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Grace, Free Will, and Predestination

By Fr. Geoff Horton

In writing this article, I have attempted to present as clearly as possible an introduction to the teachings of the Catholic Church on grace, free will, and pre- destination. Nevertheless, what I write does not in any way constitute an official statement of Catholic doctrine. Where possible and helpful, I have given refer- ences to official Catholic sources.

 Modern Confusions

Many people, within the Catholic Church and without, do not understand the Church’s teachings on God’s grace and human free will. In part, that’s because these teachings touch on some of the most fundamental theological questions, and because there are points on which the Church has not yet seen fit to take a firm and definite position. But misunderstandings of the Church's teachings also result from two related confusions stemming from Martin Luther’s original errors on grace and free will. These confusions have become so widespread in Western thought that many Cath- olics tacitly and unthinkingly accept them, returning without knowing it to ancient errors in an effort to refute relatively recent Protestant errors. These confusions are:

. Grace is something that acts only outside the person. In other words, when God acts on us, He does so only by pushing us around, so to speak. This leads to

. The opposition between God and man—the idea that the more God is God, the less man is man. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about this error repeat- edly, such as in his  homily of the Feast of the Assumption:

It was thought and believed that by setting God aside and be- ing autonomous, following only our own ideas and inclinations, we would truly be free to do whatever we liked without anyone being able to give us orders. But when God disappears, men and women do not become greater; indeed, they lose the divine dignity, their faces lose God's splendor. In the end, they turn out to be merely products of a blind

evolution and, as such, can be used and abused. This is precisely what the experience of our epoch has confirmed for us. Only if God is great is humankind also great. With Mary, we must begin to understand that this is so. We must not drift away from God but make God present; we must ensure that he is great in our lives. Thus, we too will become divine; all the splendor of the divine dignity will then be ours. Let us apply this to our own lives. It is important that God be great among us, in public and in private life.

In the remainder of this article, I will attempt to explain the range of Catholic teachings on grace and free will, concluding with a re-examination of the above confusions in light of that teaching.

 What are Grace and Free Will?

Grace in general is a supernatural gift of God for the sake of the salvation of men.

Grace is divided into habitual (sanctifying) grace and actual grace. The interaction between grace and free will is a question of actual grace, which can be defined as:

“Interior aids that God gives us to help us achieve salvation.” Grace (of any sort) is always unearned by the one who receives it. The term free will can mean several things. Here, I will speak of free will as “the ability of a person to make choices without compulsion.” The term justification here means “not simply the remission of sins, but also

both the sanctification and renewal of the inner man

unjust becomes just, once an enemy becomes a friend [of God], so that he may be an heir according to the hope of eternal life.” Broadly speaking, this means justification is the act by which we are brought into a right relationship with God by an inner transformation. The term Original Sin refers to the sin of Adam in Genesis , by which he forfeited “that holiness and justice in which he had been constituted” and became

from which a man once

Habitual grace is the abiding presence of God in the human soul, which is necessary for sal- vation. It is normally received in baptism, and if lost, it can be restored through the sacrament of penance. Cf. ND . See the References section for an explanation of abbreviations used in references.

subject to death. The effects of this sin are inherited by all of humanity.

