I Will Give You a New Heart

It was not until after I finished my undergraduate degree in theology that I was explicitly introduced to the idea of theosis, the doctrine of God making men sharers in his divine life. Based on my personal experience, as well as my experience as a formator of catechists, it appears that this belief is not widely known among Roman Catholics. It was a couple of years after college where I first encountered this doctrine, and it was several years after that, at a retreat I was attending for my certification as a catechist in my diocese, before I understood its significance. Since then, theosis has illuminated every aspect of Catholicism I have studied, including Pope Francis’s teachings about pastoral accompaniment and the law of gradualism. However, much of the commentary on these two issues has been more concerned with the pope’s orthodoxy than seeking to understand and implement his teaching. Therefore, I would like to explore Pope Francis’s pastoral instructions beginning from theosis. This perspective not only roots Francis’s magisterium in the deep theological and liturgical Tradition of the Church, but it also leads to a very personal and practical guide for pastors accompanying others through difficult situations.

Theosis and Holiness

The doctrine of theosis, God transforming us to make us like himself, permeates the Tradition and liturgical prayers of the Church. This belief rings out in the very first line of the Catechism: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (§1).

This belief is expressed by St. Peter when he wrote that the faithful will “share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”1 And during every Mass the presider prays during the preparation of the gifts, “By the mystery of the water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Finally, the Catechism teaches that the “innermost secret” of God is that he “is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange (§221).

Whenever we speak of “growing in holiness,” we are speaking about theosis. Becoming more and more holy is, as St. Athanasius put it, “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”2 Grace, the very divine life of God that is given to us freely and dwells within us, makes us divine. Or as the Catechism teaches succinctly, the grace of Baptism “makes us ‘other Christs’” (§2782). Growing in holiness, then, is grace transforming our whole person: making our mind like Christ’s mind, our heart like Christ’s heart, our desires like Christ’s desires, and our body like Christ’s glorified body on the day of our resurrection. In this way, we will truly be holy as God is holy. As we pray at Mass:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
and from the world’s beginning
are ceaselessly at work,
so that the human race may become holy,
just as you yourself are holy.3

Since the beginning of creation, God has been working for our transformation, our becoming divine. God created us so that we can share in his divine life — that is our purpose and destiny. In Genesis, man’s first experience of himself was face-to-face with God breathing his divine life into man’s nostrils (cf. Gen 2:7). And after the fall, the rest of the story of salvation is God coming down to man, condescending himself, in order to rescue us from our sin and raise us up to new life. That is the two-fold salvation that flows from the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery: Jesus saves us from our sinfulness in order to save us for transformation. The tender mercy of God is not only forgiveness, as if that was not enough, but also to make us “adopted children of God and thus heirs to his own blessed life” (CCC 1).

It is through this lens that the moral law becomes a vibrant promise rather than an imposed set of rules.

The Moral Law

God revealed the moral law to his people in stages. The Ten Commandments sum up the first stage of this revelation. In the Decalogue, the Lord shows his people what a truly free way of life looks like. These commands are not an arbitrary set of rules that God imposed on humanity but rather the explicit revelation of the kind of life that will make us truly free and happy. At this stage there is the belief that God designed his creation with an objective order and that life is better when we follow that order.

However, this level of understanding is inadequate because it leaves us with the burden of keeping the commandments by our own effort. While the Decalogue shows us what must be done, it is imperfect because it “does not of itself give the strength, the grace of the Spirit” to live it out (CCC 1963). In my experience, many Catholics who strive to be faithful to the moral teachings of the Church remain on this first stage of revelation, which can lead them to resent God or hate themselves when they inevitably come to a commandment they are simply not able to follow no matter how hard they try.

