Virtue is of its own nature so amiable, that God favours it wheresoever he finds it. The pagans, though they were enemies of his divine Majesty, now and then practised certain human and moral virtues, which were not by their nature placed above the forces of the reasonable spirit. Now you may guess, Theotimus, how small a matter that was: for though these virtues made a great show, yet in effect they were of little worth, by reason of the lowness of the intention of those who practised them. They laboured for scarcely anything but honour, as S. Augustine says, or for some other object of light consideration, such as the upholding the social good, or from some weak inclination they had to good; which inclination, meeting with no contradiction, carried them on to trifling acts of virtue -- as for example, to mutual courtesy, to aid their friends, to live with moderation, not to steal, to serve masters faithfully, to pay hirelings' wages. And nevertheless though this was so slender, and accompanied with many imperfections, God took it in good part from those poor people, and recompensed it largely.
The midwives whom Pharaoh commanded to kill all the male children of the Israelites were without doubt Egyptians and pagans; for in the excuse they made for not having executed the king's pleasure, they said: The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian: this would not have been to the purpose if they had been Hebrews: and it is not credible that Pharaoh would have granted so cruel a commission against the Hebrews to Hebrew women, being of the same nation and religion: besides Josephus testifies that they were in fact Egyptians. Now, Egyptians and pagans as they were, yet they feared to offend God by so barbarous and unnatural a cruelty as the massacre of so many little children would have been. The divine sweetness was so pleased with this that it built their houses, that is to say, made them fruitful in children and in temporal riches.
Nabuchodonosor, King of Babylon, had waged a just war against the city of Tyre, which the divine justice willed to chastise, and God signified to Ezechiel that in recompense thereof he would deliver up Egypt as a prey into the hands of Nabuchodonosor and his army, Because, said God, he hath laboured for me. Hence, adds S. Jerome in the commentary, we learn that in case the very pagans do some good thing they are not left unrewarded by God's judgment. So did Daniel exhort Nabuchodonosor, an infidel, to redeem his sins by alms, that is, to ransom himself out of the temporal pains due to his sins, which hung over his head. Do you see then, Theotimus, how true it is that God makes account of virtues, though practised by persons otherwise wicked? If he had not approved the mercy of the midwives and the justice of the war of the Babylonians, would he have taken care, I pray you, to reward them? And if Daniel had not known that the infidelity of Nabuchodonosor would not prevent God from being pleased with his alms, why would he have counselled him to do them? Indeed the Apostle assures us that pagans who have not the law do by nature those things that are of the law. And when they do so, who can doubt that they do well, and that God makes account of it? Pagans understood that marriage was good and necessary, they saw that it was becoming to have their children brought up in liberal knowledge, in the love of their country, in the arts of civil life, and they did so. Now I leave it to your consideration whether this was not grateful unto God, since to this end he had given the light of reason and natural instinct.
Natural reason is a good tree which God has planted in us; the fruits which spring from it cannot but be good. They are fruits which in comparison with those which spring from grace are indeed of very small value, yet still, not of no value, since God has valued them, and for them has given temporal rewards. Thus, according to the great S. Augustine, he rewarded the moral virtues of the Romans with the grand extent and magnificent renown of their empire.
Sin unquestionably makes the soul sick, and then she cannot do great and laborious deeds; yet little ones she can do, for all the actions of the sick are not sickly: they still speak, they still see, they still hear, they still drink. The soul in sin can do good works, which, being natural, are rewarded with natural rewards; being civil, are paid in civil and human money, that is, with temporal advantages. The sinner is not in the state of the devils, whose wills are so steeped in and incorporated with evil that they can will no good at all. No, Theotimus; the sinner in this world is not in that state. Here, he is in the way between Jerusalem and Jericho, wounded to death but not yet dead; for, says the Gospel, he is left half-dead; and as he is half-alive so he can do half-living actions. 'Tis true he can neither walk, nor rise, nor cry for aid, no, not so much as speak, save only languishingly, by reason of the faintness of his heart; yet can he open his eyes, stir his fingers, sigh, make some word of complaint: -- weak actions, and actions in spite of which he would miserably die of his wounds, had not the merciful Samaritan poured in the oil and wine, and carried him to the inn, where he gave charge that at his cost the man should be dressed and looked to.
Natural reason is deeply wounded, and, as it were, half slain by sin; whence, being in such sad condition, it cannot observe all the commandments, which, however, it clearly sees to be good: it knows its duty but cannot acquit itself thereof; its eyes have more light to discover the way than its legs have strength to undertake it.
The sinner may indeed occasionally observe some of the commandments, yea all of them for some short time, so long as no great occasion for practising virtues commanded, or violent temptation to commit sin forbidden, present itself. But that a sinner should live long in his sin without adding to it new ones, is not a thing that can be done but by God's special protection, for man's enemies are ardent, active, and perpetually striving to cast him down, and when they see that no occasion of practising virtues commanded occurs, they excite a thousand temptations to make him fall into things forbidden; at which time nature without grace cannot save itself from the precipice: for if we overcome, God gives us the victory through Jesus Christ, as S. Paul says. Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation. If Our Lord had said only watch, we might expect that our own power would be sufficient, but when he adds pray, he shows that if he keep not our souls in time of temptation, in vain shall they watch who keep them.