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The Surprising Implications of Man’s Natural Ends

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 09, 2014

Recently I’ve revisited the massive shakeup of Catholic theology occasioned by Henri de Lubac’s remarkable study Surnaturel (French for "supernatural"), published just after the close of World War II. The whole episode demonstrates the immense consequences that can follow from getting key ideas just a little bit wrong. Almost in one fell swoop, De Lubac demonstrated the weakness of too much modern Thomistic thought by exposing the consequences of what had become an almost classic division of the order of Creation into the natural and the supernatural.

Part of the problem was that Thomism had been carefully elaborated by somewhat entrenched scholars who had grown to depend more on the tradition of the great commentators than on St. Thomas himself. I’ve referred before to the tendency of the scholastics to lock themselves within complex but ultimately self-referential systems of thought (elaborated in what are called the “manuals”) at the expense of a direct encounter with the sources of Christianity, especially Scripture and the reflections on Revelation by the Fathers of the Church in accordance with the received Tradition. This is what prompted many twentieth-century theological reformers (often French) to insist on what was called ressourcement, a return to the sources.

This effort got a rocky start because it was sometimes confused with Modernism. Both challenged the accepted theological systems that dominated ecclesiastical experts and advisors in Rome. But as time would tell, Modernism was essentially an abandonment of Revelation, partly facilitated by problems with the “manuals”, while ressourcement was a return to Revelation as a corrective to those theologians who had become too absorbed in their own systems. Such absorption always runs the risk of forcing Revelation to fit the system, instead of adjusting or even abandoning a system when it does not accord with Revelation. When adherence to a system is confused with orthodoxy, those who point out weaknesses in the system—those capable of thinking outside the proverbial box—can fall under unjust suspicion.

Ultimately, however, it was the ressourcement that was to prevail, led by men such as Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Hans Urs von Balthasar and, of course, Joseph Ratzinger.

The Problem of the Natural

One of the interesting questions introduced into Catholic theology by its growing use of Aristotelian philosophy as a fundamental component was whether or not God was constrained by His own creation to give the human person a supernatural end. This was not much of a problem before Aristotle was rediscovered and brought into Catholic theology in the high Middle Ages. Previously, there did not seem to be any philosophical obstacles to the notion (clear in Revelation) that God’s invitation to man for union with Him for all eternity is a completely free gift. But Aristotelian philosophy emphasized as a principle that the end of anything must be proportionate to its nature, something which it is surely unreasonable to doubt. Must there not be, therefore, something in human nature which is supernatural? And if so, does this not constrain God’s free gift?

Perhaps I should admit that my exposition here is inescapably that of a non-specialist; it may suffer a lack of nuance. But I would put the matter as follows: Unfortunately, some of the “school” theologians, again mostly following wrong-turns initiated by early commentators on St. Thomas, solved this problem by heading in the wrong direction. They divided creation into two orders, the supernatural and the natural. This permitted them to envision a realm of “pure nature”, in which human nature was situated. It was widely argued that, according to this nature, man has a set of purely natural ends. Only through the gratuitous gift of God, then, does the human person come into a supernatural destiny, as something “added on”.

This sounds reasonable to Western ears, does it not? But not so fast. If this is true, it means that it is perfectly legitimate to explore man’s natural ends completely independently of what has been “added on” supernaturally. It means we can separate the religious from what is naturally human. It means the human person does not need God to be fulfilled. It means we can remove spiritual considerations from human government. It means, in effect, that for anyone who is not particularly interested in God, secularization has a 10-lane highway before it, running straight into a Godless future.

What happened here is that, in theological terms, the horizon of human nature in itself was severely restricted. This calls into doubt the very ability of God to clearly communicate with man. Surely the human consciousness of the Divine must be at best irremediably weak, even inchoate, on the assumption that nothing in man’s nature is equipped for it. Indeed, for thinkers who were not already reflexively orthodox—thinkers, that is, who chose to focus on man’s nature and not on this super-added gift—Modernism would be (and was) an almost inevitable result.

