Do Catholics believe our reason is fallen?

One of the reasons I felt drawn to Calvinist theology is the idea of total depravity. That’s not the idea that people are all bad, or as bad as they could possibly be, but that every part of our nature is fallen: our bodies are fallen, our minds are fallen, our wills are fallen, our emotions are fallen. And, our reason is fallen, so we cannot simply reason our way to God.

This resonated with me because I know that things that had seemed silly or wrong to me before my conversion made sense after. God absolutely gave me the grace to receive the truth of the gospel.

The more extreme consequences of total depravity I’m not sure I agree with–I don’t know that God actually sees our best work as filthy rags because they are tainted by our sin. However, I definitely believe that, absent God’s grace in our lives and work in our hearts, we cannot come to accept spiritual truth.

Does Catholic theology hold that we can reason our way to faith? Does it teach that grace is required for spiritual understanding?

If I understand total depravity correctly, there is nothing that can be done to please God so Christ’s righteousness “covers” us.

The Catholic position is that we are fallen and our wills are disordered/compromised but not totally depraved. We can cooperate with Gods grace and Christ’s righteousness is infused in that we increase in righteousness. Grace is the key, on our own we can do nothing before God. But in Calvinism, we don’t cooperate with the grace, it does its thing all on its own.

The other difference is that God does not offer his Grace to everyone under Calvinism, only the elect. In Catholicism, Grace is offered to all but may be rejected. That being said, I know what I have described is just skimming the surface of the two theologies.

The initial grace of justification is a free gift and I don’t believe Catholic theology would say you can reason your way to faith. That sounds a little like Palagianism to me.

Well yeah, in that it resides in the head of a fall-subjected human body.


This is my understanding, and I don’t know if this is official doctrine, but my understanding is that our reason is not fallen per se, but that our ability to subject our passions to our reason is wounded.

As an evangelical Christian who has been researching Catholic Theology I’ve found the following two books to be helpful. They both do a good job of explaining Catholic Theology and compare it to Reformed Theology. Both books are respectful to Catholic belief and both authors have worked with Catholics in various ministries.

The first book is Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences by Norman Giesler.

This is an older book that was published in the mid-90’s but much of the information is still relevant. He starts the book with what Catholics and Evangelicals have in common. The 2nd part of the book is differences and he does a good job of comparing and contrasting areas of disagreement. The final part is about areas that Catholics and Evangelicals can join together for the betterment of our communities and country.

The second book is a newer book. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment by Gregg R. Allison This book goes section by section through the Catechism of the Catholic Church and does a great job of answering questions like the one you have placed. It is a little more intellectual than the other book.

The reason I recommend these books is that the writers aren’t Catholic bashing (which many Protestant authors/speakers are guilty of doing), they don’t misrepresent Catholic Doctrine, and they give both sides of the debate. However, they are both Reformed Theologians and are giving the Reformed point of view. Even so, they are helpful for Evangelicals who are investigating Catholicism or Catholics who want to understand Reformed Theology.

Well, if you really really want to learn about Catholic theology, you want to go to sources like Ott or Denzinger, that list all the doctrines and talk about their levels of authoritativeness.

(Stuff along these lines: “X is a dogma, Y is something everybody teaches, Z clearly comes from the Bible… but ZZ is just from deduction and guessing, so you can disagree with it if you like.”)

The late great Fr. Hardon has a really good talk somewhere about this, but the sound quality was really lousy and I don’t remember where I downloaded it.


– The traditional Catholic teaching is that Adam and Eve were created to have a nature that was “very good,” and then were given all sorts of supernatural graces to go along with their new responsibilities of Adam “caring and tending” for the earth (liturgical language used for Temple service by priests), and of Eve helping Adam, as well as the whole “be fruitful and multiply” and “taming/subduing” the earth and its creatures.

So then they fell. Sin deprived them of most of their various supernatural graces, like long life and health, easy obedience by the earth and its creatures, and seeing God for chats in the evening.

However, humans still had their created nature (although it was twisted a bit). Since we started out with a nature higher than the animals, and mainly lost God’s add-ons of grace, this still leaves us reasonably “good.”

