis and its cognate, potentia obedientiae. But it is always synonymous with the whole of our passive potency, not a certain subset of it. The term is similarly rare in Scotus, who accounted for natural change entirely by means of a similar passive potency. For Thomas and Scotus, matter’s passivity with respect to form and nature’s passivity with respect to grace, although not generally called “obediential,” are the lynchpin of any account of the relationship between nature and grace.

Thus, de Lubac’s accusation that Cajetan bears the primary responsibility for making obediential potency the hinge of man’s openness to grace is not entirely appropriate. Cajetan did not err in suggesting that, for Thomas, man is absolutely passive with respect to the reception of grace; here Cajetan preserves a common doctrine of Thomas and Scotus. But Cajetan did err, at least in emphasis, in suggesting that the best way to account for nature’s receptivity to grace is by postulating an obediential potency in nature for grace. For Thomas, man is naturally capax Dei in that man has a “material” potency whereby he stands in privation to accidental perfections received from God. These accidental perfections are suitable objects of natural desire insofar as they are included in the complete actualization of the human intellect and will. Cajetan, by contrast, limits man’s natural desire to an end which is naturally known. He thus separates obediential potency from natural potency, placing the fulfillment of obediential potency outside the bounds of natural desire. De Lubac rightly criticized Cajetan’s sole reliance on the concept of obediential potency to establish nature’s receptivity to grace, though greater awareness of those few texts where Thomas shows an openness to the concept would have been beneficial to his argument.

The possibility of a natural end for man. Another consequence of de Lubac’s ignorance of the difference between Thomas and Giles is in de Lubac’s account of the possibility of a natural end for man. De Lubac tends to associate the claim that a natural desire must be naturally fulfillable with the hypothesis that a natural end for man is possible and consequently with the possibility of a state of pure nature. However, the question of whether a natural desire must be naturally fulfillable and the question of whether man has a natural end are logically distinct, and have a different historical provenance. De Lubac correctly observed that the restriction of natural desires to natural ends arises primarily in Cajetan. However, Thomas proposes that a natural end for man is nevertheless possible, because although human nature desires the complete fulfillment of its natural appetite insofar as is possible, the terminal development of that natural desire is the analogical knowledge of God as first cause, provided that God does not communicate any higher motion to human nature. Thomas shows this in his later treatment of infants who die in original sin only. Thomas’s final position is that these infants are aware of the possibility of the vision of God from a reflection on the potential of their nature to receive this vision, but are unaware of whether or not God has chosen to grant this vision to them; accordingly, they are contented with the terminal development of the active principle of their nature, even though their receptive potential remains partially unfulfilled. In short, they desire happiness, they find something that makes them happy, and, since their desire for happiness is a desire for the fulfillment of their natural appetite insofar as is possible and they possess as great a fulfillment of that appetite as they know themselves to be capable of, they are happy. De Lubac’s emphasis on the impossibility of such an end is more akin to the teaching of Giles than to Thomas, although even Giles admitted that the souls in limbo were happy, because he thought that they had lost their positive aptitude for the vision of God by entering into a terminal state.

The natural knowability of man’s final end. There is one particular point at which de Lubac parts company with much of the Aegidian tradition. Giles argues that it can be demonstrated by natural reason that, since the human soul is capable of the vision of God, the vision of God is the final end of man. While acknowledging the force of this argument, de Lubac expresses some hesitancy concerning the natural knowability of the specific term of man’s natural desire. A similar hesitancy can be found in Fulgence Lafosse, and de Lubac expressly relies on Lafosse for it. But that hesitancy is peculiar to Lafosse and based upon his peculiar understanding of the contingency of human nature’s end; it is not the common teaching of the Aegidian tradition as a whole.

Toward the Reconciliation of the Nature/Grace Debate

The nature/grace debate is important in itself. It is an exercise in disputatio, in which faith seeks understanding about what it means to be a human person with a restless heart before God. While this debate may have come a long way from its origins, it arose in history out of a lectio of Scripture, considering those truths about human nature’s relationship to God which are revealed in Creation, the Fall, the Passion of Christ, and the struggle that fallen nature experiences to accept the grace poured out through that Passion. This was certainly the case for Augustine. Augustine’s original account of our restless heart in the Confessions arose out of a consideration for the struggle that fallen nature experiences to accept the grace poured out through Christ’s Passion, and his anti-Pelagian work on the Fall and the Passion developed into his mature teaching on the restless heart in De Trinitate and De civitate Dei. It was also the case for the medievals, who used Augustine’s account of Creation—formulated in terms of rationes seminales—to explain the relationship between fallen nature and redemptive grace. Nevertheless, the nature/grace debate is not important for itself. As a disputatio about Scripture, it possesses within itself a teleological orientation toward the proclamation of the truths which it considers in the Church’s praedicatio. That proclamation requires that Christians consider not only the questions that arise from their own contemplation of nature, grace, and the desire for God, but also those questions which non-Christians raise about these subjects from outside the Christian Faith.

