Natural and Supernatural Faith


Well-formed Catholics know that we are infused at baptism with sanctifying grace and with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Some know that these virtues reside in potency, and not automatically in actuality. Infused faith does not automatically make us start believing in God as we should — that is, believing God because He is God and is Truth itself, He who cannot lie or deceive. Infused hope does not automatically make all our acts of hope entirely theological: God-centered, motivated by Him, and directed toward eternal beatitude in His Kingdom. Infused charity does not automatically purify and direct our acts and expressions of love to God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, neighbor as self, and all because of God and in God. In other words, the three supernatural theological infused virtues do not automatically replace natural virtues acquired in us, nor do they automatically elevate and ennoble them, automatically enabling us to live fully in the “new man” made in us by baptism. Yes we are “reborn” in that sacrament. Yes, evangelicals, we baptized Catholics in truth have been “born again.” We do not automatically, however, live — or live in — that new life given us by Christ.

Natural virtues are radically different from the supernatural because they are naturally acquired and not supernaturally infused immediately into the soul. Natural virtues are good because human nature is good and human acquisitions of good, in the pursuit of the good, are good. But they are not perfect: they are not and cannot be the perfect fulfillment of the perfect intention of our perfect God, in His true and complete love for us. In our case, and for our part, our intention and desire ought to be for the perfect! We ought not settle for, or fall back habitually to, the good in preference over the perfect. The good can be, in this case, the enemy of the perfect, if one clings to the good when our vocation is beyond it, to the perfect.

Natural virtues can prepare us for the infused virtues given at baptism. This is important to RCIA catechumens, to learn of — to realize the newness of — what is coming to them, and the importance of seeking, wanting, praying for the actualization in their lives, once a “new Catholic,” of the supernatural gifts coming to them. Natural, acquired faith is radically inferior to infused supernatural faith. The natural acquired belief that there is a God is radically inferior to the inner gift of light that brings embrace of the divine mystery of the inner Life of God Himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons. But the faith in the existence of God acquired by reasoned consideration of the universe surrounding us, the interwoven complexity of the ecosystem — the genius of every participating part and member of every living human person — the human eye alone! — proclaims the existence of a rational and providential, indeed benevolent, God. All that reason can show us generally, the infused gift can illuminate and reveal for us in intimacy; that is, the holy Mystery at the center of all that is. But the light of supernatural faith in the soul is in a sense prepared for, and in a sense supported by, first the natural experience acquired by natural human means.

Natural Faith

Natural faith can be directed toward God, and can have therefore a supernatural object, but its foundation and origin is in the human person himself. It may be “about” God, but it is “of” man. Natural faith is arrived at:

  • by a logical conclusion: “proofs” of God come to by the use of reason;
  • by habit learned in early childhood through parents, culture, upbringing;
  • a presumption accepted because of the example or testimony of others who are respected;
  • by seeing or hearing about a miracle or miracles attributed to the object of faith (God); etc.

Note in all these examples, the object of the faith can be supernatural — God — but it is received naturally — it is “acquired” — by natural human acts. Natural faith is not a supernatural gift from God and is not therefore salvific. As Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8–9)

Fr. Louis Lallemant, SJ (1588–1633), a spiritual director and formator of the Jesuits in the 1600s, had this to say concerning the value of the infused virtue of faith, and the problem of neglect of that supernatural virtue in favor of mere natural abilities, even among those “in religion” — the Jesuits.

FAITH being, next to the clear vision of God, the most excellent participation of the uncreated wisdom, it must not be based upon natural reasons nor our own human inventions. Nevertheless such reasons may serve to subdue the repugnance and opposition of our mind, to rid us of our dullness, and to dispose us to believe, though they cannot be employed as a support to that which we believe by faith, for faith implies the whole authority of God, and is founded on His sovereign and infinite wisdom, which makes it impossible for Him to be deceived, and on His infinite fidelity, which makes it impossible for Him to deceive us. . . .

It is truly sad to see how, in religion, some, and often even the majority, guide themselves only by human reason and natural prudence, scarcely using faith, except so far as not to go against it. They apply themselves to the perfecting of reason and good sense without taking the trouble to increase in faith. It is exactly as if a man were to take great pains with the education of his slave, and neglect that of his son.1

So also, centuries later, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, wrote of failure to live fully in the supernatural virtues, too easily falling back into natural habits and patterns:

Faith is an infused virtue by which we believe firmly all that God has revealed, because He has revealed it and as the Church proposes it.

