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Friends Seeking a Common Understanding: Letters on Grace, Vocations, and the Modern Church

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Above: the monastic cloisters of Durham Cathedral. Photo by Lawrence OP.

The following letter exchange between Peter Kwasniewski & Sebastian Morello is published here with the permission of both writers.

Letter 1

Dear Sebastian,

My wife and I, both Benedictine oblates, read aloud last night your three essays on Benedictine monasticism[1] that you published in The European Conservative. Our views coincide to a very great extent. Norcia is the place in Europe I have visited the most—probably ten times by now. I attended a Benedictine high school and have worked in an academic capacity for Benedictine monasteries. I go on retreat in Gower, Missouri, with the Benedictines of Mary. We are birds of a feather.

Like you, I see rationalism as the key issue, and your argument that the mobility and impermanence of the friars and the clericalism fostered by later clerical orders contributed to a certain kind of rationalism whereby Christianity was seen more as propositional assent than as a way of life is certainly compelling.

But it may be a little simplistic. The friars themselves, and later the clerical orders of the Counter-Reformation, promoted a grand liturgical life, built magnificent churches of their own, developed forms like the oratorio and the cantata; theirs was a creative outpouring and outreach such as few periods of the Church has ever seen. The monasteries were never meant to accomplish those goals, which seemed peculiarly suited to the rise of great cities where monasteries would usually not be at home. And certainly we owe the codification (I would prefer to say “canonization”) of the ancient Roman Rite in its medieval plenitude to a Dominican pope, Pius V.

I think you should give Urban Hannon’s recent (and helpfully compact) book, Thomistic Mystagogy, a close look. He makes a compelling case for St. Thomas as very much in line with the medieval allegorical-spiritual tradition of liturgy, making him far more monastic, on your account, than mendicant. Of course, Thomas was educated as a child oblate at Montecassino, so it makes sense. True, he did defend the mixed life, as you said, but there are tensions in Aquinas on that topic, just as there are tensions in Aristotle about whether the philosophical or the political life is higher; and Aquinas, in his more Augustinian moments, defends contemplation as the highest activity and telos simply speaking (certainly that is true in heaven!).

I have a book coming out later in 2024 called Anatomy of Transcendence: Mental Excess and Transport in the Thought and Life of Thomas Aquinas, in which I devote a good deal of time to exploring why it could never be said of Aquinas, at least, that a shift occurred from “liturgical person” to “person who accepts certain propositions.”

A more substantive disagreement concerns the modern opinion that St. Benedict was not a presbyter. Cardinal Schuster devotes many pages in his illuminating St. Benedict and His Times to explaining why all of the evidence points to the saint’s having been a priest. Moreover, it is not clear at all to me that the medieval trend toward ordaining “choir monks” as priests in order to perfect their daily offering of the sacrificium laudis through the so-called “private Mass“ (on which a most insightful piece by a French priest was just published at New Liturgical Movement) is necessarily to be seen as a negative “clericalization.” The Cluniac emphasis on the daily round of prayer, both communal and individual, long predated the mendicant orders and clerical orders that followed, and very much relied on a robust army of “lay brothers,” preserving that double complexion (clerical and lay) on which you rightly place emphasis.

I applaud the following crisp statement: “The clerics were to sanctify the laity and the laity were to sanctify the world.” That is almost a one-line summary of my book Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion. Well, to be accurate, I also spend a good deal of time defending the traditional minor orders as part of the ancient and necessary ecclesiastical hierarchy.

We are in agreement about the abuse of the term “vocation” (see here for an argument similar to yours). And your critique of churchly managerialism is the best I’ve ever seen, and your continued refrain that we need, not a very different Benedict, but the same one, doing the same kind of thing—obedientia, stabilitas loci, conversio morum—is rhetorically very effective, as the repetition subtly imitates the very ideas you are advocating: obedience to a rule, staying in one place and loving it and sacralizing it, and turning around one’s manners to conform to the model.

Do you know about the unfortunate Hilarion Heagy? He was first a Russian Orthodox priest, after that an Eastern Catholic priest—and then he left Christianity to embrace Islam. Reading him, I am put in mind of such figures as Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon, Titus Burkhardt, men who always seemed to end up with …Islam. While I can intellectually respect the theological and mystical writings of Islamic authors, I must admit that I find this extremely baffling, as giving up Christ, the Logos Incarnate, would be impossible for me, regardless of how bad things get in the Church.

