The grace of God is absolutely essential to living a moral life. Some knowingly chosen acts can be moral, in the sense of morally permissible, without grace. Acts that are merely natural, such as eating a meal, exercising, going to sleep, etc. are moral because human nature is good. Even without grace, such acts are morally permissible. However, any act that is meritoriously good must be done in cooperation with grace. Every act that contributes to holiness, pleases God, contributes to salvation, and merits a reward in Heaven requires grace. Every act done in cooperation with grace contributes to holiness, pleases God, contributes to salvation, and merits a reward in Heaven. Other acts can be moral, but only acts that cooperate with grace are both moral and holy.
There are many wicked persons in the world. But when they take a meal, or sleep, or go for a walk, or do other natural acts are they sinning? No. The Church teaches the three fonts of morality. Regardless of whether or not a person is in a state of grace, regardless of whether or not a person is cooperating with grace, if all three fonts of morality are good, the act is moral. The CCC, the Compendium, the USCCB Catechism, and Veritatis Splendor all teach that it is these three fonts and nothing else that determines if an act is moral or immoral. These sources do not teach that all acts are immoral prior to Baptism, nor that all acts are immoral that are done without grace.
It is true that the human person can do some good acts, acts that are moral but not meritorious, without grace. But this point is not central to the debate about salvation. Acts that pertain to salvation, which are part of our participation in our own redemption, must be done with grace. The central point is the role of the free will. The semi-Calvinist sees grace as irresistible and infallible, so that free will is not truly free even with grace. The Catholic position is that grace frees us, and grace humbly permits us to choose with true freedom. Even though our all-powerful God could give grace in such a manner that we could not choose evil, but only good, He doe not do so. For he wishes us to choose the love of God and neighbor with true freedom, so that it is true love.
The Canons of the Council of Orange refute the view of Pelagius that free will can choose acts that pertain to salvation without grace. The Catholic view is that free will can choose moral acts without grace, acts that are natural, because human nature is good, but that any moral acts which also pertain to salvation, or which deserve eternal reward, require grace. I note that the Council of Orange is not an Ecumenical Council, and so its Canons are not infallible.
CANON 1. If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was "changed for the worse" through the offense of Adam's sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says, "The soul that sins shall die" (Ezek. 18:20); and, "Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey?" (Rom. 6:16); and, "For whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved" (2 Pet. 2:19).
~ The fall from grace changed the human person for the worse, impairing, not destroying, the freedom of the soul.
CANON 2. If anyone asserts that Adam's sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Rom. 5:12).
~ Original sin affects all of Adam descendents, except Mary and Jesus. The state of original is called 'the death of the soul' because the soul lacks sanctifying grace at conception due to the sin of Adam and Eve.
CANON 3. If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle who says the same thing, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me" (Rom 10:20, quoting Isa. 65:1).
~ Prevenient grace is needed prior to any meritorious act of the free will. So in this example, before we pray in cooperation with grace, God gives us prevenient grace by His act alone, operating not cooperating.
CANON 4. If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, "The will is prepared by the Lord" (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, "For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).
~ Again, this is an example of prevenient grace given prior to our cooperation with subsequent grace. Pelagius considered that the free will could pray and could desire that God cleanse us from sin prior to grace. The Council taught that grace is first; that is what prevenient grace means.
CANON 5. If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism -- if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). And again, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.
~ Again, this is an example of prevenient grace.
CANON 6. If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10).
~ Again, this teaches that grace is prevenient, occurring prior to any meritorious or salutary (pertaining to salvation) good act by our free will. But none of these Canons about prevenient grace imply that our will is not truly free to choose whether or not to cooperate with subsequent grace. And it is that cooperation, or the lack thereof, which determines whether or not we are saved.
CANON 7. If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, "For apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, "Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God" (2 Cor. 3:5).
~ Notice that the Council qualifies its teaching that we cannot form any right opinion or make any right choice by adding "which relates to the salvation of eternal life". The Council does not teach that no right opinion or no right choice, such as one that is merely natural, that does not pertain to the supernatural life of grace or eternal life, can be done without grace. Therefore, the Scripture verses quoted are being interpreted by the Council as referring not to any and all natural good acts, but only to acts that are supernatural good acts, i.e. meritorious acts that pertain to salvation.
