Skip to main content

Salutary Acts


Those human actions that positively lead to man's true goal: eternal life, or salvation. The term is not synonomous with the expressions good acts or meritorious acts. The term "good acts" is more extensive, for one may conceive of an act that is morally or ethically good, but thatsince it is of the natural orderdoes not lead one to his supernatural goal. Every act that is salutary is not meritorious. Those acts of a person not yet justified that are done under the influence of actual grace and are dispositive for justification are salutary but not meritorious, for habitual grace and charity are lacking in the one acting (see merit). Theologians, therefore, distinguish between such merely salutary acts (actus mere vel simpliciter salutares ) and salutary acts that are also meritorious (actus salutares et meritorii ). One may clarify the characteristics of these acts and indicate their relation to God's grace by considering briefly various stages in the presentation of this doctrine.

Sacred Scripture and the Fathers. The Old Testament writers recognized their need of God's loving action for the removal of their sinfulness and for their salvation [Psalm 50 (51); Jer 31.1840]. In the New Testament this recognition is repeated, the notion of salvation is expanded, and its dependence on Christ proposed very explicitly (e.g., Jn 6.44; 15.5). Indeed, throughout Sacred Scripture one constantly reads of the need that man has for divine help in order to be freed from his sins and to come to union with God. The prayers of the early Christian community and the writings of the Fathers of the Church express this same dependence on God's loving care. St. Clement of Rome (1 Cor. 60, 64), St. Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.17.2), St. Cyprian (De oratione dominica 14), and Tertullian (De anima 21) might be cited from this early period. Writers of the 4th century more explicitly teach that even the beginning of man's salutary action is from God. Thus St. Ambrose writes: "You see, indeed, that the power of the Lord works everywhere along with human efforts so that no one can build without the Lord, none can protect without the Lord, indeed no one can begin without the Lord" (In Luc. 2.84). St. John Chrysostom (In Gen. homil. 25.7) and St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat. 37.13) among others reflect this same teaching.

Pelagianism. At the beginning of the 5th century Pelagianism denied the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for salvation. This heresy, so opposed to Catholic teaching about the nature of salvation and the role of Christ and His Sacraments, found a strenuous opponent in St. Augustine. Many of his works are concerned with this problem. Perhaps his most famous dictum relative to the heresy is found in his commentary on the allegory of the vine and branches: "Lest someone think that the branch can bear some small fruit of itself , He [Christ] does not say that without me you can do little, but 'without me you can do nothing.' Whether great or small, then, without Him it cannot be done, without whom nothing can be done" (In evang. Ioh. 81.3). A local council at Carthage in 418 (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 222230), confirmed at least in part by Pope Zosimus, condemned Pelagianism, but the error was proposed again in mitigated form during the next century. This later version, known as Semi-Pelagianism, admitted the necessity of divine grace for acts meritorious of eternal life, but taught that the beginning of salvation (i.e., merely salutary acts) were possible without supernatural assistance. A local council at Orange, France, in 529 (ibid. 370397), relying heavily on the words of St. Augustine and St. Prosper of Aquitaine, condemned this milder version of Pelagianism. Although this council was only local, its acts were approved by Pope Boniface II (ibid. 398400) and are an authoritative expression of Catholic doctrine. The beginning of faithindeed, every work pertaining to salvationdepends on divine grace. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit one cannot believe, will, or act as he ought. (see pelagius and pelagianism.) The Fathers of the Church and ecclesiastical documents, echoing scriptural terms, speak of salutary acts as those in which one acts as he ought, sicut oportet, ut expedit (cf. Rom 8.26; Enchiridion symbolorum 376, 377, 1553, 3010).

Late Medieval Developments. The scholastics of the 13th century clearly taught the necessity of grace for salutary acts, arguing theologically from the supernaturality of the object of these acts. In the 14th and 15th centuries, however, divergences from their teaching appear among Catholic thinkers. For Duns Scotus and his followers grace did not seem to be something supernatural essentially, but only modally, i.e., by reason of its efficient cause [see Scotus, In 1 sent., prol., 1.1.34 (ed. Balič 15:1415)]. For Scotus and many theologians of the nominalist school, an act of natural love and of meritorious love seemed to be essentially the same, differing only in their acceptance by God. Some nominalist theologians carried this tendency to extrinsicism even further, asserting that by God's absolute power, natural actseven sinful actscould be salutary by reason of God's acceptance of them. A tendency toward Semi-Pelagianism is evident in some theologians belonging to the nominalist school (see nominalism).

Reformers and Catholic Response. Early in the 16th century Martin Luther proposed his radically new doctrine. Although it included a strong reaction to the tendency of some nominalists toward Semi-Pelagianism, it carried to its ultimate term the nominalist tendency toward extrinsicism with regard to grace. He taught the absolute corruption of man's nature by sin and justification as a merely extrinsic imputing of Christ's merits to man without any inward transformation of the one with grace. Pelagianism had taught that man could perform salutary works without grace. Luther, at the opposite extreme, denied that maneven with gracewas capable of any act proportioned to eternal life, because of the essential corruption of nature, even of a man who was justified. (see imputation of justice and merit.)

A similar doctrine, although milder in form, was presented later in the century by M. Baius (151389), a Louvain professor (see baius and baianism). Like Luther, he taught the corruption of man's nature by sin, but his chief error seemed to be in the confusion of the natural and supernatural orders. The Catholic teaching concerning these points is found in the decrees of the Council of Trent (154563). This council carefully excluded both the tendency to Semi-Pelagianism that occasioned Luther's strong reaction and the extrinsicism that would consider God's love as ineffective in transforming man. The primacy of the divine initiative and the free response of man in justification were clearly taught. Similarly, the council stressed both man's dependence on grace in order to merit and the fact that his actions coming from grace have a proportion to his supernatural goal.

One further dogmatic teaching should be noted. In opposition to the teaching of the semirationalistic theologian G. Hermes (17751831) the Vatican Council I defined that faitheven without charityis a gift of God and as an act pertaining to salvation requires grace (Enchiridion symbolorum 3010; see hermesianism).

Summary. Catholic theologians commonly teach, therefore, that actual grace is necessary for all acts leading to salvation, whether they precede or follow justification or the reception of habitual or sanctifying grace. Their common theological argument is based on the necessity of a proportion between man's goal and the acts that lead to it. Since both justification and the beatificvision, or the attainment of God in glory, are essentially supernatural, the acts that lead to this must also be super-natural, i.e., caused in man through grace.

See Also: good works; indifferent acts; justification.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 109, 114, and the commentators on these places. j. van der meersch, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350) 6.2: 15541687. r. hedde and É. amann, ibid. 12.1:675715. k. jÜssen, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:145146. e. david, De obiecto formali actus salutaris (Bonn 1913).

[j. hennessey]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Salutary Acts." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 22 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Salutary Acts." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (February 22, 2019).

"Salutary Acts." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.