In any event, I was struck by something he wrote a few days ago on his blog:

By their fruits you shall know them (Matthew 7:16). In many ways, this was my criteria. What are the fruits, as I see them first hand? Admittedly by 2022, I was thoroughly battered by much that I had experienced in the Church—even as I tried to give myself completely to the service of an institution that seemed increasingly disinterested in its own survival. Instead, it seemed to me like ‘the world’—the dunya—was the main focus of much of Christianity. Or simply politics. This, coupled with a loss of tradition—of objective tradition and of a deeper esoteric tradition—and an increasingly totalitarian stranglehold of the subjectivity in Christianity (i.e., “my truth,” “my belief,” “my ‘special’ relationship,” “my reality,” “my understanding” … etc.) Well … I saw everywhere I looked no real unity, but rather a cacophony of chaos.

This very much reminded me of some themes in your recent writing.

Thank you, as always, for your immensely stimulating work.

In Domino,


Letter 2

Dear Peter,

Thank you so much for your kind remarks and thoughtful criticisms of my recent three-part essay. I agree with you that there are aspects of the case that I develop therein which are somewhat simplistic, but in defence of my essay, I was attempting to introduce my readership to themes that would be better addressed in a 300-page book! And I certainly do not deny the advantages that you highlight regarding the development of religious life over the centuries in the Latin Church, but I do hold that such development entailed in the long run an obscuring of Catholic religious life and what religious consecration actually is. That development—from monasticism to the rise of the friars, and from the friars to the clerical institutes—has I think some important explanatory power for understanding how we ended up with the dominant culture we now have in the Catholic Church, namely a culture of clericalism.

Moreover, whilst I agree with you that the later orders were able to embark on ‘outreach’ that the monasteries could not, I believe that in many cases this led to a superficial evangelisation. Let us not forget that many Benedictines were very great missionaries, and their missions were lasting in ways otherwise unknown in Church history. Interestingly, in the Orthodox churches, they maintain a kind of monastic ‘outreach’ especially through the figure of the staretz. My wife tells me that in Transylvania, where members of her family live, almost every town has a staretz. These figures constantly give counsel and spiritual guidance to their people. Sadly, today, I am forced recurrently to counsel people to avoid relationships of ‘spiritual direction’ on account of the dangerous and abusive relationships which Catholic priests routinely seek to establish with vulnerable or dependent faithful, and the ecclesiastical culture of constant movement has led many clerics to think they can get away with such behaviour too.

Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, I also think the waning of the temporal power in the Church is a primary cause of this unfortunate clerical culture, but that ebbing of the temporal power alongside the clericalization of religious life formed, if you like, the perfect cocktail for the kind of clerical managerialism we have today, which almost exclusively characterises modern Catholicism. The effects of clericalism seem as much a problem among traditionalists as among the rest of the faithful. Not long ago, I delivered a course in philosophy to a group of traditional religious, and it alarmed me that the friars saw their communal religious life and even their vows as little more than just a path by which to become priests. The prophetic character of consecration was remarkably absent from their purview.

According to Andrew Louth, the predominant Orthodox theology on monastic life is that monasticism corresponds to the Israelite prophetic ministry in the same way as the Christian priesthood corresponds to the Levitical priesthood. Thus, in the New Covenant, we have two ministries that mirror those of the Old Covenant, but rather than being ordered towards the first coming of the Messiah, they are ordered towards the second coming of Christ in glory as Just Judge. Such a conception of religious life as essentially prophetic rings true and is found scattered throughout official documents of Rome, but practically speaking we Latins have lost sight of its truth and almost nowhere is it lived among us.

I read your piece on vocation to which you kindly included a link in your message to me. Interestingly, I think you and I have a small disagreement on the ‘naturality of marriage.’ That is to say, while I agree that—other than by some dramatic equivocation—one cannot have a ‘calling’ to marriage, a baptised member of the Church does not ordinarily enter mere marriage at all, but Holy Matrimony, which is not a natural institution but a sacrament of Christ (even if on being confected it assumes into itself the natural institution of marriage). And it seems to me that there is no ‘calling,’ properly speaking, to Holy Matrimony or to Holy Orders, as such sacraments are ordinary to the faithful—and therefore it is not necessary to be called into them. Indeed, one might say that such sacraments are natural to the baptised, whose nature has been re-created and regenerated by the waters of baptism. And hence, the fact that these sacraments are purely supernatural does not stop them from being natural to us, if indeed our nature is supernatural by virtue of being supernaturalised by the sacramental life beginning in baptism.