 Grace is Absolutely Necessary for Salvation


Pelagius and Pelagians

In the first few centuries of the Church, the issue of the interaction between grace and free will was not much discussed. Everyone, or nearly everyone, believed that actual grace of some sort is necessary for salvation. Likewise, everyone, or nearly everyone, believed that men are able to choose to follow God or not to follow God, and are responsible for their choices. Not much attention was paid to the details, perhaps because issues of Christology (what does it mean for Jesus to be fully divine and fully human?) and Trinitarian theology (how can there be three Persons in one God?) drew most of the attention. The issues surrounding free will and grace came to prominence around the beginning of the fifth century .., in the light of the writings of a man named Pelagius. Not much is known about him; he appears to have come from the British Isles, though sources disagree on whether he was actually a Briton, or from Scot- land or Ireland. Whatever his origin, he made his way to Rome, where by all accounts he led an upright—indeed, quite morally strict—life. Nevertheless, in the realm of theology, his reach exceeded his grasp, and he began to teach an heretical theory that made grace unnecessary. Pelagius took a statement that is true as far as it goes—men have free will—and made it an abso- lute, to the point of denying other true statements. Anything that impinged upon the freedom of the will as he understood it was wrong. He wanted to emphasize each man’s responsibility for his own sins. In the process, however, he also made each man responsible for his own salvation, denying that any divine assistance (grace) is needed for someone to be saved. His most prominent disciple was a man named Caeletius, who attracted atten- tion to himself, and therefore to Pelagius, when he sought ordination in Northern Africa. A great debate ensued, in which St. Augustine was perhaps the leader of those who defended the orthodox faith. A series of councils met in Carthage to discuss the matter, each time deciding against Pelagius. Each time, those who followed Pelagius refused to submit to the councils and sought another judgment.

Cf. ND . Cf. ND . In northern Africa, in what is now Libya.

When appealed to, the Holy See agreed with the councils, but this did not stop the Pelagians from re-asserting their case. The sixteenth Council of Carthage met in the year , and rejected as erro- neous the following statements:

. The death of Adam was not a punishment for Original Sin;

. Infants do not suffer from Original Sin and do not need to be baptized;

. The grace of God through which man is justified through Jesus Christ our Lord serves only for the remission of sins already committed, and is not also a help not to commit them;

. The grace of God helps us to avoid sin only because it gives us a better knowledge of the commandments and not because it gives us the love and the strength to follow them;

. Grace is given to us so that we can follow the commandments more easily, but it is not strictly necessary;

. When we say we sin (e.g., in the Our Father or in  John :), we speak only in humility and not in truth.

Recall that the above is a list of errors.


More on Extrinsic Grace

I said above that Pelagius’s basic error was to make free will an absolute, but the consequences of his error are also important. To arrive at his conclusions, he had to assume that all grace is extrinsic grace, always acting upon the soul from the outside and never actually changing it. To Pelagius, grace was performative (it does something) but not transformative (it doesn’t change the recipient). The Fathers of the Church who preceded Pelagius did not write formal treatises on grace, but the view which informed their writings saw grace as elevating the person who receives it. The Christian is incorporated into Christ in Baptism, and so can be raised up in dignity with Christ as an adopted son of the Father. This

ND , , –. Christ is the natural Son of the Father.

is a true change in the person who receives it, a change which the Fathers did not hesitate to call divinization: a change by which the recipient is made like God. The denial of the intrinsic activity of grace would later resurface with Martin Luther.

 St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace

St. Augustine was Pelagius’s strongest opponent, and a fair share of his volumi- nous writings is devoted to refuting Pelagius’s arguments. In refuting Pelagius, St. Augustine laid out the groundwork for the modern Catholic doctrine of grace; for this reason, he is known as the Doctor (Teacher) of Grace. It should be noted that St. Augustine’s theory was not complete. In particular, since he was concerned with refuting an excessive emphasis on free will, he does not spend much time affirming truths about it. Augustinian scholars will probably never agree on his exact position and whether it changed over the course of his life. Nevertheless, no one in the West who has written on grace in the past  years can escape his influence, and that influence is far more for good than for ill. Whatever he might have neglected or overstated, St. Augustine explored the question of grace and free will so thoroughly and prayerfully that the basics of his model stand essentially unchallenged to the present day. So what did he teach? His teaching can be broken down into seven points (remember that the following is a list of true statements):

. What mankind is now, is the result of Original Sin. The Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden damaged our free will (damaged, not destroyed), so that it is no longer free in the truest sense. We are still able to make moral choices, but we are unable to make good moral choices consistently. Our wills are never free from the influence of sin. We know the right thing to do, but fail to do it. (See Rom. :-.)

