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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question C: How are the modes of Christian response related to the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

1. The gifts of the Holy Spirit belong to the messianic endowment of Jesus (see S.t., 1–2, q. 68). During his earthly life he was filled with the Spirit (see Lk 4.1) and throughout his ministry accompanied by the Spirit. He acted by the power of the Spirit (see Lk 4.14) and, finally, through the Spirit offered himself to God (see Heb 9.14). For us to be children of God means receiving the Spirit and, like Jesus, being led by the Spirit (see Rom 8.14–16; Gal 5.25).

The Holy Spirit himself is the primary gift to Christians; sent by Jesus and the Father, he is God’s loving gift of himself (see LG 39–40). The Spirit’s first gift distinct from himself is that love by which sinful human persons are inwardly transformed into loving children of God (see Rom 5.5; 8.14–16; LG 40 and 42). The Spirit is not communicated to individual Christians in their separateness, as if to be a private possession. Rather, he is the Spirit of Jesus shared with his Church, and received by each member of the Church (see LG 7).

It follows that the effects of redemption accomplished by the Spirit primarily are gifts to the Church. Hence, St. Paul teaches that the one Spirit gives many gifts, each gift appropriate to the member of Jesus to whom it is given for the building up of the one body, the Church (see 1 Cor 12). However, the primary and greatest gift is that charity by which the entire body and all of its functions become an integrated whole, and every good work, every fruit of God’s redeeming love manifested in Jesus, is brought to fulfillment (see 1 Cor 13).

2. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have thus taught that every Christian shares in the endowment of the Spirit promised in Isaiah to the Messiah: “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” (Is 11.2). Until recently, translations generally used in the Church have mistakenly added a seventh “spirit,” piety. These seven aspects of the messianic endowment have been called, in a special sense, the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.”10

3. St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Augustine, closely relates the Beatitudes to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He considers that the Beatitudes express the acts of Christians in accordance with the gifts by which lesser goods are set aside, obstacles overcome, and heavenly fulfillment attained. On this analysis, the gifts correspond to the first seven of the eight Beatitudes (see S.t., 1–2, q. 69, aa. 1, 3). The view of Augustine and Thomas on this point is accepted here.

4. Thomas also holds, however, that the gifts are distinct from Christian virtues, since virtues dispose one to act by reason enlightened by faith; while gifts dispose one to be moved by the Spirit rather than act humanly (see S.t., 1–2, q. 68, a. 1). Not all Catholic theologians agree with Thomas in making this distinction, and the Church has not settled the issue.11 It would seem, however, that his position on this point is unsatisfactory.

5. The difficulty with Thomas’ account is in the notion that human powers are actuated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a manner which reason enlightened by faith and human love enlivened by charity cannot account for. Thomas seems to admit an element of divine activity into the process of human action and to treat it as a principle on the same level with the principles of human action. (If it were not on the same level, it would not be an alternative to the movement of reason.) This appears to be a case of commingling.

6. Therefore, it seems better to link the gifts of the Holy Spirit more closely with the specifically Christian virtues. These virtues are already transformed by faith and charity. They might be regarded as virtues to the extent that they are dispositions to human acts, though of a specifically Christian sort, and as gifts insofar as their relationship to faith enlivened by charity makes them specifically Christian. Or, and perhaps preferably, the gifts of the Holy Spirit might be identified with charity considered precisely insofar as it is the gift of the Holy Spirit which transforms the moral requirements articulated in the modes of responsibility into the characteristically Christian inclinations (or modes of response) proclaimed “blessed” in the Beatitudes.

St. Thomas summarizes the great diversity of theological opinion up to his time concerning the gifts. Some did not distinguish the gifts from virtues, in particular from the specifically Christian virtues by which one is conformed to Jesus. The common view was that the gifts are like virtues at least in being enduring dispositions and in having relevance for human acts.

