“Ask a Priest: Is Free Will Untethered by Cultural and Social Influences?”

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Q: I struggle with Church teaching on free will. The impression I get from this teaching is that free will is pure and independent of factors, such as personal psychological makeup, upbringing, cultural influences, and social environment and circumstances. My concern with this teaching is that people make decisions for good or for bad, for God or for the world, on the basis of influences and examples that they are exposed to; for example, a person is far more likely to divorce or to indulge in promiscuity and criminality if he has been raised within a society, family or neighborhood in which such activities are considered “normal.” We are taught that everybody has sufficient grace to accept God, but it appears to me that so many people are so immersed in the present, “God-free” culture that they have formed an almost impenetrable cultural resistance to the acceptance of the Christian God. This culture is so seductive that over the last five decades or so there has been a massive exodus from the Catholic Church in the Western world. Particular issues flow from my perplexity on the subject of free will. One of them goes like this: If a person is subject to compulsory military service and is sent to another country as part of an occupying force, and is ordered to terrorize an unarmed population, would he be committing a grave sin, or would his culpability before God be reduced on the grounds that he was obeying orders? The problem with us humans is that we are conformists; it is a very rare kind of human being that goes against the flow. I sometimes wonder why God created us with such a nature, only to exact standards that seem beyond what most humans can reach. – P.S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is a bit misleading to say that free will is independent of outside factors, such as culture and a person’s psychological makeup. We are complex beings, and we interact with and are influenced by our surroundings in complex ways.

Free will is always limited in some way. We aren’t free to walk into the White House and take over the powers of the presidency. We aren’t free to run a 3-minute mile. We aren’t free to learn a foreign language overnight. There are always limits. But that is OK.

Even within limits we have a wide range of choices. That helps to explain why two people growing up, say, in a poor neighborhood might end up very differently. There is a degree of liberty in just about every case, and it is there where we act as moral agents.

From a moral standpoint this means that God will probably judge people differently. Jesus said, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48).

This is why we can’t judge other people. We never know what goes on in their hearts. We don’t know the problems they wrestle with. That said, though, we shouldn’t be too quick to let ourselves off the hook. “Everyone is promiscuous or engaged in crime, so why not me?” is not good moral reasoning.

As for the case of the soldier ordered to terrorize unarmed civilians, the short answer is that he should not obey such a command.

The Catechism in No. 1903 says, “Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.”

As for reduced culpability – for instance, if a soldier is under duress — God might take that into account. Nevertheless, it would remain an objectively grave evil to terrorize unarmed civilians. What might shift is the subjective guilt. Again, that is why it is hard for us to judge a soul.

As for the exacting standards of God: Life seems tough in part because we fail to understand the effects of original sin. The first sin led to our inheriting a damaged human nature. This is a great mystery, and yet the evidence for this is all around us.

Providentially, God didn’t give up on us, though he could have done that. He sent his Son to give us a chance at salvation. And he is there to forgive us in the sacrament of confession. Moreover, he gives all of us enough grace to reach heaven – if we do our part.

It seems that you are someone who likes to think deeply about issues like these. As regards the true nature of human freedom, one of the best and deepest treatments of the Catholic tradition is Servais Pinckaers’ “The Sources of Christian Ethics.

I hope this helps.
Count on my prayers.

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