I am trying to clarify the difference in my own mind between a traditional Catholic and traditional Protestant view of grace, specifically in terms of the 'works of unbelievers'. It seems hard to accurately do because many similar terms overlap, making the difference difficult to put into words. (See reverse question here Protestant view).

For example, in Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, a book written to train Catholic Priests we find [brackets mine]:

we now proceed to consider what there is to which his [a human unaided by actual grace] unaided power is adequate, and we assert that he is capable of resisting the less urgent temptations that assail him and of doing acts which have natural goodness. Without grace he can do nothing that draws him nearer to the supernatural possession of God (nn. 592, 593), nor can he resist all temptations to grievous sin (n. 598); but it is false to say that he necessarily yields to every temptation, or that all his works, whatever he does, are sin, removing him away from God. It might be thought that when we insist on these points we are fighting a shadow; but unfortunately, the shadow is deemed to have substance by too many among the sects which have arisen during the last three centuries, following the teaching of Luther, with more or less variety. (Sylvester Joseph Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, n600, 3.51)

This author is firm about Catholic condemnation of the original sin of Protestants that fully condemned all the work of an unbeliever.

Pope Leo X. condemned the doctrine taught by Luther, that the just man sins in every good work. (Art. 31; Denz. 655.) The Council of Trent (Sess. 6, can. 7; Denz. 699) pronounces an anathema against those who say that works done before justification, whatever be their character, are truly sins or deserve the hatred of God; or that the more earnestly one prepare himself for grace, the more grievously does he sin. St. Pius V. and other Popes condemned the teaching of Baius (n. 390, vi.) that all the works of those who have not faith are sins, and the virtues of the philosophers are vices (Prop. 25; Denz. 905) (Sylvester Joseph Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, n600, 3.52)

He clearly thinks Protestants have a tradition of being to harsh (or something) on the depraved state of those without grace, so this difference in the view of 'good works' must be real between Catholic and Protestant traditions or he would not draw attention to the danger of Luther.

Note 1: I put the statement in bold that I am referring to which I am having trouble understanding. The Catholic teacher I am quoting first explains all different kinds of graces: natural, created, actual, effectual, etc. and at several points he argues that men have some goodness without 'actual' grace. This is why he clarifies that although without any actual grace he can do good but it is not a saving good, or a good that 'draws him nearer to the supernatural'. In other words an unbeliever, or someone who has committed a mortal sin, may have no actual grace, yet still do some good under one of the other kinds of graces I assume.

Note 2: I realize this view might not be unanimous for all Catholics. I am only asking for a Biblical basis from those Catholics that make the aforementioned conclusion.

As opposed to the early Protestant reformers, What is the Catholic biblical or canon basis for concluding that some works without grace are good. (In other words that they do not more or less spring from a sinful nature as understood in the Protestant tradition).

Upon further study I can phrase the question possibly more clearly this way.

I found another statement which is from the 'Thirty Nine Articles of Religion' by the Church of England which actually more explicitly indicates the doctrine that Catholics reject. More simply put I am looking for the biblical justification of rejecting the sentiments in this article. (I tried to avoid asking a negative question but it is because I do not understand the alternate positive doctrine by the Catholic Church which is making me ask the question) Maybe the choice of words about 'doing acts which have natural goodness' by the Catholic reference I quoted would better be stated as 'doing acts that DO NOT 'have the nature of sin' in them, as declared below by the Church of England in a more polite manner than Luther or Calvin would have worded:

XIII. Of Works before Justification. WORKS done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

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    Hi can you please explain where you got the idea that Catholics believe that there can be good works without grace? My personal understand of the passage is summarized in this sentence from the passage: Without grace he can do nothing that draws him nearer to the supernatural possession of God (nn. 592, 593), nor can he resist all temptations to grievous sin which actually says the opposite Apr 13, 2013 at 7:56
  • @JayarathinaMadharasan - I added Note 1 to explain how I arrived at the question. The author distinguished between grievous sins and minor sins. He says you need 'actual grace' (equivalent to the term sanctification among Protestants) to avoid grievous sins (mortal ones) but an unbeliever from natural goodness and moral strength (maybe from a natural grace) can only avoid minor sins in the long run. It's hard to express his whole train of thoughts. I was hoping a Catholic would have more insight and help me see how he separates himself from a Protestant view.
    – Mike
    Apr 13, 2013 at 9:11
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    Thanks for the clarification, but Whether man can wish or do any good without grace? St. Thomas Aqunais says No in Summa Theologica. Catholic church affirms this in its catechism too, stating, "merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God". Apr 13, 2013 at 15:49
  • You have also said that 'actual grace' is equivalent to the term sanctification grace among Protestants. But for Catholics there are two types of Grace, the transient help to act (actual grace) and the permanent state of grace (sanctifying grace). Actual grace is given to all. But sanctifying grace is received only thru sacraments. So, I don't think that the catholic Church believes that there can be good works. Sinful nature is exactly what warrants Grace. Apr 13, 2013 at 15:51
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    @JayarathinaMadharasan - Your distinction of actual grace and habitual or sanctifying grace matches the author I quote . However the author is saying that without these two graces (transient and habitual) a man may have 'some good' from a natural grace, that all humans have. I added another quote to show his adamancy about it and the Catholic condemnation of assigning all works of an un-sanctified man to a sinful nature (i.e. attributing all works of an unbeliever as not possibly good whatsoever, but sinful). You might be disagreeing a bit with this author. Maybe his is only 'a' Catholic view.
    – Mike
    Apr 13, 2013 at 16:32

