Relation between natural and supernatural virtue

My intention has been to write about the ‘supernatural organism’ that comes with sanctifying grace: the supernatural virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, grace heals, transforms, elevates, and perfects nature, so before understanding supernatural virtue we needed to understand something of natural virtue. That was my subject last week.

Virtue puts a person at the service of the common good and of others in relation to the common good. Every good we have is a gift that should be used in the service of the common good; that is also how we find our own personal fulfillment. By taking part in the common good we come to enjoy a good greater than ourselves.

We can distinguish between the intrinsic common good and the extrinsic common good. In the simplest terms, the extrinsic common good is God, the intrinsic common good is the order of human life that leads to God.

Natural virtue has in view the common good that can be shared and attained in this life; supernatural virtue has in view the common good of eternal life. Natural virtue then has in view, as the supreme common good, God as he can be known and worshipped here on earth; supernatural virtue has in view God as he can be enjoyed eternally in heaven, among the saints, in the beatific vision.

The natural virtues are acquired by practice and training, but the supernatural virtues come as a gift of God, rooted in sanctifying grace.

Ideally, the supernatural virtues will elevate and transform the natural virtues, but there can also be a sort of tension and conflict between them. Because the natural virtues are a acquired through training and practice, in the measure that a person acquires those virtues he will readily and easily act according to them; he does not find much resistance in himself to the acts of the natural virtues. The supernatural virtues, because they come with the gift of sanctifying grace, independent of anything we do, give an impulse towards their proper good, but might encounter resistance in the soul on account of the natural or acquired dispositions, good or bad. It will be helpful to consider the possibilities.

First, let us consider the adult convert.

Perhaps he led a bad life before his conversion. He had little in terms of acquired virtue when he turns to God but had some deeply rooted bad habits. When he is baptized and receives the gift of sanctifying grace, the supernatural virtues will encounter a good deal of opposition in his soul. Such a person will feel very acutely the words of St. Paul, the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh. (cf. Gal 5:17)

Such a person, seeing the turmoil of his passions, but less aware of the impulses of the Spirit, will readily think of himself as being worse that he truly is in the sight of God. Nevertheless, in the measure in which he follows the impulse of the Spirit and begins to act according to the supernatural virtues, those virtues will little by little transform the soul, overcoming the bad habits, replacing them with good habits. These infused virtues will produce in the soul acquired counterparts, which because they have been produced under the action of the infused virtues, will already be ‘supernaturalized’ as it were.

It might be otherwise, with a person who turns to God having acquired a good store of natural virtue. On the one hand, the natural virtue does not resist the action of the supernatural virtues the way that bad habits do, but on the other hand the natural virtues might easily be mistaken for true goodness. Or to put the matter differently, because the person sees that he is well-ordered towards the earthly life of man, he does not recognize so clearly that his motivation and desire needs to be elevated to eternal life.

In this case, the supernatural virtues do not encounter much direct resistance, easily end up travelling on their own path while failing to transform the natural virtues. This person lives an earthly life and a heavenly life, but mostly an earthly life. The man lives well in this world, so far as that goes, and wants to get to heaven, but he does little to order his worldly activity towards eternal life. This ends up impeding the development and growth of the supernatural virtues.

For some rare persons who not only grow up in the Catholic faith, but receive an excellent upbringing, together with an abundance of grace, to which they correspond, the natural virtues will grow up together with the activity of the supernatural virtues. From the beginning they will be elevated and transformed by grace.

Unfortunately, it seems most people, even if the grow up Catholic, if they are truly to live according to the faith as adults, need to undergo a real experience of conversion to Christ. Their experience will, in some ways, be similar to that of the adult convert. Sometimes that experience of conversion will be impeded because they grew up Catholic, with a good natural training, but without ever having the natural acquired virtues kindled by the fire of the Holy Spirit, working through the supernatural virtues. They are like the men in the parable of the wedding feast, who when they receive the King’s invitation, decline the invitation and go off, one to his farm, another to his business. (cf. Mt 22:5)



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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