Does Aquinas’ Understanding of Man’s Final End Run Afoul of the Condemnations of Humani Generis?

I should note here at the outset that a full-length paper – if not much, much more – would have to be written in order to do the subject of this blog post anything approaching complete justice. Much ink was spilt over the course of the first half or so of the twentieth century on how properly to interpret Aquinas’ teaching on man’s final end alone, to say nothing about the question of what is and is not allowed by magisterial teaching on the gratuity of the supernatural order – and the whole nature/grace controversy, really. My goal, then, is rather modest: I wish only to sketch the outline of an argument that to the effect that there is reason to be critical of Aquinas’ teaching man’s final end in light of the condemnations of <i>Humani Generis<i/>, with the purpose of sparking further discussion – both here, at this blog, and elsewhere.

According to Aquinas, the final end of of man, that in which his happiness or fulfilment consists, is nothing short of a direct, unmediated vision of the Divine Essence (ST I-II q. 3 ar. 8; ScG III cap. 48, cap. 51); in fact, such, for Aquinas, is the final end of all intellectual creatures (ScG III cap. 25, cap. 50-51, cap. 57). However, this the intellectual – or rational – creature’s final end cannot be attained except God give special aid and elevate this creature to such a vision of Himself – the Beatific Vision – as it does not lie within the finite creature’s power to bridge the infinite ontological divide between it and God, to unite itself with God by its own power (ST I-II q. 5 ar. 5; ScG III cap. 52, cap. 147); that is, the final end of an intellectual or rational creature, for Aquinas, can only be attained through grace.

It would seem to follow from the above that while God is free to create or not to create intellectual or rational creatures, once created God is in a certain sense no longer free in justice not to order and call such creatures to their final end, the Beatific Vision: Barring an obstacle freely placed to prevent this, God has (seemingly) on this view bound Himself to give the graces necessary for a rational creature to attain its end. For Wisdom orders all things well, and whatever God does He does perfectly: If God were not to order and call rational creatures to the Beatific Vision, not give them the graces necessary to attain their end, then God would leave nature forever frustrated, which would seem not only to involve an injustice on God’s side toward the creature, but also a lack of perfection in God’s creative act, insofar as what He creates would thus not be ordered well for not being properly ordered and directed to its perfection: The end of nature would not be attained; if a thing is not ordered well to its end, then it is not ordered well. Aquinas would seem to confirm, if only implicitly, this reader in his Summa contra Gentiles (ScG III cap. 111.) On Aquinas’ view, therefore, it would seem that the supernatural order is gratuitous prior to the creation of intellectual or rational creatures, but no longer gratuitous posterior to the creation of intellectual creatures – that is, at least, prior to the committing of sin by such creatures.

This would seem to run afoul the condemnation in Humani Generis – one of Pius XII’s encyclicals – of the opinion, held by some, that God cannot create rational creatures without ordering and calling them to the Beatific Vision; for this, according to Pius XII, would destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order:

“It is not surprising that novelties of this kind have already borne their deadly fruit in almost all branches of theology. It is now doubted that human reason, without divine revelation and the help of divine grace, can, by arguments drawn from the created universe, prove the existence of a personal God; it is denied that the world had a beginning; it is argued that the creation of the world is necessary, since it proceeds from the necessary liberality of divine love; it is denied that God has eternal and infallible foreknowledge of the free actions of men – all this in contradiction to the decrees of the Vatican Council.[5]

Some also question whether angels are personal beings, and whether matter and spirit differ essentially. Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision” (Humani Generis, par. 25-26).

Given Aquinas’  own understanding of the final end, it would seem that he cannot hold that, prior to any sin, God in His justice could refrain from giving the creature what it needs to attain its end; it would seem that Aquinas is committed to holding that, prior to any sin, God cannot create a rational or intellectual creature without ordering it and calling it to the Beatific Vision. It seems, then, that Aquinas’ position entails a destruction of the gratuity of the supernatural order in exactly the way Pius XII condemns.

