Wednesday, 21 April 2010

On the Supernatural

So what is the controversy over the supernatural about? Famously, St Paul tells us that “Ever since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made.” (Rom 1:20). So God is knowable to us and should be known by the light of natural human reason. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas starts his great summa theologiae with such a rational metaphysical demonstration of God’s existence and of His attributes knowable to such natural theology.

So, it is quite uncontroversial to say that humans can infer some notion of the divine from the created world. If we add to that the message of revelation then it is quite clear that, as far as the intellect is concerned, we are aware of our ultimate end in the beatific vision. As all things are ordered towards their end by the very nature of things, we can infer that humans can have a natural desire (of some sort) for the supernatural.

The big question is: what is the nature of this natural desire for the supernatural? What I’ve described so far is often called the elicited natural desire for the supernatural. Our intellects, informed by reason and revelation, become aware of our supernatural end and this intellectual knowledge elicits a natural desire for that end. However, might it be possible that this natural desire for our supernatural end is also innate within us? Is it of our very natures, our essences, to be ordered to the supernatural prior to any knowledge of the supernatural?

The answer to this question has divided theologians for the best part of a millennium. We find illustrious names lined up supporting the notion of an innate natural desire for the supernatural: Duns Scotus; Durandus; Domingo de Soto; Bellarmine; Jansenius; and recently, Henri de Lubac. On the other side, claiming that our natural desire for the supernatural is elicited but not innate is a long list of those who would identify themselves as Thomists such as Banez, Suarez, Vasquez, the Salmanticenses and, in the twentieth century such famous figures as Maritain and Garrigou-Lagrange.

The flash point in the twentieth century was the publication of Henri de Lubac’s “Surnaturel” in which he defended the idea of an innate natural desire for the supernatural. What made the debate so acrimonious was (among other things!) that de Lubac claimed that the Thomist tradition itself had misunderstood St. Thomas and that the latter had taught that the desire was innate. Consequently, the Thomist tradition stood accused of dividing the natural and the supernatural orders in a completely artificial way. This did not go down well (and still doesn’t).

Why should this seemingly arcane question be so important? Why should the relationship between the natural and the supernatural orders matter so much? That it was so considered is witnessed by the teaching of the encyclical Humani generis of Pius XII. In it, the pope warned those “others [who] destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision”. Was “modernism” coming back to life after all the efforts of previous popes? We’ll discuss this in the next exciting episode of “surnaturel”!

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