CANON 8. If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith. For he denies that the free will of all men has been weakened through the sin of the first man, or at least holds that it has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God. The Lord himself shows how contradictory this is by declaring that no one is able to come to him "unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44), as he also says to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 16:17), and as the Apostle says, "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3).
~ The Council taught the necessity of grace prior to any act pertaining to eternal salvation of the free will. This teaching does not imply that the free will is not truly free in deciding whether or not to cooperate with subsequent grace. Also, notice that the Council says that free will has been 'weakened' and 'affected', not destroyed. Again, the Council quotes Scripture to the effect that grace is needed for salvation, not so that grace is needed for any moral natural act.
~ There is still nothing in the Canons so far that would support the semi-Calvinist view that free will has no fundamental role in salvation. Prevenient grace frees the will so that the free will can choose whether or not to cooperate with subsequent grace. Both types of graces pertain to the true freedom of the will. Prevenient grace enables the free will to be truly free, and subsequent grace assists the free will when it freely chooses to do good. But if the free will chooses to do moral evil, it does so without grace.
CANON 9. Concerning the succor of God. It is a mark of divine favor when we are of a right purpose and keep our feet from hypocrisy and unrighteousness; for as often as we do good, God is at work in us and with us, in order that we may do so.
~ This Canon must be understood in the context of the previous Canons, which are about good acts pertaining to salvation, not about acts that are natural and moral, but not salutory. Recall that Calvin lived many centuries after the Council of Orange, so it is not surprising that the Council did not speak so as to refute his errors. The Council was refuting the errors of Pelagius.
CANON 10. Concerning the succor of God. The succor of God is to be ever sought by the regenerate and converted also, so that they may be able to come to a successful end or persevere in good works.
~ This Canon and the previous Canon are about subsequent grace. After teaching that prevenient grace is prior to acts of our free will, the Council now teaches that God assists [succors] us by subsequent grace when we use the freedom of will given by prevenient grace to choose good acts pertaining to salvation, i.e. meritorious acts. Again, this Canon must be understood in the light of the previous Canons, such that the type of good act being considered is acts pertaining to salvation. This is clear since the Canon specifies that these acts bring us to a 'successful end' by persevering in good acts, that is to say, so that we may be saved by our free participation in our salvation. This refutes the semi-Calvinist view that grace is irresistible, such that free will cannot choose to turn away from the succor [assistance] of God and thereby lose salvation.
CANON 11. Concerning the duty to pray. None would make any true prayer to the Lord had he not received from him the object of his prayer, as it is written, "Of thy own have we given thee" (1 Chron. 29:14).
~ Again, this Canon teaches that prevenient grace is first, prior to our free cooperation with subsequent grace.
CANON 12. Of what sort we are whom God loves. God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.
~ Both our good nature and the supernatural graces we receives are a gift from God.
CANON 13. Concerning the restoration of free will. The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it. Hence the Truth itself declares: "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).
~ This Canon must be understood in the light of all the other Canons, such that 'destroyed' means 'weakened' and 'impaired' but not utterly taken away. Free will is unable to reach salvation on its own, but this is not due to the utter destruction of free will. Salvation is always of grace; it was of grace prior to the Fall, and it continues to be of grace. This does not imply that free will has no fundamental role in salvation.
CANON 14. No mean wretch is freed from his sorrowful state, however great it may be, save the one who is anticipated by the mercy of God, as the Psalmist says, "Let thy compassion come speedily to meet us" (Ps. 79:8), and again, "My God in his steadfast love will meet me" (Ps. 59:10).
~ Our sorrowful state is the absence of sanctifying grace in us from conception; we are freed by a prevenient act of grace at our Baptism.
CANON 15. Adam was changed, but for the worse, through his own iniquity from what God made him. Through the grace of God the believer is changed, but for the better, from what his iniquity has done for him. The one, therefore, was the change brought about by the first sinner; the other, according to the Psalmist, is the change of the right hand of the Most High (Ps. 77:10).
~ God gave Adam (and each of us) a good nature; his sin changed us all for the worse. Grace changes us for the better, freeing our will, but not compelling our will. Adam was free to sin, even though he was created with grace. We are free to sin even though prevenient grace has enabled us to perform meritorious and salutary acts.
