From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(b) The Molinist Controversy.

The teaching of St. Thomas on Grace was the teaching followed generally, not merely by the Dominicans, but by most of the theologians belonging to the secular clergy and to the other religious orders. When, however, the systems of Calvin and Luther began to take root some of those who were brought into close contact with the new doctrines arrived at the conclusion that the arguments of their opponents could be overcome more effectually by introducing some modifications of the theories of St. Thomas concerning the operation of Grace and Free-will. The Jesuits particularly were of this opinion, and in 1584 the general, Aquaviva, allowed his subjects to depart in some measure from the teaching of the Summa. This step was regarded with disfavour in many influential quarters, and induced scholars to be much more critical about Jesuit theology than otherwise they might have been. In their College at Louvain there were two Jesuit theologians Lessius (1584-1623) and Hamel, who both in their lectures and theses advanced certain theories on man’s co-operation with Grace and on Predestination, that were deemed by many to be dangerously akin to the doctrine of the Semi-Pelagians (1587). The fact that the Jesuits had been the consistent opponents of Baianism induced Baius and his friends to cast the whole weight of their influence against Lessius. A sharp controversy broke out once more in the Netherlands. The Universities of Louvain and Douay censured thirty-four propositions of Lessius as Semi-Pelagian, while the Universities of Ingolstadt and Mainz declared in favour of their orthodoxy. The matter having been referred to Rome, Sixtus V. imposed silence on both parties, without pronouncing any formal condemnation or approval of the propositions that had been denounced (1588).

The controversy in the Spanish Netherlands was only the prelude to a much more serious conflict in Spain itself. In 1588 the well-known Jesuit, Luis de Molina (1535-1600) published at Lisbon his celebrated work, Concordia liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis etc. with the approbation of the Dominican, Bartholomew Ferreira, and the permission of the Inquisition. Hardly had the work left the printing press than it was attacked warmly by Domingo Banez (1528-1604), the friend and spiritual director of St. Teresa, and one of the ablest Dominicans of his time. He had been engaged already in a controversy with the Jesuit, Montemaior, on the same subject of Grace, but the publication of Molina’s book added new fuel to the flame, and in a short time the dispute assumed such serious proportions that bishops, theologians, universities, students, and even the leading officials of the state, were obliged to take sides. The Dominicans supported Banez, while the Jesuits with some few exceptions rallied to the side of Molina. The latter’s book was denounced to the Inquisition, but as a counterblast to this Banez also was accused of very serious errors. If Molina was blamed for being a Semi-Pelagian, Banez was charged with having steered too closely to Calvinism. In the hope of restoring peace to the Church in Spain Clement VIII. reserved the decision of the case to his own tribunal (1596).

To get a grasp of the meaning of the controversy, it should be borne in mind that in all theories concerning the operation of Grace three points must be safeguarded by all Catholic theologians, namely, man’s dependence upon God as the First Cause of all his actions natural as well as supernatural, human liberty, and God’s omniscience or foreknowledge of man’s conduct. Following in the footsteps of St. Thomas, the Dominicans maintained that when God wishes man to perform a good act He not only gives assistance, but He actually moves or predetermines the will so that it must infallibly act. In this way the entire act comes from God as the First Cause, and at the same time it is the free act of the creature, because the human will though moved and predetermined by God acts according to its own nature, that is to say, it acts freely. In His eternal decrees by which God ordained to give this premotion or predetermination He sees infallibly the actions and conduct of men, and acting on this knowledge He predestines the just to glory ante praevisa merita. According to this system, therefore, the efficaciousness of Grace comes from the Grace itself, and is not dependent upon the co-operation of the human will.

Against this Molina maintained that the human faculties having been elevated by what might be called prevenient Grace, so as to make them capable of producing a supernatural act, the act itself is performed by the will co-operating with the impulse given by God. Man is, therefore, free, and at the same time dependent upon God in the performance of every good act. He is free, because the human will may or may not co-operate with the divine assistance, and he is dependent upon God, because it is only by being elevated by prevenient Grace freely given by God that the human will is capable of co-operating in the production of a supernatural act. It follows, too, that the efficaciousness of Grace arises not from the Grace itself but from the free co-operation of the will, and that a Grace in itself truly sufficient might not be efficacious through the failure of the will to co-operate with it. The omniscience of God is safeguarded, because, according to Molina, God sees infallibly man’s conduct by means of the scientia media or knowledge of future conditional events (so called because it stands midway between the knowledge of possibles and the knowledge of actuals). That is to say He sees infallibly what man would do freely in all possible circumstances were he given this or that particular Grace, and acting upon this knowledge He predestines the just to glory post praevisa merita. The main difficulty urged against Molina was, that by conceding too much to human liberty he was but renewing in another form the errors of Pelagius; while the principal objection brought forward against the Dominicans was, that by conceding too much to Grace they were destroying human liberty, and approaching too closely to Calvin’s teaching on Predestination. Needless to say, however much they differed on the points, both the followers of St. Thomas and the friends of Molina were at one in repudiating the doctrines of Calvin and Pelagius.

A special commission (Congregatio de Auxiliis), presided over by Cardinals Madrucci and Arrigone, was appointed to examine the questions at issue. The first session was held in January 1598, and in February of the same year the majority of the members reported in favour of condemning Molina’s book. Clement VIII. requested the commission to consider the evidence more fully, but in a comparatively short time the majority presented a second report unfavourable to Molina. Representatives of the Dominicans and Jesuits were invited to attend in the hope that by means of friendly discussion an agreement satisfactory to both parties might be secured. In 1601 the majority were in favour of condemning twenty propositions taken from Molina’s work, but the Pope refused to confirm the decision. From 1602 till 1605 the sessions were held in the presence of the Pope and of many of the cardinals. Among the consultors was Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh. The death of Clement VIII. in March 1605 led to an adjournment. In September 1605 the sessions were resumed and continued till March 1606, when the votes of the consultors were handed in. In July 1607 these were placed before the cardinals for their opinions, but a little later it was announced that the decision of the Holy See would be made public at the proper time, and that meanwhile both parties were at liberty to teach their opinions. Neither side was, however, to accuse the other of heresy. Since that time no definite decision has been given, and, so far as the dogmas of faith are concerned, theologians are at full liberty to accept Thomism or Molinism.

Chapter VI Section (b) Bibliography

See bibliography VI. (a). Molina, Liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis ... concordia, 1588. Augustin Le Blanc, Historia congregationis de auxiliis, etc., 1699, 1709. Elutherius, Historia controversiarum de auxiliis, etc., 1705-15. Schneeman, Enstehung und Entwicklung der thomistich-molinistischen Kontroverse, 1880. Gayraud, Thomisme et Molinisme, 1890. Dummermuth, S. Thomas et doctrina praemotionis physicae, 1886. Frins (S.J.), S. Thomas Aquin, doctrina de cooperatione Dei, etc., 1892. Dummermuth, Defensio doctrinae S. Thomae, etc., Responsio ad P. Frins, 1895.

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