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

Question B: Can human persons make free choices?

1. The ability of human persons to make free choices is taken for granted throughout the Bible. God does not impose his love—he proposes it: Yahweh offers the covenant; Jesus announces the kingdom; those who hear must respond (see Dt 30.19; Mk 16.16). If they do not accept the divine offer of friendship and intimacy, they reject it (see Mt 12.30; Lk 11.23). How individuals respond depends on themselves, and the nature of their response determines their lives in this world and the next (see Jn 3.14–21).

2. The reality of free choice is made clear in the book of Sirach (15.11–20), written when Jewish faith came in contact with Greek culture. In general, Greek thought did not accept free choice, and under its influence Jews were tempted to evade moral responsibility by thinking of divine, creative causality as being like the fate in which pagans believed. Sirach rejects this mistake: We cannot blame God for our sins.

Writing about two centuries before Jesus, another man named “Jesus,” son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, provided a classic formulation of the sublime truth concerning the human power of free choice.

 Do not say, “Because of the Lord I left the right way”;
for he will not do what he hates.
 Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”;
for he has no need of a sinful man.
 The Lord hates all abominations,
and they are not loved by those who fear him.
 It was he who created man in the beginning,
and he left him in the power of his own inclination.
 If you will, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
 He has placed before you fire and water:
stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
 Before a man are life and death,
and whichever he chooses will be given to him.
 For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;
 his eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows every deed of man.
 He has not commanded any one to be ungodly,
and he has not given any one permission to sin. (Sir 15.11–20)

Human persons are not simply subject to fate, to natural necessity, or to their heredity and environment. In what is most important, human persons are of themselves.

3. Much later, at the time of the Reformation, Luther and others rightly wished to emphasize sinful humankind’s total dependence on God’s grace. But they made the mistake of supposing that, in crediting salvation entirely to God, we must exclude the sinner’s responsibility for his or her conversion and justification. Thus these Protestants denied human free choice. Against them, the Council of Trent solemnly defined the truth that human beings, even after Adam’s sin, can make free choices (see DS 1555/815). Good free choices also are God’s gift, yet they are truly our own free choices (see DS 1525/797; also see S.t., 1–2, q. 111, a. 2).

Free choices are created entities. There would be no free choices if God did not cause them. The free choice to believe in God and to keep his commandments is the work of God’s grace; sinners and saints alike can do nothing without God.

If God’s causality were like any causality we understand, then for something to be both created and a free choice would make as much sense as for something to be both square and not-square at the same time and in the same respect. But we do not understand what God is in himself, and we do not know what it is for him to cause. The existence of free choices in the world is part of the existence of the whole of creation which is accounted for by referring everything to God the creator. There is no contradiction in God creating human-persons-making-free-choices. We know there is no contradiction, because it is a fact that there are free choices, and they could not exist if God did not cause them to be (see S.t., 1, q. 19, a. 8; q. 83, a. 1, ad 3; 1–2, q. 6, a. 1, ad 3; q. 10, a. 4; S.c.g., 3, 67, 70, 73, 89). Similarly, we do nothing salvific without God’s grace, but part of God’s grace is our freely seeking him, accepting him, and living in his love. (For a fuller explanation of this point, see appendix 3.)

4. The ability to make free choices is one important way in which human persons are somewhat like God. God is not determined in any way by anything other than himself. Moreover, he creates all else by his free choice (see DS 3002/1783, 3025/1805). Similarly, in choosing freely one is not determined by anything other than oneself, although as a creature one remains dependent upon God even for one’s free choices. Moreover, as a real cause through freedom, a human person also is like God. In choosing freely, however, one not only brings about things other than oneself, one is one’s self-maker under God. Thus we have the great dignity of being, in a limited but true sense, of ourselves (see S.t., 1–2, Prologue; q. 1, a. 2; q. 9, a. 3).

From this point of view, free choice and morality are not humankind’s burden, but humankind’s dignity—our natural similarity to God the creator and our natural power of sharing in the work of creation. Vatican II stresses that the power of free choice “is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man” (GS 17).

