On Human Freedom
The Christian Concept of Human Freedom
The Christian concept of human liberty assumes the existence of a personal transcendant God in whom dwells all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. From all eternity, He had the notion of our earth in His mind, and He created the earth according to this notion. He alone enjoys the absolute right of self-determination, absolute sovereignty, and dominion. Nevertheless, He created man according to His own image, and therefore He incorporated in human nature something of His own freedom and self-determination. Yet, the nature of human freedom is such that is implies in man the capacity to either use it to pursue God's goodness, truth, and beauty, or to turn aside from these. In other words, human freedom means that man is capable of developing according to God's plan, or to rebel against it at the peril of his own self-destruction! Because of original sin, the full liberty of man was dealt a crippling blow inasmuch as he was more disposed to rebel against God. It was by the Redemption that full liberty was restored to man. Christianity accords to man his full right of self-determination and recognizes in this right his fullest dignity and nobility. In fact, Christianity by its doctrine of eternal damnation recognizes the ultimate consequences of this right, because this teaching implies that God will even permit men to eternally contradict Him rather than violate man's sacred right to self-determination. The ultimate cause for eternal damnation is abuse of free will by setting it in final opposition to God's will. Christianity sees in such a disposition of the will, not an exercise of legitimate freedom, but rather a punishable violation of liberty, a transgression against God and His liberty which, of course, is higher than our own. According to the Christian conception, man is a free agent of God, who is entitled to help God complete His work. As a master builder originates a construction project in His mind and authorizes His employees to bring it to fulfillment, so God has conceived in His mind the design for the human race and entrusted us to carry it into fulfillment. Inspired by the goodness, truth, and beauty of this ideal, we ought to adopt it freely as sons of God and carry it into execution. In this way God proposes to make His work our own and to reward us for our free compliance.
(Sunday Sermon in the Cathedral of Mainz, December 17, 1848; op. cit. pp. 47-48)
Liberty in General
One can only speak of freedom when dealing with human beings. Everything else on this planet is un-free. Christianity makes this clear to us. Human freedom is a direct consequence of the fact that man is made in God's image. Therefore it follows that human freedom is like the very freedom that God enjoys, though there is still an essential difference.
The freedom of God is, like God's essence, unlimited and unconditional. He alone possesses this supreme sovereignty. His being, His will, His acts are determined by Him alone. His freedom in dealing with anything outside Himself is without limit. It is this freedom which man enjoys, to a degree, and only to the degree that his human nature permits.
The freedom of man can only be a conditional freedom. It is restricted by obligation -- the obligation to submit itself freely to the Divine Will. God subjects human freedom to certain well-defined limits which man cannot transgress, because if he did so, he would be frustrating the Divine plan.
Human freedom does not apply to every aspect of man's existence. In some matters man is only partly free, and in others he is even totally unfree. Man has no control at all over the fact of his birth and over the fact that one day he must die. Nor can he control certain of his most basic needs. He does not have anything to say about what his proper destiny is. The same necessity which determines his existence also compels him to strive for happiness. Here he is limited in his freedom to the choice of means for seeking his proper end, not in the choice of the end, itself. (ibid. pp. 117-118)
According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, moral freedom here on earth is the power of a man freely to seek the good -- a power of choice which brings with it also the capacity to choose evil. The concept rules out all external compulsion which would appear to lead a man to do good, but which does not move a man internally to what is good. It also rules out any kind of inner necessity, the kind that compels the will, not by external force, but by some inner pre-determination to choose one or the other option, without the real possibility of rejecting it. In other words, moral freedom would become something other than "voluntary". Finally, moral freedom implies the existence of this possibility, as is the attainment of our reward, the fulfillment of the purpose for which we are here on earth. That is the achievement of our final destiny, heaven.
It is on this exalted concept of freedom which gives to man his true dignity that the Catholic Church has erected its entire body of doctrine for leading a Christian life. Teachers of the Church who deal with moral doctrine preface their discussion by distinguishing between specifically human acts, those which are free actions in the sense we have mentioned, and those actions of man which are unfree. Only such free actions, according to universal traditions of Catholic moral theology, are then treated as specifically human actions, e.g., actions in which the full dignity of human nature comes to bear. Christian moral theologians distinguish these from the unfree acts which man has in common with unreasoning beings and indicate that Christian moral teaching deals only with the former, not with the latter. The three essential components of a moral action which they propose for us are: first, a judgement regarding the worth of an action which is made before the action is taken; second, a free inner decision to take or not to take an action, which becomes the source of the action; and third, the existence of the possibility to decide otherwise.
