Free Will in Catholic Theologies

I want to explore briefly the following question: whether libertarian free will per se is implicitly or explicitly bound inexorably up with the Catholic faith. Recall that by ‘libertarian free will’ I mean that some choice is free in the sense that there are no antecedent conditions in principle which determine the result. In other words, the person themselves determines the choice in such a way that whatever is chosen had no antecedent conditions which made it the case that it alone could have been chosen. Other versions of Free Will which are put forward by soft determinists or compatibalists say something to the following effect:

Where the Libertarian believes that “x could have done otherwise because x could have chosen otherwise” the compatibalist believes that “x could have done otherwise if x had chosen otherwise.”

This view, it is maintained, justifies our intuition that some acts are deserving of punishment, while also making the concession that the act may have been physically (or otherwise) determined by conditions antecedent to the choice. The punishment will be due to the person who willingly does what is wrong, even though their very willingness to do wrong was itself causally conditioned (indeed, determined).

I have always taken for granted that Libertarian Free Will was implicitly or explicitly bound to be believed by any faithful Catholic as though it constituted part of the faith. What interests me here is that it seems that perhaps Thomas Aquinas, and Thomists even today, have maintained a position on Free Will which looks uncomfortably similar to this compatibalist perspective introduced above. I shall quote a paragraph from the Catholic Encyclopedia expounding two schools of thought in Catholic tradition, but not before making the reader aware that the author of the article from which this excerpt is taken is himself a convinced Molinist and not a Thomist.

The Dominican or Thomist solution, as it is called, teaches in brief that God premoves each man in all his acts to the line of conduct which he subsequently adopts. It holds that this premotive decree inclines man’s will with absolute certainty to the side decreed, but that God adapts this premotion to the nature of the being thus premoved. It argues that as God possesses infinitepower He can infallibly premove man–who is by nature a free cause–to choose a particular course freely, whilst He premoves the lower animals in harmony with their natures to adopt particular courses by necessity. Further, this premotive decree being inevitable though adapted to suit the free nature of man, provides a medium in which God foresees with certainty the future free choice of the human being. The premotive decree is thus prior in order of thought to the Divine cognition of man’s future actions.Theologians and philosophers of the Jesuit School, frequently styled Molinists, though they do not accept the whole of Molina’steaching and generally prefer Francisco Suárez’s exposition of the theory, deem the above solution unsatisfactory. It would, they readily admit, provide sufficiently for the infallibility of the Divine foreknowledge and also for God’s providential control of the world’s history; but, in their view, it fails to give at the same time an adequately intelligible account of the freedom of the humanwill. According to them, the relation of the Divine action to man’s will should be conceived rather as of a concurrent than of a premotive character; and they maintain that God’sknowledge of what a free being would choose, if the necessary conditionswere supplied, must be deemed logically prior to any decree of concurrence or premotion in respect to that act of choice. Briefly, they make a threefold distinction in God’sknowledge of the universe based on the nature of the objects known–the Divineknowledge being in itself of course absolutely simple. Objects or events viewed merely as possible, God is said to apprehend by simple intelligence (simplex intelligentia). Events which will happen He knows by vision (scientia visionis). Intermediate between these are conditionally future events–things which would occur were certain conditions fulfilled. God’sknowledge of this class of contingencies they term scientia media. For instance Christ affirmed that, if certain miracles had been wrought in Tyre andSidon, the inhabitants would have been converted. The condition was not realized, yet the statement of Christ must have beentrue. About all such conditional contingencies propositions may be framed which are either true or false–and Infinite Intelligence must know all truth. The conditions in many cases will not be realized, so God must know them apart from any decreesdetermining their realization. He knows them therefore, this school holds, in seipsis, in themselves as conditionally future events. This knowledge is the scientia media, “middle knowledge”, intermediate between vision of the actual future and simple understanding of the merely possible. Acting now in the light of this scientia media with respect to human volitions, God freely decides according to His own wisdom whether He shall supply the requisite conditions, including His co-operation in the action, orabstain from so doing, and thus render possible or prevent the realization of the event. In other words, the infinite intelligence of God sees clearly what would happen in any conceivable circumstances. He thus knows what the free will of any creature would choose, if supplied with the power of volition or choice and placed in any given circumstances. He now decrees to supply the needed conditions, including His corcursus, or to abstain from so doing. He thus holds complete dominion and control over our future free actions, as well as over those of a necessary character. The Molinist then claims to safeguard better man’s freedom by substituting for the decree of an inflexible premotion one of concurrence dependent on God’s prior knowledge of what the free being would choose. If given the power to exert the choice. He argues that he exempts God more clearly from all responsibility for man’s sins. The claim seems to the present writer well founded; at the same time it is only fair to record on the other side that the Thomist urges with considerable force that God’s prescience is not so understandable in this, as in his theory. He maintains, too, that God’s exercise of His absolute dominion over all man’s acts and man’s entire dependence on God’s goodwill are more impressively and more worthily exhibited in the premotion hypothesis. The reader will find an exhaustive treatment of the question in any of the Scholastic textbooks on the subject.
~Catholic Encyclopedia, Free Will

