“Steeped in Romanity” — Fr. Victor-Alain Berto

Articles written, translated or selected by John S. Daly

The guiding star of this site is fidelity to Rome.

From torrid south to frozen north,
The wave harmonious stretches forth,
Yet strikes no chord more true to Rome’s,
Than rings within our hearts and homes.
Cardinal Wiseman

The Great Controversy about Grace and Free Will

Grace is a supernatural gift of God, given freely to whom He wills, for man’s sanctification. Without it, man is absolutely unable to accomplish any supernaturally good act. The unbeliever cannot believe without grace. The sinner cannot repent without grace. The greatest saint cannot utter the briefest of prayers without grace. No one can refrain from sin without grace. No one can persevere in the love and service of God without grace. Above all, no one can be saved without grace. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church.

What Is Certain

Concerning grace, the Church has defined, among many other details, that:

  1. Grace must precede, accompany and complete every supernaturally good act (Denzinger 809).

  2. No one in the state of original or actual sin can merit grace (Denzinger 800).

  3. Without grace, an act may be naturally good, but it is utterly without supernatural worth; it cannot sanctify or save, nor can it merit (Denzinger 811, 812, 817, 1297, 1352).

  4. Grace truly moves man’s will, while yet leaving the will truly free, suffering neither coercion nor necessity (Denzinger 797, 1094).

  5. The will is able either to assent to grace and co-operate with it, or to resist grace (Denzinger 797, 1093, 1359-75,1522).

  6. Every man either has, or can obtain by prayer, the grace necessary to keep God’s commandments, for they are never impossible: sin is never unavoidable (Denzinger 804, 1092, 1353).

  7. Every supernaturally good work depends upon and results from God’s free gift of grace and the free act of man’s will (Denzinger 842).

  8. All men receive from God grace that is truly sufficient for them to avoid sin and to obtain the divine life (known as “the state of grace”) and be saved.(1) Insofar as any man fails to acquire the divine life or commits mortal sin, therefore, this is his own fault and he is truly blameworthy as he could truly have acted otherwise (Denzinger 1295, 1296).

  9. God grants certain true graces that are not efficacious (fruitful). The grace by which a man in fact does a good act is called “efficacious grace”. The grace received by which a man might truly have done a good act, though in fact he did not do it, is called “sufficient grace” or “merely sufficient grace” (Denzinger 1367, 1296).

Since it is impossible to merit the grace of justification which is given freely by God to whom He will, and since God chooses every aspect of the grace that He gives, knowing perfectly in advance whether this grace, offered to this man, in these circumstances, will obtain his free consent or not, it is clear that the efficacy of grace depends upon God. And thus it is that Holy Scripture and the Council of Orange (Denzinger 174 et seq.) represent God as choosing which sinners shall be converted by His grace and which men shall be saved – indeed those who shall be saved are known as the elect (chosen). Yet the Catholic doctrine of predestination and election safeguards free will and human merit, as well as God’s universal salvific will. It does so without falling into a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian notion relegating divine grace to a secondary rôle, or making it a right rather than gratuitous.

What Is Doubtful

These truths naturally give rise to many questions, of which the following are those that have been most debated:

  1. How does efficacious grace act upon man’s will so that the good work is performed? The true answer to this question must safeguard the freedom of the human will and the teaching of the Council of Trent that the will remains at all times able to resist grace. The action of grace must be supernatural, but is it physical or moral, as the theologians say? In everyday language, does it act on our wills as the sun acts on wax to melt it, or rather as the sun acts on the traveller to make him seek shade and water?

  2. In what does the difference between efficacious grace and sufficient grace lie? Is this difference intrinsic or extrinsic, that is to say, is the one grace different from the other in itself, in the circumstances in which God gives it, or only in man’s reaction to it?

  3. Does God specifically pre-determine the action of the human will to choose to do the good act rather than to omit it or to act badly? Bañes and the school known as Thomists, predominant among the Dominicans, reply affirmatively to this question. They say that the will is determined by “praemotio physica” – a physical pre-determination.

  4. Does the difference between sufficient grace and efficacious grace depend simply on whether or not a man freely co-operates with an otherwise identical inward movement? (This was the opinion of Molina. It was vehemently rejected by Molina’s contemporary and fellow-Jesuit, Saint Robert Bellarmine, who in most other respects sympathised with Molina’s views. To Bellarmine it appeared to be contrary to Saint Augustine and indeed to the Scriptures.)

