Distinguishing Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding

As you may recall, there are seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Piety, Fortitude and Fear of the Lord. Most Catholics cannot define them well in any sort of articulate way. This is due to poor catechesis but also to the fact that modern English has tended to use several of these terms interchangeably, almost as synonyms, though they are distinct theologically. There are also secular usages of these terms that have no correspondence to how we mean them theologically. To indicate intellectual understanding of something,  a person in modern English may say, “I know” or they may say “I understand.” To most modern Anglophones this is a distinction without a difference.  To speak of someone as being of great intelligence, a contemporary English speaker might say, “He has great understanding” or “He is a wise man” or yet again, “He is possessed of great knowledge.” Here too most would not think of these as dramatically different sentences. There are shades of meaning in calling a man wise versus smart or knowledgeable but most modern speakers are losing what those shades of difference actually are.

For all these reasons (poor catechesis, secular misuse  and evolving language) Catholics have a hard time distinguishing between Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding. Let’s try to repair some of the damage.

First, some distinctions:

  1. We are discussing here the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. As such they are given to the baptized and strengthened in confirmed. They exist only in the Christian per se. A man may be said to be knowledgeable in the repair of a car or in the stock market, but we are not referring to the Gift of Knowledge given by the Holy Spirit in this case, only to worldly knowledge. A woman may be said to be wise in the ways of the world. But again, we are not referring to the Gift of Wisdom given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. A man may be said to understand Spanish, but we are not speaking of the Gift of Understanding given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. Hence, there are worldly counterparts to these words which do not conform to the theological meaning of these realities.
  2. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are supernaturaland thus they transcend the ordinary powers of the soul or the human person in general. They are infused by God and no soul could ever acquire them on its own. In these senses they are different from the virtues which can be acquired naturally and can be moved or actuated by man himself. In the caseof the Gifts, God is the unique mover and cause. Man is only the instrumental cause. Thus the acts which proceed from the gifts are materially human but  formally divine just as the melody an artist plays on the harp is materially from the harp but formally from the musician who plays it. That the soul reacts or responds preserves freedom and merit but the soul merely seconds the divine action and can not take the initiative.
  3. Wisdom and knowledge are distinguished according to their objects. Wisdom pertains to God and the things of God. Knowledge pertains to created things and how they relate to our final end.
  4. Understanding too, meant here as the Gift of Understanding has a rather specific focus: It penetrates revealed truth to grasp its fullest meaning. Hence one may understand Spanish, but we are not referring to the Gift of Understanding in speaking this way. To grasp the purpose, meaning and implications of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ would be a more proper usage of this word in terms of the Gift of Understanding.

OK, How about some Definitions. Incidentally, these definitions are gleaned from the Summa and also substantially from Fr. Antonio Royo Marin O.P. in his Book,  The Great Unknown, The Holy Ghost and His Gifts

  1. The Gift of Knowledge is a supernatural habit infused by God through which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, judges rightly concerning created things as ordained to the supernatural end. Notice that it is a habit. That is,  it does not come and go. But like all habits, it can and does grow in depth and breadth. Grace builds on nature,  and as one matures and gains experience the Gift can and does make use of these human qualities. Because the gift is supernatural it is not a matter of human or philosophical knowledge deduced by natural reason. In other words you don’t go to school to get this gift. However, it is not unrelated to human development which school can provide. But this is not its origin. There are plenty of learned and humanly smart people who do not manifest the Gift of Knowledge. This can be due to a lack of faith or to resistance caused by weak faith and sin. By the Gift of Knowledge the human intellect apprehends and judges created things by a certain divine instinct. The individual does not proceed by laborious reasoning but judges rightly concerning all created things by a kind of superior gift that gives an intuitive impulse. I have underlined “created things” because this essentially distinguishes knowledge from wisdom (which pertains to Divine, rather than created things). Notice that the Gift is especially oriented to created things insofar as they pertain to our ultimate end. Now created things tend either toward our supernatural end or away from it and the Gift of Knowledge helps us to judge rightly in this respect. Looked at another way, the Gift of Knowledge helps us to apply the teachings of our faith to the living of daily life, the proper usage of material creation, knowing the proper utility and value of things as well as their dangers and misuses. By it we are able to determine well what conforms to faith and what does not. We are able to make use of creation in a proper way with necessary detachment and proper appreciation for what is truly good.
  2. The Gift of Wisdom is a supernatural habit, inseparable from charity, by which we judge rightly concerning God and divine things under the special instinct of the Holy Spirit who makes us taste these things by a certain intuition  and sympathy. In other words The truths of God begin to resonate with us and we begin to instinctively love what God loves, will  what God wills. What he is and wills makes great sense to us. His teachings clarify and make sense. We see things increasingly from God’s point of view through this supernatural gift. The thinking of the world increasingly seems as folly and appreciation of God’s Wisdom magnifies. More and more thorough this gift the human person desires to be in union only with God and His ways. By this gift the world is defeated and its folly clearly perceived. Our love of neighbor is also perfected by it since the Gift of Wisdom helps us to see and thus love others more and more as God sees and loves them. Since this is a gift,  it cannot be learned or acquired. But, as with the Gift of Knowledge, one’s study of Scripture and Tradition can help dispose one for the growth of the Gift which can and does make use of what is humanly supplied. Grace builds on nature.
  3. The Gift of Understanding is a supernatural habit, infused by God with sanctifying Grace, by which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, is made apt for a penetrating intuition of revealed truths, and even of natural truths so far as they are related to the supernatural end. It enables the believer to penetrate into the depths of revealed truth and deduce later by discursive thinking the conclusions implicit conclusions contained in these truths. It discloses the hidden meaning of Sacred Scripture. It reveals to us the spiritual realities that are under sensible realities and so that the smallest religious ceremonies carry tremendous significance.  It makes us see causes through their effects simply and intuitively. This gives a profound appreciation for God’s providence.

