Sunday, June 09, 2024

Grace: Here a Little, There a Little

I recently read an article by a former Catholic turned agnostic who opined that the shortcomings and bad behaviors of practicing Catholics are indicators of the inefficacy of grace—that is, if grace does not seem to improve the behavior of those who most readily have access to it, it implies the nonexistence (or at least implausibility) of grace itself, as well as the entire supernatural order.

I have heard this argument many times and always found it uncompelling, simply because, we cannot know how grace works in peoples' lives unless we knew where they would be without it, which we cannot possibly have knowledge of. We may meet a Catholic who is a daily communicant who is petty and awful; but we do not know how much worse they would be without daily communion. Grace moves people up the stairs of sanctity, but without knowing which step they would be on without it, you can't tell how far they've moved; you have no point of reference. And without that information, you simply can't assess to what degree grace is working in someone's life (save, I suppose, for situations where their virtues are so heroic as to make it manifest). 

Suppose our moral life is on a continuum where any number in the positive represents virtue, while any negative number represents vice. The critique above seems to assume that people without grace basically sit at zero. Then, with the addition of grace, we should see people moving up the continuum of virtue to a 5, 7, or 10. Everyone who is being affected by grace should have demonstrable results in the positive. But what we do not consider is that people are often in the negative, at least in certain aspects of their lives. You may encounter a Catholic who is a -6 on the continuum, but it is only because of grace that they are a -6 and not a -10. So their existence as only a -6 is in fact a work of grace.

The critique also fails to account for the fact that grace may affect parts of our lives unequally. Suppose you have a man who is a porn addict and also a gossip. The one fault is private, the other public. Through prayer and effort, access to grace helps him gradually kick his porn habit, but he is still a gossip. Yet if you never knew about his porn habit to begin with, you would not see any improvement in his condition, as you had no knowledge of his private sins. That is to say, grace seldom transforms us in toto; it works on different parts of our lives at different times in different ways, here a little, there a little. 

None of this is readily discernible to an outside observer; even the person for whom grace is working may scarcely perceive it. And therefore arguing for the inefficacy of grace based on observations of the faults of those is no way to assess whether grace is at work. Besides, I also find that these sorts of anecdotal critiques ignore the anecdotes which demonstrate the opposite—the stories of multitudes of people who have made great advances in the moral life over the years. Ignoring the victories of grace is a poor way to assess its efficacy.

Whom shall He teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand doctrine? Them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little. (Isa. 28:9-10)


Anonymous said...

This line of reasoning is always compelling. I have heard it said from the pulpit that attending mass really is not what is important but what we do outside of the mass is what matters, and I always had a problem with that.

I forget the exact words, it felt like a discouragement to attend mass; and I felt a big resistance to that idea because I felt without attending mass who knows what would become of me- perhaps we as a congregation were not doing big shakes, yet as an individual the mass I felt was keeping me in line, and I felt it was necessary.

Anonymous said...

I do find it disconcerting when people place a Buddha statue and pagan artifacts in their home and think they are catholic. It seems like syncretism and I wonder of it's better they left off catholicism - and then it seems grace is not in effect.

Yet it's not the case, it's a type of opposition and stubbornness that is blocking.

One criticism of the president is his anti catholic views while holding a rosary. Yet even before today, what was the situation of his marriage to a divorced woman. Not that I particularly Care to know the details, yet there may be an error in that situation also.

When prideful people are in error, they would rather pull the whole edifice down then admit they are wrong- there is a lot of anger there.

Anonymous said...

Really? A counterfactual -- "he would have been much worse without grace" -- is the rejoinder?

In the USA, the evidence is thin on the ground that the grace of the Catholic sacraments is particularly efficacious. Let's compare just US Catholics to US Protestants.

A 2024 Pew survey found that 20% of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass weekly, pray daily, and consider religion very important in their life.

40% of U.S. Protestants say they attend services at least weekly, and two-thirds of Protestants say they pray daily and that religion is very important in their life.

Protestant grace is better.

Or US Catholics would have been even worse than they are without the sacraments.

Or something.

The original Mr X said...

@ Anonymous:

One big confounder is that Catholics who stop practising are more likely to keep describing themselves as Catholic than Protestants who stop practising are to describe themselves as Protestant.

Boniface said...

^Fantastic point, Mr. X

Anonymous said...

Prayer for conversions

O Mary, Mother of Mercy and Refuge of sinners, we beseech thee, be pleased to look with pitiful eyes upon poor heretics and schismatics.

Thou who art the Seat of Wisdom, enlighten the minds that are miserably enfolded in the darkness of ignorance and sin, that they may clearly know that the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church is the one true Church of Jesus Christ, outside of which neither holiness nor salvation can be found…

Excerpt of Pius ix prayer