Angels and Divine Providence by Douglas P. McManaman


2007 Summer-Fall A peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fedelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

Angels and Divine Providence 

Douglas P. McManaman

When we consider the relationship between things on the hierarchy of being within the physical universe, it appears that what is lower or inferior exists for the sake of what is


Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

higher. This does not mean that what is higher will never serve the inferior. On the contrary, a superior creature may very well serve an inferior one. But the former does not exist for the sake of the latter; rather, the latter exists for the former.

For example, within the natural hierarchy, the mineral level exists not for itself, but for the sake of things at higher levels. Vegetative life moves what exists on the mineral level in order that it may serve a higher purpose, for example, in the case of nutrition when non-living matter is sublimated by a living thing, which makes it a part of itself, changing it into living matter. Similarly, animals use plants to serve their needs. Birds build nests, beavers build dams, and animals eat plants, as well as animals of inferior strength.

Man, too, uses all the levels below him, elevating them to serve his rationally conceived ends. He uses metal to build clocks in order to keep track of time, ink and paper to express his ideas, or trees to build desks, houses, and an altar upon which to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. He makes flutes and other instruments to serve higher goods, such as the contemplation of beauty.

And man uses animals. He uses horses to pull carriages that carry newly-weds around the city, or oxen to plough his fields, and he uses various kinds of animals to feed himself. He also decorates his home with birds and fish and other living creatures.

What is particularly noteworthy in all of this is that in serving the higher, the lower levels are completely unaware of the higher purposes for which they are being employed.


Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

And yet their elevation bestows greater nobility upon them. Metal is unaware that it has become a wedding ring that symbolizes something exceedingly noble, and a horse carrying a decorated officer in a parade has no understanding of the nobler purpose he’s being made to serve.

Now man is at the top of the scale of the hierarchy of being in the physical universe, but he is not at the top of the scale of the hierarchy of being. In fact, man is at the bottom of the scale of the hierarchy of intelligent creatures. Out of all the intellectual creatures that God has created, man is the least intelligent.

Now it is contrary to the dignity of man to be used by his equal, that is, by another man. A very important precept of natural law is that human persons ought not to be used as a means to an end, but always as an end. To use a person is to violate the requirement to treat equals equally. But an essentially superior being, that is, one of a higher nature, can use man without violating his dignity. Just as every level of the hierarchy uses the level below it to serve the higher and in so doing elevates it, man is used by God to serve a higher purpose, one that man is only vaguely aware of. God moves human persons to serve His eternally conceived end, just as man moves lower creatures to serve his own ends.

Consider how man makes use of a number of horses to pull a royal carriage. It is man who moves these creatures, and yet these horses are real movers; for they really are pulling the carriage. They are being made to behave specifically as brute animals, but in a way that surpasses their own natural capacity; for a horse could never determine itself to do such


Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

a thing on its own, such as harness itself to a carriage or saddle itself in order to carry a police officer and then determine the best route to take.

Similarly, God moves man as man. He does so without violating his dignity. In fact, in being used by God, man is elevated to serve a higher end that ennobles him. God moves the human person without violating his free-will, just as man uses a brute without violating the specific powers of its nature.[1] No matter what course of action man freely chooses, his entire life, including his free choices, is part of a larger order and is made to serve an end that is outside his limited purview. Jean Pierre de Caussade writes:

The Holy Spirit, with his own action for pen, writes a living gospel, but it will not be readable until the day of glory when it will be taken out of the printing press of this life and published. What a beautiful history! What a fine book the Holy Spirit is writing now! The book is in the press, there is no day on which the letters which make it up are not being composed, on which the ink is not applied and the sheets printed. But we dwell in the night of faith; the paper is blacker than the ink, the characters are all in confusion, the language is not of this world, nothing can be understood of it. You will be able to read this book only in heaven. If we could see the life of God and could contemplate all creatures, not in themselves, but in their principle, if we could also see the life of God in all objects, how his divine action moves them, mingles them, assembles them, opposes them to each other, pushes them all to the same point by diverse means, we should recognize that all things in this divine work have their reasons, their scale of measurement, their mutual relations. But how read this book the characters of which are unknown, vast in number,



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upside down and blotted with ink? If the blending of twenty- six letters results in such incomprehensible diversity that they suffice to compose an infinite number of different volumes, all admirable, who can express what God is doing in the universe?[2]

Angels and Providence

But God uses secondary causes to move human persons for the same reason that He uses human secondary causes to move the mineral, vegetative, and animal levels. That is why angels are the special instruments of His providence with respect to human beings. Angels are not subject to the requirement to treat human persons in a way that respects their status as equal in dignity, because angels are not our equals, and so they need not treat us as such.

Moreover, angels use man without violating his freedom, that is, they use him within the context of his own free will. This could not happen if an angel was man’s equal and subject to the limits of matter. This does not mean, however, that human persons know they are part of a larger order or that they must consent to being so ordered. At most, the human person can become aware of the higher order of divine providence through reason illuminated by faith, but he cannot know the details of that order in all their significance until he sees God as He is in Himself. Human beings have about as much knowledge of the plan they are made to serve as a horse has of our own plans of which the horse is made a part.

Angels, however, have a better grasp of the divine plan than the human person who is limited by the sluggish nature of


Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

human intelligence; for they see the plan of providence in its principle, that is, in the vision of the divine nature. And so God employs angels to move man according to the plan of providence, a plan of which they too are a part, but which they grasp in a way that the human person cannot. Angels do not, however, move man's will; only God can move the will. For if my will could be moved by some limited creature outside me, it would not be my act of the will. But angels can move the imagination, they can inspire, protect, enlighten, and console.

