Last Thursday we noted that acquiring and developing the natural virtues (that is, the virtues the capacity for which is built into human nature itself) makes us fully human — but nothing more. This makes sense, for the capacity to acquire and develop the natural virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence, and (above all) justice, are what define us as human — but nothing more.
But is there something more? Is there something “above” nature that we can call super-nature (since that means “above nature”)? In Christian belief — yes. Humanity is destined not to stop at being merely fully human, but to move on to something more: to becoming adopted children of God. That requires that we, in a sense, transcend human nature and yet, paradoxically, remain fully human at the same time.
Thus, we are not obligated merely to become more fully human by acquiring and developing the purely natural virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice, but the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. That, however, presents a problem.
The problem is that, while we have a built-in capacity to acquire and develop the natural virtues, we do not have the same inborn capacity to acquire and develop the supernatural virtues. Having a natural capacity (that is, by nature) to acquire and develop supernatural (above nature) virtues would, in fact, be a contradiction in terms. You cannot “pour new wine into old wineskins.” The vessel must be appropriate to what it holds.
This is why God infuses the capacity to acquire and develop the supernatural virtues into humanity, not as a part of human nature, but as a free gift reflecting God’s Supernature. By means of this capacity, and the free acceptance of God’s grace, humanity can acquire and develop the supernatural virtues — but only if the natural virtues are perfected first.
Charity is the “soul” of justice, and does not replace justice, but fulfills and perfects justice. Similarly, faith is built on a foundation of reason; not contradicting, but fulfilling and perfecting. This is why, for example, the Catholic Church teaches that knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law (not the supernatural law) can be known by the force and light of human reason alone (cf. Canon 2.1 of the First Vatican Council, and § 2 of Humani Generis).
Thus, we have built into us the capacity to acquire and develop the natural virtues to become more fully human, and the capacity infused into us for the supernatural virtues in order to acquire and develop the supernatural virtues to become adopted children of God. First, however, we have to fulfill our inborn human capacities before we can start on our infused supernatural capacities. Charity is not charity until and unless the demands of justice have been met.
Unfortunately, many people today, even Catholics, think that having faith entitles them to bypass reason and the natural order and go straight to the supernatural order. This directly contradicts Jesus Himself: “Not one iota of the law shall pass away; I came to fulfill the law, not abolish it.” (Matt. 5:18) “New Age” adherents go even further, asserting that they can even bypass the supernatural order and attain the direct vision of God in this life, even to becoming a god.
So, then, while institutions cannot and do not determine our final end, they do provide an important assist to humanity as political animals and provide the environment within which we acquire and develop virtue — or vices, if that is our choice.
Thus it is important in all cases to note very carefully that we have the capacity for virtues and vices, not the virtues or vices themselves. Which way we go is a matter of individual choice and therefore a personal responsibility. Institutions merely provide the environment, each human being makes his or her own choice. If an institution forces you to commit an act, or reins you in, you are, of course, not responsible for that — assuming you are not using that as an excuse to do what you really wanted to do in the first place — as Flip Wilson’s tag line went, “The Devil made me do it,” a patently false cop-out.
The bottom line is that, in an ultimate sense and in regards to humanity’s final end, “All that is left is love.” We cannot, however, go straight to fulfillment and perfection of our infused supernatural capacity, but have to work our way through the various levels.
Fulton Sheen used the analogy of a three story house: the first story is the merely existential, the animal, the job of which is meeting our material needs. The next story is the human (what Sheen called the “pagan”), the job of which is to become more fully human by acquiring and developing the natural virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice.
Because we are by nature — not supernature — political animals, this is best done within the institutional framework of organized society, the pólis. The third story is that of adopted children of God, where — first having met our animal needs and then our human needs — we can work on acquiring and developing our infused capacity for the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
Sheen, of course, was speaking of this life. He did not address the additional two levels, the mystical light and the direct vision of God, the first of which (often counterfeited by “New Age” promises) is a very special gift of God in this life, the second of which (also counterfeited by the New Age) is reserved solely for the next life and cannot be attained in this one. All five levels, however, presuppose the continued validity of the preceding level, e.g., if we do not exist (“zero level” so to speak), we cannot meet our animal needs. If we do not meet our animal needs, we cannot function as human beings in society and meet our human needs. If we do not meet our human needs, we cannot meet the demands of becoming an adopted child of God, and so on. Jesus did not drop or go beyond His assumed human nature, but glorified it, remaining true God and true man at the same time.
In the end, the natural virtues are perfected and will always remain with us, as will our full humanity, including both its individual and social characters. Of the supernatural virtues, only charity (love) will remain, for in heaven all hopes are realized, and faith is unnecessary, given the direct vision of God.
Don’t worry. The rest of the postings this week won’t get this deep, so you can put away your hip-waders.