1. Even sinners, moved by God’s grace, can cooperate in their own conversion (see DS 1526/798, 1557–59/817–19, 1676/897, 1705/915). Those who live in God’s friendship, by his gift of living faith, are inclined and empowered by the charity which motivates their faith to do the works of love. The norms of Christian morality call for and shape these works. Thus, since the fullness of charity is perfection, the gradual fulfillment of the norms of Christian morality constitutes growth toward perfection (see S.t., 2–2, q. 184, aa. 1–4).
2. The Council of Trent makes this point clear.
Therefore, in this way the justified become both friends of God and members of his household (see Jn 15.15; Eph 2.19), advancing from virtue to virtue (see Ps 83.8), renewed (as the Apostle says) day by day (see 2 Cor 4.16), that is, by mortifying the members of their flesh (see Col 3.5) and showing them as weapons of justice (see Rom 6.13, 19) unto sanctification by observing the commandments of God and of the Church. When faith works along with their works (see Jas 2.22), the justified increase in the very justice which they have received through the grace of Christ and are justified the more [cf. DS 1574/834; 1582/842], as it is written: “He who is just, let him be just still” (Rv 22.11), and again: “Fear not to be justified even to death” (Sir 18.22), and again: “You see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (Jas 2.24). Indeed, the holy Church begs this increase of justice when she prays: “O Lord, give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity.” (DS 1535/803)
To seek perfection in Christian life is to seek to do one’s every act as a morally good act informed by living faith—to do everything for the glory of God (see 1 Cor 10.31), to try always to contribute here and now to the fulfillment of everything in Jesus, and so to merit a share in this fulfillment (see DS 1545–49/809–10).7
Charity can and should grow (see 2 Thes 1.3). But if Christian love is primarily a sharing in divine life, how can it grow?
Considered in itself, the love of God which is poured forth in the heart of a Christian is not subject to more or less. One either is a child of God or not; one either shares in the divine nature or not; one either abides in the love of the Lord Jesus or not. But love is a principle of joy and of desire, and joy and desire lead to expressions and actions. When we consider the divine goodness already realized in God himself and in the creation in which he pours it forth, we rejoice; our joy leads to praise and thanksgiving. When we consider the divine goodness still to be realized in its participations, when God is all in all, then we desire the good yet to be and detest the evil which blocks it. Our desire for good and hatred of evil lead to petition and contrition.
Every act based upon the desire and joy which flow from charity is an act which builds up friendship with God, an act of religion. The primary act of religion which pervades all others is the will to do what God wills one to do. Love of God most centrally means this: conformity to his will. St. John of the Cross makes it clear that really Christian mysticism is nothing but this: the union which “exists when God’s will and the soul’s are in conformity, so that nothing in the one is repugnant to the other.”8
3. The “growth” of charity should not be understood as if the divine gift itself were subject to intrinsic change. Rather, this expression designates the process by which a person receives charity more perfectly by becoming more and more fully integrated with respect to it (see S.t., 2–2, q. 24, aa. 4–5). The primary act of charity is living faith. Charity grows as the whole of one’s life is increasingly organized by faith and lived through the power of love. There is an analogy in the way the sun’s heat grows more intense in summer: not that the sun becomes hotter, but that the earth shares more fully in its warmth.
4. This explanation clarifies why a good life is necessary to attain holiness. Holiness is not a reward, as if it were some sort of payment, for good works. Rather, as one made holy by God’s gift of living faith puts mind, heart, soul, and strength to work in the service of love, the whole self is transformed according to the likeness of Jesus. Thus, St. Paul teaches: “Man believes in his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” (Rom 10.10), for those who sincerely confess their faith in word and deed gradually become perfectly at one with the grace by which they were justified, and so perfectly at one with Jesus.
5. Many faithful Christians mistakenly think that they need work for holiness only in certain special areas of their lives—for example, in prayer and in pious practices. They do not realize that charity, which is the heart of holiness, is a divine gift, and that perfection consists, not in acquiring charity, but in integrating the whole of one’s life with the charity poured forth in one’s heart by the Holy Spirit (see S.t., 2–2, q. 184, a. 2, ad 2). Prayer, the sacraments, and other specifically religious acts are vital principles of this integration. But no part of one’s life can be regarded as a free area. Nothing can be withheld from the purging and transforming fire of God’s love.
