Because we can make free choices, we are responsible for ourselves. Not God but we ourselves go astray. Empowered by God, the blessed make themselves sharers in his life. All by themselves, the damned make themselves what they are (see S.t., 2–2, q. 24, a. 10, c.). Since this truth is so alien to the minds of all who lack the light of faith, the ancient pagans had a hard time grasping and accepting it. Hence, the Fathers of the Church constantly affirm it. Writing in the second century, St. Justin the Martyr states:
We have learned from the Prophets and we hold it as true that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are distributed according to the merit of each man’s actions. Were this not the case, and were all things to happen according to the decree of fate, there would be nothing at all in our power. If fate decrees that this man is to be good, and that one wicked, then neither is the former to be praised nor the latter to be blamed.
Similarly, Tatian says that the wicked person is “depraved of himself” while the good person does God’s will by “his free choice.” Persons are “created free, not having the nature of good, which pertains only to God, and which is brought to perfection by men through their freedom of choice” (FEF 156). St. Theophilus of Antioch affirms that God made man neither mortal nor immortal, but capable of being either: “For God made man free and self-determining” (FEF 184).
Furthermore, if the human race does not have the power of a freely deliberated choice in fleeing evil and in choosing good, then men are not accountable for their actions . . ..
Neither would man deserve reward or praise if he did not of himself choose the good; nor, if he acted wickedly, would he deserve punishment, since he would not be evil by choice, and could not be other than that which he was born. (FEF 123)
Not only the earliest Fathers but the later ones as well continually reaffirm the same truth. St. John Chrysostom says that “everything depends, after grace from above, upon our own choice” (FEF 1151; cf. 1165, 1188, 1219), and so we deserve the reward or punishment we receive. St. Augustine likewise affirms moral responsibility based on freedom of choice: “If, with divine grace assisting the human will, a man is able to be without sin in this life, I can tell you very easily and most truthfully why such does not happen: men do not will it” (FEF 1722). Moreover, while always careful to assert the necessity of grace for doing good, Augustine also defends free choice as a principle of good acts: “Let us take care not to defend grace in such a way that we would seem to take away free choice; nor again can we insist so strongly on free choice that we could be judged, in our proud impiety, ungrateful for the grace of God” (FEF 1723; cf. 1710, 1883, 1890, 1954). St. Cyril of Alexandria points out that Adam and Judas sinned by their own fault, since the Creator gave human persons the power of “choice and permitted them to follow whatever spontaneous inclinations each of them might wish” (FEF 2113). Inclinations are spontaneous; temptations are a given. But what one does is up to oneself.
Free choice is related to morality, not only as a condition of responsibility, but also as a source of the dignity of the person as moral agent. This fundamental aspect of the relevance of free choice to morality also is stressed by the Fathers. St. Irenaeus says: “. . . God made man free from the beginning, so that he possessed his own power just as his own soul, to follow God’s will freely, not being compelled by God. For with God there is no coercion; but a good will is present with him always. He, therefore, gives good counsel to all. In man as well as in angels—for angels are rational—he has placed a power of choice, so that those who obeyed might justly possess the good things which, indeed, God gives, but which they themselves must preserve” (FEF 244).
The Fathers often emphasize how like God human persons are by virtue of the power of choice. Tertullian, for example, says: “I find that man was constituted by God with a freedom of both his own will and his own power; for I observe in him the image and likeness of God by nothing so clearly as by this, the characteristic of his estate. . . . That such is his estate has been confirmed even by the fact of the law which was then imposed upon him by God. For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render the obedience due to law” (FEF 335). St. John Damascene affirms the same truth about humankind made in God’s image (see FEF 2357), and St. Thomas Aquinas, continuing the teaching of the Fathers, cites Damascene in the Prologue to the moral section (the Second Part) of the Summa theologiae: “Because, as Damascene says, man is said to be made in the image of God inasmuch as by ‘image’ is meant one who has intellect, is free in choosing, and through himself able to act . . . it remains for us to consider this image—namely, man—insofar as he is the principle of his own acts as one who has free will and control of his acts.” By endowing human persons with free choice, God has made them his image even according to their nature, and this image is perfected when they freely accept grace.