On Sin and Human Freedom
The cross-blog discussion that was initiated on the topic of “social sin” has now evolved into a debate over the origins and causes of sin. In response to my post on social sin, Nate Wildermuth at Vox Nova posted his own ideas about the relationship between society and sin, forthrightly admitting that he was going to “venture into heretical pastures” in doing so.
My intention here is not to beat up on Nate. He has expressed to me that he feels I may not be understanding his argument, though I do believe I have made the attempt in earnest. Rather than dissect in detail his argument once again, I am going to put forth here what I already placed in a com-box, but would like to open up to wider discussion – that is, my own view of sin and human freedom. Then Nate or anyone else may issue whatever challenges they like to any of my premises or conclusions, and perhaps we will have some clarity on the issue.
I will state at the outset that my intention is not to engage in legalism – to cite either Scripture or the Catechism in an attempt to argue from authority, or to discredit an argument simply because it is not in perfect harmony with authority. But I do believe that the Catechism faithfully represents what the Bible says about freedom and sin, and that both works offer the most logical view of free will. Through the use of reason, then, we can come to know the truth of what Scripture and Tradition teach about free will.
My main problem with Nate’s argument is simply the language he chooses to employ. He uses what I would call a lexicon of determinism. Determinism can mean a few different things, but in this context, I take it to mean that outcomes are pre-determined; that a given event, such as a sinful act, could not have been avoided. The words he uses are “cause”, “force”, and “impossible”; these words convey a mental image of mechanistic laws comparable to Newton’s. They are applicable to matter, but antithetical to freedom, which is and only can be a property of the spirit. Before I am accused of “dualism”, I do believe that spirit and matter are two manifestations of the same essential substance; that said, they have very different properties and behave in different ways.
My argument, which I believe is the Catholic argument, is as follows:
1. Either we have free will or we don’t – these are mutual exclusives, like being pregnant or not pregnant.
2. If we do, then the using the lexicon of determinism to describe human behavior is false.
3. If we don’t, then it is correct.
4. The teaching of the Catholic Church is that human beings are created by God with free will. (CCC 1704, 1711, 1731) It is a property of our soul, of our spiritual essence – it is what it means to be made “in the image of God.”
5. Through original sin, we lose many of the original graces God grants us, but we do not lose our freedom. (CCC 405-408)
6. Ergo, to describe or explain human behavior with deterministic language is a false use of language. It has the potential to sow moral confusion if not corrected.
I will also add the following: It is also false to speak of human freedom as if it were entirely arbitrary and unlimited. It would be better to use the language of freedom within objective parameters – to speak of probabilities, influences, and tendencies. It is also appropriate and necessary to explore the various ways in which the will can be corrupted and enslaved, though neither condition is a total negation of human freedom.
Much has been made of the differences between Aquinas and Luther in this debate. I am not sure I agree with either, though I am certainly closer to Aquinas, and reject Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants. It simply cannot be the case, as has been asserted, that freedom comes from God’s grace alone. It is salvation that is solely the result of God’s grace, but freedom and salvation are two different words with two entirely different meanings. Pius IX’s teaching on salvation outside of the Church makes this clear:
There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments. — Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, 7
Because natural law, like freedom, is “inscribed by God on all hearts”, and since some people are and probably always will be “struggling with invincible ignorance” of Christ and the Church, it follows that moral responsibility precedes knowledge of, and submission to, Christ.
In sum: The Catholic Church provides us with the means by which we can be reasonably sure of our salvation; through participation in the sacraments and obedience to God’s laws, neither of which are possible outside of the Church. But neither of these are necessary conditions for either general moral knowledge or free will, since we are created with both of these things in us. Fidelity to the natural laws is possible outside of the Church, and is also a sufficient condition for salvation (as a failure to adhere to them is a sufficient condition for damnation), provided that a person knows nothing of God, Jesus, or the Church. We are culpable for what we know and do.