A supernatural gift may be defined as something conferred on nature that is above all the powers (vires) of created nature. When God created man, He was not content with bestowing upon him the essential endowments required by man’s nature. He raised him to a higher state, adding certain gifts to which his nature had no claim. They comprise qualities and perfections, forces and energies, dignities and rights, destination to final objects, of which the essential constitution of man is not the principle; which are not required for the attainment of the final perfection of the natural order of man; and which can only be communicated by the free operation of God’s goodness and power. Some of these are absolutely supernatural, i.e. beyond the reach of all created nature (even of the angels), and elevate the creature to a dignity and perfection natural to God alone; others are only relatively supernatural (preternatural), i.e. above human nature only and elevate human nature to that state of higher perfection which is natural to the angels. The original state of man comprised both of these, and when he fell he lost both. Christ has restored to us the absolutely supernatural gifts, but the preternatural gifts He has not restored.
The absolutely supernatural gifts, which alone are the supernatural properly so called, are summed up in the divine adoption of man to be the son and heir of God. This expression, and the explanations given of it by the sacred writers, make it evident that the sonship is something far more than a relation founded upon the absence of sin; it is of a thoroughly intimate character, raising the creature from its naturally humble estate, and making it the object of a peculiar benevolence and complaisance on God’s part, admitting it to filial love, and enabling it to become God’s heir, i.e. a partaker of God’s own beatitude. “God sent his Son . . . that he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons (ten ouiothesian). And because you are sons, God hath sent the spirit of his son into your hearts, crying: Abba, Father. Therefore now he is (Gr. text: thou art) not a servant, but a son. And if a son, an heir also through God” (Galatians 4:4-7) “Who hath blessed us with [all] spiritual blessings in heavenly places, in Christ . . . Who hath predestinated unto the adoption of children (ouiothesian) through Jesus Christ unto himself” (Ephesians i, 3-5). “Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God” (1 John 3:1). Further, this exalted estate is described as a communication or partnership with the only-begotten Son of God, a participation in the privileges which are peculiar to Him in opposition to mere creatures. “That they all may be one, as thou, Father in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us. . . . And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, as we also are one: l in thee; and thou in me; that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:21-23). It is also styled fellowship (koinonia) “with the Father, and with his Son” (1 John 1:3), and “the communication (he koinonia) of the Holy Ghost” (2 Corinthians 13:13). Divine adoption is a new birth of the soul (John 1:12-13 and 3:5; 1 John 3:9; 5:1; 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23; James 1:18; Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:5). This regeneration implies the foundation of a higher state of being and life, resulting from a special Divine influence, and admitting us to the dignity of sons of God. “For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren” (Romans 8:29). cf. also 2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 3:26-27 and 4:19; Romans 13:14. As a consequence of this Divine adoption and new birth we are made “partakers of the divine nature” (theias koinonoi physeos, 2 Peter 1:4). The whole context of this passage and the passages already quoted show that this expression is to be taken as literally as possible not, indeed, as a generation from the substance of God, but as a communication of Divine life by the power of God, and a most intimate indwelling of His substance in the creature. Hence, too, the inheritance is not confined to natural goods. It embraces the possession and fruition of the good which is the natural inheritance of the Son of God, viz., the beatific vision. “We are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like to him because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then [in the beatific vision] face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The Fathers have not hesitated to call supernatural union of the creature with God the deification of the creature. This is a favorite expression of St. Irenæus (“Adv. Haer.”, III, xvii, xix; IV, xx, etc.), and is frequently used by St. Athanasius (see Newman, “St. Athanasius”, II, 88). See also St. Augustine (? Serm. cxci, “In Nat. Dom.”), quoted by St. Thomas (III:1:3).
In order to live worthy of our Divine dignity and to attain our Divine end, we stand in need of supernatural aid. This supernatural aid to a supernatural end is called grace. For our present purpose it will be sufficient to note that grace is either habitual (i.e. sanctifying, making us pleasing to God) or actual (i.e. enabling us to produce works deserving of salvation). There are other aids sometimes bestowed less for our own benefit than for the benefit of others. These are called gratiae gratis datae (charismata). They do not directly and immediately help to the attainment of our end, but assist as it were from without. The theological virtues and the moral virtues are graces properly so called. So. too, are the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
It may be well here to say a few words on the preternatural (relatively supernatural) gifts bestowed on our first parents, which are sometimes confused with the supernatural gifts properly so called. In the beginning God exempted man from the inherent weakness of his nature, i.e. the infirmities of the flesh and the consequent infirmities of the spirit. He made man immortal, impassible, free from concupiscence and ignorance, sinless, and lord of the earth. These privileges are beyond man’s nature, but not beyond that of some higher creature (e.g. the angels); hence they are preternatural (praeter naturam). The Fathers look upon them as a glorification of nature, applying the words of Psalm 8:5-9. In point of fact these gifts were not conferred apart from the supernatural gifts; a preternatural state is, however, conceivable, and the separability of the two sets of gifts is clear from our now possessing the supernatural without the preternatural gifts. “Although distinct and separable, unite into one harmonious and organic whole. The Fathers look upon this union in the original state of man as an anticipation of his state of final beatitude in the vision of God, so that grace bears to integrity the same relation which the future glory of the soul bears to the future glory of the body. Integrity and grace, when combined, elevate man to the most perfect likeness with God attainable in this life; they dispose and prepare him for the still more complete likeness of eternal life”.
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APA citation. (1909). Supernatural Gift. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 23, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06553a.htm
MLA citation. “Supernatural Gift.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 23 Feb. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06553a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.