“Above all these put on love”: Charity as a Created Participation in God’s Love

April 4, 2005

Joseph Bolin

St. Thomas maintains, against Lombard, that charity is an abiding reality in the Christian himself, a habit of his soul.1 This vast distinction, the distinction between the Creator and the creature, between created and uncreated charity, bears many consequences for his further considerations of charity. We will look at some of these consequences under three heads: the essence of charity as a form of the soul, charity as received into the soul as a subject, and charity in relation to its object. We will begin from the text of St. Thomas’ commentary on the Sentences, but will also use his other works, especially the Summa, in order to shed additional light upon his teaching.2

The Essence of Charity

Charity as a form of the soul: supernatural virtue

St. Thomas’ teaching that charity is a created habit is the presupposition or foundation for his teaching that it is a virtue. If it were not in the genus of quality at all, or not a habit, it could not be a virtue, which is the “disposition of the perfect for the best.”3 Thus having shown that charity is friendship with God, and seeing that such friendship is necessary in order to attain happiness by living the divine life, St. Thomas continues: “This sharing of divine life exceeds the faculties of nature…. And for this reason, nature has to be brought to this perfection by some superadded gift, which is the very ratio of (infused) virtue.”4 In other words, a habit that orders a man determinately to some good is a virtue5, especially when it orders him to the supreme good.6 To maintain that God moves us directly to love Him, without giving us a created habit, would be to say that we are elevated to such a sharing of divine life without any superadded gift, and therefore charity would not be a virtue, or at least not a virtue in us, but only in God. But since God does move us to love him through a created habit, this habit, charity, is a virtue in us.

Charity is in the will

As a habit by which man is ordered to the act of loving God, charity has a definite place in the spiritual reality that is man, a place not only according to operation, but also according to being. Charity is not immediately in the soul, nor in the intellect, but in the will, since the will is the power by which man loves.7 And as the will proceeds from the soul through the intellect, charity, as the perfection of the will, is posterior to faith or vision, the supreme perfections of the intellect in the state of the wayfarer and comprehensor, respectively.8

Charity as union of affection with God

“He who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.”9 Charity is a union of affection between God and man, such that God is in man, and man in God. But if God moved man to the act of charity without any created habit, then this union, at least according to its foundation in a real principle, would only last while someone was actually making an act of charity. It would be impossible, according to any reality in man, to “abide in love.” “That creature, in which God is said to be present in a special way, must have in itself some effect of God that the others do not have. But that effect cannot be merely some action, because if it were so, He would not be in the just who are asleep in another mode than he is in other creatures.”10 But since charity is a created habit, it remains in the Christian even when he is not actually exercising it, and so makes him to be ever in union with God. Thus also it is also a real foundation of the Christian’s lovability at all times.11

Charity as received into the soul as a subject

Because charity is a certain form of the soul, namely a habit, its coming to be, its increase, and its ceasing to be are to be referred not only to God, but also to the soul itself, since God has arranged things so that the form of a thing is always proportionate to it and to its matter. Indeed, since “God stands alike to all things,”12 which in this case means that, “so far as is in him, he is prepared to give grace to all,”13 charity’s coming to be, increase, and ceasing are not to be immediately referred to God, but to the creature. “The diversity of gifts received from Him must be viewed according to the diversity of their recipients.”14

Coming to be of charity

Thus charity is always infused in one who is sufficiently disposed for it. But what is this sufficient disposition? St. Thomas says that this sufficient disposition comes to be by an act according to the soul’s whole power.

Since the whole capacity of the soul is barely enough to receive a perfection as great as charity is, unless God supply of his liberality whatever is wanting, therefore in order that the last disposition to receiving charity be in the soul, there is required an act done according to the soul’s whole power, and that is enough as concerns what it is within our power to do; whereas an act less than this is not enough to constitute such a disposition.15

The reason for this may be explained in the following way. Since the life of grace is beyond any strict proportion to the life of nature16, no disposition, simply considered in itself, is sufficient to receive the gift of grace. However, on account of the gracious will of God, who desires to give grace, and who does so in an ordered way, there is a morally sufficient disposition. When a creature does all that it is in its power, it acts with a certain infinity, inasmuch as it sets no limit on its effort. God, who on his part is always ready to give grace, then gives the creature grace, as being disposed to such an infinite gift with the infinity possible to the creature.17

Given God’s gratuituous will to bestow grace and charity upon men, the conclusion that he gives grace and charity to those who are properly disposed, is no more than an application of the universal principle that God makes matter for the sake of form, and therefore pours form into all matter properly disposed. “Speaking about the necessity which is on the supposition of the divine decree, in which decree, on account of the benevolence of his goodness, God willed to impart to each thing according to its capacity, it is necessary that form be poured into every prepared matter.”18 God will not be less generous with the supernatural good of charity than he is with the natural good of the natural forms of things.19 Thus supposing that God wills men to have charity – “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved.” (1 Tim 2:4) – it follows nearly immediately from the understanding of charity as a created form of the soul, that God gives it to those who are disposed.