– Theology associated with total depravity tends to argue that God didn’t create humans to be super-spiffier than the animals in the first place, and didn’t give Adam and Eve a ton of extra graces; and therefore the Fall basically busted up the entire tower of Legos and left us worse off than the animals. We can’t trust reason, creativity, or anything else to give us honest results; and there is no such thing as a righteous pagan or righteous Jew, no matter what the Bible says about Job or Joseph.

The interesting bit is that this line of theology has actually gotten worse connotations since the Reformation. The Reformation guys all took Latin, and to them, “depravatus” meant “crooked, twisted, deformed.” This means that they still had in their minds that we started out straight-souled and spiritually shapely; the important bit was “totally” depraved versus just mostly messed up.

We have really horrible connotations in English for the word “depraved,” so the temptation is for people to see “total depravity” as an even worse state than the Reformation people meant by it!

What people believe about Creation and the current state of humanity has had a big influence on literature and art.

Shakespeare may or may not have been a secret Catholic, but his position on the matter seems to be that of traditional Catholic theology:

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!
In form and moving, how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel,
in apprehension
how like a god!
The beauty of the world,
The paragon of animals.
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?*

  • apprehension – understanding, intellect.

Tolkien once had a big discussion and argument with C.S. Lewis about this point. Lewis had been raised Calvinist-ishly in Belfast and had become an atheist for a long time before going to Anglicanism. Tolkien was Catholic.

Lewis was raised with this idea that humans were totally depraved, and therefore initially thought that the best you could say about ancient pagan myths about God or heaven was that they were “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien had the traditional Catholic idea that the Holy Spirit occasionally inspired even pagans (as happened to Balaam), and that many human-created myths and stories and poems were therefore actually preparations for the Gospel. (Although the other side of this idea is that many myths are demonically inspired, or are just humans messing around.) Tolkien also argued that even strictly human-created uninspired stories are more than “lies,” because even our Fallen reason and creative powers still are God-given.

So Tolkien wrote this long poem, “Mythopoeia,” as a response. It is well worth reading the whole thing, as it is really one of the great English poems, period. (Unfortunately the online copies have some bad typos, so you’ll want to look at the better old book copies.)

But here’s the bit about non-total depravity…

“The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls Him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned…”

I also like this bit, praising the virtuous pagan poets:

“I would with the beleaguered fools be told
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant King,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen –
heraldic emblems of a Lord unseen.”

Sir Philip Sidney’s treatise on poetry also includes a lot of this kind of idea of the dignity of poetry and creativity showing the dignity of even Fallen man. And he was pretty certainly a Protestant/Anglican, but found that art demanded that he see humans as not totally depraved. (Which doesn’t mean there can’t be Calvinist art, of course.)

The problem with Calvinist theology is that it is Pelagian at its very core. This is because they started off with the same assumptions Pelagius did about human nature: that it was originally good but only in a naturally good way. This means that when Adam fell, he was only able to fall from natural goodness. Pelagius (rightly) saw this as impossible, since it would mean man’s nature was intrinsically evil, having a “sin nature,” and so Pelagius (understandably) said that Adam couldn’t have fallen. The Reformers agreed with this, but took it in the other direction, saying man’s nature became intrinsically evil, and thus he had a sin nature as a consequence of Adam’s sin.

The Catholic/Augustintian/Biblical view of human nature makes a crucial distinction in order to avoid Pelagianism. Man was originally naturally good, but he also had a super-natural (i.e. beyond natural) goodness added on top of his human nature. Catholics call this super-natural goodness “grace” (e.g. gifts of Immortality and Indwelling of the Holy Spirit). This is why Adam was free from suffering and death, because he had the grace of Immortality added on top of his humanity. On his own, Adam would not have been immortal, as this is a divine characteristic, but God added this gift on top of Adam’s humanity. When Adam fell, he thus truly fell from grace, and was reduced to a natural-only humanity (stripped of the gracious gifts added on top).