In a slight paraphrase of an old song, you could take the boy out of the country, but you couldn’t take the country out of the boy. The boy was not just part of nature; he was part of a purely natural order completely separate from God’s supernatural order. You do not find this in the first thousand years or so of Christian history. Nor do you find this, for example, in the more contemplative traditions of Eastern Catholicism.

De Lubac’s Insight

De Lubac argued that this notion of a state of “pure nature” was a wrong turn, both philosophically and theologically. He not only argued it from the “sources” (Revelation), but he went back to St. Thomas himself to prove that the great commentators had actually misunderstand Thomas in opening the way to such a solution. Instead, De Lubac proposed that there is just one order, God’s own supernatural order, which necessarily includes all that He has created that we call “nature”. As suggested very strongly in Scripture, the human person serves a special role in this creation. It is though man that all of nature is fully incorporated into this supernatural openness, just as it is through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, that all comes to unity in a blazing Trinity of love. God accomplishes this by giving man not an animal soul, dependent on matter, but an immortal soul (an intellectual soul, that is, a spirit) fused with a body to create not only a human nature but each human person.

None of this violates God’s complete freedom, the gratuity of Divine grace, the generosity of Divine love. The idea of a divinized destiny “built in” no more inhibits Divine gratuity than a divinized destiny “added on”. And indeed, this gratuity could have been (and has been) expressed in a number of ways. At every stage, God has accompanied us through grace variously, rising to a fullness in Christ and His Church. We already know of multiple variations in the operational practice of grace—prelapsarian and postlapsarian, pre-Christ and post-Christ, with and without knowledge of the Church, purgatory, heaven and the new creation (even in hell, the soul would pass out of existence without God’s attention, though a state of pure nature strongly suggests a Deist set-it-and-forget-it watchmaker God). But the key point is that there is only one order of reality. That is God’s order, and therefore necessarily a supernatural order, which also includes nature.

Through the immortal soul which is a part of each human person, God has built into man a spiritual likeness to Himself which opens man to God in a special way. In doing so, He has also given man a nature proper to himself, a nature which dictates that nothing about human purposes and ends can be properly considered apart from God. In its theological germ, the distinction that occupies us here may seem like a small point. In the wake of modern secularization, however, we can see that it makes a huge difference. We cannot really understand ourselves without God, because we are not in any sense “on our own”. In fact, as St. Paul emphasized in his first letter to the Corinthians, we are not our own at all. Despite temporary theological theories about a state of pure nature, we never were our own, not even conceptually. From the beginning, and in every way, we are made for God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 14, 2014 2:42 AM ET USA

    While candidly and unabashedly honest in admitting lack of expertise in this discussion, it seems to me that baptism should have appeared somewhere above. Our Lord insisted upon baptism- of both water and the Spirit- in the gospel message. The injury of Original Sin mysteriously and extensively altered our relationship. "We never were our own" and "we are made for God" but this sacrament is integral to our relationship in the Mystical Body, and it seems to me that it cannot be left out.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Apr. 12, 2014 4:17 AM ET USA

    Excellent article. To me faith in God means to radically depend on God. Humility is to understand this idea.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Apr. 10, 2014 7:03 PM ET USA

    Honestly, I don't get it. Why do we need systems apart from Revelation? Why can't Revelation be the system and everything we think about needs to "integrate" seamlessly with what The Father has revealed? If the grand all encompassing theory cannot reduce down to reflect particular elements without changing the truth - there's a problem. If the simple system cannot seamlessly fit in the Grand Design, there's a problem. If it works with Classical Mechanics & Relativity...why not here too?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 10, 2014 4:40 PM ET USA

    But Man WAS created tripartite, as the Deity always knows the end from the beginning. The problem is is that though theologians have had enough sense NOT to insist on plumbing the depths of the Trinity since the days of Augustine, they have not had enough sense apparently to consider that a parallel mystery might be present in the "very being" of Man himself "already present" in anticipation of the Incarnation. Happy Easter…. jp

  • Posted by: - Apr. 10, 2014 3:40 PM ET USA

    And John 3:36 is also helpful here, those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life, and those who disobey will have to eternally endure the wrath of God. I paraphrased slightly, but accurately. This ain't a man's world after all, as the song went, its God's world, a supernatural world.