Applying the same universal principle, it follows that God gives more charity to those who are more prepared, and less charity to those who are less prepared. “The measure according to which charity is given is the capacity of the soul itself, which is at once from nature and from the disposition that comes through the exertion of works.”20

But if in order to be disposed for charity, the creature must do all that is in its power, how can it be more or less disposed? When we speak of the perfect or greatest voluntary disposition, (i.e., that the creature do all that is in its power), we must distinguish between the perfection or maximum of the will as regards its object, and as regards its intensity. As regards its object, it is necessary that it will God as the final end, and so will all other things in relation to God. This is clear in St. Thomas’ treatment of the human being’s first moral act. “When he begins to have the use of reason… the first thing that occurs to man to consider, is to deliberate about himself. And if he orders himself to the due end, he will obtain by grace the remission of original sin.”21 But just as charity can be more or less intense, while yet willing all things for God’s sake,22 so the natural movement of the will can be more or less intense, while yet willing all things for God’s sake, and in this sense doing “all that is in its power.” Thus doing “all that is in its power” does not exclude a greater or lesser intensity in its activity, and consequently one person may receive more grace than another, though each orders himself to God above all things.

Increase of charity

Since charity is received into the soul, and everything received is received according to the mode of the receiver, it is received finitely. The soul does not have infinite charity within it. Yet since charity’s object is the infinite good which is God, it does not have a finite intensity determined to it by its own specific nature. Therefore the charity within the soul can increase by becoming more intense.23 And just as the coming to be of charity accompanies a certain condition of the soul, which is disposed in a way proportionate to charity, to the extent that it can be, so its increase likewise accompanies a certain condition of soul.24 As charity comes to be when the soul exercises itself (in striving for the good) according to its full natural capacity, so charity increases when the soul exercises itself according to its full capacity of nature and grace.25

Here, too, we must ask, in what does this full exercise of the capacity of nature and grace consist? It cannot consist merely in the full extension of the object, as we stated with regard to the coming to be of charity, since this fullness is demanded by charity, and thus charity would be increased by every act, which St. Thomas consistently denies. (Though in the Summa Theologiae he states that every act done from charity merits an increase of charity, he continues to hold that it does not immediately obtain an increase.) The fullness required for an increase of charity must therefore pertain to the intensity of charity. In order for a man to grow in charity, he must in some way love as intensely as he is able to love. “Not every meritorious act merits an increase of grace,… [but only] that act in which someone uses the grace he has received according to the proportion of his strength [vires], so that the grace of God is in no way lacking through negligence.”26 We might add, “according to his circumstances.” For if someone is exposed to martyrdom, and thereby grows greatly in charity, then in general his ability to love will have been greatly increased, but he will not be able to exercise that love as intensely in all of his ordinary activities as he exercised it in being willing to lay down his life. For we cannot always have our attention equally fixed on God. And being human, even our most abstract acts of intellect and will are not only exercised in, but dependent upon concrete circumstances, and thus we are generally able to love more intensely when we are doing something which requires more love (e.g., doing good to our enemies) than something which requires less (e.g., doing good to our friends.). Nevertheless, if such a person is avoiding venial sin and imperfection, he will still be growing in charity through his loving activities.

Ceasing to be of Charity

Finally, charity necessarily ceases when the subject is no longer disposed to it, or more precisely, when it is disposed in a contrary way, since charity is not actually caused by man’s activity, and therefore does not depend on man’s activity for its being.27 When a man turns away from God as his last end, he is no longer disposed to love God in the supernatural manner proper to charity. Thus God no longer sustains the supernatural habit in him. “[If an act is disordered with respect to the end], such that the end is taken away, then charity, insofar as it adheres (of itself) to the end, is also taken away.”28 Charity is lost not only on account of man’s demerit, but also because he is disposed in a way contrary to charity.