As I stated in the beginning it would be, this has been a modest effort, none of which I take to constitute a proof of any of the conclusions reached. But, I do think it is enough to challenge us to re-examine Aquinas’ position on man’s final end in light of Humani Generis, if only to walk away knowing and appreciating better Aquinas and magisterial teaching.


15 thoughts on “Does Aquinas’ Understanding of Man’s Final End Run Afoul of the Condemnations of Humani Generis?

  1. “Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.” I thought that this statement simply means that not all men are saved. Ordering and calling seems to be more concerned with predestination of particular individuals. Hence I thought that Pius was condemning those who say that all are predestined and thereby destroy the gratuity of grace.”


    1. That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way. However, it seems not to be the case: All the baptized (at least) are ordered and called to the beatific vision in Christ, although not all are saved (if this is the meaning of the parable of the wedding feast and the man without the wedding garment); also, Christ died for all men, which would seem to entail that God does, in some way, order and call all men to the beatific vision. Anyway, that’s my two-cents on that point.


  2. Do you happen to know, or is there any literature on, who actually was the target of these condemnations? It seems sort of like the affair of Scotus and the council of vienne: there is a comment there about the lumen gloriae, which thomists have ever after claimed censures Scotus’ opinion, though contemporary writers interpreted that entire section of the concil documents as directed against the Beghards (Thomists, also, by the way, fail to realize that Aquinas holds to a created lumen gloriae whereas for Scotus it is uncreated, an issue not covered by the condemnation).


    1. Lee,

      Regarding your question, I’m not altogether sure myself, but want to look into it seriously and thoroughly at some point in the near future; it seems, given what I’ve read, that it would have to be interpreted in light of the whole anti-modernist movement of the late 19th-early 20th century, and all of its nuances, which makes it seem like getting it right would probably prove challenging – more challenging than certain Thomists let on…That being said, the little secondary literature I’ve read suggests that some took the targets to be have been Pierre Rousselot et al. (at least, John McDermott wrote this in his doc. dissertation) – so, some of the so-called Transcendental Thomists and relatives, like de Lubac; but then you read that, apparently, Pius XII wrote to de Lubac stating explicitly that his thought on man’s final end wasn’t the object of this condemnation. So, yeah, I simply don’t know; it appears messy.

      As far as literature, I wish I knew! I mean, you can certainly find lots of stuff by Trads/Thomist Triumphalists out there – as we know – but it’s all tendentious stuff…Now that I think about it, there were a few histories of 20th century theology I’ve heard about that may have a few things – nothing treating of this point exhaustively, but it’s something. I’ll try to dig them up, and perhaps post the titles, with some descriptions. (At some point, someone should do a definitive, exhaustive study on the thing and lay everything to rest, one way or the other, because ther are so many other things we could be bothering about…)

      Certainly, though, Aquinas was not the object of those condemnations at all. It just seems to me (at the moment) that Rousselot was right about Aquinas on the rational creature’s final end, and thus that Aquinas would fall under the condemnation, if accidentally. But, it’s something I want to think about further.

      I was aware of Vienne’s condemnation of Olivi’s position on the soul in relation to the body, but not the lumen gloriae bit. In any event, while I do not see at the moment how Scotus escapes the condemnation of Olivi (I don’t see how, in light of his doctrine of the forma corporeitatis, he can hold that the rational soul is in fact the per se form of the body), it was pretty clear that Olivi was the one they meant to condemn and not Scotus…So, why was there a controversy over the nature of the lumen gloriae? (It’s a topic I have not studied; although, I think Palamas holds something similar (yes?), and I’m not aware of him having been condemned at Florence. Incidentally, I’m sure your aware that a bunch of Franciscan Scotists/Bonaventurians were invited to serve as periti at Florence? Kappes has some interesting stuff on this.)

      As to Thomist-Scotist relations, one thing I’m hoping to do through this blog is make some small contribution to helping Thomists and Scotists talk to each other. One friend of mine avered that at least some of the problems each side has with the other is probably due to them just talking past each other, using similar terminology but meaning different things: A dominican I know maintained that for Scotus, there are a variety of substantialforms in, say, a man; but whether you agree with the formal distinction and/or Scotus’ anthropology (for instance), a careful, charitable reading reveals that this is not the case…In any event, I hope fun awaits.