Angels are not limited by space and time as man is. They are not subject to the limits of material existence, and so they can be servants of providence in ways that are not open to man by virtue of his limitations, just as man can be an instrument of providence in a way that is not open to a brute animal. Angels do not reason from premise to conclusion, as is characteristic of human intelligence. Rather, angels intuit; for they are created with the perfection of their knowledge from the beginning. They are present to material things by their attention, not by proximity within space, and they are not limited by time since time is the measure of physical motion, and angels are not physical. They are not temporal, but rather eviternal, a duration midway between time and eternity. Finally, they are inconceivably more intelligent than the most brilliant human being and more powerful than a human army.

All of recorded history is nothing but a collection of thin fibers that provide a very limited peek at aspects of God's providential plan. When we consider that each individual has only a very limited, foggy, broken apprehension of history, we begin to realize that it is simply not in man’s


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ability to grasp the plan of providence. A leader of a nation, moreover, has only a very limited grasp of what is actually going on in the country that he governs, not to mention a very limited grasp of what is happening in the world at large: "It is hard enough for us to work out what is on earth, laborious to know what lies within our reach; who, then can discover what is in the heavens?" (Ws 9, 16). But the superior intelligence of an angel could conceivably be specified to apprehend much more about particular human beings or the behaviour of nations throughout a number of centuries than man is able to apprehend.

The King, Knights, Bishops and Pawns

What does all this mean in the end? For one, it means that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Rm 8, 28). In other words, evil cannot have the final word over the lives of those who choose to surrender to divine providence. How do we know this?

Let me explain by employing an analogy. If I were to play a game of chess with a world-class chess champion, and I knew every move that he was going to make in response to my own moves, and if I could apprehend the entire game at a glance, it would be impossible for me to lose the game. In fact, let’s take this a step further. Not only do I know what moves my opponent is going to make, I also move his arm so that he can move his pieces. Again, there is no way that I could lose the game. It is in my power to orchestrate the entire game in such a way that victory is mine; for I know his moves and I am the cause of his moving those very pieces to the squares to which he freely chooses to move them.


Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

Now this analogy falls short in that there is no conceivable way for me to move the arm of my opponent without determining his move. But God moves the will of man without determining him. Man determines himself by choosing freely. But nothing has being, including man's free choices, without God acting as First Cause of its being. Thus, God knows eternally, in the eternal present, what free moves we “will” make. And so God cannot lose the game which He orchestrates. Should a person freely but maliciously choose to bang loudly on a drum, or clash symbols, while others choose to play a sweet and haunting melody, God merely arranges their order around the melody so that the drum beats and clashing, by virtue of their place within the whole, contribute to the beauty of the


Man is a pawn in a much larger game--a free pawn, but a pawn nonetheless--, and he has almost no idea what is happening on that level. As de Caussade writes: “The history of the world is nothing but the history of the war waged by the powers of the world and of hell since the beginning against the souls humbly devoted to the divine action. In this war, the advantages seem all on the side of pride, and yet humility always wins the day." [3] It is for us to surrender to divine providence, to cooperate with divine grace and do our small but significant part within that order. Like well disposed matter that is more useful to the builder, a man who is well disposed by the virtues, who is obedient and humble, self-controlled, patient and just, etc., is a much better instrument in the hands of providence. As de Caussade writes: “Since we know that the divine action embraces everything, directs everything, indeed does



Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

everything, apart from sin, faith has the duty of adoring, loving and welcoming it in everything.”[4] The principal task of the spiritual life is to become more perfectly disposed, to learn to surrender ourselves more completely to the Spirit of God.

This game that God plays cannot be lost. The orchestration that He conducts cannot but deliver the most beautiful piece that will glorify Him in a way that, again, currently exceeds our imagination. Our joy will be that we were a part of that symphony, a part of the winning side of a highly complex chess game. By the end of the game, most of the pieces will have been sacrificed--as is typical in chess--, but only for the sake of final victory. Consider the death of any one of God's holy ones and note the fruits of such a sacrifice: "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones" (Ps 116, 15). But all those who freely choose to walk in darkness place themselves outside the order of salvation and into the order of justice. They are destined to lose, and it is this loss that will be their inheritance for all eternity.


1. He moves the will of man, and in doing so, makes it possible for man to choose freely. No finite creature can move something without determining it. If I move a garbage can, I determine the new place it will occupy. But God is not a finite creature limited in power. He can move the will of man without determining it. God moves the will of man towards the good in general, that is, the good without qualification.



Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Summer-Fall 2007

Now the will of man needs to be moved by God, because nothing moves itself from potency to actuality except by something already in act. Man cannot move his own will from the state of potentially willing to actually willing, for a thing cannot give to itself a perfection that it does not have. And no other creature can move the will, for the will is an immaterial power. Moreover, the very idea of something outside the will moving it is contradictory; such an act of the will would be an act of my will without being my act of the will, which is absurd. Only God can and must move the will, and He alone moves it without determining it. It is man who determines himself to this or that option.

Free-choice is the ability to deliberate on various options each containing limited goods. To choose is to cut off deliberation, or to decide on a specific course of action. In doing so, man determines himself in relation to these limited goods, and in so doing he determines the kind of person that he is. But he cannot do so without his will being first moved by God, just as man cannot actually turn the car to the left or the right unless the car is moving.

2. J. P. de Caussade. Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. Rockford, Tan Books, 1987. p. 28

3. Ibid., p. 104 4. Ibid., p. 81

Copyright © 2006 by Douglas P. McManaman All Rights Reserved