18 January 2010


We seem to be living in a society where more and more people are showing less and less willingness to act as grown-ups. I’m talking about adults. The human psyche is a supple thing, and one can choose to fix oneself in what is essentially an adolescent frame of mind long after chronological adolescence has been left behind, and someone in his sixth decade can choose to think and act habitually as if he were still in his third decade. All in all, this reluctance to act one’s age on the part of so many people is a very strange phenomenon, and, needless to say, not at all a healthy one.

Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of immaturity is the studied disinclination to accept, when it is altogether appropriate, even imperative, to do so, responsibility for one’s freely chosen acts. We may not deny outright that we actually did X, but we nonetheless do not want to be held accountable for the act. One ploy which has become quite popular these days is to seek refuge in the comfortable status of victimhood. There are, as the good Lord knows, many real victims in this world. But there are many artificial victims as well, self-styled victims, people who claim victimhood as an evasive tactic, a convenient way of escaping personal responsibility. Such attempts are of course completely futile. We can deny our responsibilities all we want, but if they represent real obligations which we have a solemn duty to meet, they are not going to go away.

The almost obsessive concern for rights which is so pervasive today is, I think, another sign of our immaturity. There is something remarkably puerile about being so preoccupied with what is owing to me – be it real or imagined – that I become virtually oblivious to what I owe to others, not to speak of what I owe, on a larger scale, to the common good. And now we have reached the point where, not content with what may in fact be legitimate rights, we have decided to start manufacturing entirely fictional ones, and sometimes of a peculiarly perverse kind, such as, for example, the “right” of two men to marry. A sure indication of a deeply entrenched immaturity is the inability to recognize absurdity as absurdity.

As for the causes of the immaturity that seems to be a dominant feature of our society, doubtless there are many, but a major one, in my opinion, is the decade of the 1960’s, a decade which has left a deep and severely damaging imprint on our culture. This was the decade in which irresponsible, juvenile behavior, on the part of people who were old enough to know better, was given almost universal sanction, and even held up as a norm worthy of emulation. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” it was then loudly proclaimed, and many of those doing the proclaiming seemed to believe that they themselves were never going to reach that age. In fact, many of them never did, in terms of ever becoming full-fledged adults in their thinking. The Sixties are now a matter of history, but the spirit of that disoriented decade lives on, vigorously, thanks to the extensive influence of the flower children of yore who now occupy prominent and powerful positions throughout our society – in the universities, in the media, in politics, and, yes, even in religion.

If wide-spread immaturity is the problem, what is the solution? Well, that’s easy enough to answer. It’s simply maturity, true maturity. And what might that be? What are the signs of a truly mature person? Again in this case, there are any number of things that could be cited, but among them three things are of central importance:

Firstly, if a systematic shirking of reponsibility is one of the salient marks of immaturity, the ability to accept responsibility, to embrace it even, is what chiefly characterizes true maturity. But here some important distinctions have to be made. One must avoid being distortingly selective in meeting one’s reponsibilities. Not all of our responsibilities are on the same level. Some are inherently more weighty than others, and therefore have a more imperative claim on us. There would be no virtue in meeting a lesser responsibility, say, dutifully paying your monthly electric bill, while habitually neglecting your wife and five children. And just as we can manufacture fictional rights, we can do the same with reponsibilities. Manufacturing fiectional responsibilbites, and then putting a lot of time and energy into meeting them, only deters us from meeting our real responsibilties, and has the effect of throwing our whole life out of kilter.

Secondly, the truly mature person has the abilbty to suffer. That might sound very odd, to make the abilty to suffer a signal mark of maturity. All of us have to suffer. It is simply part of life. We have no choice in the matter. This is true. But we do have a choice in how we are going to suffer, in the attitude we will assume toward suffering. A mature person suffers efficaciously. Someone might be able to bear up under pain, in whatever form it may take, physical or psychological, with a kind of stoic endurance, and yet be lacing in true maturity. The person who can suffer efficaciously, the truly mature person, is someone who has a lively sense of the positive aspects of suffering. The muture person penetrates to the depths of suffering, can see in it the most dynamic kind of affirmation, where others see only pure negation. In a word, the mature person grasps the whole redemptive dimension of suffering.