This song says, “Take My Life and Let it Be Consecrated Lord to Thee.” It goes on to consecrate the whole person to Christ, including the intellect and will. As such it is an invitation for the Seven Gifts to come fully alive.

38 Replies to “Distinguishing Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding”

  1. Very illuminating. I’m embarrassed how much I didn’t understand during RCIA …
    Thank you.

  2. You have presented the scholastic account of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Monsignor, and “understanding” still seems to overlap “knowledge” and “wisdom” (and “counsel” too, although you did not analyze it) in a way that even stout catechesis finds difficult to overcome.

    Your emphasis on the supernatural quality of the gifts as habits is a most valuable part of your explanation, but your later gloss that they are a kind of “instinct” or “intuitive impulse” can easily be misinterpreted.

    As the Catechism says, the gifts belong in their fullness to Christ (CCC 1831). Notably, the list is not given in the treatment of Confirmation (just a bald reference to “gifts”: CCC 1303) but (conjoined with the fruits of the Holy Spirit) is dealt with under “Life in Christ”.

    Permit me to offer an alternative view based on the scriptural source (Is.11:1-2) where 3 pairs of concepts are attributed to the righteous ruler, from the house of David, who is the subject of the prophesy: (a) wisdom and understanding, (b) counsel and might, (c) knowledge and fear-of-the-Lord.

    (a) Wisdom is the faculty of knowing how to act in accordance with existing circumstances, and understanding is a clear appreciation of those circumstances.

    (b) Counsel indicates the faculty of being able to make plans without relying on human advice (as in “keeping one’s own counsel”), and might is the power to translate plans into action.

    (c) Knowledge is not an intellectual capacity here, nor is it confined to created reality and the processes that constantly renew them – precisely because such knowledge is inseparable from knowledge of God (Ps.104:30; Ro.1:20, 8:22) – nor is it inert, for truly to know God means to love Him and do His will (cf. Jn.14:23). Fear-of-the-Lord is awe in His presence (Mt.14:33 is a good example).

    Only “fortitude” (which replaces “might”) and “piety” (in some sense a make-weight to round up the number to a canonical seven) are missing, but they are the least problematic from a catechetical standpoint.

    I suspect that people, young people especially, might find this more digestible than the account you give of just three of them in your article which presumes knowledge of philosophical categories such as “form” and “matter”, not to mention a phrase such as “final end” which surely requires an explanation.

    Your suggestion that the gift of understanding “discloses the hidden meaning of Sacred Scripture” also requires radical qualification, does it not, for “the authentic interpretation of the Word of God . . has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, n.10).

    In peace and with humility.

    1. It is not clear to me in your thesis how knowledge and wisdom are distinct. Further I am curious as to where you get your definitions? Are these ala Bain or is there some ancient or Biblical authority for them?. I see your scriptural citations but they do not seem defintional only oblique references to some aspect of your definition.

      1. Dear Monsignor Pope, I have tried to clarify my tortured description of “knowledge” in my reply to Dhanagom and, to a degree, in my reply to Theo.

        As I mentioned, the reference to Isaiah 11 is given in CCC 1831. The account I offered is taken from Otto Kaiser’s commentary on Isaiah (Eng. trans. publ. SCM Press 1972 as a volume in “The Old Testament Library”). It is not an exact quote, and I have no doubt that all and every confusion is caused at exactly those points where I paraphrased – for which my apologies. The scriptural references were added by me (and no, they were not intended as definitions, but as pointers), because Kaiser concentrates on connecting the prophecy with Israel’s history and with the prophetic tradition.

        On looking up the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (2nd. edn. 1990) I see that it is the LXX which converts a Hebrew list of six into a Greek list of seven (by giving two different translations of “fear -of-the-Lord” which occurs twice in the Hebrew). I was wrong to attribute it (as I did in my reply to Theo) to the Church’s penchant for seven. The same observation (about the LXX list of seven) is given in a footnote to the study edition of the NAB.

        Isaiah lists the charisms with which the future ruler of Israel will be endowed. We find them (now I am plundering the note in the study edition of the NJB) expressed as the spirit of the Lord which came, e.g., on Saul in “power” (1Sam.11:6). The footnote continues “it gives craftsmen their skill (Ex.31:3), judges their discretion (Num.11:17), and Joseph his wisdom (Gen.41:38). But especially it inspires the prophets [a host of citations, including Moses, David and Elijah] whereas false prophets follow their own spirit”.

