Monday, July 27, 2009

- Does the Holy Spirit work with those outside of the Church?

Q: I thought I understood, more or less, how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. But in a recent faith sharing group, a question came up that made me wonder. Someone asked if the Holy Spirit would or would not be with un-baptized persons if they ask Holy Spirit to dwell in them or to give them fortitude in a difficult situation. This came up while we were discussing how God's grace can touch the lives of those who have never even heard of Jesus. I was hoping you could shed some light on this for me.

A: I am glad you asked this question. It reminds us that the vast treasure of theological reflection that our Church has accumulated through the centuries isn’t just irrelevant abstraction. It has grown up organically, in order to help us understand better and better how God works, so that we can cooperate with him more and more effectively.

In the first place, remember that God is not limited to working through the sacraments. Therefore, he can make saints without them if he so pleases; he can pour his grace into souls however and whenever he sees fit. At the same time, however, he himself established the sacraments as the normal, ordinary way to communicate his grace. For us to belittle them or treat them as optional, therefore, is presumptuous. He established them because in his wisdom he knows that human nature always experiences and expresses spiritual realities through material realities. And so, something real changes in our souls at baptism: God comes to dwell in us, adopts us, and actually alters (elevates) our souls at a deep, ontological level. In other words, it is not indifferent whether or not someone gets baptized.

“Types” of Baptism

The Church has long pointed out, however, that this grace of baptism can come in three ways: through the validly administered sacrament of baptism; through baptism by blood; and baptism of desire.

  • Baptism of blood refers to the martyrdom of someone who dies for the Christian faith before actually receiving the sacrament of baptism. In this case, the effects of martyrdom include some of the effects of baptism: the complete remission of sin and the privilege of immediate entrance into heaven. This concept of baptism of blood came into focus during the first centuries of the Church’s existence. During the many waves of Roman persecution, men and women who were still only catechumens (receiving instruction in the faith and preparing for baptism), and pagans who suddenly converted to the faith (for example, upon seeing the heroic courage of a martyr) were often executed along with baptized Christians.
  • Baptism of desire is a bit different, a bit more mysterious. It too is the equivalent of sacramental baptism, and therefore sufficient for obtaining the state of grace and the promise of salvation. Yet the circumstances by which it comes to pass or known only to God. Here’s how the Second Vatican Council explained it: "Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictate of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation" (Constitution on the Church, I, 16).

As you can see, we simply cannot fathom all the wonderful ways in which God works in the souls of us sinners. God's action is so rich!

The “Types” of Grace

As regards your specific question, about someone who is not baptized asking for help from the Holy Spirit, it may be useful to recall the different types of grace.

  • There is sanctifying grace (the state of being in friendship with Christ, of being an adopted child of God, of having been redeemed from original sin). This is introduced into our lives at baptism, and it is increased, or deepened, through prayer, fidelity to God's will, and the other sacraments.
  • There is also sacramental grace, a specific strengthening or benefit unique to each sacrament. For example, the sacramental grace of confession is the forgiveness of personal sins and the strengthening of our will towards future fidelity. The sacramental grace of marriage is the marriage bond which helps both spouses grow in communion with God through living their communion with each other, etc.
  • Then there is what is commonly referred to as actual grace. This is a boost of supernatural help that comes to assist us in a specific situation. When we talk about "graces," this is usually what we mean – a light from the Holy Spirit, an added dose of patience when I really needed it... These actual graces are distinct from sanctifying grace. So, when non-baptized persons, who probably don’t have sanctifying grace, ask for help from the Holy Spirit, they are asking for this kind of grace, actual grace. And God is always ready to give actual graces, even when we don't ask, to draw us closer to him.

These distinctions may seem persnickety. But let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Reflecting on the many ways in which God reaches out to us and stays involved in our lives reminds of the most important thing: that he is our Father, passionately interested in the smallest details of our little, limited world.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC


  1. If a baptized soul is in the state of mortal sin (sanctifying grace is lost), and that person has not yet made it to confession (no sacramental grace has been received), is actual grace available to them? This seems like splitting hairs but it's something I've wondered about and was therefore glad to see this topic.

  2. I think so Anonymous. Without any of the forms of grace the sinner's free-will would not be capable of choosing to do good at all (in this case, the good of a contrite Confession). I doubt there's anyone on Earth that is devoid of "actual grace". That would be one strong taste of what Hell is like.

  3. Thank you for your blog and answers like these. They are very helpful to those who are new to Catholicism (and to faith) -- and probably also to old-timers, as well.

  4. I think that Anon 1's question is worthy of a post answering it.


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