  5. Why does God send to one man a grace He foresees will be merely sufficient and to another a grace He foresees will be efficacious? Is God’s decision to send an efficacious grace rather than a merely sufficient one made irrespective of what He foresees that a man will do with the grace,(2) or in the light of and because of that fore-knowledge?(3)

  6. One man receives a grace which by God’s will must be infallibly efficacious (though it produces its effect without imposing necessity on the will, which remains free to reject it). Another receives a merely sufficient grace (which is truly sufficient though it will certainly never produce the effect it is sufficient for). Is this achieved by God’s granting to these two men a supernatural assistance which is identical in itself and in its intensity but in different circumstances and dispositions of the recipient?(4) Or is the help received in each case different in itself?

  7. Is the congruity or incongruity of the circumstances and dispositions of the recipient a sufficient safeguard of the primary causality of God in the mystery of predestination? If it is sufficient, is it the only sufficient explanation? And is it compatible with Scripture and tradition?

  8. A theory explaining the operation of predestination should make God chief but not exclusive cause of the salvation of the elect, but should leave each of the damned the exclusive cause of his own perdition. Is this successfully accomplished by Molinism, in which the difference between sufficient and efficacious grace depends on the recipient? Is it successfully accomplished by Congruism, in which the difference between sufficient and efficacious grace depends on the circumstances and dispositions in which God chooses to grant the grace? Is it successfully accomplished by Thomism as expounded by Bañes, in which the difference between efficacious and sufficient grace depends on divine pre-determination? Or by the Augustinian position in which grace is intrinsically efficacious but acts on the will morally, not physically? Can it be successfully accomplished in any other way?

Bañes vs. Molina

Concerning these issues, fierce controversy arose at the end of the sixteenth century between two chief schools of thought represented respectively by the Dominican Domingo Bañes, whose commentary on the first part of Saint Thomas’s Summa Theologica was published in 1584 at Salamanca, and by the Jesuit Luis de Molina, whose Concordia Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, divina praescientia, providentia, praedestinatione appeared in early 1589. These works appeared in a Europe already tense owing to the struggle between Catholic and Protestants polemicists over the doctrine of grace and predestination, aggravated by the proto-Jansenistic doctrines of Michael de Bay at Louvain, condemned by Saint Pius V but still in vogue. Some found Molina’s doctrines too close to Pelagianism; others found Bañes too close to de Bay (some times called Baius) or even to Calvin. Harsh theological censures were brandished and appeal was made to the Holy See.

After nine years of intensive study of the rival arguments at Rome, during which both Molina and Bañes and two popes (Clement VIII and Leo XI) had died, it proved neither desirable nor possible to settle definitively the answer to any of the above questions: none of the opposing positions was condemned and none was approved more than any other. Pope Paul V in 1607 allowed any Catholic to hold any of the positions advanced and to defend his convictions, but forbad him to suggest that the uncondemned opposing views were heretical or worthy of condemnation. Further clarification of the issues by the Holy See remains possible but none has in fact been given since that time, though new errors concerning grace have been condemned.

Debate continued and new theories were advanced, notably that of Fr. Berti in the eighteenth century. Against this background Saint Alphonsus wrote in 1769 his treatise De modo quo gratia operatur which here appears in English for the first time.

Saint Alphonsus states succinctly and accurately the chief positions concerning grace, free will and predestination with the chief arguments for and against each. He reminds us that any true theory on these subjects must be reconcilable with God’s universal salvific will, the duty and possibility for all men of eliciting a true act of hope, the blame justly attached by God to all those who fail to obey His laws (albeit they lack immediately efficacious grace to do so), the infallibility of prayer and God’s call to all men to make use of it.

Summary of Saint Alphonsus’s Own View

Saint Alphonsus holds, with the Thomists, the existence of an intrinsically efficacious grace, different from sufficient grace. He holds that this grace truly determines the will, but does so morally not physically,(5) and is needed to obey the commandments and yet that it is not immediately available to all men.

However he shrinks with horror from the notion which he finds implicit in the Thomists’ doctrine that some men are thus destined not to be saved simply because of the unavailability of this necessary efficacious grace. His solution is that sufficient grace is available to all men whereby at all times they may pray and by prayer obtain the efficacious grace they lack. He holds that this sufficient grace is alone enough for true prayer even if no other grace intervenes. The free will of every man is able of itself to actuate the sufficient grace he has. By means of it, the efficacious grace needed for salvation, can be obtained by anyone who chooses to use the available means to obtain it.

Subsequent theologians have not always been convinced by Saint Alphonsus, nor have they always been generous in assessing his arguments. Ludwig Ott even says that his system “unites in itself almost all the difficulties of the various systems of grace.”(6) The reason for this severe judgment is that the system proposed by Saint Alphonsus:

  1. …includes as its starting point the concept of sufficient grace available to all men and actuated (rendered efficacious) by the human will alone without need of any further grace – an idea that appears closely akin to Molinism and attracts all the rebuttals that have been opposed to Molina by representatives of the other schools, including Saint Alphonsus himself; and…

  2. …safeguards the concept of an intrinsic difference between sufficient and efficacious grace, held by the Thomists and Augustinians, thereby attracting the opposition of Molinists, Congruists and all who oppose that idea.