Because prayer, the sacraments, and various pious practices mediate between charity and all the rest of one’s being, these specifically religious acts often and rightly are called “means of grace”; they mediate God’s gifts to one’s whole mind, heart, soul, and power of action. However, the expression “means of grace” often is misunderstood in two ways.
First, sometimes Catholics have tended to think that religious acts precisely as human acts cause grace. This is an error to which Luther and others rightly took violent exception, but it is not the error of Catholic teaching itself (see S.t., 1–2, q. 109, a. 9; 3, q. 62, aa. 1, 3–5). The true Catholic position is that the sacraments contain and confer grace because God has provided them as cooperative acts by which we can share in the redemptive work which primarily is the doing of the Holy Spirit.
Second, very often Catholics have thought of prayer, the sacraments, and other specifically religious acts not just as means but as mere means—tools which are not built into the work, stages in the process which fall away before it reaches fruition. This view is false. Prayer is the basis of one’s personal relationship with God; it is no more a mere means than sexual intercourse is a mere means for the cultivation of conjugal love. The Eucharist contains Jesus and fulfillment in him; only the appearances to the contrary need drop away. And the same thing is true by analogy of every “means” of grace.
No doubt the most serious mistake one can make is to think one can do anything whatsoever to attain holiness which is not first, last, and always God’s gift (see Eph 2.8; Jas 1.16–17). The whole of Christian life is based upon God’s revelation. This communication is utterly gratuitous, and in no way required by our created nature for its proper integrity and proportionate fulfillment (except insofar as fallen humankind can attain fulfillment only by a grace which deifies at the same time it heals). The gift of this communication can be received by humankind and by each person only because of God’s gifts of the Incarnation of the Word and sending of the Spirit.
Anything we do that increases our own holiness is itself a special gift of God to us. Growth in perfection which is our work is no less God’s grace (see DS 1545–46/809). Indeed, the reason why we can do something is that God wishes his gifts also to be our merits (see DS 248/141, 1548/810). He not only wants to give us fulfillment in divine life; he also wants us to have this fulfillment in a way which will fulfill us as human persons, ennoble us by making use of our own capacities, fully respect us by appealing to our own intelligence and freedom (see S.t., 1–2, q. 113, a. 3; q. 114, a. 1; 2–2, q. 23, a. 3).
Growth in holiness is more obviously God’s gift in some cases than in others: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9). When acts cannot be elicited at will, but come about spontaneously, then one is more conscious of their character as graces. Yet the most competent work one does in carrying out one’s Christian vocation is no less a gift of God than is the miraculous outcome which crowns one’s best but failing effort. The first lisped prayer of the child, if it is sincere, is no less a grace of contemplation than is the supreme mystical experience of a John of the Cross.
Clarity about this point should block any temptation to quietism—that is, the erroneous idea that grace perfects sloth. Progress toward holiness is entirely grace. For this very reason it is our work too: “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, you have wrought for us all our works” (Is 26.12).
One progresses toward perfection by the means of holiness God has provided. Yet these means are in no sense to be regarded as techniques. Holiness is in no sense a human product. Our part is to pursue human goods and to deal with evil as best we can. The pursuit of human goods ought first but not exclusively to be the pursuit of the human good of friendship with God. Evil is dealt with by healing and integrating love, in union with the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus.
It is noteworthy that although he constantly faced the demand that he be an effective Messiah by other people’s standards, he rejected this demand and accepted the role of the Suffering Servant (see Mt 16.13–28; Mk 8.27–39; Lk 9.18–27). Like him, we must use the strength and breath God gives us to go about doing good to the extent we can, but in the end freely accept suffering and death.
7. See The Rites of the Catholic Church, trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (New York: Pueblo, l976), 444–45, for a recommended form for examination of conscience which articulates one meaning of “perfection.” The heading is coordinated with and divided against headings which organize responsibilities toward God and neighbor, and thus is concerned primarily with personal vocation and moral responsibilities toward oneself.
8. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 5, 3, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1979), 116. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2–2, qq. 82–85.