Charity In comparison to its object

As the ultimate perfection of the will, charity presupposes the will’s own nature and natural order, as in general that which perfects something presupposes that thing’s nature. “The grace that perfects the affection presupposes nature, since it perfects it.”29 Moreover, though our charity is a participation in God’s charity, it is in us in the way proper to our individual nature. Now it belongs to the nature of an individual’s will that it be ordered to his good. Therefore by charity, too, we love others insofar as our good is found in them.30 Thus, unlike God, who loves us in the same way as he loves other men, we love ourselves first, and others insofar as they do or can share in our good. Nevertheless there is a proportion between our love and God’s; we love men insofar as they can share in our good, while God loves them insofar as through his love they share in his good, or insofar as they can share in it.31

The order of Charity

Thus a certain order is given charity by the fact that though it is a participation in God’s charity, it is nonetheless ours. We are to love others according as our good is more or less in them. We are to love God supremely, since our good is in him as the source and exemplar of our good; for us to be good is for us to be like God. We are to love ourselves next, since our good is essentially in ourselves. We are then to love other men, in whom there is a likeness of our good, inasmuch as they are also capable of participating in the divine good by grace and charity.32

There is also an order of charity to be found among the various men to whom we relate as actual or possible sharers in God’s life. Since charity’s proper object is the divine goodness, charity’s own proper order among men is according to their greater or lesser participation in the divine goodness. According to the principal object of charity, we are to love more those who are better, and less those who are worse.

Nevertheless, since charity does not take away, but perfects the will’s natural inclinations, our charity must respect the order among men proper to our natural love. This order that belongs to our natural love pertains to charity in a proper sense; for as the desire for happiness takes any noble secondary desire, whether for something useful, something pleasant, or something noble, up into itself, so too in a similar way does charity take up into itself any noble secondary love of friendship. It is not essentially an act of charity to love a brother as a brother, with fraternal love, but charity commands us to love in this way, and governs this love. We will now proceed to explain in more detail this order of charity as it relates to our natural loves.

Two general distinctions should first be made. First, there is one order in charity according to the acts of love that it elicits, and another according to the acts of love that it commands, i.e., acts of other kinds of friendship. Just as the ordering of the moral virtues to charity does not destroy them, but elevates them, so the ordering of other friendships to charity preserves and elevates them. Secondly, the love of friendship is distinct from the love of concupiscence, yet contains it. In any friendship there is some good we will our neighbor to have, some good for which we have the love of concupiscence.

Love elicited by Charity

The love of neighbor elicited by charity is an act of love by which we will something for our neighbor: either eternal life, or something else insofar as it as a means for him to attain eternal life. In willing eternal life for our neighbor, our love can be greater or less in two different ways.33 First, we can will for one neighbor a greater share in God’s eternal life than for another. The order in charity with respect to this should be according to who is better; we should will a greater degree of blessedness for the better person. Thus by charity we rejoice in the Blessed Virgin’s having a degree of blessedness far greater than we can ever attain.34 Secondly, we can more intensely will eternal life for one neighbor than for another. The order of charity according to the various degrees of this intensity should be according to the neighbor’s closeness to us. Now in heaven, in eternal life, our closeness to a neighbor will correspond to our neighbor’s closeness to God, since we will all be immediately united to one another in our very union with God.35 But in this life, our closeness to a neighbor is determined mostly by ties other than that of charity; e.g., blood relationship. Thus we should will the salvation of our relatives more than that of others, insofar as they are closer to us.36 However, because the good in question, the final end, is not directly related to the respect in which our relatives are close to us, (the good of nature), closeness to a neighbor in ways other than blood relationship may demand an intensity of charity equal or greater to the intensity of charity for a blood relative. A priest should will more the salvation of his children in Christ than that of his blood cousins. Because the bonds of these various relationships are all being directly referred to the final end of charity, it is not possible in this regard to make any universal order among the various relationships.37

In willing something as a means for our neighbor to attain eternal life, there can be an order either because we will a greater means for one than for another, or because we will a certain means more intensely. Since while anyone is still living this life, we do not will a determinate degree of blessedness for him, the determining factor in regard to the means is the intensity with which we will eternal life for our neighbor. In general, for those whose salvation we wish more intensely, we will and seek better means to attain salvation, and will these means more intensely. Nevertheless, because of more specific friendships, whereby these means may be willed not only as means to eternal life, but also as ends or as means to ends other than eternal life, (as will be discussed below), we may will better means for those whom we love less intensely. Thus we might will better means for salvation for those with whom we are spiritual friends than for members of our family, even if we love our family members more intensely.

