March 10, 2004
St. Thomas in his Summa distinguishes many kinds of virtues: intellectual virtues, moral virtues, theological virtues, and infused moral virtues. He further distinguishes the gifts of the Holy Spirit from all of these. He asserts that the theological virtues, the infused virtues, and the gifts are all necessary for salvation. Several difficulties present themselves to one who studies this teaching. First, why should we understand the gifts to be something in addition to the virtues, rather than an aspect of them? Second, how is the necessity of possessing the gifts in addition to the virtues compatible with the virtues being virtues?
We will consider each of these questions in turn. First we will consider how the gifts are distinct from the virtues, though they are related to them. Second we will consider how even though one possesses the virtues, the gifts are still necessary for salvation.
God creates man as a rational creature, to which it belongs to direct its own actions. Hence in ordering man to supernatural happiness, God gives man supernatural principles, by means of which he may direct himself to this happiness. The primary principles by which man directs himself to this happiness are faith, hope, and charity, which direct man’s intellect and will immediately to first truth and goodness. Man is then able by these principles to order himself to this end and to the means to this end. For this it is necessary that those powers which are naturally subject to reason be disposed to be moved by reason to the means proportionate to this end. The dispositions in these powers, being dispositions to be moved so as to move in accordance with reason, are moral virtues. Being proportionate to a supernatural end, they are themselves supernatural and consequently must be infused by God together with the charity that orders us immediately to our supernatural end.
Because we possess the theological virtues imperfectly, i.e., we only imperfectly know and love God, reason enlightened and directed by the theological virtues is an imperfect mover. Hence it is necessary for us to be moved by a higher mover, God himself, in order to be moved perfectly in accordance with our final end. And because we are not merely passive, but active in our movement, we must be disposed so as to receive God’s motion. The dispositions by which we are so disposed are named “gifts of the Holy Spirit”, and are distinguished from one another according to the power moved or the object to which it is moved. These dispositions are rooted in the theological virtues, since the first requirement for being moved by someone is that one be united to him. This union is accomplished by the theological virtues, particularly charity, by which we become “one spirit” with God.
The first distinction between the infused moral virtues and the gifts is clear from this. The infused moral virtues are habits by which one is disposed to activity in accordance with reason perfected by the theological virtues, while the gifts are habits by which one is disposed to activity in accord with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Corresponding to this distinction is a distinction in the way of acting, inasmuch as the mode of activity in accord with reason differs from that of activity in accord with the impulse of the Holy Spirit.
A similar account applies to the intellectual virtues. By the intellectual virtues reason is disposed to perceive or to judge by the power of reason itself, whereas by the gifts pertaining to knowledge reason is disposed to perceive or to judge in accordance with the impulse of the Holy Spirit.
This account of the difference does not apply entirely to the theological virtues. Insofar as they are first supernatural principles, they do not proceed from reason or a rational power according to itself, but according to a superior power of God, moving them to act. Thus, e.g., As the heaviness of a stone is a disposition to be moved downwards by its generator, so charity is a disposition to be moved towards God by God. Nevertheless there is something in the human manner associated with these virtues. Insofar as perception and judgment are involved in faith, and insofar as it provides principles for action, the manner of these operations is also human. Thus, e.g., in faith we perceive the truth to which we assent through propositions formed from terms known through “simple understanding”, we decide what to do in the light of faith by a process of reasoning, and so on. Hope and love do not have in their very manner of operation the imperfection involved in faith,1 and for this reason they have more of the nature of a gift. Love in particular St. Thomas refers to as the “gift of charity” alongside the “gift of understanding” or the “gift of wisdom.”2 Nevertheless insofar as they are principles of other activities they have a human way of being principles, with a certain abstract universality, rather than the universality proper to God, which transcends concrete and abstract. In this way the theological virtues are distinguished from the gifts.
Another account can also be given of the distinction between the theological virtues and the gifts. If a gift is precisely a disposition to receive the motion of the Holy Spirit, then the theological virtues are not gifts but are rather above the gifts. They are a disposition to receive not merely the motion of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit himself.3
The first account would place the distinction between the theological virtues and the gifts in the imperfect manner of operation of the theological virtues. The second account would place the distinction in a certain perfection of the theological virtues. These accounts are not necessarily opposed, but it seems that in the Summa the second account is the primary one.