Closely related to this doctrine is the other important teaching having to do with human conscience. It is especially apparent in the matter of conscience what high regard the Church has for the special dignity of man which he has by virtue of his inner freedom. It is conscience, according to Catholic teaching, which represents that inner judgement that man makes after mature deliberation as to the truth and correctness of an action, that he applies to his life's actions and all of his dealings, and on the basis of which he then takes action. We have here a remarkable inner activity whereby a man sits in judgement of his own actions and of the whole world around him; and does so in an uncomparably higher and more universal manner than human courts do since they act in a far more restricted fashion in that limited range of activities over which they have special competence. The Church assigns a degree of sovereignty to conscience which is so sublime that it teaches even the little child that no matter what, one must not go against one's conscience. The Church recognizes, of course, that a conscience can be wrong. That is why she teaches unfailingly what great harm can come from an erroneous conscience and what a great responsibility we have before God, who will one day measure the judgements of this personal court of ours against those of His eternal court, according to whose laws he will eventually be judged. (ibid. pp. 119-120)
Freedom of Conviction
Just as the Catholic Church holds with reference to moral freedom that what goes against a man's conscience is sinful, so she also teaches as the Apostle Paul did about freedom of conviction, the necessity of following one's convictions - rationabile obsequium - in the area of religious beliefs. That too is a freedom of the human spirit at the second level of man's spiritual nature, namely, in the recognition of truth. As the Catholic Church makes a moral good the object of inner free choice, so too she requires that the acceptance of any truth which is worthy of man's recognition must be the object of free inner conviction in human reason. The motivations for accepting what is good and what is true must not be merely external, but they must stem from an interior disposition as is worthy of man's proper dignity. A man connot build his house on someone else's foundation. This means that he cannot establish true moral behavior on someone else's will, or genuine conviction of what is true on someone else's intellectual grasp of the truth. No matter how proper another person's will may be and no matter how correct another person's grasp of the truth may be, a man has to reconcile his own free will and his own intellect, in other words - his own soul - to what is good and what is true, before his own judgements and actions become morally valid. God instilled this truly frightening freedom as an essential quality of human dignity; and perilous though it may be, He expects us to use it not only in our relationship to other men but even in our relationship to God Himself.
The Church applies the self-same principle to man's religious beliefs. St. Thomas Aquinas, who gives us the authentic Catholic position on this matter, said:
We may, therefore, define Christian Faith as the concurrence of free will and intellect in the truths revealed by God, under the influence of Divine grace...These two actions together - the act of God and the act of man - constitute that great miracle in history, that great, firm faith, that holy conviction which far surpasses all merely human conviction, and which has produced countless numbers of martyrs for the Faith.
"For Faith two things are necessary: first, a credible object for one's belief, and second, an acceptance of such an object of faith. This acceptance cannot be fully accomplished by mere external motivation, e.g., by miracles which we witness, or by the conviction of the person who present the object for our acceptance. There must be, even more importantly, an inner motivation which disposes a person to accept an article of faith. Such inner motivation represents the principal and proper basis of faith.
This inner basis, the Pelagians insist, is nothing more than free will of man. Here they are in error.
The Faith does, in fact, rest on man's free will acceptance, but his will must first be predisposed for such acceptance by God's grace. Thus, insofar as acceptance is concerned - and that is the principal act of faith - God is the source of our faith inasmuch as, by His grace, He provides us with the all important inner motivation." (Summa ii-ii, 6, 1)
It is in this twofold freedom, the freedom of will and intellect, that you have the real essence of human freedom. He who has such freedom has true human dignity, even if he is deprived of other freedoms. He who lacks it, lacks human dignity even if he enjoys all other human freedoms and worldly esteem. The abuse of basic human freedom consists in the choice of evil by the will, and in the choice of untruth by the intellect. Such abuse then leads to the ultimate debasement of man, as when a man uses the will which is meant for freely accepting the highest Good to , instead, become a slave of evil passions, or as when a man uses that intellect, which is intended of recognizing the eternal Light to become the slave of untruth and of darkness...