The Council does not apply the word “dignity” to human persons in any loose and popular way. “Dignity” means inherent worth, the high status which belongs to those made in God’s image and called to share his likeness as his adopted children: “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons—that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility—that all men should be at once impelled by their nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth” (DH 2; translation supplied). Dignity: the power to be of oneself, to live not in a limited world but in the truth of boundless reality, to bring oneself to exist not as stunted but as fulfilled. Morality is a privilege.

Free choice is not only a principle of Christian morality in making us responsible and able to be of ourselves, but also a principle of the act of faith, by which we accept God’s offer of love and become his adopted children (see S.t., 2–2, q. 1, a. 4; q. 2, a. 2). Vatican II insists upon the relevance of free choice to the act of faith: “The act of faith is of its very nature voluntary. Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God’s adopted son, cannot give his adherence to God revealing himself unless the Father draw him to offer to God the reasonable and free submission of faith” (DH 10; translation supplied). The same point is made by many of the Fathers of the Church, including St. Irenaeus (see FEF 245), St. Clement of Alexandria (see FEF 417), Arnobius (see FEF 622), and St. Augustine (see FEF 1734 and 1821).

In sum, there are three important ways in which freedom of choice is a principle of Christian morality. It is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. It is the central subject matter which moral norms are about; in this respect, the power of free choice is the principle of human dignity, insofar as human persons are like God in being of themselves what they morally are. And, finally, free choice is that by which we accept God in faith, and so enjoy his love and can live as his children.

5. Experience and philosophical reflection agree with faith that human beings can and do make free choices. Everyone capable of thinking about the matter has had the experience of making choices, including wrong ones by which moral guilt was incurred. Yet determinists deny that choices can be free.3

6. Since this denial runs counter to experience, determinists bear the burden of proving their case. In attempting to do so, they must appeal to our reasonableness and try to show that we ought to accept their position. The difficulty is, however, that this “ought” itself embodies an appeal to freedom. Determinists are asking us to be loyal to the pursuit of truth, and such a commitment is impossible if we cannot make free choices. Thus any attempt to prove that the experiences of choice and moral guilt are illusory is self-defeating.

The reality of free choice and the availability of this reality to experience and reason are of great importance in pastoral work. On the one hand, calling attention to free choice emphasizes something essential to faith and incompatible with practically every other world view. A consideration of this sort is very valuable when one proclaims the faith, for it supports the credibility of faith and makes evident the unreasonableness of alternative world views. On the other hand, free choice must be emphasized constantly or the faithful begin to misconceive their lives in some way incompatible with faith, often coming to rationalize sin without avoiding real moral guilt.

7. Underlying most deterministic arguments is the assumption, usually unstated, that nothing can come to be without a “sufficient reason” which accounts for it.4 A “sufficient reason” would be one which makes clear why the thing has come to be rather than not coming to be, and has come to be precisely as it is rather than otherwise. Of course, a free choice has an adequate cause: the person choosing. But the idea of sufficient reason involves more than that of adequate cause, for it adds the notion that everything can be completely explained. Thus a sufficient reason for a choice would make clear why just this choice, not some other, had been made. But the assumption that there must always be a sufficient reason is not self-evident; and if any free choices are made, either by God or by us, it is false.

8. God does act freely—that is, without a sufficient reason—for example, in creating and redeeming. Of course, God always acts in accord with his own wisdom, but his love is not determined by his wisdom. As for human persons, they also have reasons, but not sufficient reasons, for their choices. To explain why they chose as they did, people point to the good promised by the possibility which they chose. Yet if they had chosen otherwise, they would also have explained their different choice in a similar way (see S.t., 1–2, q. 13, a. 6). Thus there are reasons but never sufficient reasons to account for human free choices.

9. Determinists also point out, quite correctly, that many factors limit the possibilities open to us, and we are not usually even conscious of some of these. They are, however, mistaken in thinking that factors beyond our control which limit our possibilities also settle what we will choose within these limits. Because there are limits on what one can choose, it does not follow that one cannot choose freely within the limits.

3. See Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 122–77.

4. Determinists often suggest that actions done by free choice would be unintelligible, mysterious, random, accidental, causeless, contingent, chance happenings. This whole line of argument reduces to the argument from sufficient reason, which received its classic formulation from Laplace. See ibid., 77–90.