CANON 16. No man shall be honored by his seeming attainment, as though it were not a gift, or suppose that he has received it because a missive from without stated it in writing or in speech. For the Apostle speaks thus, "For if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal. 2:21); and "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men" (Eph. 4:8, quoting Ps. 68:18). It is from this source that any man has what he does; but whoever denies that he has it from this source either does not truly have it, or else "even what he has will be taken away" (Matt. 25:29).
~ This Canon is about justification, which occurs only with grace, and it is about acts that are meritorious (deserving honor), which occur only with grace. But free will is not denied its fundamental role by this teaching.
CANON 17. Concerning Christian courage. The courage of the Gentiles is produced by simple greed, but the courage of Christians by the love of God which "has been poured into our hearts" not by freedom of will from our own side but "through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5).
~ All the virtues are given to us by grace. Whatever appears to be of virtue, but is without grace, is not a true virtue. This teaching of St. Augustine is here also taught by the Council. The virtues all begin with prevenient grace, therefore, the Council says that they are not given initially by cooperation on the part of our free will; they are poured into us by prevenient grace.
CANON 18. That grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.
~ Again, the Council distinguishes between prevenient grace, which frees the will but is prior to any cooperative act of the free will. Then the free will can choose a meritorious (deserving recompense) cooperation with subsequent grace.
CANON 19. That a man can be saved only when God shows mercy. Human nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could be no means save itself, without the assistance of the Creator; hence since man cannot safe- guard his salvation without the grace of God, which is a gift, how will he be able to restore what he has lost without the grace of God?
~ Grace is necessary for salvation. But free will is also necessary, for grace always pertains to free will. Prevenient grace makes the will truly free. And subsequent grace cooperates with the free will, if it chooses meritorious acts.
CANON 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.
~ Concerning grace: God does much good in us apart from our cooperation, by prevenient grace. We can do nothing good -- again this is in the context of acts pertaining to salvation -- without grace. But this Canon does not say 'grace'. We can do nothing good 'without God' in as much as God gives us our good nature, by which we do moral natural acts that do not require grace, and we can do nothing good as pertains to merit and salvation without supernatural grace. For salvation is supernatural.
CANON 21. Concerning nature and grace. As the Apostle most truly says to those who would be justified by the law and have fallen from grace, "If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal. 2:21), so it is most truly declared to those who imagine that grace, which faith in Christ advocates and lays hold of, is nature: "If justification were through nature, then Christ died to no purpose." Now there was indeed the law, but it did not justify, and there was indeed nature, but it did not justify. Not in vain did Christ therefore die, so that the law might be fulfilled by him who said, "I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17), and that the nature which had been destroyed by Adam might be restored by him who said that he had come "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).
~ Grace is supernatural; it is beyond our nature. And yet our nature was created so that grace is needed for the true fulfillment of our purpose: to love God and neighbor with a selfless everlasting love.
CANON 22. Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way.
~ This is true because our good human nature is a gift of God. Notice that grace is not mentioned. So the good things of man are of God both in what is natural, and in what is supernatural (grace). This Canon does not assert that nothing is good without grace, but only that nothing is good without God, who grants both our good nature and supernatural grace.
CANON 23. Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.
~ When we choose to do what displeases God, we sin and therefore we act alone. When we do the will of God AND our own will, such that we freely choose to cooperate with His grace, our act is of us and of God. We are prepared by prevenient grace, and we are accompanied by subsequent grace, when doing the will of God. This pertains again to meritorious acts, for God does not will that we merely do moral natural acts, but that we participate in our own salvation with grace.
~ Notice that the Council describes good act in cooperation with grace as a following of our own will AND a compliance with the will of God. The semi-Calvinist ignores these clear statements at Orange, and in other Church teachings, and in the writings of Saints, on the fundamental role of free will whenever grace acts, whether it is prevenient grace acting on free will as a passive object, or subsequent grace acting with free will as a cooperating partner.
CANON 24. Concerning the branches of the vine. The branches on the vine do not give life to the vine, but receive life from it; thus the vine is related to its branches in such a way that it supplies them with what they need to live, and does not take this from them. Thus it is to the advantage of the disciples, not Christ, both to have Christ abiding in them and to abide in Christ. For if the vine is cut down another can shoot up from the live root; but one who is cut off from the vine cannot live without the root (John 15:5ff).
~ The life of the vine is our supernatural life in Christ. This pertains to salvation, and is beyond the moral good acts that are merely natural, but not salutary.
