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Chapter 24: Christians: Human Children of God

Question E: Can divine goodness and human goods be alternatives for choice?

1. In the past, much popular Christian piety suggested that loving God meant preferring him to created goods. Vatican Council II teaches otherwise. Declaring that human dignity “is rooted and perfected in God,” the Council says it is the Church’s teaching that Christian hope for eternal happiness with God “does not lessen the importance of earthly duties, but rather adds new motives for fulfilling them” (GS 21; translation supplied). This would hardly make sense if divine and human goodness were alternatives between which one had to choose.

Vatican II lists and discusses many elements which make up the order of this world, as we live in it here and now. About these elements, it teaches:

All of these not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal but also possess their own value. This value has been implanted in them by God, whether they are considered in themselves or as parts of the whole temporal order. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gn 1.31). This natural goodness of theirs takes on a special dignity as a result of their relation to the human person, for whose service they were created. Last of all, it has pleased God to gather together all things, both natural and supernatural, into one in Christ Jesus “that in all things he may have the first place” (Col 1.18). This destination, however, not only does not deprive the temporal order of its independence, its proper goals, laws, resources, and significance for human well-being but rather perfects the temporal order in its own intrinsic strength and excellence and raises it to the level of man’s total vocation upon earth. (AA 7; translation amended)

This teaching would make no sense if there could be a direct conflict between supernatural love of God and natural love of human goods. There can be no such conflict. This point is part of what is meant by the saying that grace perfects nature and in no way mutilates it.

2. Furthermore, a negative answer to the question is required by the nature of divine love itself. God’s love is all-inclusive; it is the very source of every other good. But the love of God given us by the Spirit is a share in God’s own love. Our supernatural love is therefore all-inclusive as God’s love is. It embraces all genuine human goods; in no way are they an alternative to divine love.

3. This can be explained more fully as follows. First and foremost, God loves the primary and perfect instance of goodness: himself. However, God’s goodness includes every possible good, for he is infinitely good. His goodness is manifested in his work of creation and redemptive re-creation (see S.t., 1, q. 4, a. 2; q. 7, a. 1; q. 19, a. 3; S.c.g., 2, 23–24; 3, 16–22). God does not act to acquire glory, for he needs nothing (19‑A). Rather, the glory of God is this communication of divine goodness.

4. In loving himself, God loves creatures, for the good of everything other than God is implicit in his goodness and becomes explicit by God’s free, creative choice. God does not need to choose between created goods and himself; indeed, he cannot do so. His love extends to all possible created goods so far as they would be goods; his gratuitously creative choice makes some of these possibilities be (see S.t., 1, qq. 19–20).

The creative work of God can be seen as love in the following way. God expresses his goodness in creating. As a real expression, creation must be wholly distinct from the creator, established in its own being, set apart from the creator. What truly is made must truly be other than its maker. But also as a real expression of its creator, creation is as it were a mirror reflecting his goodness, with human persons the very image of God within this mirror. What truly is made must truly be one with its maker. Nor can this bond of unity be dissolved. The created world continues to exist only insofar as it is preserved in God’s love and gives him glory—although, of course, God’s image in creation is mutilated by sin. For his part, God is faithful in his creative love; he hates nothing he has made, and so preserves all things and does everything possible to bring them to their fulfillment (see Wis 11.17–26). Thus the relationship of creator and creature is a unity in multiplicity, a reflection of the love which God in himself is.

5. Love is expressed in works (see 1 Jn 3.16). Living faith requires that one do the works of love (see LG 41). If one loves God, one loves what he loves, and he loves the goodness of all he makes (see Jn 8.42). God would hardly love human persons, however, if he cared nothing for the fulfillment of the human desires which he himself placed in their hearts. But these desires are directed to human goods. Therefore, by loving as God loves—that is, by holiness—one loves the goods which humanly fulfill, and “a more human way of life is promoted even in this earthly society” (LG 40). Thus one’s own fulfillment cannot be excluded by supernatural love of God.

First and foremost by this love we love God as he loves himself. We are glad God exists; we are moved to express joy in praise: “Some God!” In loving God, we also love everything else insofar as it is good, for insofar as it is good, God’s goodness is in it as manifested and shared. Our love for creatures does not cause them to be real, but it causes us to care especially for what God creates and re-creates in Jesus: “Some world!” The world consists to a great extent in possibilities which can be realized by human acts. And so the Christian is moved to say: “Some opportunities!” Human wisdom enriched with the wisdom of the Spirit says: “Some playground for the children of God!” (cf. Prv 8.30–31).

In other words, the Christian’s love is fixed upon the total reality of completion in Jesus (19‑B). This completion includes divine and human persons, communing in perfect fellowship, fulfilled with every good. If we seek this kingdom, all else is added (see Mt 6.33), for to seek the kingdom is to begin to share in it, and to this initial share will be added everything which belongs to heavenly fulfillment.

6. A negative answer to the present question is also required by the nature of human free choices. Choices become necessary when particular possibilities for satisfying various interests come into conflict. When this happens, some interests can be satisfied and others cannot; some of one’s basic thrusts toward fulfillment will issue in joy and others will not. In morally good choices, none of these thrusts toward fulfillment is constricted or suppressed, but in morally bad choices some are.

7. In morally good choices, one acts toward human goods in a way which is compatible with the all-embracing divine love. There can be no possible need to choose between love of God and anything one can rightly choose. A martyr, for example, does not choose God over the human good of life, but rather chooses the human good of religious faithfulness over the human good of preserving life at the cost of the human evil of infidelity toward God.

8. In acting immorally, one obviously does not choose in a way compatible with loving divine goodness. Even here, however, a person does not make a choice between divine goodness and human goods. Recall that a choice is not evil because of the real good which is sought but because one limits and mutilates good and so fails to be open to integral human fulfillment (see S.t., 1–2, q. 72, a. 1; q. 73, a. 1; q. 75, a. 2). The positive good chosen in an immoral choice is by no means incompatible with divine goodness. Rather, divine goodness includes every good in its fullness, even those goods for whose sake sinners choose wrongly.

9. Moreover, immoral choices cannot reasonably be understood as opting for human goods over divine goodness. For divine goodness cannot be considered in deliberation as a possible object of choice. Even when one accepts divine adoption by making the act of faith, what one chooses is chosen insofar as it is humanly good—that is, as an instance of the good of religion. Insofar as divine adoption transcends the human good of religion, it is not chosen by the Christian, but received entirely as a gift. Since we cannot choose divine goodness, it makes no sense to speak of our choosing something else in preference to it.

10. It necessarily follows that sin separates the sinner from God’s love, not by being a choice of a human good in direct preference to love of God, but by being a choice which is not compatible with a will toward integral human fulfillment.19 One need not and cannot directly choose between supernatural and natural love, between divine goodness and basic human goods. But one must choose among human goods, and one can do this in a way God cannot love. People who do so can know that they are breaking off their communion with God; and this is so of anyone who deliberately commits a mortal sin.

11. Thus, there is a sense in which a sinner can be said selfishly to prefer a limited, human good to the love of God (see S.t., 1–2, q. 77, a. 4; 2–2, q. 25, a. 7). However, this does not mean that divine goodness and human goods can ever be alternatives for choice. There simply is no room for human beings to make such a choice. In principle, therefore, the Christian is in no way inhibited from loving every human good to the fullest extent of its goodness.

19. St. Thomas, S.c.g., 3, 122, rejects the argument against simple fornication that it injures God, saying that this “would not seem to be an adequate answer. For we do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good.”