Love Commanded by Charity

Every legitimate love can be commanded by charity. When a love is commanded by charity, rather than elicited, it maintains the character and order proper to that love. Thus in regard to friendships based on sharing in particular goods, we love more with respect to those goods those men with whom we are associated in those goods. We love our parents more with respect to the good of nature, while we love our friends with whom we are associated in religious works more with respect to such goods. Of course this principle must be taken formally; we can also be friends in this way with our parents and relatives.

Similarly we love more intensely those who are more closely associated with us in any given goods. We love our parents more intensely with respect to the good of nature than we love our aunts and uncles, whom we love according to this friendship insofar as they are related to our parents.

We must make in regard to these friendships commanded by charity a distinction similar to that made in regard to the love elicited directly by charity. Some with whom we are associated in a given good possess that good more excellently than others, or at least more excellently in relation to us. Thus our father possesses the good of human nature as a cause with respect to us, and therefore possesses it more excellently in relation to us than our children possess it. Consequently, we should will a greater good for our father than for our children. (This corresponds with one neighbor’s being better than another due to a greater degree of charity, and thus a greater degree of blessedness being willed for him.) Yet our children are closer to us than our father, and therefore we should love them more intensely.38 (This corresponds with one neighbor’s being closer to us, and thus loved more intensely.) Likewise we love a spouse more intensely than a parent.39 Similarly according to St. Thomas’ understanding of the distinct relationships of father and mother, we might say that we will a greater good for our father than for our mother, but love our mother more intensely.40

The measure of the means that we will according to these friendships is taken from the measure of the end; in the case of these friendships both measures of the end are relevant, namely that according to which we will a greater good for one than for another, and that according to which we will a good more intensely for one than for another. E.g., the extent to which we act in order to assist someone in civil affairs depends both upon his excellence in such matters, and upon his nearness to us with respect to them.

1 In I Sent. d. 17, q. 1, a. 1

2 The last section in particular is an attempt to synthesis the teaching on charity of the Commentary on the Sentences, the Disputed Questions on Charity, and the Summa Theologiae.

3 St. Thomas usually quotes Physics VII, where this exact phrase is found in his translation of Aristotle; Cf. Eudemian Ethics II

4 In III Sent. d, 27, q. 2, a. 2

5 Cf. ST I-II 55:3

6 Cf. ST II-II 17:1, II-II 23:3

7 In III Sent. d, 27, q. 1, a. 2; d. 27, q. 2, a. 3

8 Cf. In III Sent. d. 23, q. 2, a. 5; In IV Sent. d. 14, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 2; ST I-II 62:4

9 1 Jo 4:16

10 In I Sent. d. 17, q.1, a.1, sc. 3; the text could also be read as “it would not be in the just… in another mode than it is in other creatures,” but the general context suggests the given interpretation. (I have noted this on the copy with my corrections.)

11 One might maintain that there would a foundation of the Christian’s lovability in any case, namely his merit. This is in fact true. However, merit or demerit as such is not a reality in the creature, and so this would not be a real foundation, but only a moral one. Moral grounds for a relationship should not be disregarded, (in fact most of our ties are of an essentially moral character), but the issue here is whether there is a deeper, more essential ground of love in the Christian.

12 In I Sent. D. 17, q. 1, a. 3

13 SCG III 159; Cf. In IV Sent. d. 20, q. 1, a. 1, qa. 1

14 In I Sent. D. 17, q. 1, a. 3. This principle applies to cases where there is a diversity of recipients, (which ultimately comes from God, who is the cause of the distinction in creatures), to which it befits God’s wisdom that his gifts correspond; it does not apply to cases where there is nothing already given the recipient to which the gift may correspond; in such cases the distinction in the gift given is immediately referred to God; e.g., in creation, which presupposes nothing, there is nothing preexisting to which the distinction in creatures could correspond, and therefore the first distinction in creatures is immediately from God. (Cf ST I 47:1, SCG II 39-45; the same teaching is present in the Sentences Commentary implicitly and dispersedly.)

