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Good Works


Human acts, either internal or external, that are in conformity with the norms of morality are good works. This article discusses the nature of such good works and certain doctrinal questions about the relation of grace to these works.

Nature of Good Works. In some of his actions man acts by necessity. Thus sensation, respiration, and similar acts proceed indeed from man but not in his distinctively human mode of conduct. Other actions, properly called human acts, come from him precisely as he is intelligent and capable of free choice. These actions are expressions of his spiritual nature and are also called moral acts, for such deliberate choices involve a relationship to the norms of morality. Acts that conform to the norms of morality are called good; those that do not are evil. Theologians dispute whether indifferent acts form a distinct category of morality. Such human, or moral, acts include purely interior acts, as a particular act of choice, and external actions, as giving alms.

A standard, or rule, by which the goodness or evilness of an act is measured is called a norm of morality. Besides the immediate, subjective normthe particular act of moral judgment called consciencethere are objective standards of morality. The proximate, or created, norm is described in various ways by different Catholic theologians: for St. Thomas Aquinas it is right reason (Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 19.3), for F. Suárez it is human nature. This norm is subject to a higher standard: the eternal law, which is the ordering by divine wisdom of all things to their goal. Aquinas explains the relation of the two norms: "Now it is from the eternal law, which is divine reason, that human reason is the rule of the human will, that is, that from which its goodness is measured" (Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 19.4).

Various aspects of the human act must be examined in determining its morality: its object, the circumstances in which it is done, and its purpose, or motive. For an act to be morally good, all three aspects must conform to the norms of morality. Catholic theology recognizes that the most basic of these moral determinants is the object of the act, that to which the act by its nature is ordered. In recent years new emphasis was given to this recognition by the Holy See's condemnation of the theory of morality known as ethical existentialism or situational ethics. This theory tends to ignore objective moral standards and judge the moral act purely in terms of its individual circumstances [see J. C. Ford and G. A. Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, v.1 (Westminster, Md. 1958) 104140].

Relation of Grace to Good Works. Pelagianism (5th century) and the teaching of the reformers (16th century) occasioned sharp controversies concerning the relationship of grace to good works. Three questions need to be answered: (1) Can any good works be done without grace? (2) Is grace necessary for every salutary act (work)? (3) Are the good works of one already justified meritorious of salvation? This discussion is limited to the case of subjects capable of human acts and does not treat the question of the salvation of infants or others incapable of moral acts.

The answer to the first of these questions involves the distinction between natural and supernatural acts. The validity of this distinction, common to Catholic theologians, is affirmed by the condemnation [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (32d ed. Freiburg 1963) 1934, 1961] of the doctrine of Michel de Bayknown commonly by the Latin form of his name, baius. Man, even in a state of fallen nature, can do some naturally good works, although he cannot do all natural good works collectively taken. At least part of this teaching may be restated thus: Not every act of a sinner is a sin. The reason advanced by theologians for the sinner being able to do some, but not all, naturally good works is that man's nature is not totally corrupted by sin, even though his inclination to virtue is weakened (cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 85.12; 109.2). St. Paul teaches that Gentiles did good works (Rom 2.14), and St. Augustine notes that sinners do some good works even though these do not lead to eternal salvation [Spir. et litt. 28.48; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna 1866) 60:203]. Exaggerated notions about the necessity of grace for every ethically good work have been rejected by the Church in the condemnation of the doctrine of Hus (H. Denzinger, ibid., 1216), Luther (H. Denzinger, ibid., 148182, 1486), Baius (H. Denzinger, ibid., 192728, 1930, 1937), the Jansenists (H. Denzinger, ibid., 2308, 2311), and Quesnel (H. Denzinger, ibid., 2401, 2438).

The second question is concerned with the necessity of grace for salutary works, that is, those that are ordered in some way to supernatural happiness, or salvation. The impossibility of any supernaturally good work without the assistance of grace is clearly part of Catholic doctrine. For example, Christ explicitly affirms dependence on Himself (Jn 15.5), and St. Paul reminds his readers of their dependence on divine assistance (Phil 2.13; 2 Cor3.5). St. Augustine, faithful witness to tradition, writes: "We can do nothing toward the good works of piety without Him [God] either working that we will or working with us when we will" [Grat. et lib. arb. 17.33; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 187890) 44:901]. In particular the Church teaches the necessity of actual grace for the beginning of justification. The good acts that dispose for habitual, or sanctifying, grace are the result in men of actual grace. See, for example, the doctrine of the Second Council of Orange (H. Denzinger, ibid., 375377) and the Council of Trent (H. Denzinger, ibid., 1525, 1553, 1559).

The third question concerns the good works done after justification. This particular problem received great attention because of Luther's assertion that man is saved by faith alone (sola fide ) and that good works contribute nothing to salvation. In part this position represents a violent reaction to the writings of some theologians who tended toward Semi-Pelagianism. More basic, perhaps, is the Lutheran idea of justification, which denies any intrinsic transformation of man by God's justifying grace. Thus Luther would deny that man, when justified, is capable of performing works truly proportioned to his supernatural destiny.

Catholic theology, on the other hand, stresses the fact that the meritorious works are truly proportioned to man's supernatural goal but that they are possible only as a result of grace (see merit). They presuppose an elevation and perfection of man and his powers through habitual grace and the infused virtues. Thus, justification intrinsically modifies man, changing him from a sinner to one who is holy (i.e., one who loves God above all). Divine assistance (i.e., actual grace) is also required for the actual performance of meritorious works. The Council of Trent sets forth the doctrine of justification in a prologue, 16 chapters, and 33 canons (H. Denzinger, ibid., 152083). Canons 26 and 32 (H. Denzinger, ibid., 1576,1582) especially regard meritorious action.

See Also: imputation of justice and merit; grace, articles on.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 1821, 109114. j. riviÈre, "Justification," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 8.2:216492; "Mérite," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 10.1:574785. l. marchal, "Moralité de l'acte humain," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 10.2:245972. c. journet, The Meaning of Grace, tr. a. v. littledale (New York 1960). "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," Origins 28:8 (1998): 120127.

[j. hennessey]

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