How can a conscious spirit be anything other
than an absolute desire for God?
~ Henri de Lubac ~
In 1950 Pope Pius XII published his encyclical Humani generis. The encyclical summons theologians to faithfully defend the Catholic faith, as articulated by the teaching office of the Church, and to eschew novelty. Among the many concerns and false teachings named by the Pope, he specifically targets theologians who teach that rational beings are necessarily ordered to a supernatural end:
Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create inteltual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision. (§26)
It has long been thought that the Pope had Henri de Lubac and his controversial book Surnaturel in mind. Nicholas Lombardo explains:
With a single sentence, Pius XII was widely seen to have settled the question for Catholic theologians. By affirming that God could indeed create intellectual beings but not order them to the beatific vision, his intervention seemed to censure a critical assumption on which all de Lubac’s arguments rested. For if a natural desire for the supernatural were common to all intellectual beings, as Henri de Lubac had maintained in Surnaturel (and defended as the authentic interpretation of Thomas Aquinas), then God could not fail to order them to the beatific vision, because not ordering them would frustrate the natures he had given them, and thus, implicitly, contradict his own wisdom and goodness. By denying the consequent (modus tollens), Pius XII had denied the antecedent. The antecedent was not even named. There was no need. It was obvious to anyone who had been paying attention.1
Ironically, the one person who did not believe that the papal rebuke intended de Lubac was de Lubac himself: “I have read nothing in it, doctrinally, that affects me.”2 Lombardo argues that a close parsing of the encyclical, considered within the wider medieval and modern discussion of the issue, confirms de Lubac’s opinion. If the Pope intended to condemn the views expressed in Surnaturel, he needed to be more specific.3
Given that Surnaturel is unavailable in English translation, it’s difficult for a nonacademic like myself to verify precisely what de Lubac maintained regarding the natural desire for the beatific vision and the duplex ordo. The secondary studies I have read describe the French theologian as asserting an absolute and unconditional desire for God as mysteriously innate to human nature.4 In his later writings, de Lubac concedes the possibility of the natura pura hypothesis, though insisting that in the revealed economy of salvation, all human beings are in fact created to a supernatural end:
It is said that a universe might have existed in which man, though without necessarily excluding any other desire, would have his rational ambitions limited to some lower, purely human, beatitude. Certainly I do not deny it. But having said that, one is obliged to admit—indeed one is automatically affirming—that in our world as it is this is not the case: in fact the “ambitions” of man as he is cannot be limited in this way. Further, the word “ambitions” is no longer the right one, nor, as one must see even more clearly, is the word “limits.” In me, a real and personal human being, in my concrete nature—that nature I have in common with all real men, to judge by what my faith teaches me, and regardless of what is or is not revealed to me either by reflective analysis or by reasoning—the “desire to see God” cannot be permanently frustrated without an essential suffering. To deny this is to undermine my entire Credo. For is not this, in effect, the definition of the “pain of the damned”? And consequently—at least in appearance—a good and just God could hardly frustrate me, unless I, through my own fault, turn away from him by choice. The infinite importance of the desire implanted in me by my Creator is what constitutes the infinite importance of the drama of human existence. It matters little that, in the actual circumstances of that existence, immersed as I am in material things, and unaware of myself, this desire is not objectively recognized in its full reality and force: It will inevitably be so the day I at last see my nature as what it fundamentally is—if it is ever to appear to me in this way. “Certainly it is not now that reason dissimulates truth, or that the soul declines the view of reason, disconnected from corporeal limbs and drawn into itself.” For this desire is not some “accident” in me. It does not result from some peculiarity, possibly alterable, of my individual being, or from some historical contingency whose effects are more or less transitory. A fortiori it does not in any sense depend upon my deliberate will. It is in me as a result of my belonging to humanity as it is, that humanity which is, as we say, “called.” For God’s call is constitutive. My finality, which is expressed by this desire, is inscribed upon my very being as it has been put into this universe by God. And, by God’s will, I now have no other genuine end, no end really assigned to my nature or presented for my free acceptance under any guise, except that of “seeing God.”5
