Grace, The State of

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The phrase "state of grace" refers to that permanent disposition of soul in which the divine life of sanctifying or habitual grace is present. This condition of soul is marked by sinlessness and by the fulfillment of God's will and, once obtained, remains unless it is destroyed by willful mortal sin. It is contrasted to the state of sin in which such grace is absent. Habitual grace is first obtained through the Sacrament of Baptism in the case of infants or through either Baptism or an act of perfect contrition in the case of adults. If lost by serious sin it may be recovered through an act of perfect contrition or through attrition coupled with sacramental absolution.

Unless a soul is in the state of grace at the moment of death, it cannot attain the Beatific Vision. Even in this life the state of grace is necessary for the performance of any supernatural act, for the accomplishment of acts that are meritorious de condigno of grace and glory, for the gaining of indulgences, and for the licit administration of the Sacraments. Particularly is the state of grace required as a necessary disposition for the fruitful reception of the Sacraments of the living (at least per se ), since these Sacraments have been instituted to increase grace and therefore presuppose that the soul is already in the state of grace. (One says "per se" since, at least according to most theologians, if one in mortal sin receives a Sacrament of the living in good faith and with attrition, sanctifying grace will be conferred upon him per accidens. ) Canon Law (1917 CIC cc. 807, 856) demands that one who is conscious of having committed serious sin ordinarily confess that sin and obtain sacramental absolution before celebrating Mass or receiving the Holy Eucharist. (The law makes an exception for those cases in which there is some necessity for celebrating Mass or receiving Holy Communion and no confessor is available.) For the reception of other Sacraments, the state of grace may be recovered either through confession or through an act of perfect contrition. The question arises as to how certain a person must be that he is in the state of grace before he can legitimately approach the Sacraments.

The problem of what knowledge a person can have of his own possession of the state of grace is a matter of considerable controversy. Lutherans and Calvinists insist that a man is justified by faith alone and that therefore he can know with certitude that he possesses grace. Catholic theologians, on the other hand, make distinctions in answering this question. All agree with St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologia 1a2ae, 112.5.c) that one cannot have the certitude of faith concerning this matter except by a special revelation from God, at least in the case of adults. Nor can an adult possess the certitude of a theological conclusion in this matter (although some theologians have defended this position), since such certitude arises only from a reasoning process in which one premise is a revealed truth and the other is an absolutely certain natural truth. Moreover, an adult cannot have the certitude of "scientific" knowledge that he is in the state of grace, since such certitude comes from a syllogism in which both premises are either self-evident or demonstrable. Man can have, however, what St. Thomas calls "conjecture" or what modern theologians refer to as moral certitude: that is, a knowledge that excludes all prudent or positive doubt. Such moral certitude is reached through definite signs that are incompatible with a state of sin: the testimony of a well-formed conscience, sincere love of God, delight in the things of God, fervor in prayer, solicitude in avoiding sin, zeal for souls, contempt for the world, the practice of mortification, etc. From such indications a prudent man can generally exclude all objectively probable doubt concerning the state of his soul. St. Thomas also taught (Summa theologiae 3a, 80.4 ad 5) that one who has committed mortal sin can possess only conjecture (moral certitude) concerning his recovery of grace, since he cannot be absolutely certain of the supernatural quality of his contrition. It suffices that he possess such signs of sorrow as regret for his past action and a firm purpose of amendment.

It does not follow, however, that it is always easy or even possible to come to a morally certain judgment regarding one's state of soul. The scrupulous are frequently troubled by anxieties that are an obstacle to ready and confident judgment in this matter. Moreover, the data upon which judgment must be based can sometimes be obscure even to one not prone to scruple. Now a reasonable degree of positive assurance of being in the state of grace is unquestionably desirable in a recipient of a Sacrament of the living, but doubt is not per se a disqualifying state of mind. The law of the Church as formulated by the Council of Trent (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 1647) and stated by the Code of Canon Law (Codex iuris canonici [Graz 1955] c. 916) does not require the recipient of Holy Communion to be certain that he is in the state of grace; rather it forbids the reception of Communion by one who is certain that he is not in the state of grace, which is quite another thing. Moralists and canonists agree that "conscious of grave sin" in this case means a morally certain consciousness of being in grave sin, and it cannot be understood to include a state of doubt about one's state of soul.

Bibliography: j. van der meersch, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 6.2:161687. h. moureau, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 3.1:503505. t. ortolan, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 3.1:955. a. tanquerey, Synopsis theologiae dogmaticae, 3 v. (25th ed. Paris 1947) 3:6264. p. gaucher, Le Signe infallible de l'état de grâce (Le Perreux 1907).

[j. p. browne]