. The grace of Christ restores true human liberty. God infuses the soul with His own charity, so that the will not only loves the good and chooses it, but also actually does it.

To fend off a potential error, I should note that God cannot make us like Himself in every respect. For example, only He is eternal, infinite, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Divinization makes us like God insofar as it is possible for a created being to be like Him.

. The works of unbelievers are sins in a very technical sense. They are not necessarily morally wrong acts done in full knowledge and responsibility, and they do not earn the wrath of God. But even the morally good acts of unbelievers are motivated by something other than divine charity, and therefore are not able to please God. It is not possible to get to Heaven simply by being good. Getting to Heaven always requires grace.

. Saving faith is a grace. In other words, we cannot take credit for the fact that we have faith in Jesus Christ. Our very belief is a gift from God, a gift we did not earn and do not in any way deserve on our own.

. Baptism truly transforms the soul by introducing charity (the divine life of God) into it.

. Even after justification, man needs graces to persevere in grace, to excite the love of God in the will, and to aid the will in loving God.

. The grace of final perseverance—that is, the gift of dying in a state of grace, able to enter Heaven—is always an unmerited gift. This last point enters into the mystery of predestination, to be covered below.

 The Semi-Pelagians

Several people (including canonized saints such as St. Hilary of Arles and St. Vin- cent of Lerins) were concerned that St. Augustine had gone too far in his doctrine

of grace, losing free will in the process. In response to this concern, they held that

the human will was able to take the first step toward God without the aid of grace.

God may give graces to assist in the initial conversion, but they are not necessary. St. Augustine disagreed, saying that this leads back to Pelagianism. The doctrine that the human will can make the first step of conversion without the assistance of grace is known as “Semi-Pelagianism.” The dispute continued to simmer into the early Sixth Century. In , a local council met at Orange, in southern France. Although this council was not an ec- umenical council in the fullest sense, its decrees were approved by Pope Boniface

II and are regarded as definitive doctrinal statements. The positions this council

repudiated were:

See ND  for Canon VII of the th session of the Council of Trent, where this idea is repudiated. ND, –.

. Grace is conferred because of human prayer, and it is not grace that prompts us to pray (see Rom. : and Isa. :);

. The desire to be cleansed from sin is not itself an action of the Holy Spirit;

. The desire of faith, its beginning, and its increase, stem from our own nature and not from a gift of grace;

. Mercy is conferred on us through our own efforts and not by the infusion of the Holy Spirit (see  Cor. : and  Cor. :);

. It is possible to choose those things needed for salvation without the Holy Spirit (see John : and  Cor. :);

. Some come to baptism by God’s mercy, but others by their own free will.

Note again that the above list is a list of errors, not a list of true statements. Though semi-Pelagianism was condemned, the concerns of prominent teach- ers over St. Augustine’s phrasing (if not his precise position) sufficed to keep the importance of free will alive in Catholic thought.

 Predestination, Round I

The absolute necessity of grace leads to an immediate and pressing question: If the grace of God is absolutely necessary for salvation, how is it that some are not saved? The answer lies in the idea of predestination: God, in His infinite knowledge and justice, calls only some to salvation, while giving grace sufficient for salvation to all. Predestination of some sort is scriptural (see Rom. :), and must be based upon the choice of God (see Eph. :). But how does God choose? St. Augustine placed the answer solely in the providence of God. God offers enough grace to all so that no one can claim he did not receive enough to grace to convert had he wished to do so, but God does not offer everyone enough grace (or grace of the right sort—see below for a discussion of sufficient grace and effica- cious grace) to convert. Please note that under this model, someone who does not convert has freely chosen not to do so and is therefore responsible for his choice. Note also that the person who does convert does so by his own choice; the grace of conversion (under this model) moves the will, but moves it freely. How is this

The doctrine of universal salvation was rejected around the time of Origen, in the Third Century ..

possible? St. Augustine wrote of the delectatio victrix, the “conquering delight” of the will. God presents some souls with the knowledge of such goodness that they will freely but certainly choose the good, just as a child (at least most children) will reliably accept an offer of a piece of candy unless he’s just eaten his absolute fill.