But what does this difference between the virtues and the gifts amount to? It cannot mean that when according to the gifts we are moved by the Holy Spirit we are not moved by reason and the virtues. If that were true, our acts would not be meritorious, since the merit of an act comes from its being informed by charity. But charity does not direct acts apart from the judgment of reason, and so even the acts of the gifts must also proceed from infused prudence and the infused moral virtues.
We must therefore find another way to understand the relation between the virtues and the gifts. St. Thomas states that the reason why the gifts are necessary is that we know and love God imperfectly, and therefore reason enlightened by faith and directed by charity is an imperfect mover. This imperfection in its efficacy to move is aided by the gifts. One way to understand this is the following. The difference between an act that proceeds from a gift and an act that does not, does not lie in its being according to a divine rule rather than a human rule, but rather in the application of the human rule (reason enlightened by faith and directed by charity) to action in a divine manner. Thus the gifts of understanding and knowledge do not give us an insight into or judgment concerning the faith independently of our rational principles. E.g., the gift of knowledge does not enable one to discern whether the book of Judith is inspired apart from tradition or the teaching of the Church, which we perceive through our reason. Rather, these gifts preserve reason from error in its use of its principles, and guide it to the truth. Similarly the gift of counsel does not make us discern what we should do without any rational process, but guides this rational process and guards it from error.
The principle St. Thomas employs is clearly true. Because we are human, and possess the theological virtues imperfectly, we can go astray in matters connected to them. It is also clear that the Holy Spirit can aid us in our use of these principles. It is not clear why we need habits in addition to the theological virtues in order to receive this aid of the Holy Spirit. However, an analogy between the infused virtues and the gifts might shed some light upon this point. It seems that in St. Thomas’ understanding, infused moral virtues are necessary because it is necessary to be not only rightly disposed to our supernatural end, and thereby remotely disposed to all acts ordered to that end, but to be directly disposed to the various kinds of acts ordered to our supernatural end. Along the same lines it would be necessary not only to be united to the Holy Spirit by the theological virtues, but to be directly disposed to his movement in the various operations that need this divine movement. As a disposition is required in the powers moved by charity because they are not simply passive, but have some inclination of their own, so St. Thomas says that the reason a disposition is necessary in order to receive the movement of the Holy Spirit is that we are moved so as to be self-movers.
It is also unclear how we are to understand the necessity of the gifts for salvation. Does this necessity mean that without the gifts, an adult would be morally certain not to be saved? Does it mean that in some particular cases the gifts are morally necessary in order to avoid mortal sin? Or does it simply mean that the gifts make it much easier to obtain salvation (the necessity of great fittingness)? The second does not seem to be a sufficient reason; for if the gifts were in fact not given, then the act which it would then be morally impossible to avoid would not be a sin.4 The first may be possible, yet seems to derogate from the perfection of the virtues. If the virtues do not even make it morally possible to do good for a lifetime, it seems that they cannot truly be called virtues. The most likely position is the third, that the gifts are necessary as being very fitting aids to salvation. This fits with what St. Thomas says about counsel, that our plans are uncertain because “reason cannot comprehend the singular and contingent things that can happen.” Such uncertainty of reason would in no way make salvation impossible, but only more difficult. And this position allows us to assert that the virtues are really virtues, habits that make a man such as to act well, yet still leave a role for the gifts.
1 Cf. In III Sententiarum 34.1.2 ad 1
2 II-II 1:8 ad 5, 8:4; cf. 45:6 ad 2
3 Cf. I-II 68:4 ad 3
4 This supposes that the moral impossibility of avoiding a bad deed is not due to a previous sin. But even if it is due to a previous sin, it would not really be an additional sin; the second act would share in the wickedness of the first act, and would each be considered part of one sin. E.g., the neglect to consider that one should be fair, and the consequent failure to be fair are not two sins, but one.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Aquinas - a brief post proposing a more radical interpretation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as a necessary presupposition for Christian virtue
On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life - by Thomas Aquinas
Seven Principles of the Spiritual Life - by Fr. Thomas Bolin
St. Thomas Aquinas - Texts and Articles - List of articles and texts of Aquinas on this website