However, it was not to be hoped that unanimity in this most difficult and mysterious field could be attained. Far more remarkable are the extraordinary positive achievements of this short study by Saint Alphonsus:

  1. He nips in the bud the theory by which his contemporary, Fr. Berti, was attempting to establish a theory distinguished in vocabulary, but scarcely in reality, from that which the Church had already condemned in the person of Michel de Bay.

  2. He justly shifts the focus of theological attention onto the initial grace of prayer, for it is certain that by prayer efficacious grace can be obtained.

  3. He highlights the essential rôle of prayer for every Christian who seeks not only to understand, but more importantly to obtain, the efficacious grace to serve God and save his soul.

  4. He establishes a new and highly convincing touchstone against which to test any theory: all men can and must hope for salvation, and the only doubt that can bear upon the confidence of that hope is due to the consideration of their own frailty, not to any doubt of God’s mercy, for God Himself certainly makes available to all men truly sufficient means of salvation.

  5. He argues powerfully against the system of Bañes and the Thomistic school as tending against the freedom of the human will and against true human responsibility for merit and for sin, as well as undermining the foundation of the act of hope.

  6. He offers a solution highly favourable to piety.

  7. He insists above all, and establishes, that truly sufficient grace is immediately available to all and that efficacious grace whereby to observe God’s law and be saved is mediately available to all by means of prayer which all men could make if they chose to.

  8. He has brought subsequent exponents of all the different schools to modify their views in the light of his arguments, so that increasingly the differences between them seem to melt away into insignificance against the agreement that all can and must trust in God’s desire to give them all the grace they need and ask Him for it with humility, fervour and perseverance.

Advice of Saint Ignatius and of Saint Paul of the Cross

If it is striking to observe the holiest and wisest differ in their opinions on grace and free will, it is all the more edifying to observe the delicate charity they bring to the debate and their edifying unanimity in protecting souls from all that might scandalise them. Saint Ignatius of Loyola attached to his famous “Spiritual Exercises” eighteen rules whereby to conform our opinions to the mind of the Church. Four of them concern the mysteries of grace:

  1. “While it is absolutely true that no man can be saved without being pre-destined, and without faith and grace, great care is called for in the way in which we talk and argue about these matters.”

  2. “Nor should we make a habit of talking about predestination. If we have to talk about it to some extent on occasion, our language should be such as not to lead ordinary people astray, as can happen if a man says, ‘It is already settled whether I am to be saved or damned; my good or bad conduct cannot make any difference.’ So they lose heart and cease to bother about the activities which make for their souls’ health and spiritual profit.”

  3. “Again we must be careful lest by overmuch emphasis in talking about faith, without the necessary qualifications and clarifications, we give occasion to people to become indifferent and lazy about what they do, either before or after the acquisition of faith informed by charity.”

  4. “Nor should we talk so much about grace and with so much insistence on it as to give rise to the poisonous view that destroys freedom. Thus with the help of God we should take every opportunity of talking about faith and grace, having in view the greater praise of His Divine Majesty; but our language and way of speaking should not be such that the value of our activities and the reality of human freedom might be in any way impaired or disregarded, especially in times like these which are full of dangers.”

We observe too Saint Paul of the Cross (7) anxious when his congregation’s seminarians were attending lectures on predestination, not for fear of any unorthodoxy, but lest they should forget in the practical order how much depended on their free will. He waited outside the lecture hall and greeted them with the formula of the Athanasian Creed which must rectify any such tendency: “They that have done good shall go into life everlasting, but they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic faith…”(8)

Perhaps the last word should go to a twentieth century theologian who wrote extensively on grace and free will―Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange―who reminds us that it is the very nature of mysteries of faith to be mysterious and never to be wholly comprehensible, at least in this world.

© Copyright John S. Daly 2007


  1. The passage from the state of sin to the state of grace is called “justification”. Those who die in the state of grace are saved; those who die out of it are lost.

  2. Ante praevisa merita” (the position of Bañes and Bellarmine)

  3. Post praevisa merita” (the position of Molina)

  4. This explanation is called Congruism. It was held by Saint Robert Bellarmine, Molina, Saint Francis de Sales and many others.

  5. In this respect the saint agrees with the Augustinians.

  6. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Bk. 4, p. 249.

  7. Saint Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), Founder of the Passionist Congregation, was a contemporary of Saint Alphonsus and a friend of his uncle but the two saints appear never to have met.

  8. See Histoire de Saint Paul de la Croix by Fr. Louis-Thérèse de Jésus Agonisant C.P.