Jesus sums up his Sermon on the Mount by saying, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). If we are at the first stage of revelation, we can hear this as Jesus placing a moral demand on us that is simply impossible. However, for Christians, the moral law is not simply an example to follow, a bar we must work to reach; but the promise of transformation. Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). In other words, he did not come to rebuke the objective order of God’s creation but to fulfill it himself and then, through, with, and in him, allow us to fulfill it too. Jesus gives us the power that the Decalogue did not, the power to live like he does. This is the second stage of God’s revelation of the moral law. The Catechism says:

It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. (§2842)

It becomes clear then that grace does not simply give us the strength to live out the moral law; it actually changes our desires so that we want to. The Holy Spirit makes our mind like Christ’s mind and our heart like Christ’s heart, for the Law of the Gospel “proceeds to reform the heart” (CCC 1968). The Catechism even says that, “The more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin” (§1395). Or, as we hear from the prophet Ezekiel:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ez 36:26–27)

God does not only show us the behaviors that will lead to our freedom and happiness in the Ten Commandments, nor does he just give us the strength to live out that example ourselves, but, through grace, God also transforms our hearts so that we desire to live that way. This is true freedom: not only being able to live as Christ lived and love like Christ loved, but doing so with ease and joy because it is our heart’s desire.

Our Cooperation

It now becomes clear that when we speak about growing in fidelity to the moral law, we are speaking about theosis because it is only by being made into another Christ that we can keep God’s commands. It also becomes clear that this transformation is not our work. We cannot meditate long enough, fast intensely enough, or give enough alms to make ourselves more divine. Theosis is God’s work. As we pray during the Easter Vigil, “For only at the prompting of Your grace do the faithful progress in any kind of virtue.”4

However, we still have an absolutely essential role. As creatures gifted with freedom, we must respond and cooperate with God. The story of Jesus first calling St. Peter in the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel is a meaningful illustration of the interplay between grace and freedom.

In the gospel account, we see Simon Peter going about his life the way he always has, and then Jesus suddenly appears in his boat. Jesus did not ask permission before getting in the boat and Simon was not asking for him to come onboard. Jesus just stepped into his life. In a similar way, grace breaks into our hearts, giving us the desire for something greater, the desire for healing and transformation. Pope Francis makes this point in his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate:

The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit.” (§53)

Our actions in growing in holiness are always a response to what God has already started, and that is what Simon did. Against his better judgment, he did what Jesus asked of him and cast his nets into the lake. It was Jesus, not Simon’s fishing skills, that caused this supernatural catch of fish. In a symbolic way, this is like our own relationship with the Lord. While there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more divine, God uses our meager — but free — acts of obedience to supernaturally transform us.

At this point, Simon falls to his knees and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In the face of God’s power and love for us, the only appropriate response is repentance. We must turn away from our old life, from the way we have always done things, in order to turn to and receive the new life Jesus is offering.

Notice as well that Simon was not fully changed after that first encounter and act of repentance. This was just the beginning of his long, and often difficult, journey with the Lord. Likewise, we are not completely transformed when we first experience God breaking into our life. Growth in holiness, in the ability to live and love like Christ, is a process. In Familiaris Consortio, Saint John Paul II says that man “is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth” (§34). Pope Francis echoes this in Gaudete et Exsultate, saying, “Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once.” Then he goes on to say that the denial of this process is counterproductive to our growth in holiness: “If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words” (§50). And this process is often messy, marked with trails and failures, and even moments when, even though we are being transformed by grace, we are not yet free enough to keep the commandments.

Grace and Weakness

If grace does not instantly make us superhuman, then as long as we are progressing in holiness and not yet perfect, there will always be weaknesses and venial sins present in our lives. Pope Francis says that it is a mark of Pelagianism to “fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace” (GE 49). The pope is citing St. Thomas Aquinas here and in the footnote quotes him further, “But here grace is to some extent imperfect, inasmuch as it does not completely heal man, as we have said.”5 In other words, here in this life, grace is imperfect in some way because God does not always completely heal us from all of our weaknesses.