15 In I Sent. d. 17, q. 2, a. 3, ad 4

16 Cf. In II Sent. d. 27, a. 4, ad 5; ST I-II 114:5

17 An analogy can be made with the sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction for sin. Since an offence against God has a certain infinity on account of God’s infinite dignity, (ST III 1:2 ad 2) it is impossible for anything created to be in itself sufficient satisfaction, and therefore Christ became man to make satisfaction for us. Nevertheless, it was fitting that Christ suffer with the kind of infinity possible to human nature, so that the infinity of the offence be matched not only by the infinite dignity of the person making satisfaction, but also by the quasi-infinite suffering he underwent to make satisfaction. “Christus voluit genus humanum a peccatis liberare, non sola potestate, sed etiam iustitia. Et ideo non solum attendit quantam virtutem dolor eius haberet ex divinitate unita, sed etiam quantum dolor eius sufficeret secundum naturam humanam, ad tantam satisfactionem.” (ST III 46:6 ad 6) This sufficient quantity of pain is that which is greater than all others. “Christus, ut satisfaceret pro peccatis omnium hominum, assumpsit tristitiam maximam quantitate absoluta.” (Ibid., ad 2; Cf. In III Sent. D. 15, q.2, a. 3c) Nevertheless it must be admitted that St. Thomas only speaks about a suffering greater than all sufferings, never actually using the language of infinity.

18 “Loquendo autem de necessitate quae est ex suppositione divini propositi, quo propter benevolentiam suae bonitatis voluit unicuique eam communicare secundum suam capacitatem, necessarium est quod cuilibet materiae praeparatae forma infundatur.” In IV Sent, d. 17, q.1, a.2c

19 In fact he is more generous, by giving grace and charity to some who are not personally disposed to these gifts: e.g., baptized infants.

20 In I Sent. d. 17, a. 3. (Natural dispositions are only relevant inasmuch as they make a greater exertion more possible or likely; cf. ST II-II 24:3 & De Virtutibus 2:7 ad 9, where St. Thomas avoids saying that charity is giving according to natural capacity, though both of these texts are quite compatible with his Commentary on the Sentences with respect to the essential content. “The statement, ‘He gave to each according to each one’s power,’ is not to be referred only to the power of nature, for it is erroneous to say that gifts of grace and glory are given according to the measure of natural [capacity]” (De Virtutibus, Ibid.)

21 ST I-II 89:6. The same doctrine is presented in St. Thomas’ other works, but this is the clearest account.

22 In III Sent. d. 29, a. 8, qa. 2

23 Cf. In I Sent. d. 17, q. 2, a. 4

24 In I Sent. d. 17, q. 2, a. 1, ad 4; a. 2, body, ad 2 & 3;

25 In I Sent. d. 17, q. 2, a. 3

26 In II Sent. d. 27, a. 5, ad 2

27 In I Sent. d. 17, q. 2, a. 5

28 Ibid.

29 “Est in gratia perficiente affectum quod praesupponit naturam, quia eam perficit.” In III Sent, d. 24, q. 1, a. 3A

30 In III Sent. d. 29, a. 1

31 In III Sent. d. 29, a. 6, ad 2

32 In III Sent. d. 29, a. 3 & 5

33 ST II-II 26:7

34 In regard to those who still live in this life, this order in charity seems to be of minor importance. For it is indeterminate who is better than whom, both with respect to our knowledge, insofar as in this life we can’t know with much certitude which person is better, and with respect to the reality, insofar as it is changeable, due to the possibility for growing in charity or for losing charity. Consequently, there is a similar indetermination in our love; we will our neighbor to gain the degree of blessedness appropriate to him, but don’t know what that is or will be. But see De Virtutibus 2:9 ad 12, where St. Thomas seems to imply that both orders are quite relevant to this life, and must be considered together.

35 ST II-II 26:13

36 Cf. De Virtutibus 2:9 ad 12

37 This conclusion is not explicitly found in St. Thomas, but seems to be implicit, as he often allows for the abundance of one factor in love to outweigh another. E.g., he allows that superabundant malice (which is opposed to the good of moral virtue or charity) may be so great as to cause us to prefer non-relatives to our relatives, even with respect to the goods of nature. (In III Sent. d. 29, Commentary on the text) We can, often, say that the natural relationship is more permanent than most others, (ST II-II 26:8) though not than the relation of godparent.

38 ST II-II 26:9

39 ST II-II 26:11

40 Cf. In III Sent. d. 29, a. 7 ad 4, where this position is certainly not stated, but seems to be the logical conclusion. (Nevertheless one might avoid the conclusion by saying that one thus loves a mother not as a mother, but as a lover. Cf. ST II-II 26:10 ad 2)

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