15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 13:1-23
A sower went out to sow. […] Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
The parable of the sower describes the manner in which the grace of God is freely bestowed upon the earth and bears much fruit in the hearts of those who believe. The liberality and the generosity with which the Lord pours forth his Word upon the earth – giving grace not merely to those who are well-disposed (i.e. the good soil), but even to the wicked (i.e. the poor soil) – witnesses to the infinite riches of the Divine Mercy.
Still, we must consider how it comes about that some soil is well prepared while other soil is poor. If it is God who sows the seed of grace, who prepares and disposes the soil of the human soul to receive that grace?
In responding to this question, St. Thomas Aquinas’ own position grew and developed – in this theological question, as in so many others, the Common Doctor rises above all his contemporaries and soars ahead as the greatest Master. The thought of the Angelic Doctor has become a light to the whole Church. We shall here consider (briefly, and in simple terms) the key points of the debate and the change in St. Thomas’ thought which led to a significant development in Catholic theology generally.
Can man prepare or dispose himself to receive the first gift of grace?
The debate about the preparation for grace
In the middle ages, there was great debate among the theologians about how man participates with grace. The semi-Pelagian heretics (from much earlier) had taught that the first act was of man, but that the rest was then grace. However, this position caused serious problems, since it must be clear that God saves us – hence, the first movement of salvation must be from God.
Thus, in the scholastic period, the debate centered more around the question of whether a man can dispose himself for grace without grace. Can a man, by his own natural powers, prepare himself to receive the first grace? The scholastics (including St. Thomas, in his earlier years) taught that, without grace, man cannot actually merit the first grace, nor can he do any positive action of moving toward grace, but they did hold that man could at least prepare himself for grace.
Hence, the schoolmen held that, while God sows the seed, man prepared the soil for the reception of grace. It was in this point that the brilliance of St. Thomas shines forth.
The development of St. Thomas’ thought
St. Thomas recognized that even the scholastic opinion – that man, of himself, can prepare himself for grace – was a form of semi-Pelagianism. The Angel of the Schools soars above his contemporaries (and all theologians) when he tells us that man cannot prepare himself for grace by his own natural powers.
The teaching of St. Thomas (which has been adopted by the Church) is that man cannot prepare himself for habitual grace without actual grace – habitual grace being the indwelling of the Holy Trinity and actual grace being the particular movements of grace which are not stable realities in the soul but are rather particular acts. Man can in no way dispose himself either for habitual or for actual grace by his natural powers alone.
The proof of this argument is that the act of every agent corresponds to the order of his end, therefore the disposition toward a supernatural end cannot be produced except by God, the supernatural agent. Man, then, prepares himself for grace only insofar as he is aided by the supernatural help of God who moves him by grace.
This is our point: It is God who sows the seed, and it is also God who prepares the soil in which the seed is sown. God gives the grace, and he also prepares the soul for the worthy reception of that grace.
“The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace.” (CCC 2001)
But if grace must precede grace, how do we avoid an infinite regress
St. Thomas gives us a further insight when he explains how his doctrine avoids an infinite regress. First, we point out the objection: If grace must prepare man for grace, then another grace would be needed to prepare for that first grace. But this would lead to an infinite regress.
The Angelic Doctor answers this objection by pointing out that only habitual grace requires preparation, not actual grace. Hence, while habitual grace requires that actual grace precede it and prepare the way (excepting in the case of infant baptism), actual grace does not require any preceding grace. Rather, actual grace itself prepares the soul for its own reception.
Hence, if we ask: Who prepares the soil for the seed of grace? We answer that there is no preparation necessary for actual grace excepting the gift of grace itself. No prior work (neither a grace prior in time nor in causal order) is needed – the seed itself prepares the ground in which it is sown!
What this doctrine means for our spiritual life
The teaching that it is God himself who prepares and disposes man for grace (by his very gift of grace), should offer us a great deal of consolation. The spiritual life is not a matter of man pulling himself up by his boot straps. We do not need to clear away the vices in our soul and get ourselves perfect before turning to the Lord.
Rather, because the gift of actual grace needs no prior preparation in the soul, even the most wretched of sinners is capable of being redeemed by God. It is not that we move part way and then God stoops to bring us along to perfection. Rather, even in our lowliness, God descends upon us through his gift of grace (we mean actual grace) and it is this grace itself which prepares us for the further gift of grace which is the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity (we mean sanctifying habitual grace).
The cooperation of man in the workings of salvation
We conclude with a helpful word from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2002): “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man.”
This is the great insight of the Thomistic synthesis: That grace and free-will are not opposed one to the other. For a work to be of God’s grace does not require that it not be of man. Likewise, for a work to proceed from man’s free will does not require that it not be of grace. Rather, when prepared by grace and filled with grace, man is able to act in true freedom and according to his highest dignity.
For further reading, cf.:
Summa Theologica I-II, q.109, a.6: Can man prepare for grace without grace?
Summa Theologica I-II, q.112,a.2: Is any preparation or disposition for grace required on the part of man?
Super Sent. II, d.28, q.1, a.4: Whether a man is able to prepare himself for grace without any grace?