Molinism is an influential system within Catholic theology for reconciling human free choice with God's grace, providence, foreknowledge and predestination. Originating within the Society of Jesus in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it encountered stiff opposition from Bañezian Thomists and from the self-styled Augustinian disciples of Michael Baius and Cornelius Jansen.
Molinism's three distinguishing marks are a strongly libertarian account of human freedom; the consequent conviction that the grace whereby God cooperates with supernaturally salvific free acts is not intrinsically efficacious; and the postulation of divine middle knowledge (scientia media), by which God knows, before any of his free decrees regarding creatures, how any possible rational being would freely act in any possible situation (see MOLINA, LUIS DE §§ 2-3).
Beyond this, Molinists disagree about three important issues. The first is the question of how God knows the "conditional future contingents" or "futuribilia" that constitute the objects of middle knowledge. Molinists cannot accept the Bañezian claim that God knows futuribilia by virtue of his freely decreeing their truth, since according to Molinism futuribilia have their truth prior to any free divine decree. Nor can Molinists claim that God knows futuribilia simply by virtue of comprehending all possible creatures, if "comprehending" a creature means just understanding all the metaphysical possibilities involving it. For such comprehension is insufficient for knowing how a possible creature would freely act - as opposed to how it could act - in any possible situation.
Molina himself claims that because God's cognitive power infinitely surpasses the natures of creatures, God is able to know those natures "in a more eminent way than that in which they are knowable in themselves." So God not only comprehends possible creatures but also "super-comprehends" them, as later Molinists put it, and in this way knows futuribilia involving them. One corollary, explicitly defended by Molina, is that God does not know futuribilia concerning his own free decrees, since his cognitive power does not infinitely surpass his own nature.
Other Molinists retort that no amount of insight into the natures of possible creatures can yield infallible knowledge of futuribilia, since such natures are exhausted by their metaphysical possibilities and do not include futuribilia. Instead, God has direct knowledge of futuribilia, unmediated by his knowledge of natures - and this simply because the futuribilia are true and hence intelligible to an infinite intellect. On this view there is no reason why God should not know futuribilia concerning his own free decrees - a result Molina takes to be incompatible with God's freedom.
The second dispute concerns the reason for the efficaciousness of the grace whereby God cooperates with supernaturally salvific acts of free choice. Suppose that in circumstances C, influenced by grace G, Peter freely elicits salvific act A. All Molinists agree that God places Peter in C with G knowing full well that Peter will freely elicit A; and they also agree that G is not intrinsically efficacious and hence does not causally predetermine A. However, there is strong disagreement about whether or not it is Peter's free consent alone that "extrinsically" renders G efficacious in C with respect to A.
One possible scenario is that God first resolves absolutely that Peter should freely elicit A in C and then, as it were, consults his middle knowledge to see just which particular graces would, if bestowed on Peter in C, obtain his free consent and thus issue in A. It follows that, given his antecedent resolution, God would have conferred some grace other than G if he had known by his middle knowledge that G would turn out to be "merely sufficient" with respect to A, i.e., that Peter would not freely consent to G in C. So G is rendered efficacious not only by Peter's free consent but also, and indeed more principally, by God's antecedent predetermination to confer a "congruous" grace that will guarantee Peter's acting well in C. This model, which brings Molinism more into line with Bañezianism, is known as Congruism and was worked out in detail by Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suárez. In 1613 Congruism was mandated for all Jesuit theologians by the Father General Claude Aquiviva.
Another possible model, which seems to be Molina's own, is that God simply wills to put Peter into C with G, knowing that Peter will freely elicit A but not having absolutely resolved beforehand that Peter should freely elicit A. This model does not entail that if God had known that Peter would act badly in C with G, he would have conferred some grace other than G in order to guarantee A. Accordingly, it is Peter's free consent alone that renders G efficacious.
An analogous dispute arises over predestination, where the question concerns not one or another of Peter's acts, but his eternal salvation. Some Molinists, including Bellarmine and Suárez, agree with the Bañezians that God antecedently elects certain people to eternal glory and only then consults his middle knowledge to discover which graces will guarantee their salvation. Thus, in Peter's case, God would have chosen different graces if those he actually chose had been foreknown to be merely sufficient and not efficacious for Peter's salvation. Other Molinists, including Molina himself, vigorously reject any such antecedent absolute election of Peter to salvation. They insist instead that God simply chooses to create a world in which he infallibly foresees Peter's good use of the supernatural graces afforded him, and only then does he accept Peter among the elect in light of his free consent to those graces.
References and further reading
Bellarmine, R. (1873) Opera Omnia, vol. 5, ed. J. Fèvre, Paris. (Contains the tract De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio, one of the main sources for Congruism.)
Garrigou-Lagrange, R. (1952) Grace, St Louis: Herder. (Chapters 7 and 8 contain a Bañezian assessment of the Molinist and Congruist accounts of efficacious grace.)
Molina, L. (1953) Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione Concordia, ed. J. Rabeneck, Oña and Madrid; trans. A.J. Freddoso (1988) On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia, Ithaca: Cornell. (Translation of and introduction to Molina's theory of middle knowledge.)
Pohle, J. (1947) Grace: Actual and Habitual, ed. A. Preuss, St Louis: Herder. (Gives a weaker characterization of Congruism than that laid out above in order to classify Molina himself as a Congruist.)
Suárez, F. (1963) Opera Omnia, vols 7-11, ed. C. Berton, Brussells: Culture et Civilisation, 1963. (Suárez's voluminous treatise De Gratia, containing the most sophisticated explication and defense of Congruism.)
See also: BAÑEZ, DOMINGO; SUAREZ, FRANCISCO
ALFRED J. FREDDOSO