  3. P. Rupert Mayer has an article on the topic (Angelicum 88 (2011), pp. 887-939). The solution he proposes is something like the following:

    As you point out, one need not look far in Aquinas to see that, according to him, man in some way has a natural desire for the supernatural vision of God. Take, for example, STh I-II 2.8:

    “It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Psalm 102:5: “Who satisfieth thy desire with good things.” Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness.
    “Reply to Objection 3. Created good is not less than that good of which man is capable, as of something intrinsic and inherent to him: but it is less than the good of which he is capable, as of an object, and which is infinite. And the participated good which is in an angel, and in the whole universe, is a finite and restricted good.”

    St. Thomas’ position is a corollary of his anthropological principles and is entirely consistent with Christian Tradition. On the other hand, as you point out, nature – being intelligible, and having an intelligent author – does nothing in vain. Since that end is beyond the reach of man’s powers, grace is necessary for man to attain it. One can apparently conclude from this that man’s nature demands grace, which would make grace no longer a gratuitous gift in relation to that nature, but something due to man (as Cajetan, Feingold, and their ilk remind us). Contrary to De Lubac, I don’t think this is theologically tenable; and while Pius XII’s condemnation is terse and could be clearer, it would be difficult to argue for another interpretation. (Incidentally, P. Pius writes in §20 that, though this is “merely” an encyclical and not the highest teaching authority, the principle that “he who hears you hears me” applies to it. Wouldn’t that rule out fallibility, or at least legitimate divergence from his view?)

    The only way out of this conundrum, I believe, is to qualify the desire for beatitude. This is what St. Thomas himself does on several occasions, such as the following from De Veritate (22.7). He asks whether a “person [can] merit by willing what he wills necessarily”. In his reply he observes that, while all the other animals are provided by nature with determinate instincts, weapons and clothing, and ends, man has been made somewhat indeterminate. He is not given clothes to keep him warm; claws, horns, or sharp teeth to hunt and protect himself; instincts to guide his behaviour (e.g. sensing dangers, knowing what to eat); man, because his possibilities are so diverse and immense – i.e. he is indeterminate – is equipped with hands with which to make and use many different kinds of tools and instruments, intellectual first principles by means of which to come to know things, etc. Then he discusses man’s will:

    “In regard to their appetitive tendency also the same holds true. In other things there is implanted a natural appetite for something definite, as in a heavy body, to be down, and in every animal, whatever suits it according to its nature. But man has implanted in him an appetite for his last end in general so that he naturally desires to be complete in goodness. But in just what that completeness consists, whether in virtues or knowledge or pleasure or anything else of the sort, has not been determined for him by nature.

    “When, therefore, by his own reason with the help of divine grace he grasps as his happiness any particular good in which his happiness really does consist, then he merits, not because he desires happiness (which he naturally desires), but because he desires this particular good (which he does not naturally desire)—for example, the vision of God, in which his happiness does in truth consist. But if anyone were by erroneous reasoning to be brought to desire as his happiness some particular good—for example, bodily pleasures, in which his happiness does not in fact consist—he incurs demerit by so desiring. This is not because he desires happiness, but because he unwarrantedly desires as his happiness this particular thing in which his happiness is not found.

    “It is therefore clear that willing what anyone naturally wills is in itself neither meritorious nor blameworthy. But when it is specified to this or that, it can be either the one or the other. In this way the saints merit by desiring God and eternal life.” (Emphases mine)

    Although the vision of God is the only determinate thing that could possibly satisfy man’s will, he is not by nature determined to it as its end, and God is not obliged to determine man’s end/happiness by grace. He has no determinate end at all; only the good in general. In all his actions each person is responding to his natural desire for this general/common good or happiness, not for the beatific vision. If it were not so and one had a determinate orientation towards the beatific vision, one could not will anything that was contrary to that end, which is clearly false.