        The gifts can, of course, be discussed and analysed without reference to their origin as specifically royal charisms to be conferred on the chosen one of God, but precisely because baptism is a participation in the triple office of Christ as prophet, priest and king (CCC 783), it seems more fruitful to try to analyse them in that practical context, which has a direct bearing on our daily struggle to lead moral lives (the arena where, by God’s grace, we most need to assert our personal sovereignty).

        In peace, and with humility

      2. ***** Bain: Why is your reasoning only based in scripture? As a Church we have a long tradition that has refelcted on these and other things and many of these reflections have been sanctioned by the Church for our edification. You seem not to like scholasticism which you are free to do but the Church has elevated scholasticsm and Thomas in particular as integral to seminary formation. Now you are making lots of claims and definitions but do not seem to rely on any authority other than bible commentaries and footnotes, none of which really seem to have defining these gifts as their primary aim. Again, what is your authority in this matter? Is a Bible commentary or footnote (which does not really even propose to systematically treat of the Gifts) really to be considered of more weight than St. Thomas and the Scholastic Tradition?

    2. Hello, Mr. Wellington (or is it Dr.?),

      Just my input as an eighteen-year old boy who is not too keen on things but loves reading the comments of others. I would agree with you that young people may find your explanation of the gifts to be more easily digestible than the traditional, scholastic explanation, but I do have some questions about your descriptions because I’m a little confused about some things. It seems that “instincts” in the sense I understand Msgr. Pope was mentioning them could easily be explained to at least teenagers. Perhaps I overestimate people my age. Anyway, here are my questions.

      Habits are specified by their formal object, are they not? How does Msgr. Pope’s definition for Understanding overlap with his definitions for Knowledge and Wisdom?

      On your description of the Gifts, I want to first make the distinction between the Gift of Wisdom and the Virtue of Prudence (sometimes called Wisdom). Here is your description of wisdom and knowledge:

      “(a) Wisdom is the faculty of knowing how to act in accordance with existing circumstances, and understanding is a clear appreciation of those circumstances.”

      Point (a) in its entirety strikes me rather conspicuously to be a good, although incomplete, definition for the virtue of prudence, so my question is are you using Wisdom synonymously with Prudence, and if so, can you justify that “equating,” so-to-speak, of the Gift with the virtues (since I’m fairly sure that the Church has always made the specific distinction between the Gifts and the Virtues)?

      Secondly, here’s your working definitions of the next two gifts:

      “(b) Counsel indicates the faculty of being able to make plans without relying on human advice (as in “keeping one’s own counsel”), and might is the power to translate plans into action.”

      It seems to me that (b) and point (a) seem to go together really well to make up a great explanation of Prudence. Your definition of counsel seems to me to be that aspect of Prudence necessary, called Foresight. Again, the question, then, must be asked, are you not confounding the first four Gifts with the virtue of Prudence, and if not, may you clear up these doubts of mine, which I’m sure are simply because of my own slow-mindedness? There is probably a simple explanation to this, I’m sure, but I need your help, please.

      You seem to say what knowledge is not, rather than what it is, in the context of your comments. (Ah, wait, I’ve found your other response in which you give a positive definition of knowledge). “’Knowledge’ in this context is knowledge of God via knowledge of His creation (Ro.1:20), but not creation as a set of static objects, rather creation as a process continually being renewed by God (Ps104:30) and tending to its fulfilment in Christ (Ro.8:22, Eph.1:10, Rev.21:5, etc.).” My question then is: are you not combining (or perhaps confounding) two separate, although related, things here—natural theology and, referring to the tendency towards fulfillment in Christ, the virtue of faith, animated by charity? It seems like two things are pasted together here that makes the whole Gift of Knowledge seem entirely superfluous and limited to very certain circumstances for certain individuals—those circumstances in which a person, led by natural reason, disposes himself for Faith and Love; and not something added, truly as a Gift, to those who are justified. Do I misunderstand you here?

      Finally, and I’m so, so, so sorry for being this long here. Perhaps I should have emailed you instead. It seems to me, if I understand your points rightly, that your description of the gifts (except Fear of the Lord, and in a way, Knowledge) are leaning on purely natural definitions, indicating simply our faculties with no mention of the supernatural. That is to say, in the effort to make teachings of the Faith more palpable and digestible, we have swerved into practical naturalism seen in so many Christians already, sad to say. Should we not, even for the sake of perhaps being at times long-winded (such as myself), conserve theological accuracy, more in line with Church Tradition, and the distinction between the supernatural and natural, which you yourself have praised? Would it not be better to take the time to explain these subtle points of the Faith? Perhaps not for younger kids, but teenagers at least, with time, can understand these things. Finally, is not the traditional, scholastic view of the Gifts far more sublime than the more practical explanation? I realize you’re position is not confronting nor trying to replace what the Church has said! God forbid I misrepresent you, and I hope I have not yet done so! I know you are not trying to be an adversary but are merely trying to bring about the salvation of souls by “giving milk and not solid food” to those who are not yet spiritually minded, especially my generation, who sadly often seems wandering in many ways.

