Vol. v, No.1 First Quarter, 1995

Pages 37-38


The new-fangled cult of liberty implied that the Catholic Church or Catholic culture up to the eighteenth century had somehow missed the boat on liberty. It is as if something was missing from life, as if there were constraints in the Catholic culture which needed to be done away with. In other words, what did the liberty-cultists in the eighteenth century seek to be free from ?

The Catholic Church, however, missed nothing about liberty.

Always a defender of free will, particularly against Protestants, the Catholic Church in no way failed to address the liberty of the human will in the writings of her great minds. It has always taught that man is endowed with free will, and is thereby accountable for his actions. Because of his free will, he is capable of merit, and therefore capable, with the help of divine grace, of achieving eternal salvation. He is therefore also capable of demerit, and of causing himself to be damned for all eternity.

Catholic philosophy teaches that the human will is a blind faculty which must be informed by the intellect as to what is good and what is bad. The intellect is that faculty of the soul by which it takes in reality. The intellect informs and commands the will with regard to the objects it should pursue.

Catholic philosophy further teaches that the foundation of the freedom of the will is the indifference of the object. This simply means that created goods, unlike God, do not have a necessary attractive power on the soul, like a magnet does to iron, but merely a limited attractive power, one that can be refused by the intellect, and therefore by the will.

Let an example illustrate. When you set down food in front of a hungry cat, the cat moves necessarily toward the food, without any freedom or deliberation, since it perceives only the sensual good of the food. The cat goes to the food like iron would go to a magnet. It is not a free act for the cat. On the other hand, if you set down a plate of food in front of a hungry man, although he would be strongly attracted toward it by his sensual nature, he would still be able to perceive with his intellect the fact that the food is merely a limited good. He could perceive something good about the food, and something bad about it. For example, while he might perceive that it is nourishing, he also might perceive that it tastes bad. He must then make a deliberate decision, a free decision, either to bear the evil of the bad taste and eat the food for its nourishment, or to reject the good of nourishment for the fact that the evil of the bad taste outweighs it. Thus, even though he be very hungry, he could freely refuse to eat.

The reason why man is free in front of limited created goods is that his intellect is made to know universal being, and his will is made to love universal good. When something fails to be universal good, but only a limited good, the will remains free, that is, unconstrained, in front of such an object. The will may freely draw back from a good that is attractive to it in a limited manner. Martyrs, for example, have even freely drawn back from the good of preserving their natural lives in order to possess a greater good, namely God. No animal could do such a thing, for no animal could perceive the great good of possessing God. In fact, only the vision of God, who is Subsistent Being and Subsistent Good, is able to necessarily attract the attention of the human intellect and the adherence of the human will.

If we now pass to liberty in the social and political sphere, it is obvious that human beings should be free in those areas which are truly indifferent, but constrained with regard to those things which are necessary. Thus the observance of the law of God and of the natural law pertains necessarily to the common good, and consequently civil governments are duty bound to outlaw the transgressions of these laws. Men should not be "free" to disobey the law of God and the natural law. Hence murder, which is against both laws, is outlawed by the civil law. On the other hand, civil governments would exceed their authority, were they to attempt to dictate to citizens practices which are not necessarily linked to the common good, e.g., whether people should drink alcoholic beverages or not, or whether they should wear seat belts or not.


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Editor - Father Donald Sanborn]

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