Lesson 2a: Freedom & Truth (the Truth about Freedom)

"When God in the beginning created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose you can keep the commandments. It is loyalty to do his will. . . . Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given to him. . . . No man does he command to sin, to none does he give strength for lies." Sirach 15:14;15;17;20

"The lives of all of us are to be revealed before the tribunal of Christ so that each one may receive his recompense, good or bad, according to his life in the body." II Cor. 5:10

A first question might be -- why morality? The answer is given in the purpose of life: we are made for and called to blessedness (cf. VS, nn.9,10;12; CCC ##1718-1729). Next, adults will not reach happiness unless they do something about it. And what they ought to do depends on what they can do, and what they can do is largely a question of philosophical psychology. Specifically human activity involves at least two dimensions: what we are driven to do by the thrust of human nature and what we choose to do within the bounds of this necessity.

It is not possible to speak realistically about human responsibility unless we take for granted the existence of free will. For this reason, Catholic moral teaching must reject all forms of theological, philosophical or psychological determinism that deny the existence of free will.

This is the teaching of both Vatican Councils: Vatican I (DS 3035) and Vatican II:

"It is in accord 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 at once be impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth." Dignitatis humanae, n.2 "It is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals' sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people. Above all this would be to deny the person's dignity and freedom, which are manifested -- even though in a negative and disastrous way -- also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue and responsibility for sin." John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (12/2/84) n.16.

To speak of human responsibility (for good or evil), we must first define and understand the meaning of a 'human act'. A HUMAN ACT has a technical definition in Moral Theology that is completely in accord with common sense. A HUMAN ACT is one that proceeds from the will with a knowledge of the end (cf. CCC #1732; ultimately, Aquinas, ST 1-2 q.6, a.2; Aristotle, Ethics, 111,24)

There are, in this classic definition, two basic components: (1) volition, i.e. of the will (as in 'proceeds from the will'); and (2) knowledge, i.e. of the intellect (as in 'with a knowledge of the end'). Clearly, if one does not will something, the act or result is not his responsibility (this should not be confused with a simple negative, as in, "I will not pay my taxes" which is of course an act of the will). Also, one must have adequate knowledge of what he is doing to predicate human responsibility (if one has no idea what he is doing, we do not attribute responsibility to unknowing conduct).

In moral textbooks, the voluntary is synonymous with the human act: a voluntary act is simply a willed act in which the agent knows what he is about to do and wills to do it. A human act, or voluntary act, is the product of one's own will and guided by one's reason; it is the actual exercise of personal ownership over our own conduct. Though an act is done and finished, it is still referable to its master as his act. The basic explanation why it was done rather than not done, is that the agent willed to do it and it remains forever related to him.

This relation we express by the words responsibility or imputability (ownership of the act, if you will; cf. CCC ##1734, 1735). They express the same relationship between agent and act but from different directions: the agent is called responsible (answerable; accountable; CCC #1734); the act is called imputable (chargeable; attributable; CCC #1735)

While these notions are connected, it's important not to confuse them, much less exchange them. We hold that ethical predication rests primarily on action (conduct), and that goodness or badness is attributed to the agent because of that action or conduct. Some modern revisionists reverse and confuse this: they predicate goodness or badness of the agent and from that then describe actions (often now in terms of rightness / wrongness; e.g., J. Fuchs; B. Schuller; K. Demmer; R. McCormick; J. Keenan). The conventional arrangement is clearer -- which is not to say it is without challenges. Clearer, because we hold to a norm which some now call a 'value principle'; we hold to a law which some now call a 'deontological principle'; and we hold to an end what some now call a 'teleological principle.'

Traditional Catholic moral teaching tends to consider these (NORM, LAW, END) objectively, and then proceed to consider subjective motives and intentions (this is clearly the core teaching of VS, nn.73-84); whereas revisionists tend to begin with subjective motivations and intentions and work back to describe actions and conduct. Some never find nor link up with any objective ground for morality. There are challenges and questions with any approach, but there are methodological and terminological differences that have great consequences. Veritatis Splendor (nn.73-84) takes great pains to repudiate what is not compatible with Catholic moral doctrine.

Conventional textbooks of Moral Theology go into some considerable detail -- details of precise definition and distinction which are beyond our present purpose, but are not a waste of time. Consider: "Freedom and Responsibility" in CCC ##1731-1742; also the New Catholic Encyclopedia: 'Free Will,' v.6:pp.89-93; 'Will,' 14:909-913; 'Human Act,' 7:202-209; 'Responsibility,'12:393-399; 'Voluntariety,' 14:747-750; 'Deliberation & Morality,' 4:733-734; 'Moral Consent,' 4:211-212.

Similarly, the conventional textbooks consider what they call obstacles to freedom (impediments to liberty) -- the Catechism mentions some of the classic impediments: ignorance, force, fear, and habit (CCC #1735). In an individual act or choice, these factors can affect the 'cognitive' or 'volitional' components (i.e., what proceeds from the will with knowledge of the end) and thus, in a given case, can diminish or even nullify human responsibility or imputability (CCC#1740).

The purpose of this course is not to exhaust all possibilities and all possible pathologies. If everyone is really sick -- that is the province of medicine, not morality. We will simply presume that there are some normal people, who under normal circumstances are normally responsible for their acts (for good or ill). After all, the shoe of responsibility fits both feet -- if we are truly incapable of wrong-doing we are also incapable of right-doing. Such radical incapacity allows no morality, just 'case studies', perhaps a chapter in a sociological book on victimology. True Christian doctrine does not hold such an impoverished view of those made in the image and likeness of God. Indeed, it rejects it!


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