      But what I have in mind is the spiritual development that a proper understanding of the Gifts should lead to. To try to use other definitions simply for the sake of more easily educating others will inevitably reduce the sublimity of the spiritual life and its full perfection (see R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.’s Christian Perfection and Contemplation; also see J.G. Arintero, O.P., The Mystical Evolution). Would you agree?

      These are my thoughts as jumbled, confused, and verbose (I’m terribly sorry here) as they are. Let’s continue this via email, so that I don’t embarrass Msgr. Pope nor frighten others when they see huge blocks of text! Unless it is fine to continue this conversation here, my email is [email protected]. I’m eager for your response, and God bless you!

      1. Dear Richard,

        Thank you for the enthusiasm with which you have entered the debate. I am not a doctor (medical or otherwise) nor am I a member of the clergy. I am a layman who enjoys this blog and who takes the invitation to comment seriously (maybe too seriously!). I know I have offended Mgr. Pope in the past by the relentless manner in which I have expressed myself, and I have tried to accommodate his concerns as best I can, not always to his satisfaction, I fear.

        I am unsure if it is appropriate to take these discussions outside the blog, despite the fact that Mgr. Pope (who moderates all comments) has let your email address stand, but, on the other hand your questions certainly deserve an answer. Before deciding how best to respond, perhaps I should immediately emphasize three things:-

        (1) I am not trying to trounce Mgr. Pope or draw anyone away from the teaching of the Church. I stress that the view I proposed was not a novelty of mine, and since posting it I have found high and honourable support, as you can see from the post I made on 22 July at 4:09 am.

        (2) In response to one of your observations (that my approach omits the supernatural element), what is under discussion are indisputably supernatural habits (see the introductory words of each of Mgr. Pope’s definitions and what I say in the second paragraph of my first post).

        (3) The truth must never be de-natured even when it is being rendered more easily digestible. Perhaps the best response to this, your last point, are the words (not entirely in point here) of Blessed John XXIII in his opening discourse to the Council Fathers:- “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

        In charity, and God bless you too.

  3. Conscious as I am that you sometimes fail to catch my drift, may I condense my criticism by saying I think the scholastic version is over-elaborate. You attribute lack of awareness of that version (and it is only a version) to “poor catechesis”, but neither penny catechisms nor the CCC (at 1831) make any attempt to explain the gifts. They are merely listed. Precisely because CCC 1831 directs us to the Isaian source, that is the essential point of departure.

    I now see that it looks, from the arrangement of my paragraphs, as if I am offering a view alternative to that in the CCC, whereas it is alternative to yours.

    1. I still prefer the Thomistic explanation of things, but in your revised you mention Knowledge as what it is not, and then go to add that it includes knowledge of God, but you fail to give a definition of what it is. Could your revisit this?

      1. Surely. “knowledge” in this context is knowledge of God via knowledge of His creation (Ro.1:20), but not creation as a set of static objects, rather creation as a process continually being renewed by God (Ps104:30) and tending to its fulfilment in Christ (Ro.8:22, Eph.1:10, Rev.21:5, etc.).

    1. Yes indeed! And to a very high degree, since she was so perceptive to the movements of the Holy Spirit!
      In fact, all who are in the state of grace possess the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So, Mary and Jesus (as well as Adam and Eve) possessed the seven gifts from the beginning of their lives. John the Baptist, from the moment Our Lady’s words reached Elizabeth’s ear.
      And all of us, from the moment of our baptism, are filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Then, at our Confirmation, the gifts are strengthened and given a new apostolic focus (to bring the faith to others).


  4. I find your explanation of the three gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge the best and most illuminating I have ever come across. Reading what you wrote helps me understand a lot about how God has worked in my life from childhood on. And I will pass this on to others, especially those involved in catechesis.

    This sentence especially “spoke” to me: “In other words The truths of God begin to resonate with us and we begin to instinctively love what God loves, will what God wills.”

    However, in one respect I will agree with Bain who commented above. Poor catechesis may not be why Catholics can’t explain or distinguish the gifts, especially if you are referring to the people who teach others. When it was my responsibility to teach the gifts of the H.S., I did research to prepare. But what I was able to find, even in the CCC, wasn’t very helpful. Had I found what you have here, my task would have been a piece of cake.

  5. I find Bain Wellington’s alternative explanations interesting, particularly because as he says scholastic terminology is lost on most people these days, and also because the gifts of the Holy Spirit are interrelated, so distinguishing three without adequately addressing the rest may leave the distinctions incomplete. But since Sacred Scripture sees fit to list the gifts, then there must be ways of distinguishing them.

    His distinctions, however, are also wanting. If Msgr. Pope’s distinctions are inaccessible because of terminology, the alternative distinctions fall short in actually making distinctions.

    First is a question of ontology. Exactly what “wisdom” and the other gifts are is not clear in his explanation. If wisdom for example exists, what IS it? Or, more to the point, what exactly is “a faculty of knowing what to do”? Is it a natural or acquired power? How is it supernatural and a gift of the Holy Spirit? Do we have no faculty of knowing what to do before receiving the Holy Spirit? Likewise for understanding and knowledge and all the rest. Without a clear concept of what these gifts are, it is far more difficult to distinguish them.

    Secondly, the distinctions overlap to the extent that one might get the impression they are indistinguishable.

