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

Question F: In what ways can free choices be social or communal?

1. Modern individualism diminishes the sense of human life as communal. Social actions often are thought of as mere accumulations of individual acts. The assumption is that there are no social choices. But there are: Some choices can only be made by two or more people. Marriage is an example. The man and the woman must both choose, and each is responsible. Yet neither’s choice to take the other as spouse is effective without the other’s. The two choices are operative only within the common, mutual commitment.8

2. People are naturally inclined to society; they need one another to exist and be fulfilled (see S.t., 1, q. 96, a. 4; 1–2, q. 94, a. 2; 2–2, q. 129, a. 6, ad 1; S.c.g., 3, 117). Among the reasons for this need is the fact that every choice involves self-limitation as well as self-fulfillment. Some possibilities must be set aside in order to pursue others. To realize oneself as much as possible, one must accept limitation. Only genuine community can make up for this limitation. In such community one identifies with others by love and so is fulfilled in them in ways in which one can never be fulfilled in oneself. Any genuine community is one body with many members (see 1 Cor 12.12–13.13).

The point made here about community—that in it one finds compensation for one’s own limitedness—is an obvious fact of daily experience. Members of a family are pleased when one of their number does well. A whole nation experiences fulfillment when its representatives win gold medals in some international competition. Persons who are generous applaud the accomplishments of someone who does what they could not do themselves: “More power to you.” Every Christian who truly believes in and loves the Lord Jesus rejoices in his victory: “We’ve won.”

3. A social choice is required when a person comes into an already existing community. When, for example, a person becomes a Christian, he or she makes an act of faith and the Church administers baptism. The two acts are parts of one common act, in which God adopts the new Christian and he or she accepts the status of a child of God.

4. In any community certain persons can make choices on behalf of the community as a whole (see, e.g., Ex 32.30). If those who do so act within the limits of their authority, their choices involve every member of the community willy-nilly. It is true that besides supporting or acquiescing in acts of communities of which they are members, individuals can resist. But such resistance to a legitimate act of a community partly or wholly nullifies the individual’s existential membership in that community.

5. The social dimension of choice is very important in moral theology. The story of salvation begins with the promise to Abraham, that all nations will find salvation through him, and this promise is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus (see Gn 12.1–3; Acts 3.25; Rom 4.13; Gal 3.8, 16).9 It is by social choices that the relationship among God, the Lord Jesus as man, the Church, and the individual Christian is established and lived. Furthermore, one cannot understand original sin without bearing in mind that in any community someone can and does make the choice which is decisive for the social choice and responsibility of the whole community.

8. Gabriel Marcel has done much to illuminate the relationships among individuals and communities. See, for example, Creative Fidelity, trans. Robert Rosthal (New York: Noonday Press, 1964).

9. See Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 152–61.