The Holy Spirit is always giving gifts, whether for us as individuals or for the common good, but some of these are uniquely referred to as the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit.” They are “permanent” gifts, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
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. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, 1830-1831, p. 450.
The gifts are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Six of these names come from the Hebrew text of Isaiah 11:3. The seventh is found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Vulgate (the Latin translation) version of the Old Testament.
In their original context they describe the qualities of the ideal Davidic king, whom Christians understand to be Jesus. By extension, the gifts are also given to those who are “in Christ” by Baptism.
In addition to the passage in Isaiah, the New Testament speaks of the variety of ways by which the Spirit gives interior gifts in a lasting way, habitually counseling, revealing, inspiring, empowering and transforming believers and drawing them to the Son and Father. These New Testament gifts are expressions of the Gifts of the Spirit upon us.
The Holy Spirit’s presence is permanent. Jesus said to the apostles, “He will remain in you and be in you” (Jn 14:17). Paul writes, “The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who is given to us” (Rom 5:5).
We might get the impression that the way that the Spirit gives a person one of these gifts, for example, wisdom, is similar to the way that a new chip can be installed in our computer.
Actually, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are not things that we possess. The “gifts” are dispositions that open us to the action of the Holy Spirit, for instance to act wisely, as inspired by the Spirit. Thomas C. O’Brien says that the teaching on the “Gifts” is “a key to St. Thomas’ theology of the Christian life.” As O’Brien explains, “Before Thomas, no one had characterized the Gifts by reference to the promptings of the Spirit.” (Thomas C. O’Brien, in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 31, 144-145, note d).
Thomas recognizes that we are usually disposed by virtue to act in a good way in human affairs: “Human virtue perfects a human person in what is natural for him to be moved by his reason in his interior and exterior actions” (1a2ae. 68, 1). However, over and above the virtues, we are given the “gifts’ so that we can be disposed beyond our reason: “A human person needs higher perfections to be disposed to be moved by God. these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because of them a person is disposed to become responsive to Divine inspiration” (1a2ae. 68, 1).
Thomas affirms: “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are habits (dispositions) by which a person is perfected to obey readily the Holy Spirit” (1a.2ae. 68, 3). Thomas emphasizes that these gifts do not make a person a passive instrument of the Spirit: “A human person is not an instrument which is just acted upon; for he is acted upon by the Holy Spirit so that he acts by himself, in so far as he has freewill” (1a2ae. 68, 3 ad 2).
The Gifts presuppose the virtues of faith, hope and charity, which are the means by which we are united with God:
The mind of a person is not moved by the Holy Spirit, unless in some way it is united with Him, as an instrument is not moved by the craftsman, unless there be contact or some kind of union between them. The primary union of humans with God is by faith, hope and charity: and, consequently, these virtues are presupposed to the gifts, as their roots… derived from them (1a2ae. 68, 4, ad 3).
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are connected together in charity. Thomas states: “Whoever has charity has all the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, none of which one can possess without charity” (1a2ae. 68, 5). Thomas affirms: “Wisdom and understanding and the others are gifts of the Holy Spirit, as they are enlivened by charity” (1a2ae. 68, 8 ad 3).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the reference is a response to an objection that Thomas has raised, the reference will indicate “ad,” meaning “to” the objection. This reference is found in the third part of the Summa, question 68, and various articles.