    Both wisdom and understanding are defined in terms of knowledge, for instance. Wisdom according to Wellington is a faculty of knowing what to do in given circumstances. Knowing what to do would implies already having knowledge of the circumstances, so a separate gift of understanding seems superfluous, since understanding is clear knowledge of circumstances. (“Appreciation” in its context here is just a synonym for knowledge.)

    Then, knowledge is not even defined, so we don’t know what “knowing” what to do and “knowing” the circumstances really means. Knowledge, however, “is not an intellectual capacity here” but if it is not, what exactly is it? As far as I can tell, knowledge is always an intellectual capacity in some respect.

    It is also hard to see the difference between wisdom and counsel, since the one is “knowing what to do” and the other is “being able to make plans.” By the definition of might, plans are certainly things to be done. The qualifications of “with existing circumstances” for wisdom and “without relying on human advice” do not seem to make a difference. The plans of counsel are always made in light of existing circumstances, after all, although they might also take into consideration future contingents — but then, so would wisdom, since existing circumstances are not static but are part of the flow of time, too. Circumstances evolve; what they may evolve into is part of their present existence and part of the clear appreciation of them. Also, if wisdom relies on human advice in a way that counsel does not, then it isn’t essentially a faculty of knowing what to do, because circumstances often preclude access to human advice.

    Fortitude is not might, moreover. Fortitude is a virtue that enables us to do what is right even when faced with extreme difficulty. It is not a capacity to accomplish anything other than to keep going in adversity.

    1. Firstly, Theo, Sacred Scripture does not list the seven gifts of the spirit as we find them in our catechisms. The Church evolved seven from the six listed in Isaiah 11, because seven is more of a a canonical number than six (there are six sins against the Holy Spirit, but seven Sacraments, seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy, seven deadly sins, and so on). The seven do not fully match the six (plus one).

      Next, I did not intend to say that fortitude and might are the same, they are clearly different. The Church was not bound to take over the Isaian list which, on its face, is a list of the capacities or charisms that the future ruler of Israel will receive. Thus the list addresses (a) his role as judge, (b) his role as legislator and general, and (c) his role as prophet, perhaps. Maybe you can suggest something more convincing. My explanation was not intended to be definitive in any way. I address the source in my reply to Mgr Pope’s reply to my original comment.
      I take your point about “wisdom” being defined in terms of knowing what is what, but not (I think) in terms of the charism of “knowledge” (which I have tried to clarify in my reply to Dhanagom above). The problem you put your finger on (of putting the cognitive cart before the horse) is solved if “understanding” precedes “wisdom” in the list, but I gave the list as we read it in Isaiah. We find ourselves in a certain situation. It must be correctly analyzed (perceiving and weighing variables, for example), and then we must make a decision in light of what the consequences might be.

      As for “counsel” it is, I suggest, the charism of self-confidence or self-assurance – so it is not a doublet of “wisdom” at all (which, in itself, does not imply any reliance on others). The future ruler of Israel will not be dependent on a clique of advisers who are themselves liable to faction and vulnerable to corrupt influences. One can know what to do, and yet lack courage or confidence to act on one’s convictions.

  6. I would like to second, in part, Brian’s objection above. I am deeply mistrustful of “instinct” when it is applied to humans. Either the word itself must be carefully qualified or you must offer a fuller explanation of how these “instincts” work in the human soul.

    I very much respect what you have done here. I just think it requires greater clarity and precision.


  7. @ Nick

    Our Lady was “full of grace” from the moment of her conception. Also, she received more grace at different points in her life. For instance, the grace of the Incarnation was added to her, after Gabriel called her “full of grace.” So, “full” can only mean that her capacity for grace increased but at any given moment that capacity was filled. Grace perfects nature. So, given that her intellectual and bodily development could not accommodate the intellectual gifts at the moment of her conception, it may just be that those gifts were not part of her fullness of grace at that time. She did receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, after all. Alternatively, she may have had the gifts but not their acts; that is, the gifts would have had no outward expression in her until after her development caught up with them.

    However, I didn’t look this up. I think that’s pretty close, but I defer to those with better information.

    1. I only have opinion here but, if I eat all I can I become “full” until what I’ve taken in becomes a part of me; then I can eat (consume?) more to become full again. This comparison is probably far from the best and I only put it out with the thought that it may help another to be inspired enough by it to contribute to my (our?) understaning.

  8. I’ve been slowly, ever so slowly, digesting the Summa. So your explanations today are very timely for me.
    I can’t keep up with some of the responses’ explanations, so I stick with whatever you write. Makes much sense to me.
    Thank you

  9. Might it be a more fruitful way to explain these gifts by the following statement: I know what the gifts of the
    Holy Spirit are( you just told me) I will pray for the fortitude to have an understanding of this knowledge so
    that I might attain the wisdom necessary to be of effective counsel in instructing my children that they might
    develop a right fear of the Lord and act with piety in their spiritual lives. …does that cover it? Of course there
    are other applications of these gifts depending upon circumstances but let’s be practical in our definitions ..so
    that we might pray more fervently for these gifts. If we try to lay too theological an emphasis on these gifts we
    might overlook their really practical application in our lives…and not be too motivated to pray for them in our
    lives if we cannot see the practicality of it all…how they can apply? ( with all due respect to the Holy Spirit, of course, ) some of our theologians just put everyone to sleep by over-theorizing everything. Remember Jesus
    came for EVERYBODY…not just those with PH’d’s!