What is not merely natural to the sacramental life of the Christian, but requires a special supernatural calling directly from Christ, is the spousal mystery of religious life, which is not entered by way of any sacrament, but by an act of consecration. Hence, it seems to me, when we speak of what is normative to the Christian life, without qualification, by ‘calling’ we mean not Holy Matrimony, not Holy Orders, nor indeed anything else, but religious consecrated life alone.

I’m very grateful to you for recommending Hannon’s book, which I have now ordered, and I look forward to reading it. I also look forward to reading your forthcoming book on Anatomy of Transcendence. I wish to be clear: I do not accuse Aquinas of bringing about the cultural shift from understanding the Christian as a ‘liturgical person’ to a ‘person who accepts certain propositions’; nor do I accuse him of entrenching such a shift in his own works. But I do believe that over time such a shift happened in the Catholic Church, the evidence for which I see everywhere, and I deem this change a theological corruption that has warped our self-understanding as Christians and downgraded the primacy of holiness—dare I say, mystical transformation in Christ—in the lives of the baptised.

Thank you also for the wonderful Fortescue quotes; I consider Fr Adrian to have been one of the sanest clerics of his time. I think he was right not only to dive deep into his own liturgical tradition as the architects of revolution were quietly already plotting its destruction, but to take seriously the position of the Eastern Orthodox. I am absolutely sure that the crisis of authority among the Greeks and the crisis of tradition among the Latins will never find their respective solutions until we achieve the reunification of the whole Apostolic Church. In fact, these days I find myself praying for this intention above any other. Tell me, have you read Geoffrey Hull’s The Banished Heart? It is amazing to me how little that book is discussed, when it seems to address so many points relevant to us in the Church today.

I had never before heard of Hilarion Heagy, but I deeply sympathise with people like that. The Church, in its human aspect, is eating itself. The Church has become the great Ouroboros which She was established on earth to replace with the Holy Cross. Those who are scandalised out of the Church will, I am sure, receive some mercy in the end. Since I became a Roman Catholic fifteen years ago, and especially during the seven years I worked as a Church official in the UK, in the institutional Church I have met some of the most corrupt, psychopathic, and downright evil people I could ever imagine encountering. Were it not for my conviction that all meaning and purpose in this vale of tears flows directly from the heart of Christ, and that outside the maternal care of His Mother there is only the darkness of the diabolical realm, I would have left the Catholic fold a long time ago. Fortunately, by His grace, I know Him to be the Truth, and so with Him I remain.

It is a great source of sorrow to see how the Church has grown so very alien to herself. Not long ago, I attended a lecture by a retired Harvard Professor of Vedic Studies. It was a lecture on the Rhineland Mystics. I learned more in that hour, in a talk delivered by a Hindu, about the mystical tradition of my own religion, than I have from all the homilies I’ve heard over the past decade and a half. That is truly a scandal. I have learned much about the deeper spirituality of my own tradition by attending talks at The Temenos Academy (of which I’m a member) and The King’s Foundation of Traditional Arts. It is almost as if one can only discover authentic Catholicism if one flees the official institution for those corners where people, by virtue of their disassociation with it, are free from the petty power-games and clericalism of the modern Church.

If the hierarchy spent only half the time on disseminating the mystical and liturgical tradition of the Church that it does on destroying our own liturgical inheritance, it could drag us out of the nihilism of the secular age in the flash of a moment. Hence, it surprises me not that people, still longing for a spiritual life and some induction into a living tradition, and seeing that the institutional Church cannot satiate their deepest desires, gravitate towards the works of the perennialists and the modern Sufi scholars. Those people who stumble in the dark and eventually find perennialism and Sufism are themselves orphans, and the Church is the parent that has abandoned them. For this reason, in the decades to come, the works of Jean Hani, Valentin Tomberg, Jean Borella, Robert Bolton, Wolfgang Smith, and others will be of the utmost importance for the re-evangelisation of the world. Those sophiological writers whom I name have held to the Church understood as a divine and living Being that does not shudder at Her own Mystery.

