All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18)
What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and what do they do? This post proposes an interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on "being led by the Spirit", and of the way that the gifts of the Spirit are active in Christian life.
The Seven Gifts of the Spirit
In Isaiah 11:1-3, we read "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."
The last part, according to the Latin tradition, reads "the spirit of knowledge and of piety [pietas], and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him."
From this text derives the tradition of the Church regarding the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say much about the gifts. The main text is in numbers 1830 & 1831.
1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.
This understanding of the gifts follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is usually understood. I would like, however, to propose a more radical interpretation of Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas on the Gifts of Holy Spirit
Selections from the text of Aquinas himself:
Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 1
Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without. Higher perfections must therefore be in man, by which he is disposed to be moved by God. And these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them, man is disposed and made more ready to be moved by the divine inspiration, as is said in Is 50:5: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward."
Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 2
Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.
Now man's reason is in two ways perfected by God: first, with a natural perfection, namely the natural light of reason; secondly, with a supernatural perfection, by the theological virtues, as was said above. And although this second perfection is greater than the first, nevertheless man possesses the first perfection in a more perfect way than he possesses the second perfection. For man possesses the first perfection as his full possession, while he possesses the second as an imperfect possession; for we imperfectly love and know God. Now it is manifest that everything which perfectly possesses a nature or form or power, can of itself act according to it—though not apart from God's action, who acts interiorly in every nature and will. But that which has a nature or form or power imperfectly, cannot act of itself, if it is not moved by another. Thus the sun, which is perfectly bright, can give light of itself, while the moon, which has the nature of light only imperfectly, cannot give light unless it is illuminated [by the sun]. Again, a doctor, who perfectly knows the medical art, can act on his own; but his student, who is not yet fully instructed, cannot act on his own, but only with the guidance of his instructor.
Thus, with regard to the things that are subject to human reason, i.e., in relationship to man's natural end, man can act by the judgment of reason. If in this action, man is nevertheless helped by God by means of a special impulse, this will pertain to God's superabundant goodness. Hence according to the Philosophers, not everyone who has the acquired moral virtues, has heroic or divine virtues. But in relationship to the last supernatural end, to which reason moves us insofar as it is in in a certain manner, and imperfectly, formed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason itself is not sufficient, unless the impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from above, according to Rom 8:14, 17, "They who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God," and "if you are sons, then also heirs." And in Ps 142:10 it is said, "Your good Spirit will lead me into the right land," i.e., because no one can arrive at the inheritance of the land of the blessed, unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. And therefore in order to attain that end, a man must have the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In response to the objection that the theological virtues enable us to reach out to God, believing his word, trusting in him, and loving him, St. Thomas responds: "The theological and moral virtues do not perfect man in relationship to the last end, in such a way that he does not always need to be moved by a certain higher impulse of the Holy Spirit, for the reason just stated." [emphasis added]
Garrgiou-Lagrange interpreting the "always" says the following:
To say that the gifts of the Holy Ghost must intervene in every meritorious act, even though it be imperfect (remissus et quantumvis remissus), would be to confound ordinary actual grace with the special inspiration to which the gifts render us docile. In the text which we have just quoted, St. Thomas means that man is not perfected to such a degree by the theological virtues that he does not always need to be inspired by the interior Master (semper not pro-semper), as we say: "I always need this hat," not however from morning until night, or from night until morning. Similarly a medical student not so well instructed that he does not always need the assistance of his master for certain operations. The need we experience is not transitory but permanent; all of which goes to show that the gifts should be not transitory inspirations, like the grace of prophecy, but permanent infused dispositions. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", footnote n. 33)
A text that lends support to reading the "always" as referring to every moment, however, may be found in the Secunda Secundae. St. Thomas says: "The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the principles of the intellectual and moral virtues, as was said above" (II-II 19:9 ad 4). He seems to have in mind his treatment in I-II q. 68, although in that article he does not thus articulate it. But if the gifts of the Holy Spirit are principles of the infused intellectual and moral virtues, and not just perfective and supporting of them, then the movement of the Spirit through the gifts seems to be presupposed to all the acts of the virtues, to all acts of Christian life.
The role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to this reading of Thomas Aquinas
If we follow this reading, we can explain the need for and role played by the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: first, we need to be constantly moved and led by God; yet because we are not merely moved passively by God, like limp dolls, but are ourselves involved in our own actions, and thus can be either open or closed, ready for or resistant to God's movement, we need the gifts to make us open and ready to receive God's movement and guidance.
We need God's movement because the divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is essentially a participation in God's own living love, just as grace is essentially a participation in God's own nature. Thus I cannot simply take my share of God's knowledge and God's love that I receive in the gifts of faith, hope, love, and run with them, as it were—i.e., simply make use on my own of these abilities by my empowered nature. If I were to do this, it would no longer be God's love present within me, but a mere parody of it; no longer a share in God's knowledge, but my own notions and whims.
This way of looking at the gifts of the Spirit would explain why St. Thomas calls them principles of the moral virtues. To have theological virtues and moral virtues without gifts would mean that I have no problem putting into practice the way I determine and choose to shape my life in accord with Christ. But I would still be living according to precisely my choice. Without an openness to "Christ who lives in me", without an openness to being guided by God in living out divine life, my determination and readiness to carry out what seems to me to be fitting to Christian love would not be truly virtue simply speaking, but only in a limited respect. Thus the gifts are principles of the moral virtues insofar as they are virtues.
This interpretation of the gifts, which would hold the gifts to be active all the time, in making us open to the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily exclude an understanding of the gifts as making us ready to receive special inspirations of the Spirit, given only in times of special need or difficulty. We could understand the gifts as opening us up to all movement of the Spirit, whether (1) the movement of the Spirit involved in all activity of the children of God; (2) the special help of the Spirit when we especially need it; (3) and even in a certain way charismatic graces (though the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not necessary in order to receive charismatic graces, which can be had without charity).