    1. God bless you! Your one sentence summary of the Gifts is wonderful. I think you did cover all seven Gifts! Haha. One comment, though, piqued my interest: “let’s be practical in our definitions…. If we try to lay too theological an emphasis on these gifts we might overlook their really practical application in our lives…”

      What good are theological emphases for starting principles? Here it’s good to meditate on the Wedding at Cana (John 2) and the turning of water into wine. Before the guests can enjoy the best wine, the jars that are set aside for ceremonial washing must be filled, then transformed, then dispensed to be enjoyed by the guests. And that is why Mother Teresa of Calcutta was so powerful in the world. She set herself aside from the world like the jar, was filled with Christ, transformed in Him, and then she could become one of the most effective helpers of the poor, spreading love because she was filled with love. The wine, after all, becomes the Precious Blood, and the Blood heals us. Saints are the most practical forces in the world because Jesus is the most practical force in the world, and Jesus was not concerned with practicality per se but doing the Will of God.

      The Gifts become practical only when we become docile to the Spirit’s inspirations of grace in our souls. God leads us by the hand, but we must first give Him our hand so that we can be led. We must begin with God, and from God flows perfect practicality. Theological just means theo (God) – logical (logos, the Word; the Word of God). It’s simply being God-centered. Big words and confusing definitions mustn’t make us think that we should do away with them; they’re there only so that we don’t fall into error, but once we have the Gift of Understanding, we don’t need the big words and confusing definitions anymore; it all makes sense in a single flash, a profound awareness of God’s utter practicality (this is Providence) and our own total powerlessness. All we can do is say “Yes” to God, and even that “Yes” is a gift from God. The simple souls can, in an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explain something so straightforwardly and with astonishing profundity that the most sophisticated theologians are utterly awed.

      Two books I would very much recommend here are: The Three Ages of the Interior Life (2 vol.) by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., available from TAN Books; and The Mystical Evolution (2 vol.) by Fr. John G. Arintero, O.P., from the same publisher.

      The length of my posts reveals only that I lack the ability to articulate because I probably don’t have the Gift of Understanding that much, but I hope in my jumbled comments there was some sense that came through.

      God bless you!

  10. I have been reading a book by David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order. In it he explains how ontology of various languages mainly west verses east tend to fragment wholenss of the process of spiritual reality which as Bain said is a flowing creative constant process. All these debated approaches are valid as theory , theology, or revelatory insight to a limit. God is not limited and this discussion gets more fragmented by the sentence. I think I’ll stick to meditating on The Lords Prayer. May God have mercy on my soul.

      1. Distinctions are valid if they lead one to insight. Insight is not the material thought process but rather knowledge revealed. The reality of this knowledge exists outside of the world view until one has insight of it and one developes understanding. To describe God is an abstraction. To gain insight and understanding is an inner observation that when experienced causes thought to cease and oneness of being to be expericnced.Life and creation flow like a river full of swirls and vortices but as they appear and discipate, the force( Wisdom- Will ) that is the ground of such abstractions continues like a Holy Spirit. It’s not a secularist existence, it’s personally fulfilling and yet completely the grace of God. The ironic thing about ontology is how soemtimes you can reverse a word like dogma and end up with am God. Maybe the reason we see things so backards is we are looking at life through a mirror. God bless you.

  11. I am embarrassed at having written so much already, especially because the more I write, the more agitated you get. By no means, Monsignor, do I intend to depreciate Thomism as a philosophical system, but it is highly sophisticated and in your article you used Thomistic categories without comment, which can be a blunt tool in catechesis.

    You are reading too much into my comments: I am not laying down the law, and it is significant that CCC offers no definitions. What I offered was an alternative interpretation based on Sacred Scripture and suggested (as does CCC 1381) it was the essential starting point – as we see from St Thomas’ own treatment of the subject too (IIa, q.68). Thus, recourse to biblical scholarship (even in footnotes, lol) is perfectly valid.

    By returning to the Isaian format of three pairs of charisms, and by taking into account the fact that they apply to the future ruler of Israel – the anointed one of God – insights can be gained into what can end up as a list of technical terms which have to be carefully distinguished from their everyday use: any catechesis that begins that way is inviting trouble, surely.

    Consider the Sacraments. Their presentation in CCC as three organic groups of three (three of initiation, two of healing, and two of service) opens up vistas for comprehending what can otherwise seem disparate items. At one stage, St. Thomas analyzes the gifts in two sets: four belonging to the reason and three to the appetite. Of course it is valid, but it disintegrates the pairing in the Isaian arrangement. He restores the pairings when he observes that wisdom without understanding would not be a gift (a.5 ad iii).