The Calvinist position runs into serious problems, including embracing Pelagianism, such as being unable to explain how Jesus became incarnate and died if Jesus was without sin. If Mary had a sin-nature, then all She could pass onto Jesus was her sin nature, but since Jesus didn’t have a sin nature, then He couldn’t have taken on Mary’s humanity. Thus Calvinism cannot explain the Incarnation. Further, if Jesus was without sin, then how was He able to suffer and die, since having a sin nature is what allows a person to suffer and die? The Catholic position has no problems here, because we distinguish between Nature and Grace, with Grace building on top of Nature, and with the possibility of Grace being removed from Nature leaving Nature on it’s own.

This link will turn your world upside down on the issue of Original Sin:

The Second Council of Orange back in Augustine’s day condemned the heresy of (semi) Pelagianism. Many Calvinists look to this Council as proof against Catholicism, yet this very Council of Orange endorses Catholic anthropology (i.e. how human nature is understood) and rejects Calvinist anthropology in a few places. For example, see what Orange says:
CANON 19. That a man can be saved only when God shows mercy. Human nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could be no means save itself, without the assistance of the Creator; hence since man cannot safe- guard his salvation without the grace of God, which is a gift, how will he be able to restore what he has lost without the grace of God?
The Council teaches here that human nature remained in the “sound state” in which it was created. The PROBLEM was thus not with human nature, but with human nature losing the gracious gifts added on top of human nature. Those gifts need to be restored.

So human Reason remained after Adam fell, but the gracious gifts that helped man properly use his Reason were lost, leaving man with the use of Reason alone. The problem with Reason Alone is that man being subject to suffering, lusts, etc, now more easily gives into sin, doesn’t think clearly, etc. In this sense we can say Reason is “fallen,” since Reason was originally elevated by grace. But we wouldn’t say Reason was lost.

No, that isn’t what it says!

The Council of Orange is saying that, even if Adam and Eve had not fallen, and thus “even if human nature had remained in a sound state,” we still couldn’t have saved ourselves. (And therefore, Pelagianism would still not have worked. But in a sinful fallen world, it is even more obviously not working.)

You are being misled by reading this quote in English, in an archaic translation. “Even though” and “even if” used to be equivalent phrases. Nowadays, “even though” means something different.

Actually, if you look at Canon 1 of that same Second Council of Orange, you will find the following:

  1. If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20); and, “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey?” (Rom. 6:126); and, “For whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).

Here’s the actual Latin text of Canon 19. “Etiam si” is the relevant phrase, and in contemporary American English, it indeed means “even if”.

Neminem nisi Deo miserante salvari.

XIX. Natura humana, etiam si in illa integritate in qua est condita permaneret, nullo modo seipsam, Creatore non suo adjuvante, servaret. Unde cum sine gratia Dei salutem non possit custodire quam accepit, quomodo sine Dei gratia poterit reparare quam perdidit?

Here’s my excruciatingly literal translation:

"That nobody is to be saved except by God pitying him.

“19. Even if human nature would have remained in the wholeness in which it was built, it could not have preserved itself in any way, without its Creator helping it. And since, without God’s grace, it could not keep the salvation which it had received, how could it, without God’s grace, retrieve what it had lost?”

Our human power of reason is not generally seen as being twisted much by the Fall – as long as we remain in a state of grace, or are trying to know what is true. (Sin makes you stupid, because you don’t want to see the truth of things.) This is by the mercy of God, Who is Truth Himself and wishes us to know Him. It is also part of being made in the image and likeness of God.

Human reason is seen as having been restricted by the Fall. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve would have been able to understand stuff that we can’t, mostly because their bodies were working perfectly (and that includes their brains). We use tools to supplement the weaknesses of our reason, just as we use tools to compensate for the weaknesses of our bodies.

So we relied on grace before and after the Fall?

Yes. Everything we have is a gift of God. He made everything, and we are nothing without Him.

That is interesting, and makes sense with the context of the Canon 19. I would clarify though for others reading that everything else I’ve said is in line with the traditional Catholic understanding of Grace & Nature. Human nature was not corrupted in the Protestant sense of Total Depravity / Sin-Nature.

And by denying/downplaying the role of Sanctifying Grace and Preturnatural gifts, Protestants have unwittingly assumed a Pelagian framework for their understanding of Salvation, as certain Catholic theologians have noted. In the Protestant understanding, man must live a life of perfect obedience by human ability alone in order to attain Heaven. But since man fell, they teach Jesus had to live this life of perfect human obedience in our place and impute this perfect obedience to us, making Jesus’ perfect obedience purely natural as well. Calvinists hate the word synergism, but the reality is synergism is the opposite of Pelagianism.