St. Augustine’s answer remained the standard for the better part of a millen- nium. St. Thomas Aquinas adopted most of it in the Thirteenth Century in his great Summa Theologica (First part, Question ). St. Thomas did reject the “conquer- ing delight” theory; his own theory is too complex to discuss here. Interested (and motivated) readers can refer to him for a fuller treatment of the question.

 The Rise of Protestantism

The reasons for the birth and growth of Protestantism in the Sixteenth Century are many and varied. The reason pertinent to the present discussion is the percep- tion that Catholicism was teaching works-based salvation: a believer can earn his salvation through the performance of good works without relying on grace. The Council of Orange and its aftermath had made it clear that Catholicism firmly rejects Pelagianism. To what extent the practices of the Church, or some of her members, were not in line with the official teaching is outside the scope of this work. Suffice to say that it seemed plausible to some that the Church was Pelagian after all. When the would-be reformers searched the Church’s history for a refutation of Pelagianism, they of course found St. Augustine’s writings, and took the teachings they found there to an extreme. Pelagians made the mistake of affirming freedom of the will in a way that destroyed the necessity of grace; the new opponents of Catholicism would affirm the primacy of grace in a way that destroyed free will. For Luther, Original Sin meant that the human will could never be free. Either the devil would drive the will, or Christ would drive it. Since the will could never freely choose Christ, it must be the action of grace alone that brings about conver- sion, without engaging the will at all. John Calvin followed this train of thought to a conclusion known as “double predestination”: God actively predestines the Elect to Heaven and the non-elect to Hell. In other words, God wills directly that some go to Hell and causes them to do so. Some Calvinists went so far as to say that God willed people to sin.

Or his followers—discussions over what Calvin meant are almost as endless as discussions over what St. Augustine meant.

 The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent met off and on from  to . Its chief goal was to clarify the teachings of the Catholic Church in response to Protestant challenges. The Council took great care not to end open arguments within the Catholic Church. Where multiple schools of thought, each clearly intending to follow the mind of the Church, held different or opposing views on a point under discussion, the Council confined itself to stating those propositions to which all parties could agree. Since the questions of grace and free will had never quite gone away, the Council was at pains not to pin the Church down to a position that overstated what was known to

be part of the faith.

In its fifth session, the Council again repudiated the Pelagian position on Orig- inal Sin, condemning the propositions:

. That death was not the punishment for Adam’s sin;

. That Original Sin is not transmitted to all descendants of Adam;

. That Original Sin can be taken away by means other than the merit of Jesus Christ;

. That infants ought not to be baptized.

At the same session, the Council condemned the Protestant proposition that baptism does not remove the guilt of Original Sin, but only ceases to have it im- puted. In its sixth session, the Council then turned its attention to the role of grace and free will in bringing about salvation. Canons I–III all deal with Pelagianism, reaffirming the Church’s repudiation of the idea that grace is unnecessary for justification. Canons IV–V deal with the reverse error, an error that was becoming prevalent in Protestant circles, the idea

that free will was destroyed in the Fall and has no role to play in justification. Canon

IX refutes the error that cooperation with grace is not required for justification. Canon XI deserves more discussion, striking as it does at the heart of the dif-

ference between Luther’s position and that of the Church:

The city of Trent is in northern Italy. The council met at times in a few other places, but the bulk of its work was done in Trent. The canons on dealing with grace and free will can be found in ND, –, , , –.

If anyone should say that men are justified either solely by the im- putation of the justice of Christ or by the remission of sins alone, to the exclusion of grace and charity poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit and remaining in them, or that the grace by which we are justi- fied is only the favor of God, anathema sit.