    The purpose and effect of the gifts is summed up in CCC 1830:- “The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make Man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit”. That is Thomist, if you will (IIa, q.68, a.4), so maybe we can agree, for a change ☺

      1. I am very glad to hear it Monsignor, because I was beginning to fear that your replies to my comments were developing an “edge”. I have been following your blog long enough to know that generally nobody dissents from your view or offers an alternative one. My view (the Socratic one) is that we progress in understanding when we test and examine what is offered to us. I hope that I am always respectful of you personally, and of your argument even when I consider it to be wrong, unbalanced or misguided. In return, I expect no more and no less from those who disagree with me.

        In peace, and with humility

  12. Mr. Bain Wellington, it seems that you’re trying to spin circles around yourself as you chase your tail.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the most forward and easy-to-understand applications of Tradition, Scripture, and common sense… if the reader chooses to read it thoroughly. You’re proposing positions that only go about Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding in a roundabout way. It is very misleading and very disturbing.

    Also, it seems in your comments that you are trying to “prove” your position by adding in references that only appear to only make you look “smart”. (“Wise” in this case? ;)).

    Please rid yourself of your misconceptions and listen to Christ in Truth: That in Which he gives to his Church, his Beloved Bride, not in the way that man alone interprets it. You’re only hurting yourself and the others with whom you communicate by using man-alone-made “facts”.

    This is coming from a 19-year-old who himself had to go to the Catechism many, many times in his Confirmation which he (sadly only) took a year ago. (If I had had the Gifts of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom earlier in my youth, I’m sure my miserable childhood wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. :))

    1. Oh, and I forgot my biggest point: that since God made man in His Image, then of course the mix of God in man would cause an “instinct” to do right. 😀

    2. That’s quite a poke in my eye, Aaron. You have set up a scenario where anything I say can be dismissed as trying to prove my point, and actually, if people ask for clarification or suggest areas where I am wrong in what I say or careless in how I say it, I will respond. But it doesn’t follow that I have to accept all and every criticism as fair or accurate.

      Now, I agree with you that the CCC is our best handy guide. That accounts for my references to it. You will agree with me that the Word of God revealed in Sacred Scripture and Tradition as interpreted for us by the supreme teaching authority of the Church is a more complete guide than the CCC. That accounts for my references to Sacred Scripture. Monsignor Pope actually asked me for my sources, and he himself introduced the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, so that accounts for the few other references I gave.

      You can believe me or not, as you choose, but the references are intended to show that I am not relying on my own man-made facts, but that I am trying to be a dutiful son of the Church, and giving others the courtesy of checking to see if what I am saying has got any legs to stand on worth the name. It is uncharitable of you to propose a motivation to me which is self-serving, and if you want to tell me that my argument is misconceived, all well and good, but you have to do more than just throw the word “misconceptions” in my face, don’t you see?

      1. If I had gone about things the same way as you, you would have tried to easily retort in such a manner as to mence words and try to use them against me, the same as you do against Monsignor Pope — and if you would do that to a man whom you obviously already have resepct for, what would you have done to me?

        I was merely trying to humble you; I was formerly much like you. My apology was that I had a mental illness which hendered my judgment. If only I had someone who would speak to me as a human being, with humor rather than hate! Please consider yourself blessed.

        In peace, and with humility and care.

  13. Msgr. Pope: Why is it that some people receive these gifts, while others don’t?
    Many, who were baptized and even confirmed have fallen short of living lives guided by these gifts.

    1. Hi Piotr,

      I’m not Msgr. Pope (I’m not old nor wise [ambiguously used] enough to be him! Haha), but here’s my input.

      The Gifts are “fed” by grace and charity. As the Blessed Mother grew in grace, so too did the activity of the Gifts, which, remember, are supernatural habits as Msgr. Pope has told us, grow in her daily actions. The Gifts blossomed beautifully in the Blessed Mother because she was full of grace and ever growing in grace (as others have pointed out here). This flowering of grace and the Gifts can also be admirably seen in the lives of especially child Saints and Martyrs.

      It’ll be easier to understand why many Christians in a state of grace don’t “seem to possess” (all in the state of grace DO have the Gifts, but to different “degrees of activity”) the Gifts if we make an apt comparison (and distinction) that St. Thomas Aquinas himself usually made, and it’s the comparison between the natural and supernatural order, as Msgr. Pope has also pointed out.

      A baby is physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually small and not yet fully matured. That baby MUST grow in all of its unique human and supernatural ways (with the help of God-parents and good examples) or else it will be stunted. The baby might even be a genius, but we don’t know it yet because it’s still a baby. Soon, if the baby properly grows, we will quickly see its special talents.

      It’s the same on the spiritual level. We have to be fed with grace because we are spiritual babies. This is done, obviously, through the Sacraments and prayer. But! Why do so many Catholics, even some who attend daily Mass, seem, then, to speak and behave like any non-Christian? Well, here it’s EXTREMELY hard to judge, of course, (some souls are so humble and hidden that we just never notice their piety and mistake it for something else) but say we know the interior soul of such a Catholic, for demonstration’s sake. The fact is that many souls may be spiritually stunted because they aren’t docile to the Holy Spirit Who is trying to make these souls grow in these habits. Perhaps they aren’t receiving as much grace as they could be through Holy Communion due to dissipation of mind, wandering thoughts, hidden sinfulness, lukewarm desire, or even, sadly, ignorance. Perhaps no one told them that the Holy Spirit is trying to sanctify them, and that with their eager cooperation, this process could rapidly rise to the most profound heights of sanctity. The Church is, as Dr. Peter Kreeft puts it, a saint-making machine.