All the faithful doubtless believe in what God has revealed, but many live very little by the supernatural mysteries which are the principal object of faith. They think more often of the truths of religion that reason can attain — the existence of God, His Providence, the immortality of the soul — or they go no farther than the outward, sensible aspect of Christian worship.

Often our faith is still too weak to make us truly live by the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, the redemption, the Eucharist, the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in our souls. These are holy formulas, often repeated with veneration, but they are pale and lifeless, and their object is, as it were, lost in the depths of the heavens. These supernatural mysteries have not sufficiently become for us the light of life, the orientation point of our judgments, the habitual norm of our thoughts.

Likewise, the motive for our belief in these mysteries is undoubtedly the fact that God has revealed them, but we dwell excessively on several secondary motives which aid us: first, these mysteries are the rather generally accepted belief of our family and our country; next, we see a certain harmony between supernatural dogmas and the natural truths accessible to reason; lastly, we have some slight experience of God’s action in our souls, and this helps us to believe.2

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange points us to the consequences of neglecting, even ignoring, the treasure of one’s infused and supernatural virtues, faith in particular, preferring instead to go first to what is secondary: the natural and the acquired:

In regard to the theological virtues, some, who read the Summa theologica in an entirely material manner, reach the conclusion that our act of faith is a substantially natural act clothed with a supernatural modality: substantially natural, because it reposes formally on the natural, historical knowledge of Christ’s preaching and of the miracles which confirmed it; clothed with a supernatural modality, so that it may be useful to salvation. This modality is often said to resemble a layer of gold applied to copper in order to make plated metal. We would thus have “plated supernatural” life and not a new, essentially supernatural life. [A footnote here reads: See Summa la Ilae. q.63, a.4; Ha Ilae, q.6, a.1.]

According to this conception, the certitude of our supernatural faith in the Blessed Trinity, the incarnation, and other mysteries, would rest formally in the last analysis on the inferior though morally certain knowledge which our unaided reason can have of the signs of revelation and of the marks of the Church. The act of faith would be a sort of reasoning, formally based on a certitude of inferior order. Often this certitude rests merely on the human testimony of our parents and of our pastors, for very few of the faithful can make a critical study of the origins of Christianity. The act of theological faith thus conceived is no longer infallibly certain, and preserves almost nothing that is supernatural and mysterious. It is no longer evident why interior grace is absolutely necessary not only to confirm it but to produce it. This last point was definitely defined by the Church against the Pelagians and the semi-Pelagians.3


The lack of absolute certitude concerning issues of one’s own faith — and hope — and charity — then has a serious consequence in the life of the Catholic Christian. The very foundations of a person’s life are determined by what he deeply believes in, what he ultimately hopes for, what is the fundamental love that drives his heart, his human will, his motivations, his reasons for doing what he does. If the certitude of his foundations rests on the merely natural — his own reasonings, his cultural milieu, even in some cases his contact with supernatural miracles in answer to prayer — then his house is built on sand, and not the rock. Mere moral certitude is sand, compared to the firm rock of God’s own testimony within: God affirming Himself and simultaneously affirming the infallibility of His Truth, in His gift of infused faith.

Moral certitude is far less certain than the faith we are called to, and than the faith that the absolute Truth of Jesus Christ deserves. Consider the passage from James concerning double-mindedness — the man of faith, but of “two-souls” (δίψυχος – dipsuchos): perhaps one for the world and one for the Lord; an attempted “conjoining” of natural and supernatural faith?

Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:2–7)

What Then Are We To Do?

Stated simply, we must pray to God for the grace — the actual grace — moment by moment, day by day — for the “bread for the day” (as in the Our Father) by which we can live the life we have been given to live in Him. The infused supernatural virtues will remain potency, capability, until and unless they are actuated by actual grace. Do RCIA catechumens know this? Are they taught this? Are children post-Baptism taught this? Are adults? Do adults, if ever taught this, remember it? Are congregations reminded of this in homilies, in adult formation, in our adult offerings of catechesis?

We are called to holiness, and we are empowered to achieve holiness by grace entrusted to the Church, in our sacraments. Do we know this? Are we taught this? Do we know that we must pray for our “daily bread” — grace to enact holy virtue, daily, hungry to live His life in close communion with Him?

Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, explains the need theologically for this actual grace:

The necessity for actual grace in the Christian life lies in the fact that even the just person needs special help from God to avoid all sin and to persevere in grace. Following the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas maintains that a person in the state of sanctifying grace still needs the further assistance of grace, first, “because no created thing can proceed to any action whatsoever except in virtue of the divine motion,” and secondly, because of the actual state of human nature, subject to ignorance and weakness of the flesh and further hampered by the wounds of original sin. Moreover, even when endowed with sanctifying grace and the infused virtues, the just person needs the stimulus of actual grace to actuate those supernatural powers. Every act of an infused virtue requires a previous movement of grace to set that virtue or gift in motion. This follows from the metaphysical principle that a thing in potency cannot be reduced to act except by something already in act, and since we are dealing with the supernatural order and actions, an actuating grace is needed to initiate a supernatural act.

Actual graces have three functions: to dispose the soul for the reception of the infused habits of sanctifying grace and the virtues, to actuate these infused habits, and to prevent their loss.

Actual grace disposes the soul for the reception of the infused habits either when the soul has never possessed them or when the soul has lost them through mortal sin. In the latter case actual grace will stimulate repentance for one’s sins, the fear of punishment, and confidence in the divine mercy.

Actual grace also serves to activate the infused virtues, and if the individual is in the state of sanctifying grace (for faith and hope can exist without grace), the actuation perfects the infused virtues and is meritorious of increase and growth in the supernatural life.

The third function of actual grace is to prevent the loss of sanctifying grace and the infused virtues through mortal sin. It implies a strengthening in the face of temptations, an awareness of special dangers, mortification of the passions, and inspiration through good thoughts and holy desires.

It is evident, therefore, that actual grace is a priceless treasure. It gives efficacy to sanctifying grace and the infused virtues. It is the impulse of God that places our supernatural organism in operation and prevents us from forgetting that our soul, in the state of grace, is the temple of the Blessed Trinity.4

I would add that actual grace also prevents us from forgetting that our soul, in the state of grace, is a reservoir of holy, potent living water, given to us to be out-poured, given to be over-flowing, given to quench the thirsts of others amid a dry and parched humanity. There is a deadly lukewarmness settled into the souls of many, in our holy Church. There is a drowsiness, a lethargy, a sense of carnal boredom that has turned many in the Church to seek novelty instead of holy Truth, the consumption of entertainment instead of the Body and Blood of holy worship, the artful recital of a well-practiced liturgy instead of the self-emptying, the kenosis, of our cross in union with His.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote of the consequences of “drowsiness” among chosen disciples of Christ. We ourselves are not the only victims of this sin:

Across the centuries, it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the evil one. Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the evil one at work in the world, and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth. In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self-satisfaction of its own comfortable existence. Yet this deadening of soul, this lack of vigilance regarding both God’s closeness and the looming forces of darkness is what gives the evil one power in this world. On beholding the drowsy disciples, so disinclined to rouse themselves the Lord says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death.” (Mt. 26:38, from Ps 43:5).5

Shepherds, call us to holiness! Shepherds, lead us to life! Shepherds, awaken us, before all the walls fall.

  1. Fr. Louis Lallemant, SJ, The Spiritual Doctrine (London: Levey, Robson, and Franklyn, 1855), Ch. 3, Art. I, “Of Faith”.
  2. Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 2 (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1948), 301.
  3. Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, Christian Perfection and Contemplation (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 2003), 63.
  4. Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, Spiritual Theology (Christian Classics, 1980), 79-80.
  5. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2 (Kindle edition: 48%, p. 153 of 293, loc. 2036 of 4202).
R. Thomas Richard, PhD About R. Thomas Richard, PhD

R. Thomas Richard, PhD, together with his wife, currently offers parish presentations and adult formation opportunities. He has served as religious formation director for parishes, director of lay ministry and deacon formation at the diocesan level, and retreat director. A former teacher, engineer, Protestant minister, and missionary, he has earned graduate degrees in Catholic theology and ministry, Protestant ministry, and physics. He is the author of several books in Catholic spirituality, which are described on his website,


  1. Wow! A very clear, and helpful, outline. Thanks.

  2. Beautiful article.