Recall the discussion above of Pelagius’s error that saw grace simply as per- formative (causing things to happen) and not as transformative (changing the re- cipient). Luther seems to have shared this error. He taught that justification was simply the remission of sins and the imputation of the justice of Christ—imagine a blanket (the justice of Christ) covering our sinful nature so that God does not see it. The canon above says that this is not what happens. God pours His very life (grace and charity) into the hearts of the justified, and it remains there unless it is lost through mortal sin. We are not justified simply because God looks at us favorably, but because God’s grace produces a change in us that really makes us pleasing to Him. This implies that the transformation of a justified man includes the transforma- tion of his free will. He is able to will and to do things that are pleasing to God because they proceed from the supernatural grace and charity that has been poured into his soul rather than from merely human motives. The Council did not address questions concerning the hows and whys of pre- destination. It contented itself with repudiating the idea that a person can know for certain that he is among the elect by any means other than a special revelation from God. In other words, simply having been baptized and therefore justified is not sufficient to assure a person of salvation, nor is any subjective experience of felt assurance.

 Predestination, Round II

Trent marked off the limits in which any further discussion of grace and free will must take place: The primacy and necessity of grace cannot be denied, nor can the existence and action of free will.

The term anathema sit indicates a formal repudiation of a proposition. Should that happen, it can be restored through the sacrament of Penance. Assuming the sacrament was received with true repentance and intention of amendment, if it was received by an adult.


Perhaps in response to Protestant denials of free will, some Catholic theolo- gians began to revisit the question of the role of free will, asking whether the solu- tion proposed by St. Thomas gave it sufficient importance. The Jesuits in particular took the lead in developing a theory which gave free will a greater role. The man most prominent in developing this theory was named Luis de Molina, from whose name the system took its own name, “Molinism.” Both the Thomistic theory and the Molinist theory are complex, but their chief differences can be summarized by looking at two areas: the treatment of sufficient grace as opposed to efficacious grace, and whether God’s election (selection) of those to be saved is based strictly on the divine will or on some form of knowledge of the future choices of each person who receives grace. Both systems agree (against the fourth condemned Jansenist proposition listed below) that God desires the salvation of all and therefore gives grace to all to achieve salvation. They also agree that not all who are offered grace for sal- vation are in fact saved. This means that some grace is efficacious, bringing about its desired end; and some is merely sufficient so that the desired end could have been achieved had its recipient so chosen. Thomists hold that efficacious grace and sufficient grace are two different types of grace. God’s election is not based on any foreknowledge of the merits of the ones who receive grace; a real distinction between the two kinds of grace follows from this, as those who are elected for salvation all receive efficacious grace, and those not elected for salvation—who, note well, freely choose not to be saved—receive only sufficient grace. Molinists hold that the difference between efficacious grace and sufficient grace is in name only, depending on the response of the one who receives it. They pos- tulate a “middle knowledge” by which God knows in advance (so to speak; God's knowledge transcends time) how each person will respond to the grace offered to him. Those who respond positively are elected for salvation, and for them the grace was efficacious. Those who respond negatively are not elected for salva- tion (freely choosing the acts that lead to their condemnation); they were offered the same kind of grace as those who are saved, but to no effect, making the grace merely sufficient. As the Molinist theory came to prominence, the Dominican Order (defending the teaching of St. Thomas, himself a Dominican) claimed that Molinism was just Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism under a new name. The Molinists claimed that the Thomistic teaching was essentially Calvinist. The debate grew so heated that

See Ott – for further discussion.


representatives of both parties were summoned to Rome to present their respective cases. The commission assembled to study the issue was known as the Congregatio de Auxiliis, the Congregation (or Committee, as we might now put it) on Assistances, the assistances in question being the help given by grace to the justified in bringing about their justification. The Congregation met at intervals over the span of twenty years without being able to reach a conclusion. Finally, Pope Paul V ruled that both theories are within the realm of orthodox teaching and ordered that proponents of each theory stop calling the opposing side heretical. For good measure, and to put a stop to the arguing for a time, the Holy See forbade the publication of books dealing with the topic of efficacious grace.