    Does this distinction help? At least Aquinas is content with it, and thinks that it does not oblige God to give grace:

    “… supposing that God wishes to make something, it follows as something due from the supposition of His liberality that He make those things also without which those that He has first willed cannot be had. For example, if He wills to make a man, He must give him an intellect. But if there is anything which is not necessary for that which God wills, then that thing comes from God, not as something due, but simply as a result of His generosity. Now, the perfection of grace and glory are goods of this kind, because nature can exist without them inasmuch as they surpass the limits of natural powers.” (De Veritate 6.2)

    Grace is gratuitous precisely because it is above man’s reach and man can exist without it. If he didn’t know about grace, he would, by the use of his reason, have to determine his desire for happiness to something within his reach. Is it problematic that man would remain, in the end, unsatisfied/unhappy?


    1. That seems like a pretty good solution to me Dominic, although nature-grace is one topic I’m happy to watch from the sidelines. As to your final worry, wouldn’t Aquinas on antecedent ignorance rescue the dilemma? I think it’s directly parallel to conscience dilemma in I-II Q19 a6 obj 3.

      PS Neat blog Matthew; I’m glad Faber linked me into it.


  4. Lumen gloriae: this is a controversy because it is one of the few places Scotus explicitly attacks Thomas. Thomas holds that the lumen gloriae is necessary to elevate the intellect to see God. Scotus argues in the context of determining what the object of the intellect is that Aquinas’ view entails changing the nature of the intellect into what is basically a different power. Aquinas holds that the lumen gloriae is basically a created form by God. Scotus thinks that God is naturally intelligible light and that this light, part of the divine nature itself, is the lumen gloriae. So it does sound a bit like the essence/energies debate. Vienne condemned the Behards view that one could achieve the beatific vision in this life without the lumen gloriae. Thomists claim Scotus falls under this condemnation, Scotists deny it. I may write an article on this someday. Aquinas himself isn’t very systematic on the object of the intellect: sometimes its material quiddity, sometimes being, sometimes substance.

    Substantial forms: Scotus holds that there are two forms, the corporeal and the intellectual, that are substantial forms (caveat: Thomas Ward denies this and thinks Scotus is more of an old fashioned pluralist, but I haven’t read his book yet). He is somewhat cagey about whether he holds the traditional ‘plurality of forms’ position. He often uses it as an example and says it is true “according to some” (ie traditional Franciscan school). But he certainly thinks that the intellectual soul is the per se form of the body. He constantly says things like the soul is found everywhere in the body, not in a part, constantly states that the soul is the per se form of the body and so on. You may not think it actually works, but he thought it did. So I don’t see how he could fall under the condemnation (even Ott didn’t think it applied to him).

    By the way, that’s a great goal for your blog. I am long past such a goal myself, because of my exchanges with thomists online and real time, and the fact that they constantly beat me out for jobs.


  5. Dominic: I found your comment helpful. It gave me some things to think about. Basically, then, it would all hinge on whether or not God is required in justice to give a rational creature what is necessary for it to be perfectly happy. If for the rational being perfect happiness is found principally in an act of intellection, then, following the condemnations of Humani Generis, the answer is no. (I would have to admit here that while it is true that Humani Generis is an encyclical and, as you pointed out, one must treat it as an expression of the pope’s exercise of his ordinary teaching authority, I have real problems with the condemnation I mentioned in the above post; for I do not see why it would be just for God to create something while withholding what is necessary for it to be fulfilled, even if that is grace; and I am unable to see how that which marks the rational being as rational, his or her intellect, will find rest in anything less than the beatific vision. That being seen, I’m hoping to see, eventually.)

    Robalspaugh: How would antecedent ignorance rescue the dilemma? It seems that Thomists generally take whatever desires or knowledge we have naturally to be the crux of the nature/grace issue (as far as beatitude is concerned). For my part, I do not see how it is reasonable to construe the problem in this way: It seems to me that whether or not I have a desire for something, or know that I am capable of something, my will and intellect as considered in themselves would only be fulfilled if their capacity is exhausted. Of course, I may be wrong in my own construal of the problem, and even in my understanding of the nature of fulfilment and rest with regard to the intellect and will (and even in my understanding of what the intellect and will are); but I don’t see it. In any event, it seems that even if I do not know that I would be satisfied completely intellectually only by the direct vision of the Divine Essence, and even if my desire for happiness is not determined to this naturally, would it still not be the case that, falling short of the beatific vision, I would always be somehow restless? “You have made us for yourself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