For my present purposes, I am not concerned about whether one or the other (or indeed either) of these schools of thought is correct, but only whether the Thomist school is not in conflict with Catholic faith. Indeed, this premotion of man sounds very close to irresistible Grace, even while it is adapted to the nature of man. Aquinas had never dealt directly with the problem about which the two schools have continued to argue. Aquinas, continuing the line of thought of St. Augustine, simply outlined the following:

Will is rational appetite. Man necessarily desires beatitude, but he can freely choose between different forms of it. Free will is simply this elective power. Infinite Good is not visible to the intellect in this life. There are always some drawbacks and deficiencies in every good presented to us. None of them exhausts our intellectualcapacity of conceiving the good. Consequently, in deliberate volition, not one of them completely satiates or irresistibly entices the will. In this capability of the intellect for conceiving the universal lies the root of our freedom. But Godpossesses an infallibleknowledge of man’s future actions. How is this prevision possible, if man’s future acts are not necessaryGod does not exist in time. The future and the past are alike ever present to the eternal mind as a man gazing down from a lofty mountain takes in at one momentary glance all the objects which can be apprehended only through a lengthy series of successive experiences by travellers along the winding road beneath, in somewhat similar fashion the intuitivevision of God apprehends simultaneously what is future to us with all it contains. Further, God’s omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe. How is this secured without infringement of man’s freedom? Here is the problem which two distinguished schools in the Church–both claiming to represent the teaching, or at any rate the logical development of the teaching of St. Thomas–attempt to solve in different ways.

One of my chief concerns with respect to Molinism, which appeals to me much more, is that it seems necessarily to violate the Principle of Sufficient Reason when it comes to the doctrine that God in perfect sovereignity and with perfect providence oversees all the choices of man. This is often recognized as a problem in Leibniz’ philosophy as well:

 In Leibniz, the prominence given to the principle of sufficient reason, the doctrine that manmust choose that which the intellect judges as the better, and the optimistic theory that God Himself has inevitably chosen the present as being the best of all possible worlds, these views, when logically reasoned out, leave very little reality to free will, though Leibniz set himself in marked opposition to the monistic geometrical necessarianism of Spinoza.

On the other hand, the Thomist view seems to make Free Will trivial since antecedent conditions imposed or determined by the Divine author make it the case that a person freely chooses only that which they are determined to freely choose, and in the mind of most philosophers it is nonsense to say that anybody can be determined to do anything freely.

The Magisterium has a voice in this matter:

As the Catholic Church declares in the strongest terms the simplicity, spirituality, and immortality of the soul, so with unequalled constancy and publicity she ever also asserts its freedom. These truths she has always taught, and has sustained them as a dogma of faith, and whensoever heretics or innovators have attacked the liberty of man, the Church has defended it and protected this noble possession from destruction. History bears witness to the energy with which she met the fury of the Manichaeans and others like them; and the earnestness with which in later years she defended human liberty at the Council of Trent, and against the followers of Jansenius, is known to all. At no time, and in no place, has she held truce with fatalism.
~ Pope Leo XIII, Libertas

“If anyone says that man’s free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God’s call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification, that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive, let him be anathema.”
~ Council of Trent Session VI, Canons on Justification, Canon 4

“Now, they [the adults] are disposed to that justice when, aroused and aided by divine grace, receiving faith by hearing, they are moved freely toward God, believing to be true what has been divinely revealed and promised”
~Council of Trent, Chapter VI: on the manner of preparation

“When, therefore, it acts through a power outside itself, it does not act of itself, but through another, that is, as a slave. But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions. Therefore, `Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.’ “Even the heathen philosophers clearly recognized this truth, especially they who held that the wise man alone is free; and by the term “wise man” was meant, as is well known, the man trained to live in accordance with his nature, that is, in justice and virtue.”
~ Pope Leo XIII, Libertas