2 Answers 2


The biblical basis is repeated like a refrain throughout the first chapter of Genesis (Douay-Rheims translation, my emphases):

[10] And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. ... [12] And the earth brought forth the green herb, and such as yieldeth seed according to its kind, and the tree that beareth fruit, having seed each one according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. ... [17] And he set them in the firmament of heaven to shine upon the earth. [18] And to rule the day and the night, and to divide the light and the darkness. And God saw that it was good. ... [21] And God created the great whales, and every living and moving creature, which the waters brought forth, according to their kinds, and every winged fowl according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. ... [25] And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and every thing that creepeth on the earth after its kind. And God saw that it was good. ... [31] And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.

Bear with me here as I attempt to elucidate the Catholic understanding of the significance of this refrain.

Some preliminaries from St. Thomas Aquinas

It's important to notice that Genesis does not say "God said it was good", but that he saw this: Of course all goodness ultimately derives from God but the goodness in things is nonetheless real and intrinsic to them.

In fact St. Thomas Aquinas argues at the outset of the Summa, following St. Augustine, that goodness and being are convertible -- insofar as a thing is, it is good1.

But again, the being and goodness of everything derives from God -- indeed God continues at all times and in all places to be the fundamental, active cause of the existence, and therefore also the goodness, of all that is.

We will return to this momentarily. First, though, we should also recall that according to St. Thomas, all deliberate acts are "moral" acts.2

How Aquinas deals with the question directly

With these preliminaries on the table, we can look at St. Thomas's direct answer to the question: Summa Theologiae I-II question 109 article 2 is entitled Whether man can wish or do any good without grace?.

His answer is a heavily qualified yes: Man always needs God's help to do anything good (see above), but the divine help that is needed for a created thing to reach its natural end is not properly called grace, it's simply God's action as the First Mover.

Even in his fallen state man retains some natural powers3 and can, at least to some extent, deliberately employ those powers toward natural ends (i.e., "goods") without the help of grace. Therefore, given what we said above about all deliberate actions being moral actions, it does seem possible for even a fallen man to do something that is truly morally good without the help of grace, properly so-called.

Nonetheless there is still a kind of divine help at work in these actions. All other natural operations (the motion of the earth, the action of gravity, etc. etc.) also require this divine help.

But again this divine help that is at work in all natural operations is not properly called "grace" in the system of Aquinas -- grace, rather, is the help that God provides in order to move man to wish and do "supernatural good." Grace is always necessary in order for man to achieve supernatural goods4, even in the pre-fallen state. And in the fallen state grace is also to some extent necessary for man to wish and do even what is natural5.

To summarize the Thomistic understanding:

 When is GRACE, properly speaking, needed?

                 to do natural good | to do supernatural good
 pre-fallen man |  never            |    always
 fallen man     |  sometimes        |    always

 When is DIVINE HELP needed?

                 to do natural good | to do supernatural good
 pre-fallen man |  always           |    always
 fallen man     |  always           |    always

Now to say that man, even in his fallen state, requires grace to do anything good would be, for Aquinas, simply to confuse the meaning of the term "grace". It would follow from such a proposition that the earth revolves around the sun "by the grace of God", which has a poetic resonance to it, and is certainly true given a sufficiently broad definition of "grace". But that would be much broader than Aquinas's definition.

Why I quoted Genesis at the beginning, and why any of this matters (a speculative beginning)

It might be tempting to write a lot of this off as semantics -- to say that Aquinas simply has an idiosyncratically narrow definition of grace, and move on.

And yet the Council of Trent addressed a similar question in a dogmatic definition -- Session 6 On Justification, Canon 7:

If any one saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; or that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins: let him be anathema.

So the Catholic bishops assembled in Council in the late 16th century obviously thought the question was pretty significant. I should note that the canon above could be read as addressing a slightly and subtly different question than that of the OP, but I think the same basic principles are in play.