De Lubac distinguishes between two fundamental blessings, a twofold gift: the blessing of creation and the blessing of participation in the divine life of the Trinity. The first is expressed in the statement “God has given me being” and the second in the statement “God has imprinted upon my being a supernatural finality.” Both blessings are gratuitously bestowed, but the latter is “in no way bound to the gift of being; it expresses the basic difference between my natural being and my supernatural finality, in other words, between my creatureliness and my divine sonship.”5 Yet having uttered both statements, de Lubac reminds us of their inadequacy, given the creatio ex nihilo. Both presuppose a “fictitious subject” which disappears upon analysis. There is no “me” that receives either being or finality, as if my “me” exists prior to the gifting. Our finitude forces us to speak this way, yet it cannot be literally true. The analogy of gift breaks down at this point. De Lubac quotes François Fénelon:
There was nothing in me that preceded all his gifts, nothing able to receive them. The first of his gifts on which all the others rest, is what I call myself; he gave me that self: I owe him not only all that I have, but also all that I am. O incomprehensible gift, which our poor language expresses in a moment, but which the human mind will never arrive at understanding in all its depth! This God who made me has given me myself to myself; the self I love so much is simply a present of his goodness. . . . Without him I would not be myself; without him I should have neither the self to love, nor the love wherewith I love that self, nor the will that loves it, nor the mind that knows it. All is a gift: he who receives the gift is himself the first gift he receives.7
In any case, by acknowledging the possibility that God might have created a universe in which human beings are ordered solely to a natural beatitude, de Lubac evades the censure of Pope Pius VII.
The Second Vatican Council appears to have embraced a position similar to de Lubac:
For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (Gaudium et spes I.1.22; emphasis mine)
The above statement can certainly be interpreted in a way that does not deny the duplex ordo thesis that humanity is given two distinct ends, natural and supernatural; yet many post-Vatican II theologians have interpreted it as a vindication of de Lubac, and this would seem to be confirmed by two statements in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
God himself, in creating man in his own image, has written upon his heart the desire to see him. Even if this desire is often ignored, God never ceases to draw man to himself because only in God will he find and live the fullness of truth and happiness for which he never stops searching. By nature and by vocation, therefore, man is a religious being, capable of entering into communion with God. This intimate and vital bond with God confers on man his fundamental dignity. (§2)
The greatest desire of the human person is to see God. “I want to see God” is the cry of our whole being. We realize our true and full happiness in the vision and beatitude of the One who created us out of love and draws us to himself with infinite love. (§533)
But perhaps this is all moot. Catholic theologians will no doubt continue to debate the matter until Christ returns in glory. As for Orthodox theologians, I expect that most, if not all, would support the above statements from Gaudium et spes and the Compendium. After all, what more needs to be said? In the words of St Maximus the Confessor:
God, who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of Himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for him. Impelled by it we are led to search out the truth, wisdom, and order, manifest harmoniously in all creation, aspiring through them to attain Him by whose grace we achieved the desire.8
You are no doubt wondering why I began this piece with a discussion of Pope Pius XVII’s condemnation of those who maintain that “God . . . cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.” Answer: because David Bentley Hart asserts the exact position denounced by the Pope!
 Nicholas E. Lombardo, “What God Cannot Do: Divine Power, the Gratuity of Grace, and Henri De Lubac,” Modern Theology, 37/1 (2021): 114-138.
 Quoted by Lombardo, ibid.
 But if not de Lubac, to whom was the Pope referring?
 See Philip J. Donnelly, “The Supernatural,” The Review of Politics 10/2 (April 1948): 226-232; Alexander S. Rosenthal, “The Problem of the Desiderium Naturale in the Thomistic Tradition,” Verbum, 6/2 (2004): 335-344; Nicholas Healy, “Henri de Lubac on Nature and Grace,” Communio 35 (2008): 535-564; Jacob W. Wood, “Henri de Lubac, Humani Generis, and the Natural Desire for a Supernatural End,” Nova et Vetera, 15/4 (2017): 1209-1241.
 Hans de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, pp. 54-55.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Ibid., pp. 77-78. See John Milbank’s analysis of the giftedness of the natural desire for God in The Suspended Middle, 2nd ed. (2014), pp. 43-52.
 Maximus the Confessor, Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fifth Century 100, in The Philokalia, II:284.