It is a well-known fact that Protestantism allows for a significant amount of autonomy. Well, a significant amount of autonomy compared to, say, Catholicism. Yet, Catholics do not have to agree with one another on every single theological point. There is room for debate on some issues. I have written about this before, but there is a topic where Catholics do not all agree that I would like to examine.
The debate is on grace. Protestants believe in only one type of grace: efficacious grace. Protestants believe that human nature is so steeped in sin that it can never do any good work. Any good work done by man is actually performed by God. It is the teaching of Protestantism that the human soul has no power to do anything good, hence, grace does not transform the soul. The Catholic Church says that grace transforms the soul, and makes it capable of doing good. In fact, the human soul must choose on its own to cooperate or reject God’s grace. Protestants believe that the only power the soul has is to either believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or reject that faith. If faith is chosen, according to Protestantism, God’s grace essentially covers the soul, and operates the good for the soul. In other words, good works are nothing more than evidence of justification. For Catholics, grace gives the soul the ability to actually do good works. In other words, good works actually help to accomplish justification.
Protestants believe all grace is efficacious, since grace is accomplishing good works for us. Catholics, however, believe a bit differently. All Catholics believe grace transformsvthe soul, and makes it capable of good. But we believe that there are two types of grace. One is efficacious grace. Another is sufficient grace. Catholics, however, have several different schools of thought on this aspect.
The first is the Thomists. They follow the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. Basically, the Thomists believe that, since God knows what choices we will make, He creates some souls to be more receptive to His grace than others. According to Thomists, sufficient grace gives one the ability to do good. Efficacious grace actually helps bring salvation (justification) about. God knows who will choose Him, so decides (from eternity) who receives efficacious grace, and who does not. So, while the soul still freely chooses, the souls of the elect are actually created to accept God’s grace.
The Augustinian school of thought agrees with Thomism in everything except the creation of the soul. While Thomists believe God actually creates certain souls to accept His efficacious grace, Augustinians believe that the elect are only morally affected. Efficacious grace isn’t basically irresistible, as in Thomism, but it “tugs” at the soul, as it were.
The Molinistic school says that sufficient grace and efficacious grace are virtually the same. Everyone receives sufficient grace which enables us to do good. If we accept it, then it becomes efficacious by default.
The Congruistic school is similar to Molinism, but with one difference. Congruists believe that if sufficient grace fits all the elements of our particular circumstances, then we will freely accept it, and it becomes efficacious. If it does not fit all the elements of our particular circumstances, then we freely reject God’s grace. The grace then remains merely sufficient.
The last school is Syncretism. This combines all the previous schools, but emphasizes the role of prayer in the reception and efficaciousness of grace. Prayer surely is an important element in the reception of grace. Of that there is no doubt.
As one can imagine, each school has its significant adherents. Dominicans tend toward Thomism. Augustinians tend toward Augustinianism. Jesuits tend toward Molinism and Congruism. St. Alphonsus de Liguori was perhaps the greatest adherent to Syncretism.
Since the Church has not defined, one may accept whichever school of thought one wishes on this matter. Each system has its strength and weaknesses.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
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