This Monday is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Mary’s Birthday). It is a nice time to reflect on the adage, “grace perfects nature.”
The phrase is often incorrectly paraphrased, “grace builds on nature,” and understood to mean something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” Someone might say, God will “perfect” your virtue, but “grace builds on nature,” so you need to take the first steps.
This understanding of “grace builds on nature” is a heresy, called semi-Pelagianism.
Pelagius was a British (or perhaps Irish) monk in the early 400s. He went to Rome, where he was known for his saintly life and theological writings. But sometimes a saintly life goes with bad ideas – because one’s saintliness is not as great as it appears, or because one’s practices are better than one’s description of them.
On the practical level, Pelagius argued that holiness was ours for the taking. God has done his part. You just need to “try harder!”
On the theological level, he argued that original sin is not really an infection, but more like a bad example. The Gospel, then, heals us only by teaching us how to try harder. We need a better example, but we don’t need our souls to be healed.
St. Augustine and others responded with concern – based on both better self-knowledge and better knowledge of Scripture.
We need more than good example. We need grace. Pelagianism became understood as the heresy of denying the need for grace.
But the controversy went on for several years, allowing the argument to become clearer, and giving the Church the chance to think through more carefully what Scripture and the Tradition really taught about grace.
“Semi-Pelagianism” refers to various attempts to modify the Pelagian account so that grace plays some role. But these attempts are called “semi-Pelagian” because they don’t take grace seriously enough to account for the Christian faith.
So the Pelagians said, “nature is grace!” Our ability to just try harder is grace – and then it’s up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.
“Scripture is grace!” God gives us the gift of his teaching – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.
“Plus, faith is grace!” Knowing that Scripture is the example we should follow is a gift – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that. This is all still “semi-Pelagianism.”
Grace does not “build on” nature. Grace is not something that God gives us to get us started, nor is grace something God gives us after we get ourselves started. Grace goes all the way through.
Grace does not “build on” nature, it perfects nature. To understand this, think of the birth of Mary. What are we celebrating here?
We are celebrating promise. This little child has the possibility of union with Christ. She has the potential for Christ to be conceived in her womb. – human nature is such that Christ can be united in it.
And she has the potential to be Queen of Heaven. Grace will not do away with this person, will not replace her with something else. It will perfect her. In this child we see the possibilities of human nature.
Here the “nature” in “grace perfects nature” is not Mary’s natural effort. It’s her self. To say that grace perfects nature is to say that it is she herself who will be fulfilled by grace: her human desires and potentialities.
To celebrate the baby Mary is to think that this creature, who has not yet done anything, is the kind of thing that can become Queen of Heaven. It is to see the promise built into human nature.
Celebrating the birth of Mary also points us backwards nine months, to the Immaculate Conception. We see that before she has made any effort at all, already God is at work in her, healing the wounds of original sin and leading her to the life of heaven.
Thus the birth of Mary points both backward, to the work of grace that precedes her natural effort, and forward, to the artwork that grace will bring about in her.
But it also points to the present: to Mary herself, as the human being in whom grace operates. The “nature” in “grace perfects nature” points to that reality: her, herself.
It is here that human effort comes in: not that our effort adds anything to God’s grace, but that it is precisely in our personal transformation, in our nature, that grace happens.
How could you better meditate on the awesome work of God’s grace?