This short survey of four citations adds some food for thought, most of which need not be elucidated by further discussion. However, I will say a few words about these in order. In the first, it becomes very clear that the council of Trent, in its opposition to double predestination, and views relevantly similar (such as those of the Catholic Jansenists in France), spoke out firmly in opposition to any doctrine which does violence to man’s libertarian freedom (or at least does violence to man’s intuition of that freedom). However, it is curious that the last remark in the quoted passage makes clear that the concern, or one concern, is to avoid fatalism. Perhaps fatalism is being used here in a wider sense than I have typically taken it to mean. In the second citation, it makes clear that man cannot be passive with respect to free will at least where passivity is understood as being under the influence of an irresistible antecedent. The third citation interestingly indicates that one can be moved freely, and this requires some further thought. ‘Moved’ here, it seems, cannot be interpreted in the sense of ‘making irresistible’. It seems plausible that it means being moved by the Holy Spirit who moves only with the free assent of the subject being moved. In the final quotation, perhaps the least relevant, we find that man is free to the extent that he is rational. It also seems to imply that man is only moved by another in sin; this is best interpreted in a sense which differs from the movement of the Holy Spirit in us previously mentioned. These citations do not seem to definitively close the question about whether God can providentially determine all of our free decisions infallibly while still allowing our freedom to be of the libertarian kind. It seems difficult to imagine how these can both be true.

Indeed, if man were determined providentially to do what man does freely, then the Free Will theodicy advanced by people like Alvin Plantinga seems to hold no weight at all, since God still determined that Adam sinned and that all persons who sin at any time sin according to the determination of the divine premotion or lack thereof. One might try to excuse God by noting that God is not the cause of the sin in any person to whom he does not provide the premotion caused by Grace, but Catholics believe in sins of omission, and thus in causes by omission. For instance, imagine some child is going to fall off a high precipice and I can save her by stopping her fall; even if my omission to act in that way has nothing to do with the causal explanation for why she fell, I would be responsible for letting her fall. Thus, at least in a moral sense, I am part of the cause of her falling.

The Molinist view, by contrast, would say of all persons who are not saved, that they freely chose (in the libertarian sense) to reject God, but also that God knew that even had he given them more Grace they would not have chosen otherwise, and thus nobody is ever lost by the accident of their historical circumstances (such as a person who never hears Christ or accepts the Gospel, and without having had any good influences in life freely falls into sin and rejects repentance). Thus, God must know by middle knowledge that for any person x, if x is not saved, then x would not have been saved under any circumstances.

There is a third view I suppose, to which I have always been inclined in my own thinking. This view says that God gives always everywhere and to everyone at least as much Grace as would allow him to freely choose the good without making the choice to the good irresistible. However, nobody is ever saved because they have received more Grace than any other, even while Grace is not distributed evenly. For instance, Augustine may merit more Grace than another precisely because he has freely chosen the good, allowing God to reduce him more fully to sanctity, and thus by being reduced more fully to sanctity and choosing the good again the Grace with which he is capacitated to be attended with is greatly increased. Thus, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” (Luke 16:10) and to such a one as this Christ says ““Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21). On this view God does not infallibly premove anybody, but rather premoves them only insofar as they freely choose to cooperate with Grace. God’s knowledge that they will cooperate with Grace is by scientia visionis alone, and involves neither simple intelligence nor middle knowledge. The glaring difficulty with my view is that it seems that God does not providentially determine the course of history except in the sense that he is providentially ruling over the whole of it, and he determines every part of it in matter of fact, but only contingently, and not infallibly (his premotion is not an antecedent determinant). I have wondered seriously and with humility whether my view is sufficient.

The problem is that when people say something like “God has a plan for your life” my interpretation of that statement is as follows: God has many ideas about how your life could go, and one of these is part of God’s plan. However, since sin is never part of God’s plan, and yet nothing happens contrary to God’s plan, the plan of God must refer simply to predestination, which is satisfied by the following criteria:

  1. God has knowledge of the ‘destiny’ from the moment of creation,
  2. God wills that ‘destiny’ from the moment of creation,
  3. God is the party chiefly responsible for realizing it,
  4. and it involves the exercise of free will on the part of the subject predestined.