Jansenism arose from the writings of a Catholic Dutch theologian named Cornelius Jansen (Jansenius, in its Latin form), who spent the later years of his life working on a book which would, he hoped, explain St. Augustine’s theological system. Jansen died in , and his book, entitled Augustinus, was published posthumously. The publication of Augustinus set off a storm of controversy. To follow that controversy in any depth would be far beyond the realm of this article. Here, it is sufficient to note that after much study and debate, Pope Innocent X condemned the following propositions attributed to followers of the Jansenist movement:

. Even the just cannot observe some of God’s commandments because they do not have enough grace;

. Interior grace can never be resisted by fallen nature (that is to say, the will can never refuse God);

. That the error of the Semi-Pelagians was not the denial of the need for grace even for initial conversion, but that they held it was possible to resist this grace.

This provision later lapsed. Even while it was in force, it was often circumvented, but it did have its desired effect of toning down the level of inflammatory rhetoric. ND /, , , .


. That it is Semi-Pelagian to say that Christ died for all men without excep- tion.

The controversy continued as the Jansenists attempted to shift their ground, getting into details that again are not pertinent to this article. The Jansenist theories are radically opposed to Molinism, so the Jansenists and Jesuits were bitter enemies for much of the effective lifetime of Jansenism.


The Current State of the Question

Various attempts have been made to modify the Thomistic theory and the Molinist theory to address the objections made to each; the Congruist theory in particular is prominent in attempting to give to Molinism a greater appreciation of the force of the divine will and grace. Cogent objections can be raised against each of these systems, and the Holy See has not deemed it prudent to end the discussion. Nevertheless, and despite the continuing discussions, it is clear that the Catholic doctrine of grace is opposed to the two points listed in the introduction of this article.

. While some graces are indeed extrinsic to the person, there is also such a thing as a transformative grace. St. Thomas Aquinas put it thus: “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” By perfecting our fallen nature, God truly transforms us and gives us the ability to please Him through His grace dwelling within us.

. Since the divine action perfects our human nature, God does not make us less human with His gifts of grace. Quite the opposite—we are able to reach a level of human perfection far beyond anything we could reach on our own.



Thanks to my friends at Defenders of the Catholic Faith and Fr. Bryan Jerabek for reviewing various versions of this article. Needless to say, any mistakes remaining are my responsibility, not theirs.

As noted above, God offers grace for salvation to everyone; if this were not so, some people would be condemned to Hell without ever having had a chance to choose otherwise.


For the sake of full disclosure, let me state that I am more and more convinced that St. Thomas and his followers are correct. I hope this has not made my presen- tation of other points of view inadequate or unfair.


References and Further Reading

References to “ND” with a number are references to The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, th ed., Josef Neuner S.J. and Jacques Dupuis S.J., ed. Jacques Dupuis; New York: Alba House, . References to “Ott” are references to Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Lud- wig Ott, tr. James Canon Bastible, D.D; Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., . Readers who are interested in a deeper discussion of these issues and are pre- pared to grapple with more technical language might wish to read:

Predestination, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. This book presents the Thomist view. Grace: Habitual and Actual, Fr. Joseph Pohle, tr. and ed. Arthur Preuss. This

book is not for the faint of heart, as the authors expected their readers to know

a substantial amount of Latin, a fair amount of Greek, and a touch of Hebrew.

The book can be read with profit without knowing any of those languages, but the reader may have to skip some of the finer details. The authors attempted to be fair

in their discussion of predestination and related topics, but they admitted to finding

the Thomistic theory inadequate, preferring Congruism instead.