Dear Fellow Catholics,
In the absence of Holy Mass in the UK today, please see this sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
My dearly beloved in Our Lord,
Today’s readings are making us aware of the great difference between the natural world – be it material or spiritual – and the supernatural world.
“And the lord commended the unjust steward, forasmuch as he had done wisely: for the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” (Gospel)
One of the most influential books which fostered and nourished the renaissance of modernism just before Vatican2 was Henri de Lubac’s “Supernatural” which appeared in 1946. For it he was condemned by Pope Pius XII in 1950 in the Encyclical Humani generis – without being named, though. Later he was admitted by John XXIII an expert theologian to Vatican2 where his ideas were fully accepted.
I believe few Catholics have an adequate or precise idea about the meaning of the terms “natural” and “supernatural”, “nature” and “supernature” or “grace”.
They are opposed notions in a certain sense. They must not be mingled and confused or leveled, as you will understand shortly.
By “nature” we mean all that belongs to something as its constitutive part. To the human “nature” belongs the body and the soul; they are the constituents of the human nature.
Also, we designate by “natural” all that proceeds from something, or can be elicited from it. For example, it is “natural” to a human being to laugh. Playing a musical instrument is “natural”, i.e. it lies within the capacities of the human nature.
Finally all those things are “natural” that are outside a given something, but serving the purpose of its upkeep – air for breathing, food for the body; or for its activity – the feeding of a baby; or for its development – teaching, society, the state; or for achieving its proper purpose – the knowledge of God, freedom of the will.
All these can be summed up in: “that which is necessary”, “that which something is entitled to” (Naturanspruch, debitum naturae).
By “supernatural” we mean all that is beyond the “natural” as exposed above. So it is that which is not due to the thing, but is being added to its “nature” “gratuitously”. It is a gift from God, not due to nature, but added by Him freely.
In the domain of the “supernatural” we must distinguish that which is relatively supernatural. This covers all that is “preternatural”: It is beyond the nature of certain things, but not of all. The faculty to speak is natural to the human being; but it is preternatural to a donkey.
The proper “supernatural” is that which is simply supernatural, i.e. it is beyond anything due to any creature. This is what we commonly call “grace”. It is the communication of something divine, making the creature – Angel or human being – to be similar to God.
The orders of nature and supernature (or grace) are clearly distinct, then. But they are meant to fit together since God has placed Angels and men into the natural and the supernatural order. He did not need to do so, but He chose to do so. We could have been left to a merely natural life and destiny, without the call to life eternal or eternal bliss; but the effectively existing order is that of the supernatural life superposed onto the natural life.
St Thomas Aquinas sums it up in one phrase: Grace does not do away with nature, but it means to make it perfect (Su.Theol. I,1,8 ad2) and lift it up. This means that nature is and always will be the substrate for grace, since God has created Adam by joining a spiritual soul to a physical body – which is the human nature – and then elevated him by giving him the supernatural life of the soul, sanctifying grace as the means to achieve his eternal destiny.
By the sin of Adam which we have inherited as original sin, the synthesis of nature and grace has been broken. It is restored by baptism and justification, the infusion of grace. This state of grace must be upheld and developed by the practice of the virtues, both natural and supernatural.
Since this matter is complex, there are also multiple possible errors.
There is naturalism and there is supernaturalism.
Naturalism means that only the inner-worldly and mainly the physical life are considered to be important. It is one of the great root sins of the “modern” age. It is the continuation of Lucifer’s battle-cry: “I will not serve.” The most eminent and beautiful of angels wanted to obtain the sublime supernatural goal set by God – the divine vision. But he wanted to obtain it by his own – natural – means, without God’s help through supernatural grace. Since the moment Lucifer has seduced our first parents to sin, the history of the world is the history of a battle between those who respect the prerogatives of grace and nature, striving to achieve and to uphold the difficult unity between them; and those who count on their own natural means only, living as if God did not exist, and as if there were no Heaven to be obtained.
Most particularly our understanding of the true nature of the Church founded by Christ as the ark of salvation, is affected by naturalism. This can be seen, for example, when the Pope is compared to a family father: The father still is the father, even though he may behave improperly towards his wife or children; so also “the Pope is still the Pope”, even though he teaches error and heresy and seduces souls to believe and to act in such a way that they will end up in Hell. This obstinate and inappropriate comparison is a simple expression of a false, naturalistic understanding of Holy Church. The Church is supernatural in her essence, and the Papacy as the teaching and governing authority is part of her supernatural outfit; she is natural in as far as she is composed of human beings who can defect from the supernatural state of grace to which they have been called. The means of salvation – the Sacraments, prayer, grace, penance – are all supernatural, though rooted in nature and building on nature – in the sense indicated by St Thomas and the scholastic theologians: grace builds on nature and makes it perfect.
There is also supernaturalism. This means that one tries to solve the problems of nature by merely supernatural means without striving to cure nature. It is also sometimes called angelism: Man, composed of soul and body, behaving as if he were of the angelic nature, i.e. only considering his soul. The soul is more important than the body; but for as long as we live here on earth, we must take care of both.
It would be silly and inappropriate, for example, if a farmer were to throw the seeds on the unprepared soil, then to sit back and tell himself: “If I only pray hard enough, God will give me a good harvest.” “Aid yourself, and God will help you.” Prayer and trust in God’s goodness are very good and necessary – but this alone does not take care of whatever we need to do on the natural level.
By preternatural we mean that which is beyond the capacities of a given nature; this is why it is also called relatively supernatural. It is preternatural for a donkey to speak with a human voice; or for a table to move by its own means; or for a human being to lift up an object weighing 300kg and to throw it across a room; or for a person to remain unhurt all his life. But such and similar things do happen. The question then is, why and how does it happen?
That which is beyond our human nature, can be made possible by a superior nature, i.e. the angels – good or evil – and by God. Most miracles operated by God – often through the ministry of Angels – belong to the preternatural. (The miracles that are properly supernatural – beyond the capacity of any created nature – are those of raising someone from the dead; and those involving creating something from nothing – like Our Lord multiplying bread and fish.)
The bad angels or demons can operate many prodigies and signs, very similar to miracles, in order to seduce us humans. All kinds of spiritism – tables moving, writing by an invisible hand – come under this head. The demons can give particular help or protection to someone who hands over his soul to them, through an explicit pact; e.g. some artists have done so in order to obtain great renown or wealth. – A particular case is demonic possession, where the evil spirits act through the faculties of a human being, but in a prodigious manner: Speaking languages which the person has never learned; lifting up incredible weight, etc. Speaking or lifting up things are within the reach of the human nature; but the manner in which they are exercised, in these cases, are beyond the usual capacities of human nature.
So let us be careful to rightly understand the Truth, by adhering to the constant teaching of Holy Church. Let us discern rightly the natural from the supernatural or the preternatural, but without separating that which God wants to be united: nature and grace.
“For if you live according to the flesh” – as naturalists – “you shall die; but if by the Spirit of God you mortify the deeds of the flesh” – respecting the necessities of both nature and grace – “you shall live.” (Reading)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost
If you would like a copy for yourself, you can find it here: sermon 170730 nature and grace