Gregg Allison in his Roman Catholic Theology assessment book, writes that a main point of Catholic theology is its Grace-Nature interdependence. “Nature is to be a channel for grace and grace is to elevate or perfect nature” (46). Elsewhere Allison explains, “nature is capable of receiving and transmitting the grace of God. So think of water, bread, and wine. Those are elements within nature. Water is capable of receiving the grace of God when it’s consecrated by a bishop and communicating that grace of God when a priest sprinkles water on the head of an infant. And that infant then is infused with the grace of God cleansing the infant from original sin, regenerating the infant, incorporating the infant into the Catholic Church. So nature — in this case, water — becomes a vehicle for the grace of God. Bread and wine, when consecrated by the priest, become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and thereby when the Catholic faithful take those elements, they’re receiving the grace of God through these natural elements.”
This is because for Catholic theology, nature is not so fallen that it cannot be a conduit for grace in the created world. Allison draws the tradition from Aquinas who claimed a capacitas dei of nature – nature’s capacity for God – giving an optimistic view of nature’s ability to understand, respond to, even please God.
Francis Schaeffer, in his Escape From Reason, begins by drawing the epistemological affects of this Grace-Nature distinction. Aquinas essentially made it possible to believe that man’s natural capacities for reasoning were able to understand God. Francis goes on:
“Aquinas’s view of nature and grace did not involve a complete discontinuity between the two, for he did have a concept of unity between them. From Aquinas’s day on, for many years, there was a constant struggle for a unity of nature and grace and a hope that rationality would say something about both. It must be said that Thomas Aquinas certainly would not have been pleased with all that was extended from his writings as the years passed . . . . While there were good results from giving nature a better place, it also opened a way for much that was destructive. In Aquinas’s view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed subsequent difficulties. Out of this as time passed, man’s intellect was seen as autonomous .
“This sphere of autonomous growing out of Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures. Aquinas certainly hoped for unity and would have said that there was a correlation between natural theology and the scriptures. But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up.
“From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became increasingly free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures. This does not mean that his tendency was never previously apparent, but it appears in a more total way from this time on.
“Nor did it remain isolated in what developed out of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophic theology. Soon it began to enter the arts.
“Today we have a weakness in our educational process in failing to understand the natural associations between the disciplines. We tend to understand all our disciplines in unrelated parallel lines. This tends to be true in both secular and Christian education. This is one of the reasons why Evangelical Christians have been taken by surprise at the tremendous shift that has come in our generation. We have studied our exegesis as exegesis, our theology as theology, our philosophy as philosophy; we study something about art as art’ we study music as music; without understanding that these are things of man, and the things of man are never unrelated parallel lines.”
– Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, 210-211
I am not assuming Allison will draw all these implications out. But it is noteworthy that Aquinas’ doctrine – the Catholic Church’s doctrine today – of Grace-Nature is a large part of the flow of Western thought; as Schaeffer would say, of nature eating up grace.
Allison does touch on the epistemological affects of the Grace-Nature continuum in Roman Catholic theology:
“Catholicism expresses openness to all truth, whether that comes, for example, from Scripture and Tradition, or from Christianity and noble religious elements of non-Christian religions. Also, it elevates human reason (the realm of nature) as the essential element of the image of God, while also emphasizing the ability of human reason apart from grace to understand general revelation and theistic proofs so as to become convinced of the existence of God.” pg., 50