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Chapter 2: Free Choice, Self-Determination, Community, and Character

Question C: How is free choice distinguished from other realities called “freedom”?

1. While the word “freedom” has many meanings, all share certain common elements. With reference to persons, the meaning of freedom includes as its elements someone who is or could be acting, the action, and something which might be but in fact is not blocking the action. To distinguish meanings of “free,” one must specify various factors which might block action.

2. In one sense “freedom” means physical freedom. Some physical force or constraint might interfere with action; in its absence, action proceeds naturally and spontaneously. Someone who is not fettered or bound is physically free. In a second sense “freedom” means doing as one pleases. The orders or demands of another person or persons might prevent one from acting as one wishes; in their absence, one is free to do as one pleases. When they are out of school, children are free to do as they please. In a third sense “freedom” means the emergence of novelty. Various factors might keep things as they are and prevent originality; in their absence, one is free in the sense that one has a share in authorship, originality, innovation. James Joyce was free in writing Ulysses.

Some degree of physical freedom nearly always is given; one who is outwardly forced generally can still control to some extent his or her own focusing of attention on this or that. At the same time, physical freedom always is limited. So physical freedom is a matter of more and less; it is subject to degree. Physical freedom is important for moral life in this way: The more physical freedom one has, the more possible courses of action there are among which one might choose.

In a second sense, “freedom” means freedom to do as one pleases. A slave, to the extent that he or she is a slave, has no freedom in this sense. Adolescents who demand their freedom are primarily interested in freedom to do as they please. Almost everyone has some scope for doing as he or she pleases. But this scope is limited in two ways: by one’s own sense of duty and by the impositions from others which one regards as arbitrary.

Correspondingly, there are two ways of increasing one’s freedom to do as one pleases. The more one pleases to do as one ought, the less one’s sense of duty is an obstacle to doing as one pleases. Jesus is just as free to do as he pleases as is the Father, for Jesus desires nothing apart from the Father. Again, the more one can evade the force of alien wills which really are arbitrary, the more one is free to do as one pleases. Thus, the weaknesses of antireligious secularism allow Catholics in Poland and the United States some scope to do as they please in practicing their faith.

Freedom to do as one pleases is morally ambiguous; it means rather different things to good and bad persons, who differ in what they find pleasing.

Emergence of novelty is another sense of “freedom.” In creating, God is free in this sense; to the extent that we share in his creative and redemptive work, we also share in this freedom. Goodness is in an open and expanding realization of potentialities. The immoral life is unnecessarily self-limiting, and tends to be dull and repetitious. Wherever there is free choice, of course, there is something really new. In this respect, even the sinful act is somewhat creative. It tends, however, not to be very creative, both because sinners merely follow given inclinations and because they do not wish to admit free choice and responsibility. Hence, they view goods and possibilities in such a way that sin will seem to be—and more and more will come to be—almost inevitable.

3. Freedom in each of these senses is also present in social contexts. Thus “political freedom” refers to nothing other than these sorts of freedom. The freedom for which revolutions are fought is the liberty of a group to do as it pleases; the freedom prized in democratic societies is the liberty of individuals to live as they wish within the framework of a common social order.

4. It is possible to affirm the reality of freedom in any of the preceding senses yet deny the reality of free choice. Actions performed by physical freedom can spring from a natural, inner necessity, as in the case of a dog which chases a cat (see S.t., 1–2, q. 6, a. 2). Disobedient three-year olds want freedom to do as they please, yet are quite incapable of making free choices. And, although every free choice does involve a certain creativity, novelty is possible without free choice.

5. After the Reformation, some theologians did not accept the truth of faith concerning free choice. They asserted that human persons are free, not in the sense that they could choose otherwise than they do, but only in the sense that they are not compelled to choose. In other words, while admitting that moral responsibility requires physical freedom for human acts, they held that grace or some other cause determines precisely what one will do. A formula for the erroneous position that physical freedom suffices for moral responsibility is: “What comes about voluntarily, even if it comes about necessarily, still comes about freely.” The Church condemns this error (see DS 1939/1039). This teaching is important today, because most contemporary social scientists, psychologists, and nonbelieving philosophers admit freedom in human choice only in this sense, which the Church teaches is insufficient for moral responsibility.5

6. There is another, important sense of freedom: the freedom of the children of God (see S.t., 2–2, q. 183, a. 4; 3, q. 48, a. 4; q. 49, aa. 1–3). Factors such as Satan, sin, death, the flesh, and the law confined the lives of fallen human persons. Our Lord Jesus overcame sin and won freedom for us, the Christian freedom which rightly belongs to members of God’s family (see Rom 6.6–23; 7.24–25; 8.21; 1 Cor 7.22; 15.24–26; 2 Cor 3.17; Gal 4.26, 31; 5.1, 13).6

7. The freedom of the children of God presupposes free choice but is distinct from it. This freedom cannot be badly used, but one can make bad free choices. The freedom of the children of God is the liberation we receive in Jesus by God’s gift, a gift to be perfected in heavenly fulfillment; free choice is the principle of one’s living of a Christian life.

8. The New Testament clearly distinguishes Christian liberty from freedom to do as one pleases (see Gal 5.13; 1 Pt 2.16–17). Christian liberty is not license, for, like the freedom of the Son and the Spirit, it operates out of divine love and so always in accord with this love. Vatican II reaffirms this point (see GS 17). People need room to act upon their responsible judgments, but they should not “use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience” (DH 8).

Free choice is the beginning of one’s own action in Christian life; the freedom of the children of God is the end. Even now we share in this end, although not as perfectly as we hope to do in heaven. The more we love God, the less sin has a hold over us, the less fearful we are of death, the less we even notice that there is a moral law. Nothing is impossible for God, and so nothing is impossible for those who act out of the love—which is the power—of God (see Lk 1.37; 11.13; 18.27).

In talking about free choice and moral responsibility, it is important always to make it clear that the two go together. So-called freedom of conscience often means a claim to do as one pleases in disregard of moral norms. The freedom of God’s children is not a license to ignore God’s commandments, whose truth the Church explains and defends; rather, the freedom of God’s children, received by the gift of the Spirit, liberates conscience by divine love (see Rom 5.5; 8.1–17). Thus the law of God is written on one’s heart (see Jer 31.33; Rom 6.15–23), and one can do as one pleases, for nothing is pleasing but what pleases God (see Gal 5.13–26).

5. In recent philosophical literature, those who hold that moral responsibility is saved by freedom other than free choice are called “compatibilists” or “soft determinists,” while those who reject both free choice and moral responsibility are called “hard determinists.” Various forms of compatibilism are criticized in ibid., 104–21. Social scientists and psychologists who deny free choice can say people are morally responsible, but they tend to adopt a conception of responsibility very different from the traditional Christian one. A sign of this is that wrongdoers are thought to need enlightenment, treatment, and so on, rather than a witness of faith and hope together with an invitation to repentance.

6. The freedom of the children of God also is taught in the Johannine writings; for a careful exegesis of relevant texts: Matthew Vellanickal, The Divine Sonship of Christians in the Johannine Writings, Analecta Biblica, 72 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1977), 286–94.