      But, as Msgr. Pope firmly reminds us, grace perfects nature, and our nature includes a free will, and we must freely choose (and not halfheartedly either, haha!) to allow the Holy Spirit to guide our steps, like a mother guides her child when it begins to walk, or else we shall stumble, and we cannot lift ourselves up unless we cry out, which we do in prayer and when we participate in Sacraments (for mortal sin, in Confession).

      Sorry for the length of this!! I said earlier that I’m not nearly as wise as Msgr. Pope. Wisdom [ambiguously used] shows itself in brevity, which I lack, obviously. Haha. But I hope this helps! If there’s something wrong here, please correct me, Msgr. Pope, or anyone!

      God bless you!

  14. Three last points from me. First, “definition” of the gifts lies in the realm of free theological opinion. Thomism offers one, valued, way but it is not the last word. Second, the Church, in her liturgy, quotes Isaiah according to the LXX: so, at Confirmation, the Sacrament is administered with the gifts arranged as pairs.

    In his contribution to a 1977 collection of essays on the gifts, Joseph Ratzinger treated of “wisdom” (without reference to St. Thomas, I might add). You can find it in “Principles of Catholic Theology” at pp. 355-364. He notices the modern devaluation of the word, with the shift of values it implies, and then insists that a correct understanding of its Christian sense requires an historical inquiry starting with and returning to the Old Testament. The Old Testament discussion is centred on Is.11:1-5 which he calls a “fundamental text of Christology”, and it derives from Otto Kaiser’s commentary that I found so illuminating. I still think that every discussion of the gifts must be rooted in the passage from Isaiah.

    For Joseph Ratzinger, wisdom concerns action according to God’s way of seeing things: “it is a sharing in God’s ability to see and judge things as they really are”. But we cannot possess God’s perspective unless we are united with Him. This means, he says, that wisdom “the last and deepest mode of knowledge is not just an intellectual experience”. As we come gradually to live by God, united with Him “we come to a fearless independence of thinking and deciding, that no longer cares about the approval or disapproval of others but clings only to truth.”

    View the gifts as a whole, therefore, divinely guiding us in the moral life, and not as a logic-chopping exercise with each item squirreled away in its own box.

    In peace, and with humility.

  15. I have no problem with the overlapping of the gifts’ definitions: after all God is fully integrated in the Trinity, so too the gifts are interdependent and symbiotic in their relationship with each other. Trying to parse the gifts from each other by their definitions is a fine exercise but I do think, and I may be wrong here, it can lead to a checklist type of spirituality. ALL of the gifts are essential to spiritual maturity and discipleship and they cannot be separated from each other. Our walk with Christ is more than a checklist: it is about abandoning ourselves completely to Christ and His mission. So says the Catechism and the Scriptures. So says the Church.

    1. Frankly, none of the gifts, taken singly, is a gift at all (St. Thomas Aquinas says as much – about wisdom, anyway as I pointed out on 21 July @ 2:22am). It is too vulgar to call them a package, but they are a complex of gifts which compenetrate. What else are we to make of Col.2:2-3? ” that their hearts may be encouraged as they are brought together in love, to have all the richness of fully assured understanding, for the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

      In the OT we find wisdom linked with understanding, knowledge with understanding, wisdom with knowledge.

      In Job 28:27f. we read: “Then [God] saw wisdom and appraised it, gave it its setting, knew it through and through. And to man he said: Behold, the fear of the LORD is wisdom; and avoiding evil is understanding.”

      In Proverbs 1:7 we find: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; wisdom and instruction fools despise.”

      For wisdom, the key, surely, is that there is God’s wisdom and human wisdom (1Co.1:27-30, for instance). We can be learned in the law (and learned in theology) and still be humbled by the simple ones who are wise in faith: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” (Mt.11:25). Lord God, grant me simplicity of heart to receive Your wisdom.

      The Apostles sometimes failed to understand the parables (Mt.15:16, 16:9). Then, in one of the post-Resurrection appearances to the disciples, Our Lord “opened their minds to understand the scriptures”(Lk.24:45). Lord God, open my mind to understand the scriptures.

      The only knowledge that is of permanent worth is the knowledge of truth (1Jn.2:20f., cf. Jn.16:13), and St. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is for them “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph.3:19); and yet “if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1Co.13:2). Lord God, grant that I may know You more, and love You more, and as my love for You increases, so may my love for my neighbor increase also.

  16. Thank you very much for this clarity. I have participated in four different spiritual gift discernment programs (2 when I was Protestant, and 2 after I became a Catholic), and they all pointed to a primary charism of knowledge, but I actually didn’t quite understand how to use that gift. Your explanation has greatly helped me in discerning the practical application of it within the Church community.

  17. It consistently amazes me exactly how blog writers for example yourself can find the time and the commitment to keep on writing wonderful blogposts. Your blog isfantastic and one of my have to read blogs and forums. I just needed to say thanks.

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