Two tier theory

I have been reading a book that describes a “two tier” theory relationship between nature and grace. It seems to be attributed to Suarez or possibly Cajetan developed from (misinterpreting?) Aquinas, and it is described as a response to the Calvinst total depravity. It is described as popular among Catholics in protestant countries in an attempt to build bridges between Catholics and others. It is described as unwittingly fostering the secularization of western culture. It is also described as being partly to blame for the Modernist crisis.

My problem is I don’t understand what the “two-tier” theory is. Is anyone able to shed some light for me? The book is Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI by Tracey Rowland.

I’m not familiar with the term “two tier theory”, but are they referring to the Catholic teaching that grace builds on nature? I suppose I could see someone making the argument that such a teaching would emphasize the goodness of nature too much and lead people to think of grace as superfluous. Such an argument would be wrong, but I could imagine someone making it.

Is that what they are getting at or am I way off base?

The idea as I understand it is basically this:

  1. By nature people have the capacity to do certain kinds of good things: build houses, run countries justly, love their children, etc. However, none of this will lead to salvation. It doesn’t merit anything from God. By itself, it doesn’t make you worthy of eternal life.

  2. Grace, which is a free gift from God, “elevates” the soul so that it can share in eternal life. This enables “meritorious” good works which are worthy of eternal life. Grace comes through the sacraments.

The criticism is that this neat division between nature and grace, natural and supernatural, contributes to secularization because it leaves the world of “nature” to go on by itself, reserving grace/the supernatural for those things having to do with the world to come.

So, for instance, a student at the evangelical college where I used to teach, who was at that time a convinced and fairly radical libertarian, told me that he was working on a paper using Suarez and other late scholastics and talking about natural law. It transpired that he thought natural law was a “secular” concept that didn’t refer to God. I said, “I don’t know what Suarez thought, but I know that’s not what Aquinas thought.” I still don’t know if he or his secondary source was misreading Suarez or if Suarez really did distort Aquinas in this way. I don’t know even Cajetan’s work on Aquinas very well, let alone the later guys. But this is the sort of thing people who criticize the “two-tier” approach worry about. (There are other worries, too, but this is one relevant example.)

A more specific application of this problem concerns abortion. Catholics and other Christians are often criticized for “imposing their religious views” with regard to abortion. Catholics reasonably respond that murder is forbidden by natural law, and that we can discern by reason that the fetus is in fact a human being. But the pro-choice person is likely to respond: “So why is it that all the people who are anti-abortion just happen to be conservative religious people?” Now of course this isn’t true–there is a rising atheist prolife movement. But certainly being a traditional Christian makes you much more likely to be prolife, and it’s disingenuous for Catholics to say that their Catholicism has nothing to do with their being prolife. It pretty clearly does. But this is only a count “against” the claim that prolife arguments are based on natural law if we assume that natural law is supposed to be secular (and further that only secular-based arguments count “in the public square,” which is of course nonsense and almost never upheld consistently by anyone).


I love the way you described the two tier approach. But my question is about what you said about the sacraments giving grace. I shudder to think of trying to answer the question of why Catholics don’t look different than protestants if they have this gift of the sacraments that give them more chances at graces. Catholics should be holier because they have the gifts to be that way yet do not seem that way.

I would be interested in your analysis especially in light of these two groups functioning in either of the tiers.

Thank you to Joe and Contarini for the light you have shed for me on this subject, you have both given me insight, and I am starting to get my head around it.

To mdcpensive,

Can I ask, with all God’s sanctifying Graces, is it the responsibility of the receiver to respond to those Graces through faith otherwise they are not received or imparted?

Well, for starters Protestants do have baptism. And actually the idea that Protestants don’t get grace from their celebrations of the Eucharist is one of my difficulties in becoming Catholic. However, I don’t think the Church requires one to hold a negative view like that. I think it’s possible to say simply that Protestants don’t have the same ground for confidence that Catholics do. God can work through anything.

The fact that Catholics are not, as a general rule, noticeably holier than Protestants is indeed a difficulty. But I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. It’s not a competition. God works in many ways and will work with anyone who is receptive.

Rejecting the “two-tier” system does indeed give one more flexibility. There is no need to say, for instance, that non-Christians (or non-sacramental Christians) only have “natural” virtues.


I know this is a bit off topic, but since you brought it up, I don’t believe the Church anywhere says that Protestants do not receive grace through their Eucharist. That is not to say that the Church will agree that the Protestant Eucharist has the true real presence. But grace is another matter.

As far as the appearance of Catholics not seeming holier than others, I could offer an analogy. One could have two light switches which control lights in another room. Both switches could be in the “on” position and look identical, however, in the other room the one switch is connected to a socket with no bulb, while the other socket has a bulb which is alight.

So sacramental grace does indeed make a huge difference for Catholics, and hopefully it is evidenced in their lives as well. But Our Lord commanded us to store up treasures in Heaven, not on earth. Who can know what treasures Catholics have that non-Catholics do not? Only God. There is no visible way to discern the difference.

Right. That was what I was suggesting.

So sacramental grace does indeed make a huge difference for Catholics, and hopefully it is evidenced in their lives as well. But Our Lord commanded us to store up treasures in Heaven, not on earth. Who can know what treasures Catholics have that non-Catholics do not? Only God. There is no visible way to discern the difference.

And there are differences. It’s just that quantifying the differences is hard and leads to noxious comparisons (like the inane claim “where are the great Protestant saints,” which simply shows ignorance on the part of the Catholic asking the question). But many Protestants, who have no intention of becoming Catholic, do see something rich and beautiful about Catholic sacramentality and the way devout Catholics live it out, and do sense that this is missing in their own traditions.


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