It is in this freedom of will and of intellect that we have the basic foundation for all other freedoms as well as for a proper understanding of such other freedoms... (ibid. pp. 121-124)
Faith and Freedom of Inquiry
The teaching of the Church on this matter can be summed bp briefly. Man lost all supernatural grace through original sin. He did not, however, lose his natural capacities which mark him as a rational human being. In other words, he did not lose his free will nor his reasoning intellect. These were simply weakened an impaired. As a consequence of his condition, man can no longer perform any supernaturally meritorious works. He can, however, even without the supernatural assistance of Jesus Christ perform certain virtuous acts and come to recognize certain natural truths. That is why we find much natural goodness and recognition of various truths also among pagans. That is why, furthermore, the Redemption is not te be regarded merely as an imputation of all guilt onto the shoulders of Jesus Christ, who then covers our guilt over in purely exterior fashion as with a great mantle. It is rather a restoration, a healing of our nature. Therefore, finally, revealed truth is not to be regarded as an indictment against fallen human nature, but rather as a mysterious, blessed healing and an elevation of man's spiritual nature. It is bequeathed to man as a saving grace to restore his wounded nature and to strengthen and lift him up the the very presence of God.
The Church has taught these proposition from its very beginning, as she has forcefully rejected any notion that Christianity requires that we must acept what is contrary to reason...The Church waged bitter battles with the old orthodox Protestant reformers precisely over this issue, because the latter rejected free will and the free cooperation of human reason with the grace of God.
How does one explain this remarkable turnabout, wehre modern rationalistic Protestantism attacks the Catholic Church as the enemy of human reason and freedom, inasmuch as it was the Catholic Church which defended these against the attacks of the original reformers? The answer is to be found only partly in the enormous residue of bigotry. More important, it lies in the fact that Protestant rationalism is a reaction and, to a degree, a justifiable one against the old Protestant orthodoxy. But now it has gone to the other extreme and declared the absolute independence of human reason and of the will - a position which rejects all authority and is irreconcilable with human nature that is dependent on God and subject to His Divine plan. That is how rationalism has lost sight of any basic relationship between authority and freedom as well as between any reasonable and free acceptance of legitimate authority... (ibid. pp. 125-129)
The essence of liberty, whatever the context, lies in free self-determination stemming from inner conviction rather than from external force. Such free self-determination and free choice are the necessary prerequisites for social and political freedom. What it all means is that a man, in his personal, social, and political life, to the extent that he is able to take care of his own needs without violating the rights of others, enjoys the widest possible latitude in managing his own affairs. This liberty is therefore aptly designated as self-determination or individual autonomy.
If this liberty is to have true meaning, however, it must extend beyond the most immediate personal affairs also to those social concerns which are a part of everyday human existence. Man is by nature utterly social to the extent that he cannot survive in isolation. He is scarcely born when he finds himself in need of his first social contact in the family, so that he can preserve his fragile existence. Gradually his circle of social relations widens much in the same way as ripples in a pond spread outward after a stone has been thrown into it. Human life carries on within a structure of manifold social arrangements some of which are quite universal, like the family, the local community, the state, and others of which are established for achieving more specialized purposes. The right of man to guide his own destiny in all such societies, whether one is speaking of the family, the community, the province, or the corporate bodies which men establish, is what social and political liberty are all about. Where this is missing, liberty is missing.
We will have frequent occasion to discuss the great value of the social, civil, and political liberty. For the moment it is sufficient to point out that this freedom determines the character of a man in his relationships with his fellow man, whether we are speaking of his grass-roots social contacts of his activities in the higher levels of civil society. It represents a great school for developing true and healthy and realistic perspectives in the life of the state and at the same time it instills strength and dignity in the state itself.
It is self-evident, however, that such individual autonomy is not unlimited and unconditional. It does not imply total independence. Rather it brings with it the obligation of self-control, the need to submit to the law of God and to the order which God has established in the universe. It implies also the need to respect the rights of all other men with whom one comes in contact. Freedom does not absolve from obedience. Rather it is intimately related to it. It is from obedience that freedom receives its true dignity. In the mind of God all of the various creatures on which He bestowed life have their proper relationship to each other. The more these creatures conform to their respective roles, the more nearly will that harmony be realized which God envisions, where all creatures will acheive their highest destiny and their greatest happiness. The true meaning of that liberty which man, a rational creature of God, enjoys lies in his ability to cooperate freely with God in the fulfillment of the Divine plan, and in that he freely seeks out the role which God has destined for him and which he then carries out according to God's will. That applies in all of his human activities whether in the family or in the state. Therefore his liberty is always conditioned by obedience! (ibid. pp. 135-136)