I was thinking that a post on this topic (or something very similar) might be useful in view of certain comboxes, where the fact that God gives grace even to those who do not consequently become Christians has been - if not exactly front and center for discussion, at least in the background. But that was not on my mind when I sat down to write the next post in my continuing series based upon passages in the Summa Theologica that struck me as somehow interesting while I was reading it. I was simply going to blog on the next note in my list.
Lo and behold, that next note is on I-II Q10 A4: Whether the will is moved of necessity by the exterior mover which is God? Woo Hoo!
Why is this serendipitous? Because it comes down to specifically addressing an issue central to the two referenced comboxes: namely, whether God's grace is resistible or not. It's not too hard to see that my comments in them really depend upon the answer to that question: if grace is irresistible, then God has not given it to anyone who doesn't subsequently become a Christian; consequently my use of Romans 10:2, Acts 17:26-27, and (with TheDen) Acts 10:34-35 would have been invalid (of course, Protestants would still face what seems to me to be an insurmountable problem in explaining such passages in terms of "irresistible grace" themselves, but at least my usage of them would have been invalid if they were right about that notion). On the other hand, if grace can be resisted or rejected, then my usage of these passages makes good sense - Jews who have zeal for God, and pagan Athenians who worship an unknown God, and all unbelievers who (in the words of Acts 17) seek or grope after God, do so because of grace that they have received from him - grace that they might one day reject (and which most of the Jews of St. Paul's day did reject, denying that Jesus was their Messiah).
So this part of the Summa is wonderfully relevant. What does St. Thomas say? First, he quotes Sirach 15:14 ("When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice"), and then:
As Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) "it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things." Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally.In short: God does not compel our wills. To do so would be effectively to "destroy" human nature, since (as Sirach says) he made us with free will.
This does not mean, however, that God's providential plan for creation can be thwarted by us.
The Divine will extends not only to the doing of something by the thing which He moves, but also to its being done in a way which is fitting to the nature of that thing. And therefore it would be more repugnant to the Divine motion, for the will to be moved of necessity, which is not fitting to its nature; than for it to be moved freely, which is becoming to its nature.God greatness is such that he can ensure that his purposes are accomplished in our lives by our free choice, so that he does not in any way trample upon the free will that he gave us, while at the same time his own will is accomplished without fail.
Say not: "it was God's doing that I fell away"; for what he hates he does not do. Say not: "It was he who set me astray"; for he has no need of wicked man. ... Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him (Sirach 15: 11-12, 17).Our choices are our own. But we have enslaved ourselves to sin, and only by God's grace can we be freed from it. If we prefer our chains, though, he will not force us to go free. In either case, his own perfect will is done.
Some folks might say that no one would resist grace "even if they could:" given the choice, full understanding of the circumstances, and complete comprehension of the consequences of the choice, no one (it is said) would ever turn away from Christ. Unfortunately such people are forgetting that this was precisely the choice presented to Satan and the demons, and yet they all fell away. They also seem not to be taking into consideration the effects of a lifetime of choices.
A critical part of Catholic moral theology is the theory of virtues and vices: habits of good or evil behavior that characterize who we are. The virtuous man does what is right out of habit because it is a part of his nature, so to speak, after much repetition, to do what is right. So too the "vicious" man, who does evil out of habit, because after much repetition it has become a part of his "nature" (so to speak) to do so. These habits for good or ill become so ingrained in us that to do them is part of what it means for us to be who we are as individuals. How likely is it that a man accustomed by long years to doing evil will actually change his ways? Rather unlikely, apart from God's help. And even then he may not want that help, because he may become so enslaved to evil doing as to not even seriously contemplate any other course of action.
It is precisely for this reason that we need to take our sins most seriously, especially when we are young. We must not dally with them. By them we set patterns for ourselves such that our lives (especially in later years, when the habits are really hard to break) are characterized not by love for God, but by love for that which separates us from him. Instead, we need to actively build (with God's help) virtuous lives focused upon our Savior. If we come to the end of our lives bound by sin, we won't be able to blame God. His purposes will be accomplished, and we will get what we chose for ourselves - one sin at a time, one day at a time. May God have mercy upon us and help us not to resist his grace, but to seize it and cling to it, to him, and to our Savior, so that we may not fall away.