Thomas’ position is that the Christian needs the gifts as lasting dispositions distinct from the virtues. Human persons are naturally disposed to act according to reason, and the virtues perfect this disposition. But as a child of God, the Christian needs to be disposed to be divinely moved. The gifts are created qualities made present in the soul together with charity (and never apart from it) which provide an inherent receptiveness to divine leading, so that the Christian led by the Spirit is inwardly drawn, not violently dragged (see S.t., 1–2, q. 68, aa. 1, 3). In providing this explanation, Thomas regards movement by reason and by the Spirit as alternatives, thus suggesting that the gifts of the Spirit account for actuations of the Christian’s human powers which have no adequate natural principle (see S.t., 1–2, q. 68, a. 2; cf. a. 1, ad 3, 4).12

It is true that Christian life, insofar as it is lived not only according to human nature but also according to a share in divine nature, is a participation in the activity of the Holy Spirit. It also is true, of course, that divine causality is presupposed by every actuation of human powers, and that such an actuation, if salvific, is caused by grace, which may be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Christian life presupposes faith and is formed by it, and living faith has a certitude and force it could not have were it not motivated by charity. The same is true of all virtuous acts which make up the life of faith. Also, the human modes of responsibility and virtues are specified in the Christian to become modes of Christian response, and this transformation is accounted for by charity, which is the gift of the Spirit.

However, Thomas’ position should not be accepted without qualification. The opposition he sets up between being moved by reason and by the inspiration of the Spirit appears to be a mistake, based upon commingling. If so, there are no nonmiraculous actuations of human powers which cannot be accounted for by the relevant human principles as these are affected and transformed by living faith.

Someone might object that this position is incompatible with Christian experience, which testifies to many sorts of acts which spontaneously arise without free choice (for example, the experience of loving knowledge in contemplative prayer) and also some sorts of acts which seem to elude rational principles (for example, some charismatic behavior experienced more as a happening than a doing, and undergone without understanding by the person who is subject to it).

However, such phenomena do not falsify the view defended here. As chapter nine explained, many human acts proceed by spontaneous willing, without free choice. There also are spontaneous acts of intellect which presuppose no willing at all. In the context of living faith, spontaneous acts of these sorts are possible. As effortless and not chosen (or even, in some cases, not willed at all), such acts will seem in a special sense to be gifts, to be “infused contemplation.” Moreover, charity not only affects the mind but also transforms the whole person. Hence, a Christian might at times experience behavior altogether lacking a rational principle (and so not a human act) which is closely integrated with Christian life—for example, by being connected with acts of prayer and worship.

10. Leo XIII, Divinum illud munus, 29 ASS (1896–97) 652–54; The Papal Encyclicals, 140.9, gives “gifts of the Holy Spirit” a wide sense, in which the Spirit himself is the primary gift, but also says: “More than this, the just man, that is to say he who lives the life of divine grace, and acts by the fitting virtues as by means of faculties, has need of those seven gifts which are properly attributed to the Holy Ghost. By means of them the soul is furnished and strengthened so as to obey more easily and promptly His voice and impulse. Wherefore these gifts are of such efficacy that they lead the just man to the highest degree of sanctity; and of such excellence that they continue to exist even in heaven, though in a more perfect way. By means of these gifts the soul is excited and encouraged to seek after and attain the evangelical beatitudes, which, like the flowers that come forth in the spring time, are the signs and harbingers of eternal beatitude.” This seems to be the most explicit, important teaching of the magisterium on the gifts. It does not require that they be regarded as distinct from the Christian virtues; indeed, Pope Leo seems to consider the gifts as aids in attaining the Beatitudes. If so, it seems entirely fitting to identify the gifts with charity considered insofar as it is a gift of the Holy Spirit which transforms modes of responsibility into modes of Christian response.

11. See Iosepho A. de Aldama, S.I., Tractatus IV: De virtutibus infusis, in Patres Societatis Iesu Facultatum Theologicarum in Hispania Professores, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, vol. 3, ed. 4 (Madrid: B.A.C., 1961), 729–30.

12. A helpful, nontechnical study of the gifts as Thomas understands them: Robert Edward Brennan, O.P., The Seven Horns of the Lamb: A Study of the Gifts Based on Saint Thomas Aquinas (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966), 1–33. Brennan’s notes suggest the extent of theological indeterminacy on this subject.