Yep - Good, but fallen

The bottom of this article on concupiscence lists some of the notions of the Reformers that disagreed with Church teaching.

This is one of the most relevant Church teachings in regard to you question, from the Catechism:
**1993 Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:

When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight.42**

Man cannot possibly be saved without God, and yet God won’t save us without us. In fact, St Augustine put it just this way. “He who made you without your consent won’t save you without your consent”.

A very critical distinction between Catholicism and Calvinism, which teaches, essentially, that He who made you without your consent saves-or damns- you without your consent.

Catholic catechism indicates faith and reason can interact.

Luther had less than nice things to say about reason (to put it mildly)


I will offer one passage to ponder… if man is completely deprave, how was Abel able to offer to Yahweh God his Sacrificial Offering… and why did it please God?

…any theology that espouses depravity and lack of freewill cannot but contradict the very first demonstration of Worship in Sacred Scriptures.

Maran atha!


**God bless Jcrichton and every readers of the CAF.


6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.

8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

1 cor.2:14;
But the natural man does not receives the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.


10 As it written.
“There is no one righteous, not even one;

11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.

12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

13 “Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The** poison of vipers** is on their lips.”

14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;

16 ruin and** misery** mark their ways,

17 and the way of peace they do not know.”

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Strictly speaking only a person in the STATE OF GRACE can merit, as defined by the Church (Denzinger 1576, 1582).

John 15:5; “… for without Me you can do nothing.”

**Everything we have is a gift of God. **
He made everything, and we are nothing without Him and we can do nothing without Him.

**As a natural/carnal man is so much depraved by the fall; **
How was Abel able to offer to Yahweh God his Sacrificial Offering… and why did it please God?

The Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church helps us to answer the above question.

2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.
Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel:

3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”?

4 And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

5** So too, at the present time** there is a remnant according to the election of grace.

**As we see above, from the fall, **God always reserved for Himself His elect, Abel was the first.

God is the One who performed the Sacrificial Offering through Abel His first elect.

Phil.2:13; “For it is God who works in you BOTH TO WILL and TO ACT for His good pleasure.”

Similarly, the Council of Orange Canon 25 states, “In every good work, it is not we who begin … but He (God) first inspires us.” (#329.2)

Aquinas said, “God changes the will without forcing it.
But he can change the will from the fact that He himself operates in the will as He does in nature,” De Veritatis 22:9.


De gratia Christi 25, 26:
“For not only has God given us our ability and helps it, but He even works [brings about] willing and acting in us; not that we do not will or that we do not act, but that without His help we neither will anything good nor do it.”

De gratia et libero arbitrio 16, 32:
“It is certain that we will when we will; but He brings it about that we will good. . . . It is certain that we act when we act, but He brings it about that we act, PROVIDING MOST EFFECTIVE POWERS TO THE WILL.”

In other words, when God commands, He capacitates the hearer to respond.

Our cooperation is produced (not just enabled) by God’s operation.

Yet the ability to respond is also His gift.

God bless Jcrichton and every readers of the CAF.


Hi, LatinRight!

Excellent post!

I love the way you presented both measure and countermeasure… it is by employing all of God’s Revelation (both the Oral and Written Word) that we can make the correct exegesis.

Yes, the Fall made man useless/corrupt; yet, God’s Grace is Above and Beyond man’s limitations and unrighteousness; it is through God’s Free Gift of Grace that man can be extracted/rescued from his corrupt state. But, as the Church has correctly Taught throughout the ages, man’s freewill must respond to God’s Call to Life.

We don’t see a Command, in Scriptures, to Abel; but we know from his response to God that the Holy Spirit Compelled him to seek and honor Yahweh God.

…notice St. John’s 1:5:

[FONT=“Garamond”][size=]The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

…the corruption that engulfed man cannot overpower God’s Grace!

(Thank you for your Blessings; may the Holy Spirit Bless you abundantly, as well!)

Maran atha!



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