Today, Friday 20th 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States, and people are reacting to it in many different ways. Many fear the beginning of an era where their civic rights will be threatened. The usual Traddie suspects are rejoicing at the very Catholic choices for his closest advisors, and see in them God blessing the nation. I, personally, see in this not God’s stamp of approval but God’s providence saving us from ourselves (no, I really don’t like Trump), which makes it a fitting day to start my new weekly series on whatever you want to know about life as a Catholic from your favourite Catholic It Girl (send me your questions!).
As you have surely guessed from the uncreative title, today’s topic is Free Will. Free will is one of a handful of things that separate Catholics from Protestants, and usually not a very well understood one (dare I say it? Not even by Catholics). It’s also a philosophical question that has entertained atheists for quite some time, too, as one of my papers when I was once a Philosophy BA student can attest. So, without further ado, let’s put our Dominican hat on (I think I need to write a guide to religious orders so people will know why this joke is funny) and dive into the topic.
What is free will?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (from now on CCC as I’m lazy) Part 3, Section 1, Ch 1, Art 3, 1730 states that “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions” (reference Gaudium et Spes, referencing the Book of Sirach 15:14). It goes on in 1734: “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.” If this reminds you a lot of Star Wars-the original trilogy you are not far off (there is a really good article on a related topic on First Things btw).
It all sounds really bleak if you’re anything like me and your confession list is as long as your leg (and it could even be the main reason why you are staying at the outskirts of the church). However, it’s not bleak because (1741) “By his glorious Cross Christ has won salvation for all men. He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage” and (1742) “The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart.”
The question that no protestant theologian has ever been able to answer for me is why do we receive grace if we did not freely choose the acts for which we need it?
I think it comes to no surprise that if I had to pick a favourite person in the Bible one would be Mary the Mother of Jesus and the other would be King David. David is the most recognisably human of all the people whose stories have been passed down to us in Scripture. He sins and he repents and he has the depths of emotions and struggle and doubt and all sorts of things I’m not used to seeing people admit in the church anymore. He is after God’s own heart, though, and that determination will never go away no matter how hard he falls. He’s very alike the Prodigal Son of the later parable. He was anointed and that awareness never leaves him, for better or worse.
All confirmed Catholics are anointed, not just kings. We all have our own calling in life, and in becoming (or staying, or going back to being etc) a Catholic we have made a conscious decision to embrace it, whether or not we know what that will look like in practice in our day to day life (oh, look, another topic: vocations). We chose “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with (y)our God” (Micah 6:8, NRSVACE). (Author’s note: some might object to my use of Catholic here, but we’re talking within a Catholic understanding of free will, using Christian would also imply those who believe in the predestination of the saved.)
We all receive an invitation from God in His mercy, and when we are baptised (or renew our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil, which is one of the highlights of my year) we simply shout a resounding “Yes, I’m in”. Nothing will be the same after that, as we will always had the awareness of who we are in relation to God as we go about our day with our frustrations (have you ever heard of Southern Railways?), our desires, our heartbreaks, our over-eating (I’m sorry Helen for eating the leftover pizza yesterday) and our cheeky glass of wine at the end of the working day.
To me free will is a no brainer. I fail at being the person I should be like all the time (don’t take me as a role model, I’m a bad role model) and my joking about starting a project called #embracemessy to foster acceptance of a life that is not always Instagrammable is just about reminding myself that this is a battle I cannot win by myself and that’s why I need Jesus. (I love the Babylon Bee is probably a number on the list of reasons why…)
But it’s comforting to know that I am trying, and knowing that I have chosen this path gives me an antidote to the akrasia effect. I’ve given my word of honour that I will do it. It’s a bit like that fundraiser tip (or charity sector in general) that says to ask people to commit to something small and they will be more likely to commit to something bigger later on after a positive experience. I’ve done a course on Social Psychology years ago, I’m sure I didn’t make it up now even though I failed at finding a source (and I’m too ill to keep trying, soz.)
I’ve joked (or have I?) about how I feel Trump’s choices of advisors is Providence’s hand trying to save us from ourselves after one of the many bad choices scattered throughout the Bible (did you really think listening to a snake was a good idea, Eve? Didn’t it all sound a bit too good to be true and well, snake oil salesy?) and that’s also a good note on which to end: I think it’s great to have a Heavenly Father who cares about us so much He doesn’t leave us to screw ourselves over, no matter how hard we seem to be trying. It adds a dimension of depth to the relationship, and gives us a grown up image to which to aspire to. Starting with free will also seems sensible as one of the questions I get asked the most is why the Church does certain things, like why we eat fish on Friday (or, in my case, vegan) or why we have to go to Mass on Sundays etc. They are requirements of the Church on pain of sin, and that seems to many to infringe on free will. To me, they are something tangible that shows our commitment, because, as if you’ve ever dated the wrong guy you will know, actions speak louder than words. We can still choose not to do it, but then what will it become of our relationship?
In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence (Ephesians 3:12, NIV)