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  • Henri de Lubac, Humani Generis, and the Natural Desire for a Supernatural End
  • Jacob W. Wood

Although it met with an initial flurry of resistance,1 Henri de Lubac's theological thesis that man has a "natural desire for a supernatural end," together with his historical thesis that the denial of such a desire lies at the heart of modern secularism, became the generally accepted Thomist consensus until the close of the twentieth century.2 Recently, however, the consensus has begun to wane. Few disagree that de Lubac's thought on the natural desire for God remains significant for contemporary theology. After all, it bears an important relationship to the thought of Joseph Ratzinger as found throughout curial documents published under Ratzinger's tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as his pontifical documents as Pope Benedict XVI.3 However, beginning with the completion of [End Page 1209] Lawrence Feingold's dissertation in 2001 and its subsequent publication in 2010, a number of scholars have begun to question the historical, metaphysical, and theological consistency of de Lubac's thought.4 There are three criticisms common to these recent critiques. Historically, it is alleged that the natural desire for a supernatural end introduces a novel interpretation of Aquinas into the Thomistic tradition. Metaphysically, it is alleged that de Lubac's theological novum compromises the natural knowability of human nature's telos, and consequently our ability to know the natural law. Theologically, it is alleged that the natural desire for a supernatural end compromises the gratuity of grace.

The purpose of the present article is neither to prove nor to disprove de Lubac's understanding of the natural desire for a supernatural end. It is, rather, to suggest a more comprehensive historical-theological context for de Lubac's theological anthropology, and so to indicate where a proof or disproof might be found. It would not be found in the historical argument. De Lubac's idea of a natural desire for a supernatural end is not an historical novum; it was a foundational commitment of the Thomism of the Aegidian tradition, which was established by Giles of Rome, OESA (Aegidius Romanus), one of Aquinas's students at the University of Paris. Nor would it be found in the metaphysical argument. The Aegidian tradition affords more than one way to balance the anthropology of a natural desire for a supernatural end with an account of the natural law, relying upon a clear distinction between nature and grace. If anything, it would be found in the theological question of the gratuity of grace. But, even here, de Lubac's Aegidian context makes the question more subtle than is generally realized. For, while all the members of the Aegidian tradition agreed that there is a natural desire for a supernatural end, they disagreed quite divergently as to how a theological account of [End Page 1210] that desire should be articulated. Their opinions, highly developed but little examined, can infuse contemporary debates on this question with an additional level of subtlety.

The article will be divided into five sections. The first will explain the natural desire for a supernatural end as bequeathed to the Aegidian tradition by Giles of Rome, while the second will examine four figures who developed Giles's understanding within the tradition that followed him: Michael Paludanus, Giovanni Berti, Fulgence Lafosse, and Michelangelo Marcelli.

The third section will explain how de Lubac utilized these Aegidian figures to articulate the natural desire for a supernatural end in his works on nature and grace from the beginning of his career until just before Humani Generis. In de Lubac's first articles on nature and grace, he relies on Berti: human nature necessarily has a natural desire for the vision of God; de potentia absoluta, God could withhold the grace necessary for that vision, but de potentia ordinata, we could hardly imagine him doing so. In Surnaturel (1946) de Lubac relies on Marcelli, although there remains some question as to whether de Lubac embraced Marcelli's more extreme conclusion: there is a distinction between the human species as such and the human species made in the image of God...


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