Thus, to use a metaphor borrowed from Sir Jonathan Sacks, the chief Rabbi of England, God is like a GPS navigation system which, once we take a wrong turn, recalculates what new route is available to get us to the same destination. However, since only the ultimate destination is in view, the accidents of life may be predestined while not being providentially determined (such as who you will marry, or if you will marry at all). Thus when people say piously that “God has a plan for you which includes one particular person to whom you will be married” my understanding of that is simply that I am predestined to marry somebody in the future, but not that I am providentially determined to marry that person. If the speaker means that God has providentially determined that I marry somebody according to some plan which God has apart from scientia visionis, I confess that I am at a loss to understand how to square that away with Libertarian Free Will in combination with the denial of God’s middle knowledge of counterfactual conditional statements about libertarian free will.

If I were to accept the typical Thomistic position, it would seem that I would have to reject libertarian free will. If I accept the Molinist position, it would seem that I would have to reject the Principle of Sufficient reason. If I accept the position that I have developed, it seems that I would have to reject that God is providentially determining all the events of history including all instances of sin.

It is a problem I suppose, and one about which I am constantly troubled. I don’t see any way to accept Catholicism without holding on to Libertarian Free Will in combination with the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or at least some weaker version of the PSR still sufficiently strong to satisfy the need to prove the existence of God via some cosmological argument which, as Pope Pius XII seems to imply in Humani Generis, all Catholics are bound to believe according to religious assent on the authority of the ordinary magisterium is an inalienable principle of human thought.

” For this philosophy, acknowledged and accepted by the Church, safeguards the genuine validity of human knowledge, the unshakable metaphysical principles of sufficient reason, causality, and finality, and finally the mind’s ability to attain certain and unchangeable truth”
~Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis

But it isn’t clear to me that any weaker PSR, weak enough to allow for brute facts of the Molinist type, could ever be strong enough to rationally obviate, as an analytic truth, the existence of God.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to Free Will in Catholic Theologies

  1. PFields says:

    Hello there! So just to be clear, you take a hard libertarian stance on free will – i.e. you believe agents really can change the future and indeed, change themselves – not some watered-down compatibilist-style Molinism.

    If that’s the case, would you then consider yourself an open theist? Or otherwise hold to the belief that God’s foreknowledge of the future is not exhaustive? Or do you perhaps see God as atemporal and see this as the solution to God’s knowledge? How would you deal with the typical questions re: what if everybody libertarianly decided not to crucify Jesus? And Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him 3 times was just a well-informed guess? Or does God perhaps providentially over-ride libertarian free will on such occasions?

    Great blog

    • Thank you for those kind words about my blog – I usually feel as though my blog is rather poor quality, and comfort myself by reminding myself of the fact that i) I am a full time undergraduate who has very little time to develop or edit my thoughts before posting them, and ii) that I constantly compare myself to truly intimidating and brilliant philosophers like Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig. However, I’m glad that you seem to enjoy the blog.

      In response to the question you raise, I would answer as follows: I think it is entirely conceptually confused to speak about agents being able to ‘change’ the future, instead of saying that they freely determine the future. They do not strictly change anything about the future, anymore than they change anything about the past, but choices made in the past were free, and choices made in the future are similarly (going to be) made freely. Truth-values do not constrain what we will freely choose, but what we freely will choose constrains Truth-values. I think we can also freely cause things in the past from the present, but I do not say that this is a matter of changing the past since I do not believe that we do change the past, but merely determine the past (for instance if I have traveled back in time in order to kill my mother before my conception then I do not actually succeed, but nor do I change the past – instead it just means that I was actually around trying to kill my mother before the time when I was born, and this was past-tense true after my birth and before I time traveled).

      I am also not a Molinist because I don’t believe that subjunctive counterfactual conditionals of creaturely freedom have truth values (i.e., I believe that they aren’t propositions at all). I think that Molinism violates the Principle of Sufficient Reason (because there is no sufficient reason why the counterfactuals which are true are true), and I think it is incompatible with a correspondence theory of truth (since the truth of the counterfactuals which are supposed true is not afforded by a correspondence to their actually being true in the world), and for both those reasons I think it is untenable.

      I do believe one can use a quasi-molinist apologetic by appealing to the counterfactual conditionals of creaturely freedom which are true in all the ‘nearest possible worlds’ but I do not believe that those counterfactual conditionals can be spoken of as ‘true’ without reference to a logically possible world in which what we call the counterfactual conditional is (in that world) a factual conditional.

