No, this isn’t a new television series review. Maybe it should be, but it isn’t. This is just a little dissertation about the difference between the natural virtues, and the supernatural virtues, and why it might not be all that good an idea to mix or confuse the two. What triggered this was the comment someone made to us recently that Thomas Aquinas had expanded the natural virtues into the spiritual realm. Not exactly. . .
Aquinas didn’t expand the natural virtues into the spiritual or supernatural virtues. He kept them very carefully distinct. This is because the capacity for the natural virtues, those that govern relations between human beings as human beings, is built into human nature. The capacity for the supernatural virtues, those that govern relations between God and man, and between human beings as adopted children of God, is infused into humanity as a free gift of God.
Acquiring and developing the natural virtues, i.e., prudence, temperance, fortitude, and, above all, justice, makes us more fully human as human. Acquiring and developing the supernatural virtues, i.e., faith, hope, and charity, makes us more full adopted children of God. The supernatural virtues therefore fulfill, they do not replace, the natural virtues. Mixing the two tends to put faith above reason in temporal or purely human matters, forcing a choice, when faith and reason are supposed to work together.
This is why Aquinas (reiterated by Leo XIII in Æterni Patris) insisted that reason is the foundation of faith, not the other way around. Man, as Aristotle pointed out, is the animal that reasons. We must first exercise our reason as human beings before we can have sound faith as adopted children of God; we can come to knowledge of the existence of God and of the natural law by the force and light of human reason alone. The Catholic Church condemns any who deny this as anathema (Vatican I, Canon 2.1). This is why, for example, children who have not reached the age of reason cannot receive Communion, and why, once Catholics have reached the age of reason, they “confirm” the baptismal promises made by their Godparents on their behalf.
Does that mean we will come to knowledge of God and of the natural law by human reason alone? Probably not; most people just don’t have the time to do the work required to reason all this out; that’s why, in Aquinas’s opinion, most people need a revealed religion and the guidance of the Catholic Church.
Modernism, “the synthesis of all heresies,” confused matters greatly, and corrupted generations who tried to apply modernist concepts to understanding Catholic social teaching. The chief doctrine of modernism is to deny that we can come to knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law by human reason alone (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, § 6). This is “agnosticism,” and often leads straight to atheism.
Generations have grown up even in the Catholic Church who insist that faith, hope, and charity, the capacity for which comes directly from God as a free, if irrevocable gift, necessarily replace prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice, the capacity for which comes from humanity, having been built into human nature by God (and thus God is the mediate, not the immediate, source of natural rights).
Inalienable natural rights such as life, liberty, or property become alienable when you mix the natural and the supernatural improperly. This is because anyone with greater faith, hope, or charity than you (and who has the power) can alienate your inalienable rights on the grounds that he is enforcing God’s law. Satan’s “promise” to Adam and Eve is fulfilled: you become like a god yourself by having God’s knowledge and enforcing His law . . . conveniently forgetting that God has reserved judgment (and punishment) to Himself; “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.” (Hebrews 10:30.)
This is paralleled in civil society by positivism, which is the secular version of modernism. In essence, positivism takes inalienable rights away from humanity, and vests them in the State, which doles them out as it sees fit.