In the second quarter of the thirteenth century, Christian praedicatio about nature, grace, and the desire for God had to come to grips with a long list of new questions posed to it from within the Aristotelian tradition—not just the texts of Aristotle, but also the text of his Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew commentators. Until that point, medieval Latins had tended to think about nature with Augustine in terms of God as its cause, and the desire for God in terms of Augustine’s desire for happiness; the relationship between nature and grace posed no particular difficulty for them. But the Aristotelian tradition challenged Latin Christians to think about nature in terms of some act as its end. This meant that in proclaiming a Christian answer to the question “what does the human heart long for?” they now had two different sets of answers before them: those of the Augustinian tradition, and those of the Aristotelian tradition. The challenge in the second quarter of the thirteenth century was to figure out in disputatio how to unite those disparate answers into a single, coherent message, which could acknowledge with the Aristotelian tradition the integrity of nature in relation to some end, but maintain with the Augustinian tradition nature’s openness to and need for the grace of Christ.

In the period after 1231, Latin theologians sought the closest parallel to Christianity that they could find among the Aristotelian tradition; they looked not to Aristotle but to Avicenna, whose dator formarum they identified with God, and whose account of natural places and natural inclinations they used to argue that human nature has a natural desire for the vision of God. This protected the integrity of nature to a certain extent, and easily accounted for nature’s openness to and need for grace, but even the medievals sensed that it might not protect in every respect the gratuity of grace. In the 1240s and early 1250s, Albert the Great and Bonaventure each tried to overcome that difficulty by making use of Averroes. Albert restricted natural desires to natural ends, which had the benefit of protecting the integrity of nature and the gratuity of grace, but not of explaining how nature is open to grace; Bonaventure allowed natural desires to transcend their natural ends, but this raised a number of questions about the integrity of nature which he was not initially able to solve.

Faced with an Avicennian tradition, which leaned toward a natural desire for a supernatural end, and an Averroistic tradition, which leaned toward a natural desire for a natural end, Thomas Aquinas found himself in a very similar position to one in which we find ourselves today. The Avicennians emphasized the transcendence of desire and the need for grace, but struggled with the integrity of nature and the gratuity of grace; the Averroists emphasized the integrity of nature and the gratuity of grace, but struggled with the transcendence of desire and the need for grace. Neither side was able to give a single answer to the question “what does the human heart long for?” which took into account the insights of the Aristotelian tradition while preserving the commitments of the Augustinian tradition. At a distance of nearly eight centuries from the beginning of that controversy, we find ourselves similarly situated. Perhaps Thomas’s solution may therefore suggest to us not only the process by which we might arrive at one today, but also some indication of what that solution might be.

We can affirm, with de Lubac, man’s orientation toward the vision of God as a final end, but acknowledge, with the commentators, that a natural end for man is possible. We can affirm, with de Lubac, that human nature as such is open to the vision of God and that this openness need not be considered as an obediential potency, but acknowledge, with the commentators, that our receptivity to the vision of God is purely passive. We can affirm, with de Lubac, that a natural desire for the vision of God does not make the vision of God owed to nature, but we can acknowledge, with the commentators, that one reason why the vision of God is not owed to nature is that God could reasonably withhold it. When confronted with the basic question “what does the human heart long for?” the Christian can answer with Augustine, “happiness.” When confronted with the Aristotelian question of nature’s end, the Christian can answer with Thomas: human natural desire seeks the fulfillment of human natural appetite insofar as is possible. Left unaided, our natural desire comes to rest in the analogical knowledge of God as first cause; but raised by grace, that same desire comes to rest in the vision of the divine essence. This answer protects the integrity of nature by allowing its active principle to come to rest in a naturally achievable teleological act; it protects the gratuity of grace by ensuring that God could reasonably withhold it; it protects nature’s openness to grace by showing how and in what way human nature can be said to have a natural desire for the vision of God; and it protects nature’s need for grace because it is a subjective desire for self-fulfillment, rather than an objective desire that can claim any right before God.

Jacob W. Wood, To Stir a Restless Heart: Thomas Aquinas and Henri de Lubac on Nature, Grace, and the Desire for God, ed. Matthew Levering and Thomas Joseph White, Thomistic Ressourcement Series (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 404–431.


Suárez begins his discussion of the desire for God with a little terminological housekeeping. Where Thomas distinguished passive natural appetite from active natural desire, and then distinguished natural desire from free desire, and where Scotus had used the term “natural appetite” in such a way as to refer to some of the activity which Thomas reserved for “natural desire,” while distinguishing “natural appetite” from “elicited appetite,” Suárez follows his Jesuit confrère and predecessor Gabriel Vasquez in banishing any use of the word “natural” from the discussion of the desire for God. Suárez’s linguistic shift is purely pragmatic. He thinks that “natural” is susceptible to so many different possible meanings that it can easily be misunderstood. Instead, Suárez prefers to speak of two kinds of appetites: innate and elicited.116

Jacob W. Wood, To Stir a Restless Heart: Thomas Aquinas and Henri de Lubac on Nature, Grace, and the Desire for God, ed. Matthew Levering and Thomas Joseph White, Thomistic Ressourcement Series (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 390–391.



Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. I pastor and practice serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.)