CANON 25. Concerning the love with which we love God. It is wholly a gift of God to love God. He who loves, even though he is not loved, allowed himself to be loved. We are loved, even when we displease him, so that we might have means to please him. For the Spirit, whom we love with the Father and the Son, has poured into our hearts the love of the Father and the Son (Rom. 5:5).
~ God cannot love evil, nor anything that is totally corrupted. God loves us because our human nature is good, even when we lack sanctifying grace because of original sin. And He loves us prior to our love of Him. He gives us prevenient grace, allowing us to freely choose to love Him. But His love is first. Notice that grace and salvation pertain to love. But love must be chosen freely or it is not love at all. Therefore, the semi-Calvinist errors in effect make love not truly free and not truly love; they present a view of salvation which nullifies our free will, making any love on our part not truly like the love of God.
CONCLUSION: "And thus according to the passages of holy scripture quoted above or the interpretations of the ancient Fathers we must, under the blessing of God, preach and believe as follows. The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God's sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him."
~ The Council does not say that we can do nothing good apart from grace, but that we can do nothing good 'for God's sake' apart from grace. The Council also represents free will as 'impaired' and 'weakened' but not utterly destroyed by original sin.
"We therefore believe that the glorious faith which was given to Abel the righteous, and Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to all the saints of old, and which the Apostle Paul commends in extolling them (Heb. 11), was not given through natural goodness as it was before to Adam, but was bestowed by the grace of God."
~ Faith is supernatural, and so it requires grace.
"And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ, as has already been frequently stated and as the Apostle Paul declares, "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (Phil. 1:29)."
~ In order to reach salvation, that is to say, in any acts that pertain to our salvation, we require grace first (prevenient grace) and we must then subsequently choose, with the true freedom granted by prevenient grace, to cooperate with subsequent grace.
"And again, "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). And again, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). And as the Apostle says of himself, "I have obtained mercy to be faithful" (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, "because I was faithful," but "to be faithful." And again, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7). And again, "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (Jas. 1:17). And again, "No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven" (John 3:27). There are innumerable passages of holy scripture which can be quoted to prove the case for grace, but they have been omitted for the sake of brevity, because further examples will not really be of use where few are deemed sufficient."
~ Salvation is of grace, and of free will cooperating with grace.
"According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema."
~ Here the Council of Orange specifically refutes the Calvinist view (long before Calvin was born) that free will is not truly freed by grace, that free will has no fundamental role in salvation, that acts of the free will in response to grace are not a truly free cooperation, as if grace were irresistible. Our all-powerful God could have made grace irresistible, but He did not do so. For He is not all-powerful Power, but all-powerful Love. Grace is of Love, therefore grace, like love, makes us truly free so that we may freely choose whether or not to respond to Love with love.
~ The idea, found in Calvinism and in semi-Calvinism, that some persons are foreordained to do only evil, or to do evil at least to such an extent that they cannot be saved, was specifically declared anathema by the Council. This anathema condemns both the idea that some persons are actively predestined to Hell by God, and the idea that some persons are passively omitted from predestination to Heaven, such that they can only end in Hell.
"We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him. We must therefore most evidently believe that the praiseworthy faith of the thief whom the Lord called to his home in paradise, and of Cornelius the centurion, to whom the angel of the Lord was sent, and of Zacchaeus, who was worthy to receive the Lord himself, was not a natural endowment but a gift of God's kindness."
~ Faith and love are granted to us by the prevenient grace of God, and by His subsequent grace working with our free will. The semi-Calvinist acknowledges the work of grace, but pays only lip service to the work of free will. Such a view is contrary to the very nature of grace, which only pertains to free will. If the human will is never truly free, especially as concerns salvation, then prevenient grace would be entirely ineffective. For prevenient grace is an act of God enabling the human will to be truly free. By reducing free will to merely an inevitable response to grace, the semi-Calvinist is in effect denying the effectiveness of prevenient grace in making us free. Prevenient grace is irresistible in that it always truly frees the will, without any cooperation on our part. But God has humbly chosen not to make subsequent grace irresistible, so that our choice to cooperate or not would be truly free and so that, if we choose to cooperate, we will act with true love. For love is not love without true freedom.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
and Bible translator
For more on the topic of Catholic soteriology, see chapter 30, 'Grace and Salvation,' in my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics