Lesson 11: Infused Virtue as a Gift from Christ

Lecture 6A

In this lesson you will learn about the qualities or graces that God bestows on the Christian believer in coordination with the sacramental dispensation and life of the Church. In light of the distinction between the infused and acquired virtues, we can envisage two concrete alternatives: first, the case of the believer, who enjoys the life of grace but does not possess a particular acquired virtue; second, the case of the person who possesses acquired virtue, but, for whatever reason, does not enjoy the benefits of a living relationship with Christ. The moral life unfolds differently in each case. First of all, consider the status of the newly-baptized.

Of course, juridical categories remain hopelessly inadequate in sacramental theology, which has to deal with community actions whose symbolism is transformed by the intervention of Christ. Theologians teach that the character of baptism places the seal of the risen Christ, imparted by the Spirit, on those who receive it. Although questions about the relationship of grace to the infused virtues exercised authors during the period of high scholasticism, it suffices to observe that baptism gives those who receive it a gift which falls within the logic of the incarnation, the possibility of joining with Christ in his sacramental worship. When those brought to faith by the preaching of the word receive baptism, they confess their belief publicly as the community of believers welcomes them. Incorporation into Christ means, among other benefits, that those who are baptized possess the ability to live in conformity with the norms established for Christian conduct. ( C.E. O'Neill, Sacramental Realism: A General Theory of the Sacraments provides a fuller account of the theology of baptism, esp. c. 5). This accounts for the common Christian teaching that, at baptism, the believer receives the full complement of the infused virtues. The Roman Catechism calls this the "comitatum gratiae." This effect of baptism also recalls the important connection which the Church recognizes between worship and morality.

The case of infant baptism presents a special set of difficulties. What meaning can be assigned to the presence of the infused virtues in one whose psychological constitution is not developed enough to serve as the basis for an acquired habitus? The scholastic theologians, whose motto "Always distinguish" served them well, replied that, for the infant, the infused virtues supplied only the principles of virtuous operation. These virtues could not, however, account for the actual practice of virtue, since the individual lacked the physical and psychological abilities required for any moral act. In the case of the infant, then, the actualization of the infused virtues would accompany the normal development of human maturity which results from Christian upbringing. Aquinas even defines fornication as morally defective partially on the basis that one cannot assure that the child of such a union will receive proper supervision. See his discussion in IIa-IIae q. 154, a. 2. In any event, the theology of the virtues upholds the importance of both Christian instruction and parental guidance for children.

On the other hand, the case of the adult who receives baptism is different. For the adult already possesses the developed physical and psychological capacities which make the practice of virtue possible. Since there is no such thing as a purely supernatural human action, the infused virtues, which amount to freely-given graces, cannot by themselves account exclusively for any human action, not even one which comes under the influence of divine grace. Still, the infused virtues do establish a capacity--a principle--for salvific actions which result from the believer's incorporation into Christ. Aquinas explains how this "principle" of the infused virtue operates. "Facility of operation with respect to virtuous activity," he writes, "comes about in two ways: first, from a previous habitus, but the infused virtues do not supply this kind of facility; second, as an originating principle, which comes about as a result of a strong adherence to the object of virtue. And this [kind of facility] infused virtue bestows immediately, by way of principle" (In IV Sententiarum d. 14, q. 2, a. 2). An early Christian document substantially supports this interpretation of baptism's effect on the moral life of the believer. The Letter to Barnabas tells us: "This means that we go down into the water full of sins and foulness, and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit" (Letter to Barnabas, 11:11 (PG 2, 760).

In any event, the infused virtues do provide believers with a unique moral capacity; for, given the presence of these virtues, the members of Christ adhere strongly to the object of virtue. This means that the newly-baptized adult, whatever the actual state of his acquired moral development, possesses a source or principle for right conduct which derives exclusively from baptismal faith. Christ himself now makes it possible for such a one to adhere to the object of virtue. For the believer, as a result of baptism's sacramental efficacy, enjoys a personal relationship with Jesus which cannot fail to provide whatever Christian virtue requires. Although current liturgical practice rightly emphasizes pre-baptismal preparation for adults coming to faith, the full effects of incorporation into Christ result only from the action of the Spirit effectively completed in the baptismal bath. By baptismal grace, the believer possesses a source of moral strength previously unavailable: "we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit." Moreover, this new moral strength belongs both to those who already possess the acquired virtues and to those who approach baptism with vicious habitus, but it functions differently in each case.

Accordingly, one can consider two typical cases. The first is the adult who comes to Christian faith and baptism with certain bad habitus, specific acquired vices. Of course, the complete gratuity of divine grace means that its bestowal never depends on the moral status of the one who receives it. God loves us, not because we are good, but because he is. See De potentia q. 3, a. 15, ad 14um: "The ultimate end is not the communication of goodness, but rather divine goodness itself. It is from his love of this goodness that God wills it to be communicated. In fact, when he acts because of his goodness, it is not as if he were pursuing something that he does not have, but, as it were, willing to communicate what he has. For he does not act from desire of the end, but from love of the end." Thus it remains entirely possible that adults who come to the saving waters of baptism, although they may possess the resolve to renounce Satan and sin, still bear the marks of past sins. Statistically, this undoubtedly is true of the majority of actual cases. In this circumstance, what do the infused virtues accomplish?

Reading Assignments

Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics, chaps 4-6.

Romanus Cessario, O.P., "On Bad Actions, Good Intentions, and Loving God: Three Much-Misunderstood Issues about the Happy Life that St. Thomas Clarifies for Us," Logos 1.2 (1997): 100-124


1) Why are virtues necessary for Christian living?

2) Discuss the seven virtues of the Christian life.

3) How do the theological virtues ensure that our moral choices remains ordered toward God.


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