Forgive me for this long reply. Let us keep each other in prayer. I am forever grateful for your friendship.

Yours in the Lord, as ever,


Letter 3

Dear Sebastian,

No need to ask forgiveness when you have sent me so many words of wisdom. I am in your debt.

You are certainly quite correct that the ecclesiastical culture of our times is inimical to deep thought, high artistic flights, and ancient symbols. This is why some of the best, most exciting, most promising work is taking place outside the borders of the institution. “Seeds of the Word…” 

Speaking of which, please give this article a read. Darrick Taylor is one of my favorite American writers at this time. Robert Keim is another. I highly recommend the chapters the two of them contributed to the book Ultramontanism and Tradition (a book chockablock with probing content; your piece in it is invaluable).

Regarding the naturalness of the vocation to marriage and clerical life, I still think we may have a disagreement. While priests are natural to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ itself is not natural to mankind, but brought miraculously and surprisingly from God’s free gift. So, while man and woman are naturally directed to marry and have children, and this good inclination is blessed, elevated, supernaturally fructified by Christ, I do not think it possible to say that man is naturally directed to a sacramental priesthood centered on offering the unbloody sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. And wherever celibacy is retained as a commitment for priests—I am very much of the belief that this is something Our Lord wishes, contrary to the Eastern Christian view of it—it is clear they are being lifted out of secular life, out of the world of begetting and homesteading, into a sacral realm that is symbolized by the sanctuary of the Church in which (ideally) only they should minister (and in which we allow other men to enter as substitutes for ordained ministers).

I do not know if I’m expressing this argument well. Let me put it this way: the natural priesthood to which man is called belongs to every husband and father in the natural order, but the supernatural priesthood belongs to a supernatural order. In this regard, it has more in common with the religious life, although that is more radical still.

I am fully in agreement with the rest of what you write in your missive.

Geoffrey Hull’s The Banished Heart is a work of passionate complaint, well-founded, and well-documented. The one reason I hesitate sometimes to recommend it to others is that I feel the author has an exceedingly rosy picture of Eastern Christianity and an exceedingly sour “take” on Western papal history, to the point that the book veers, to my mind, into a polemic that can even become slightly unhinged. (I’m sure plenty of people say that about my own books, come to think of it!). It seems to me that a great strength of Fortescue’s The Orthodox Eastern Church is to present a more realistic picture of the strengths and weaknesses of both East and West. Still, that being said, I admit that Hull is a powerful critic of much that richly deserves criticism. You can probably see the influence of Hull on my work, though I rarely cite him.

Speaking of those who feel themselves orphans … look at this email I received today from a long-time correspondent. It’s as if he was reading our minds (LOTH = Paul VI’s Liturgy of the Hours):

I must say, for all the help that the LOTH gives me, every time I try to commit to it more regularly I find myself struck with the fact that it just seems insubstantial. There’s just not that much there. It’s not substantive or dense. I’ve considered going over to the Ordinariate’s Office, because it is more substantive with the full Psalter (no missing Psalms or verses) and the extended daily Scripture readings (using RSV-2CE and without omissions!). I’ve used the Monastic Diurnal as well in the past, but I can usually only do two ‘hours’ a day, so one thing I like about the Ordinariate is having the chance to pray through all the Psalms, rather than just the Psalms that are used for Prime and Compline (and, potentially, Sext). Anyway … I just find modern Catholicism so uncompelling. And, unfortunately, it seems that the Church just keeps doubling down on its bad decisions. I tend to find people like Jordan Peterson more interesting to listen to than the pope or most bishops. At least when he speaks, it seems like there’s something at stake—and he seems to be speaking with honesty and sincerity (even if he’s wrong on many things). Almost everything that comes from the Church is warmed over, PC, business-ese.

This is how the most fervent, dedicated, and educated Catholics feel much of the time. If we do not find our way to the heart of the Christian tradition, we will be like castaways, with no home, no rescue, no future. It is such a grace to be awakened to that inexhaustible tradition, whose resources lie all around us, in spite of being neglected by nearly everyone.

Warm regards,


Letter 4

Dear Peter,

I am very pleased to continue this dialogue with you, by which I am being greatly enriched. The book Thomistic Mystagogy, published by your Press, arrived today, and I look forward to studying its contents.

Your take on Hull’s The Banished Heart is helpful for me, and I agree that he has an overly romantic view of Eastern Orthodoxy. The real advantage of that book, it seems to me, among other gems therein, is that it shows how Paul VI and the so-called Council ‘fathers’ (more like, ‘revolutionaries’) actively distanced the Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Churches in order to cosy up to protestants. Hence, they alienated those Christians who actually belonged to the Apostolic Church and were mere schismatics in order to align themselves with outright heretics. Moreover, what Hull demonstrates, quite powerfully in my view, is that the ‘fathers’ undertook this transformation of the Church because they had themselves become largely protestant in their religion and broader worldview, and they saw protestants far more as their coreligionists than those who were canonically detached but nonetheless in possession of the full sacramental life. The Catholic Church became, then, practically speaking, just another protestant sect, and we’re all now suffering the consequences of this corruption. When one ‘zooms out’ and views the Vatican II revolution like that, one realises just how apocalyptic the whole situation really is.

I would like to reply to your view of marriage and the naturality of it with regard to human nature. I agree with you that it looks like we might have a real disagreement here, but I will attempt to present my position in even clearer terms so that, if there is indeed a real disagreement as we both suspect, I am at least not misunderstood.

First, I do not claim or suggest that the Mystical Body of Christ is natural to mankind. In that sense, I am in general quite at odds with currents of the Nouvelle Theologie. My position is not that we can collapse nature into supernature, or vice versa. My position is that the Mystical Body of Christ is natural to baptised mankind, as the members of baptised humanity are substantially different in their nature to the members of unredeemed man, for they have been quite literally re-created and regenerated by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, made available to them in baptism—by whose waters they were made new creations.

I believe, with you, that humans are directed by nature towards marriage, just as I believe humans are directed by their nature towards priestly sacrifice of animal or even human victims (and religious sociology concerning almost every civilisation in history testifies to this reality). Such natural impulses are assumed into the supernatural life of baptised man, and satisfied not by the natural contract of marriage or by the priesthood of natural religion, but by institutions of supernatural origin, namely Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders.

Thus, I do not claim—as I think you think I claim—that man per se is naturally ordered towards the priesthood instituted by Christ, but only those members of Christ’s Body who receive a special grace so to become priests of the new order of Melchizedek. Put simply, natural man is by nature ordered towards natural priesthood and natural marriage; baptised man is by grace—grace being that which has infused and regenerated his nature—ordered towards supernatural priesthood and supernatural marriage, termed Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony respectively.

Perhaps the difference here is that I do not believe that man, once baptised, has a natural life and a supernatural life, as I believe man’s whole nature is renewed by grace. Thus, even those things that arise from nature, like eating meals and educating one’s children, are assumed into and transformed by grace, and thereby ordered towards different ends than those to which they are ordered when in an unredeemed condition (which, after all, is merely what they are when under the devil’s dominion). For example, I do not pray like a Christian but eat like a pagan; rather, every aspect of my life, to the degree I daily convert to life in Christ by the power of His grace, is transformed by Him and ordered towards beatitude.

The fact that man requires a special grace to join and live the Christian ministerial priesthood—just as he would require a special grace to live fully of the Christological spousal mystery of Holy Matrimony—should not be conflated with what we mean by ‘vocation.’ That he needs special graces to fulfil the purposes of his states of life within the Church should not surprise us given that, being a Christian, it is precisely grace that defines him in any case. Thus, univocally speaking, ‘vocation’ refers to the calling to consecrated religious life alone, also for the reasons I gave in my previous message.

In sum, to put it tritely, and perhaps even in a rather clichéd way, I am not a ‘two-tier Thomist.’ My position on the nature-supernature distinction, and the relation of the natural and supernatural virtues, and in turn on the difference between natural and supernatural states of life, is largely in agreement with the position advanced by Andrew Pinsent in The Second-Person Perspective in Aquinas’s Ethics (Routledge, 2012). Do you know it? I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Forgive me if the case I develop above reads as a little doctrinaire, but I have written this reply to you in haste amid a busy schedule today. In fact, these conversations will undoubtedly be better enjoyed over a bottle of vintage Lugana on Lake Garda this summer—to which I greatly look forward.



Letter 5

Dear Sebastian,

Thank you, as always, for the further thoughts and precisions.

Your position has the advantage of making good sense out of the quite traditional grouping of the sacraments of marriage and holy orders as “sacraments for (or having to do with) the good of the community,” as distinguished from sacraments that perfect the individual by ingrafting him into Christ: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist (the sacraments of initiation, the last being also the sacrament of perfection in charity), penance, and anointing. All of these pertain to the individual within the Mystical Body, whereas marriage pertains to a baptized man and a baptized woman who come together precisely as the nucleus of a domestic church, a social entity, a community or multiplicity. Similarly, a man is made a minister, or a priest or bishop, for the good of others (servus servorum Dei). Even a hermit priest is offering sacrifice “for his own sins and the sins of others,” as we read about in the Epistle to the Hebrews (he’s doing plenty more than that, but you understand my point). The minister’s vocation is essentially a social one.

The consecrated life, in contrast, has nearly always been understood as the perfect living out of the baptismal vocation. Thus, while religious nearly always live in community, and communal life is vitally important to their practice of virtue and their liturgical prayer, nevertheless the state in life as such is a perfection of the individual. It is a sort of “super-baptism” in which one’s entire life is turned into a liturgical offering, an embracing of God and renunciation of the evil one as we promise in baptism. Everyone is supposed to do that, but the religious expressly and totally commits himself or herself to the task of living the life of the world to come even now. This is not even possible, practically, for the married, and it is not easily compatible with the duties of the parochial priesthood. Again, as Louis Bouyer so finely expounds in his book on monasticism, there is no dualism here: the laity and clergy look to the religious as their lighthouse or exemplar, as the religious look to the virginal Christ and His virginal Mother as their exemplars. All are bound into one, in spite of the often very great differences in their ways of life.

You can argue on behalf of your view that as the husband and wife are drawn sacramentally into the relationship of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5), so too the priest is drawn sacramentally into the supreme priesthood of Christ, that he may offer gifts and sacrifices in and with Christ, for His Body. I will admit that, seen this way, there is much more of an analogy than a disanalogy. On the other hand, and this is my point, man and wife are not “chosen out of” humanity in order to live the married life, for this is indeed what they were created for, it belongs to the original order of creation. Of course Christ the Lord will elevate it, as He elevates all things. Whereas with a priest of the Old Law or, even more, of the New Law, he is “chosen out of” men to be appointed as a priest, as again the Epistle to the Hebrews explains so well; and the divine offering he is empowered to offer is not something that belonged to the order of nature, but is entirely given from above. That is, the “natural priesthood” of offering various things to the gods stands at a further distance from the “supernatural priesthood” that offers either Christ or signs of Christ than “natural marriage” stands from “sacramentalized marriage.”

While I respect all the Christian anthropologists who would like to “read back into” pagan sacrifices, their likenesses to the one true sacrifice, I think these parallels are at best analogies, at times almost tragic parallels, since the rather desperate efforts of pagans to placate their vengeful gods cannot really be considered true worship by any stretch of the imagination. According to St. Augustine, indeed, most of the time they were placating demons who tried to lead them away from God. Whereas one need not “read into” natural marriage its likeness to sacramental marriage, since sacramental marriage is nothing other than natural marriage divinely lived by grace, the order of creation subsumed into and transfigured by the order of redemption. There is a direct line connecting a man’s marrying a woman for love and for children to a Christian man’s marrying a Christian woman so as to enter into the perfect union of charity and fecundity of Christ and His Church. I simply do not see that such a direct line can be drawn from what you are calling natural priesthood to supernatural priesthood.

Coming around finally to your provocative remark about “two-tier Thomism,” this is an extremely subtle question, as you know; for we want something like a Chalcedonian “united but not confused, distinct but not divided.” The tendency of De Lubacian nouvelle théologie has been to conflate these domains. There was, recently, a very interesting exchange between Bishop Robert Barron and David Schindler (I’m afraid I don’t have the timestamp but the conversation is here) in which it is said that their resistance to Catholic political integralism is based on the fact that, being Christian, it distinguishes between the natural and supernatural orders—a distinction with which they as Balthsarians are uncomfortable. Schindler gives the game away at the very end when he says, “It seems to me that if the Church’s claim is true it has to be the case that … what the Church is proposing is in fact, at the very depths, what everybody actually believes and wants,” to which Barron responds: “and I hold that.” There it is. Everybody already has faith simply in virtue of being human: “a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality,” as St. Pius X put it in his encyclical Pascendi against the Modernists.

This, I submit, radically undermines the source of Christian salvation as the free initiative of God taking pity on our fallen nature and intervening with revelation and the grace of faith, with all that comes in its train. Yes, that revelation encounters something in us that welcomes it and recognizes it, but it is still a surprise, an intervention, a miracle, a wonder that utterly transcends all that our reason and nature contain, or lay claim to, or envision. This, again, is where I see a great difference between holy matrimony and holy orders: the Christian matrimony is something that does not utterly transcend in that way, and it seems to me possible to envision it vaguely and hopefully, as if reaching out toward a perfection already adumbrated; whereas the priesthood of Christ is something introduced into the world by the omnipotent fiat of a God who, in His radical, foolish, self-emptying love for mankind, descends in the womb of the Virgin and becomes man.

Warm regards,


Letter 6

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your reply. Much of what you write I am wholly in agreement with, and in some ways your reply appears to argue the case I am trying to develop in this exchange. I shall therefore only address those parts of your response on which I think there is some difference of opinion, either because we hold different positions or because we hold similar positions but emphasise different aspects of those positions.

First, I agree with you that religious life is given to the Church as the perfection of the sacramental life which begins in baptism. But I would say that it cannot only be the perfection of baptism, or reducible to this facet. That it is so irreducible, it seems to me, is indicated by the traditional practice of receiving a new name at the moment of consecration. As you know, from a Biblical perspective, a new name implies a new mission. If consecration only entailed the perfection of the mission given to us all in baptism, a new name would not make sense. Indeed, I believe that Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis got it wrong to suggest that religious might cease to take new names on consecration, which the document raised in order to emphasise their baptismal mission. Religious life, I would submit, entails a calling into a special spousal state with Jesus Christ which is not normative to the baptised, but is extraordinary, and requires a vocation univocally speaking.

Second, I would wish to contest your view that “Christ the Lord elevates natural marriage as He elevates all things,” for not all things are elevated to the level of a sacrament. The fact that Holy Matrimony is a sacrament, and has not merely been elevated as a natural good for supernatural ends, in the same way as our ability to sing or create art has been elevated—but rather, Holy Matrimony has been instituted directly by Christ—should indicate to us that it shouldn’t be grouped together with those things that have merely been ‘elevated.’ Just as a priest is an icon of Christ the Priest, who is the only Priest, and in whose Priesthood all ministerial priests merely participate, so too a couple assumed into Holy Matrimony are an icon of Christ’s union with His Church. No natural marriage can be such an icon, for the reason that no natural marriage—however good—can be a conduit of sanctifying grace, and it is for the sake of flooding mankind with sanctifying grace that Christ is wedded to the Church, a union He consummated on Calvary. Hence, I do not see Holy Matrimony as “nothing other than natural marriage divinely lived by grace,” as you put it, just as I do not see the Christian priesthood as nothing other than natural priesthood divinely lived by grace (as you seemed to think I was arguing). Rather, I see both Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders as new institutions established directly by Jesus Christ, fitting for a new creation called baptised man.

Third, allow me to clarify what I meant by my “provocative” comment regarding ‘two-tier Thomism.’ I do not accept that baptised man’s natural virtues remain in and of themselves unchanged other than by being subordinated to supernatural virtues received from without, as for example is seemingly argued occasionally by John of Saint Thomas, who at times exhibits a liking for both mechanical and vertical metaphors that are not to be found in the writings of Aquinas (indeed, on more than one occasion Garrigou-Lagrange misattributes to Aquinas metaphors—especially for the gifts and fruits of the Holy Ghost—invented by John of Saint Thomas). In short, I do not think we have nature intact, with supernature plopped on top. I believe that supernature regenerates our whole nature, and thus natural prudence, for example, is infused with, and transformed by, supernatural prudence, leaving our natural virtue of prudence transfigured by its supernatural counterpart given to us by grace. This, I hold, is Aquinas’s true teaching, which we see when we free ourselves from modern paradigms and stop reading quantity-heavy metaphors into his texts (which he himself does not opt for). Nor, though, do I accept the view of von Balthasar et al that the supernatural life merely renders explicit our natural capacity for union with God. This, I hold, is a fundamental misunderstanding of traditional theology’s conception of what is meant by ‘connaturality.’ Just because supernature does not do violence to our nature, that does not mean that it merely illumines what is already possessed by nature. Indeed, interestingly enough, the anthropology of the Nouvelle Theologie’s key figures corresponds to how Aquinas sees the fall of Satan: Aquinas says that Satan rebelled when he discovered that he would have to receive the beatific vision by grace rather than as a capacity of his angelic nature. In turn, what those modern theologians argue for their nature corresponds exactly to what Satan argued for his nature.

Unfortunately, Catholic theology has tended to oscillate between a vertical—Cartesian-influenced—two-tier Thomism that in its worst exhibitions presents the Christian as a kind of moral schizophrenic, and a collapsing of supernature into nature in such a way that naturalises the whole Christian Mystery. I reject both positions. For a while, I thought the way to escape this dichotomy was that of rejecting the Thomist account of grace as ‘created supernature’ in favour of the Palamite conception of grace as uncreated divine energeia (which after all has never been condemned by Rome, and might seem to better explain the experience of many of Latin Christianity’s great mystics, e.g., John of the Cross). But it was reading Andrew Pinsent’s book The Second Person Perspective in Aquinas’s Ethics, mentioned in a previous missive to you, that convinced me not only of the veracity of St. Thomas’s account of grace, but also that his position has been widely misunderstood, and repeatedly so, which is in large part the reason for Catholic theology’s unfortunate proclivity to oscillate between two errors and rarely to land on the truth, the practical consequences of which have routinely been nothing short of disastrous. Thus, I argue neither for the naturalist account of supernature (perpetuated—as you observe—by both Barron and Schindler), nor the mechanical pseudo-Thomism that has so often plagued the low-grade manuals of Catholic seminaries. At the risk of appearing conceited, I claim to stick with St. Thomas.

Yours in the Lord, as ever,


Letter 7

Dear Sebastian,

I have thought for a long time—and I’m sure this idea has already been worked out in detail by other theologians—that the hypostatic union of the Incarnate Word offers us a template for understanding analogously what is true of the union of nature and grace.

That is, the infusion and influence of grace must be to the depths of the person, so that we are not looking at a Nestorian “two persons” scenario: the man Jesus of Nazareth and the Son of God, as if in us there is the natural man with all his natural capacities, and then a supernatural something-or-other that rides on top, making use of nature but not entering into and transforming it, rather like a rider on his horse: a fine collaboration but no more than that. Instead, grace must be, to use the wonderful phrase of older spiritual writers, the life of my soul, as my soul is the life of my body. What makes the body alive is the soul, entirely present in every part of it; and what makes the soul alive is sanctifying grace, bringing every power of the soul to deiformitas or conformity to God, and empowering it for supernatural action. So, indeed, not a two-tiered system but a unified vision of human-divine flourishing, analogous (again) to the theandric activity of Christ.

On the other hand, there is an almost monophysite fusion of nature and grace on the part of the De Lubacians and the Rahnerians, albeit in contrary ways, as Fr. Serafino Lanzetta nicely explains in his little book God’s Abode with Man: The Mystery of Divine GraceAgain, the old formula “united but not confused, distinct but not divided” comes to mind.

As for the rest of what you’ve written, it has given me much to ponder. Thank you again for taking the time to work out your position so convincingly. I look forward to future exchanges prompted by our common passion for the truth in Jesus Christ.

Yours in Him,


[1]We Do Not Need a New, Very Different St. Benedict, Part I: Europe is Benedictine”; “We Do Not Need a New, Very Different St. Benedict, Part II: The Fall of Monasticism and the Rise of Clerical Managerialism”; “We Do Not Need a New, Very Different St. Benedict, Part III: The Church of the Future Must Be Monastic

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