      I am also not an open Theist, since I do not believe the future is ‘open’ in the sense that no future-tense propositions have truth values. I subscribe to, and argue for, a B-theory of time. I am also adamantly opposed to the notion of God presented by open-Theists because it falls dangerously short of both the notion of God common to the saintly doctors of the Catholic Church, and the notion of a maximally great being (including God’s simplicity and immutability, implying that God cannot learn anything, and including God’s omniscience, according to which he knows everything true and believes nothing false).

      If everybody libertarian freely decided not to crucify Jesus then he would not have been crucified (by any libertarian free agent). Jesus knew that he would be crucified actually. Perhaps you could have raised the issue of whether Jesus knew that if he had prophesied his crucifixion it would still have occurred (which would mean he had middle knowledge prior to saying that he would be killed), and so knew that if he did prophesy it, it would still occur. However, I think one can say the following: that perhaps Jesus knew that in all the nearest possible worlds ‘if he did prophesy it, it would still occur’ was true, such that Jesus had a moral certainty that his prophesying it would not help to prevent it (indeed, it may have made it more likely). That could make sense, then, of Jesus praying for God to take this cup from him – Jesus did not have middle knowledge which was certain or else he would have been praying for what he already knew with deductive closure would occur, to not occur. Thus, when he told Peter ‘you will deny me three times’ he had morally sufficient certainty that this would occur to license saying it, but if Peter had not denied him three times Jesus would not have been found a liar, since he was speaking in what we might call a prophetic mood.

      The case of prophesy given in the Old Testament (not by Jesus) is perhaps trickier. I maintain that God does not over-ride libertarian free will in cases of prophesy, but rather prophesy is given by God when God knows actually that the consequent is true, and that a prophesy about the consequent’s truth will play no causal role whatever in determining the truth-value of the consequent. So, God knows Q to be true. He also knows that it is not the case that P⊃~Q. Strictly speaking, we should recall, God does not ever ‘forecast’ or ‘foretell’ the future, but rather simply grants us insight into the future in such a way that God knows that if the antecedent ‘P prophesy’ obtained, it would have NO causal influence on whether the consequent ‘Q event’ obtains. Thus, God does not know ~(P⊃~Q) as a counterfactual conditional of creaturely freedom by reason of which he knows that he can actualize P without bringing it about that ~Q.

      For instance, perhaps God knows that if he actualizes P (i.e., prophesies the event Q), then he can still ensure that Q will obtain by ensuring that actualizing P has an absolutely negligible effect on whether or not Q. Perhaps that still seems wrong though, in light of the fact that a world in which ‘Q&~P’ obtains is a completely different possible world from a world in which ‘P’ obtains, and there is no way to guarantee, even if one guarantees that the truth of P plays absolutely no role in bringing it about that ~Q (or that Q), that the world (nearest to the world with Q&~P) which includes P will also include Q.

      If you advanced that critique then the problem becomes much more complex, and it is difficult to give a ready-made answer. Perhaps God prophesies only directly about what he will libertarian-freely chose to do, or prophesies concerning things which appear to be freely chosen but are, in fact, the results of antecedent conjunctions of libertarian-free choices. Perhaps this is also why God, in the Scriptures, never prophesies anything directly, but only ever through the narrative anagogical lens of history. Sometimes, of course, God also prophesies destruction or desolation which is prophesied with a caveat (X ‘just in case’ Y). Then perhaps we could say that Prophesy ultimately refers to states of affairs which God will actualize (weakly or strongly), and knows to be actual.

      However, any talk of God not being able to prophesy some future instance of libertarian-free choice directly (if we are indeed stuck with such a difficulty) reflects no constraint on God’s knowledge (unless you mean knowledge of the kinds of counterfactuals which I claim do not have truth values at all).

      Perhaps we can also say that God simply knows that if Q, then P (if Q is actual, then he will actualize P), and also knows that Q and P are simultaneously true. In this way God does not know that Q, and then know that P&Q – but God would simply know [P&Q]&[Q]. God actualizes P if and only if he knows [Q]&[P&Q]. Suppose, then, that there exists some Q*, such that God responds by intending to actualize P*, but with the result that [P*&~Q*] is true, then God knows that in the world where [Q*]&[P*&Q*], he actualizes P*. However, in the actual world, he does not actualize P* just in case ~[P*&Q*]. That seems rather abstruse, perhaps, but I think one can make sense of it. If Q* then God intends P*, but God only actualizes P* in such a world where [Q*&P*] on pain of contradiction.

      In any case, those are some of my immediate thoughts.

  2. Pingback: Molinism and Prophecy | Third Millennial Templar

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