In any case I suspect the key to understanding the significance of this all is nominalism, an idea pioneered by William of Ockham and others at roughly the same time that St. Thomas Aquinas was doing quite different work. I know only a little about nominalism but according to this essay by an orthodox Catholic apologist, it is fundamental to early Reformed thinking, in particular the concept of Total Depravity, and is probably very much at odds with some of the key principles outlined above. Unfortunately the connections are more stated than argued in that essay.

I do have the sense, though, that the philosophical nominalist will not be comfortable reading Genesis chapter 1 in the way that Aquinas would have read it -- i.e., that the goodness of created things is real, intrinsic, and in reality no different from their very existence. And thus while there may be other ways to reach the proposition above that was condemned by the Council of Trent, nominalism is almost certainly one of the surest.

1 ST I Q. 5 Art. 2: manifestum est quod intantum est aliquid bonum, inquantum est ens

2 ST I-II Q. 18 Art. 9: necesse est omnem actum hominis a deliberativa ratione procedentem, in individuo consideratum, bonum esse vel malum.

3 natura humana per peccatum non est totaliter corrupta. For the argument see ST I-II Q. 85 Art. 2, Whether the entire good of human nature can be destroyed by sin?

4 Man needs faith, hope, and charity, which are not among his natural powers, in order to desire and achieve the supernatural happiness described in 2 Peter 1:4. See ST I-II Question 62, in particular article 1, Whether there are any theological virtues?

5 This suggests a separate question to me, along the lines of "When is grace necessary, and when is it not, for fallen man to wish and do natural good?"

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    Excellent! Excellent!! You have dusted off a few fine points I actually did not understand properly about Thomas' view.
    – Mike
    Apr 17, 2013 at 23:02

Certain passages come to mind for support this view but most important of them may be Romans 2:10-14 passage which some also interpret as an evidence that some gentiles justified by works or they are given providential grace especially the un-evangelized world as in Pelagianism or Molinism.

(Romans 2:10-15 ESV) 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. 12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

George Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary on Romans 2:14-15

Verse 14-15 When the Gentiles...do by nature, or naturally, that is, without having received any written law, these men are a law to themselves, and have it written in their hearts, as to the existence of a God, and their reason tells them, that many sins are unlawful: they may also do some actions that are morally good, as by giving alms to relieve the poor, honouring their parents, &c. not that these actions, morally good, will suffice for their justification of themselves, or make them deserve a supernatural reward in the kingdom of heaven; but God, out of his infinite mercy, will give them some supernatural graces, by which they come to know, and believe, that he will reward their souls for eternity. Such, says St. John Chrysostom, were the dispositions of Melchisedech, Job, Cornelius the Centurion, &c. (Witham)

Among the early so called Fathers, I could find only one of them who directly addressed this passage and even wrote a detailed commentary on it. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) writes in Homily V.

Ver. 7. "To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life."

Here also he awakens those who had drawn back during the trials, and shows that it is not right to trust in faith only. For it is deeds also into which that tribunal will enquire. But observe, how when he is discoursing about the things to come, he is unable to tell clearly the blessings, but speaks of glory and honor. For in that they transcend all that man has, he has no image of them taken from this to show, but by those things which have a semblance of brightness among us, even by them he sets them before us as far as may be, by glory, by honor, by life. For these be what men earnestly strive after, yet are those things not these, but much better than these, inasmuch as they are incorruptible and immortal. See how he has opened to us the doors toward the resurrection of the body by speaking of incorruptibility. For incorruptibility belongs to the corruptible body. Then, since this sufficed not, he added glory and honor. For all of us are to rise incorruptible, but not all to glory, but some to punishment, and some to life.

Ver. 11. "For there is no respect of persons with God."

For when he says that as well the Jew as the Gentile is punished if he sin, he needs no reasonings: but when he wants to prove that the Gentile is honored also, he then needs a foundation for it also; as it seemed wonderful and extravagant if he who had heard neither Law nor Prophets, were to be honored upon his working good. And this is why (as I also said before) he exercises their hearing in the times before grace, that he might afterwards more treatably bring in, along with the faith, the acquiescence in these things also. For here he is not at all suspected, as seeming not to be making his own point good. Having then said, "Glory and honor and peace to every man that works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile," he adds, "For there is no respect of persons with God." Wonderful! What more than victory has he gained! For he shows, by reducing it to an absurdity, that it was not meet with God that it should be otherwise. For it would then be a case of respecting of persons. But of such character God is not. And he does not say, "for if this were not so, God would be a respecter of persons," but with more of dignity, "For there is no respect of persons with God." That it is not quality of persons, but difference of actions. Which He makes inquisition for. By so saying he shows that it was not in actions but in persons only that the Jew differed from the Gentile. The consequence of this would be thus expressed; For it is not because one is a Jew and the other a Gentile, that one is honored and the other disgraced, but it is from the works that either treatment comes.

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