Because we are wounded by sin (original sin, the sins others have committed on us, and our own personal sins), and because God does not heal these wounds all at once, there may be times when we are not able to follow the commandments. At first this may appear like an outrageous claim. However, if the opposite is true, if we are always able to keep the commandments, then it would not be possible for us to speak about reduced culpability. If someone lacks the freedom or knowledge necessary to be culpable of a sin, then they lack the freedom or knowledge necessary in that moment to follow the objective law.

Here is an example. Say there is a person whose brain damage from a head injury prevents them from appropriately responding to their emotions and who therefore speaks and acts with anger and violence. Short of a healing miracle, this individual may be unable to keep the commandments for the rest of their earthly life.6 While that may be a more extreme example, the Catechism teaches that more common things like “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (§1735) are all weaknesses that can prevent someone from following the moral law. When the Lord promises that his grace is sufficient for us (cf. 2 Cor 12:9), he means we always have the grace to avoid mortal sin, not that we always have the strength and freedom to avoid grave matter. This brings me to an essential but often misunderstood point of moral teaching: namely, that a serious objective violation of one of the commandments is not necessarily a mortal sin or even a sin at all (cf. CCC 1735). This is not moral relativism. Rather, it is the acknowledgement that sin must encompass both the violation of objective moral law and subjective culpability.

Growth in holiness is incompatible with mortal sin, which “destroys charity in the heart,” “turns man away from God,” and “causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell” (CCC 1855, 1861). However, while mortal sin must include the breaking of one of the Ten Commandments (i.e. grave matter), violating a commandment is not itself a mortal sin unless it is done with both sufficient knowledge and freedom (CCC 1857). In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document titled, The moral norm of “Humanae Vitae” that explains this general principle using the example of contraception (emphasis in the original):

When it is a matter of judging subjective moral behaviour without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception. In this line, the concept of the “law of gradualness” has been rightly developed, not only in moral and pastoral theology, but also on the level of pronouncements of the Magisterium itself. (no. 3)

In other words, someone may fail to keep the commandments, regularly break them (e.g., an addict), or even live in an objective state of grave matter (e.g., living in an irregular marriage) and still have sanctifying grace and be progressing in holiness if they are not subjectively culpable of a mortal sin. It is entirely possible that the circumstances of a person’s life can limit their freedom to follow the moral law even if they know the moral law.

The Way Forward

God meets each one of us precisely where we are in the midst of our circumstances and weaknesses and leads us forward step by step. We do not — we cannot — meet God halfway or do anything to earn his help. God descends to our wounded state to save us, changing our desires, empowering us, and calling us forward — but we must respond to this work that God is doing in us. This process of growing in holiness is what the Church is referring to when she speaks of the “law of gradualism.” To be clear, this is not a “gradualism of the law.” The objective order of God’s creation does not change depending on the weaknesses or circumstances of individual persons. It is also clear that we are not passive actors in this process forward. In his exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis articulates this process of growth by saying:

We can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve. (§153)

In other words, we must have knowledge of the Gospel ideal, be truly honest with ourselves and God about our weaknesses, and then actually take a step forward. Along those lines, the Catechism lists three concrete ways we can cooperate with grace in our woundedness: pray for more grace, have recourse to the sacraments, and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit (§1811). Further, it is precisely through our conscience that the Lord speaks to us, both telling us when we are too weak to keep the commandments and what concrete actions he wants us to take next:

Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. (Amoris Laetitia 303)

From this framework, pastoral accompaniment for individuals in difficult situations becomes very practical and very personal. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has filled in the framework with almost step-by-step guidelines. The pope desires to give guidance and encouragement to the pastors of the Church “to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (AL 300) when they are confronted with persons living in difficult situations that contradict the Gospel ideal. This is because, when ministering to people riddled by sin and weakness, “The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement” (AL 296).

With that in mind, accompaniment begins by truly listening to someone’s story, approaching them with an “openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur.” Listening demonstrates our genuine love and care for the person so that we are not seen as “simply bystanders.” Only then can we awake in them “a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love” (EV 171). It is also essential in this stage to share with them the Kerygma, the life changing good news that they are unconditionally loved by their Father, healed by Jesus, and transformed by the Spirit. We must emphasize “God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part,” and we should do so with joy and encouragement (EV 165).

From that place, where the other person trusts both the unrelenting love of God and our genuine love for them, we can help them form their conscience by presenting an authentic understanding of the Church’s moral teaching, the way of life that will bring them true happiness. This also means leading them to discern their circumstances and their relationship with the Lord, not only taking into account their objective status before the law but also their subjective culpability (AL 301). This process should include an invitation for them to examine their conscience, including honest reflection on the objective harm their actions may have caused even if they are subjectively not culpable (AL 300). We also need to bring them to the sacraments, the floodwaters of God’s healing grace. For through the sacraments “the Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God” (CCC 1129) and, as Pope Francis reminds us, the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EV 47).

Then, we must help instill in them the belief that the Holy Spirit is speaking to them and that they can hear the Spirit’s voice. This means conveying the necessity of regular quiet time with the Lord where they can recognize the still, small voice of God speaking to them through their conscience, directing them forward toward greater and greater freedom. The pope teaches:

Trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face to face, where all is peaceful and the quiet voice of the Lord can be heard in the midst of silence. In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us. Otherwise, any decisions we make may only be window-dressing that, rather than exalting the Gospel in our lives, will mask or submerge it. (GE 149–50)

Finally, the pope says that “discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303). We cannot ever forget that this accompaniment “must lead others ever closer to God,” for it is only in God that “we attain true freedom.” We must meet people where they are, but if we do not help move them forward, if they “cease being pilgrims and become drifters,” then accompaniment actually becomes counterproductive (EG 170).

Conclusion

God mysteriously and unwaveringly desires to heal us, both of the damage we have inflicted upon ourselves and of the damage that has been done to us; he desires to bring us this healing in order to make us divine. This revelation is the lamp that illuminates all the rest of the Church’s teaching. The first paragraph of the Catechism says, “at every time and in every place, God draws close to man” in order that we may “share in his own blessed life.” Our God is the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep in the ditches and thorns to gently carry him back to the flock. Our God is the widow ceaselessly scouring her home for what has been lost. Our God is the father so eager to welcome his wayward son that he does not even let him finish his apology. Our Merciful Father not only relentlessly pursues the most wounded and weak of his children, but it is through them that he chooses to demonstrate his power and abundant love. This belief is our sure foundation, our identity, our own call to serve.

May the Holy Spirit open up our hearts to receive this kind of unmerited and unconditional mercy so that, after we experience God’s healing and transformation, we may be instruments of that grace to all we meet.

  1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. 57, 1–4.
  2. De Incarnatione, I.
  3. Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I.
  4. Prayer after the fifth reading.
  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 109, a. 9, ad 1.
  6. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-I, q. 88, a. 6, ad 2: “If the ignorance be such as to excuse sin altogether, as the ignorance of a madman or an imbecile, then he that commits fornication in a state of such ignorance, commits no sin either mortal or venial.”
Paul Fahey About Paul Fahey

Paul Fahey lives in Fowler, MI with his wife and four kids and works at his local parish as the Director of Religious Education. He is a retreat leader, a Catholic speaker, as well as a contributor and co-founder of wherepeteris.com. You can contact him through his website, pfahey.com.

Comments

  1. Avatar Bridget Taumoepeau says:

    Thanks for a wonderful piece. It has inspired me to use this topic of theosis and growing in holiness for our parish discussion group.

  2. The act of obedience that transforms us is when we choose to be anxious for nothing by casting all of our care on the Lord (see Philippians 4:6-7, 1Peter 5:5-7, Proverbs 3:5, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Proverbs 3:5-6, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9, and Galatians 5:22-23). Then we leave it up to God as to how quickly He will exalt us. He determines “due time”.