    Obviously, one could say that a difficulty arises in the fact that, in a certain sense, man was made to share in God’s own life: The Fathers seem pretty clear on that point. From within this position, it then may be difficult to see how a rational being could be made without being ordered to the beatific vision and still be happy, in part because we cognize everything through ourselves, and think of everything – in a certain respect – in terms of ourselves. And this may be my own problem…

    (By the way, thanks! I hope we – the authors and I – end up accomplishing something worthwhile here, ultimately…)

    Lee: I considered a little what you wrote, looked briefly at Denzinger, and skimmed the brief post on it over at The Smithy, and realized there’s more to this than I know about and understand sufficiently enough to say much of anything. I’ll be looking into it further. Looking at Denzinger, though, my impression was that the condemnation regarded the notion that the soul didn’t need the light of glory *absolutely speaking* in order to see and enjoy God in the beatific vision, and not just in this life and the next. But you read it differently. Why?

    Regarding substantial forms, maybe this is a discussion for elsewhere or some other time, but, granting that the intellectual form is everywhere in the body, if it is not that through which the human body is a human body – and even a body at all – I do not see how it could be said to be the per se form of the body. Given what you wrote about Scotus, presumably Scotus addresses – at least tangentially, somehow – this concern somewhere? If so, where? Yes, it is true that Ott worte what you said he wrote; I just want to see why this is true (other than the fact that Scotus was not the intended object of the condemnation, which seems clear enough.)

    As to you being long past that goal, that’s sad. Thomists are a difficult bunch, often enough; but if only they were willing to “drop their armor” vis a vis other Scholastics…(As an aside, and for what it’s worth, it is my firm belief that Thomas never would have been a Thomist.) But them beating you out for jobs, I do not understand this: Isn’t Scotus somehow becoming cutting-edge again – at least, in some continental circles?


    1. Matthew, I’ll have to think about the question of justice a bit more. It does seem that, at least according to Aquinas, man cannot attain his natural end (beatitude) without grace. For whatever man specifies his beatitude to consist in – i.e. anything attainable by his natural powers – will be finite and therefore unable to satisfy him; it will be a false end. This does seem incongruous to me.

      Robalspaugh, I believe antecedent ignorance is what, according to strict observance Thomists, allows infants in Limbo to be content with their plight. As Matthew says, I don’ t think it would help much, as it would only leave man in dark as to what his true beatitude consists in, without changing the reality of his present dissatisfaction.


      1. What I had in mind–well, now that it’s the weekend I’ve somewhat forgotten–was not to directly claim that antecedent ignorance would allow for salvation, but that any ignorance of the need for something beyond human nature’s powers is not antecedent/invincible. Maybe I’m misconstruing Dominic’s worry at the end of his post, but it seems to me that Aquinas would solve the worry that way. Man would be unhappy because he’s culpably ignorant of the need for grace.

        I do get myself into trouble slinging around St. Thomas because, while I do teach him, I’m an eclectic with patristic leanings. Which, come to think of it, is probably what got De Lubac in trouble too (and he’s got me beat in the smarts department)…


      2. Robalspaugh,

        Let me see if I can clear things up (for myself, at least.) You took that question of Dominick’s question – regarding whether God was bound in justice to give the rational creature what is necessary for him or her to be perfectly happy – to be rhetorical, and implying that indeed He is not? Was it also the case that you took this question to regard man’s state post-Fall? It seems that the discussion of antecedent ignorance stems from such an approach to this conversation, but I could be wrong? So, where did you/do you mean to go with this in the context of the whole conversation? (I ask so that we may all work together better, here!)

        One thing I probably should say here, is, we’re concerned with whether or not God is required in justice to give the rational creature what is necessary for him or her to be perfectly happy considered absolutely – that is, the rational creature is here being considered as he or she is pre-Fall.

        Anyway, I’d like to get these things cleared up; otherwise, well, people end up talking past each other…


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