  3. You aka yourself, aka your mind, aka your heart , and more important your soul, and most important OPS (other people souls) and the upmost / paramount importance ,OPSIP (other people souls in Purgatory).
    Show me how all you wrote, shifted the “weight of the balance” and released one (1) holy soul into Heaven.

  4. Avatar Nina Pension says:

    This is the best presentations on this subject I have ever read. Thank you. This true Catholic vision of God and the human person expresses what is so clearly manifested on the pages of the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reveals the most complete expression of union with God, theosis–You shall be like your Heavenly Father. AND in his treatment of weak human beings, Jesus meets them always at the point of their need. Always. Only the One True God could hold all this together. The teaching of the Church and the Gospel are one. Thank you for listening to the Spirit and blessing us with this thoughtful article. Joyous peace.

  5. Avatar Bernadette. Fakoory says:

    I agree moral conversion is gradual. This is because of a Faulty foundation based on pride perhaps, egoism, error in judgement :resulting in poor decision making. As a result I. An appreciate your honesty about the assessment made with regard to the sinner at the confession box who may have committed a mortal sin such as adultery and not realize they have made a grave error in judgement. Life may appear normal in a state of adultery but then their are children and their well being to consider. Notwithstanding their own life and well being may be in jeopardy.

    Pope Francis speaks about the bishops giving pastoral care and guidance to those who find themselves in such a state of divorce and remarriage. But the problem is after leading the person to clarity of their self experience and an attempt to help reorder their life, the fact remains that adultery is adultery and there is no way around it. Are the married couple prepared to remain celebrant? Is this at all possible? What about the effects of the sacrament of confession and receiving of the Eucharist under those circumstances?

    It is unfortunate that for many life has thrown them a curve ball and it is too late the sorry cry for them when their first marriage does not work out for them.

    Let God be their judge. Their lives are in His capable hands and can therefore be delivered from all danger and harm that can ruin their soul.

    • Avatar Paul Fahey says:

      Bernadette, I hope this explanation will help answer your questions.

      You are very correct to say that adultery is always objectively gravely evil. Scripture, Church teaching, and certainly Pope Francis all affirm this. However, drawing from the Catechism, pope also emphasizes that the objective situation does not determine a person’s status before God, that someone who isn’t guilty of a mortal sin “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (Amoris Laetitia 305). In the footnote here the pope makes clear this help from the Church can include access to the sacraments, explicitly stating that “the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’” (Footnote 351). This teaching in no way contradicts the Catechism’s teaching on mortal sin and the Eucharist because the subject in this case is not guilty of a mortal sin and therefore in a state of grace.

      In other words, “If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability, especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace (Paragraphs 5-6 of the Buenos Aires guidelines implementing Amoris Laetitia, guidelines that were approved by Pope Francis).

  6. Avatar Father Pat Travers says:

    Paul, thank you so much for your wonderful explanation of the Church’s teaching on matters that lie at the very heart of our relationship with God. I’m sure that many will benefit from it!

  7. I have never read anything as important and valuable as this essay. I’ve been a cradle Catholic all of my life, but have recently realized I need to move beyond being a CC.. It’s just been so difficult—with everything I read, I feel as if I have whiplash with all the division in the church, etc. I’ve had so many questions in this recent journey that have given birth to much fear. Sometimes the more I read, the more confused and frightened I get. Your essay has been a God-send to a sometimes warped and distorted view of God that I have, and a balm to my soul. I thank you immensely– I can’t tell you what it has meant to me, .

    • Avatar Paul Fahey says:

      Maria, I’m so happy that Jesus is using this essay as vehicle of his love and grace for you.

      In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis says that the Kerygma, the first proclamation of God’s identity and love for us, is a message “We must hear again and again in different ways … nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation” (Evangelii Gaudium 164-165). I believe one of the reasons we need to hear it again and again is because we easily forget who God is or we allow the sins and scandals of others to distort our image of him. I think the solution to all of the fear and anxiety in the Church right now, the truth that will drives away all of the lies, is the Kerygma.

      May the Lord continue his work in your soul and your life. God bless!

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