Thirdly, the truly mature person perseveres, never igves up, never abandons the effort to pursue virtue and to eschew vice. He never despairs of the triumph of the truth.

We can see that in the final analysis true maturity is essentially a spiritual matter. An immature person is at bottom a spiritually impoverished person, someone who, though perhaps chronologically well advanced in years, has never managed to grow up to God. The truly mature person, on the other hand, albeit pherhaps chronologically quite young, has arrived at spiritual adulthood. St Thérèse, one recalls, was, even as a girl, astonishingly mature.

D. Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary

03 January 2010

Free Will & God's Will

D. Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary

It is an act of the will to deny free will, and those who insist upon doing so deserve to accept the fact that the earth is a sphere. As Catholics, we of course take free will for granted, as well we should, for it was granted to us as a free gift. Besides, it would not contribute much to good mental or spiritual health to deny the obvious. There is no questioning the sheer factualness of free will, but that does not mean that serious questions concerning the nature of free will cannot be raised, as well as questions about how free will is to be properly understood with respect to our relation with the omniscient and all-powerful God.

On question which is often raised regarding the matter of free will is this: How is it reconciled with God’s foreknowledge? Let us begin by stating the problem clearly. God, both faith and reason tell us, is omniscient. He knows every aspect of our lives, down to the tiniest detail. Furthermore, He knows what St. Thomas calls future contingencies. What this means, in plain terms, is that God knows exactly what you will freely choose to do tomorrow afternoon, or next Tuesday morning. But does not God’s foreknowledge then determine what you will do tomorrow afternoon or next Tuesday morning, so that you will not be acting freely after all? The basic idea is this: because God knows what you will do in the future, what you will do has already been settled, and though you may think you are acting freely, you really are not. God’s knowledge has programed you, so to speak, to act in a certain way, and you are destined to act in precisely that way no matter what.

Is that an accurate account of what actually happens? No, it is not. God’s foreknowledge of our free acts in no way impedes, much less cancels out, the freedom with which we perform those acts. By way of offering an imperfect but nonetheless helpful explanation for this, I invite you to consider how it is the case, even on a purely human level, that foreknowledge does not determine free acts.

Is it not true that sometimes we can be pretty sure, perhaps almost positively sure, how certain people, people whom we know very well, are going to act in certain situations? Given the person, given the situation, we can confidently predect what is going to happen. Take the case of my cousin Cassandra. If you bring up subjet X with Cassandra, I can guarantee that she is going to respond in Y way. I’m willing to bet on it. Cassandra will be here in five minutes or so. I ask you, when she arrives, to bring up subject X with her. Cassandra arrives. You bring up subject X, and, sure enough, she responds just in the Y way I said she would. Now, here’s the point: Did Cassandra act freely when she responded in the Y way to subject X? Yes, she did. Did the fact that I knew beforehand how she was going to respond make her act a bit less free? No, it did not. That explanation is far from perfect, for there is no comparison between God’s foreknowledge and our own, for His knowledge is infinite and absolutely infallible. I can be wrong about what Cassandra will do in certain circumstances, in fact, in most circumstances; God is never wrong about what we will do in any circumstances.

A footnote to the above. We speak of God’s “foreknowlege,” but that is actually a misnomer, a concession to our limited, time-bound intellects. The term suggests that God looks into the future, but there is no future for God, nor any past. He lives in an eternal Now, and He sees what is for us past or future by a vision which is forever of the Present.

Another question regarding free will has to do with how it is to be reconciled with the fact that everything, literally everything, we do is ultimately explained by the sustaining and enabling power of God’s will. It is fitting that we recall here Our Lord’s arresting words: “Without me you can do nothing.” We are incapable, without the enabling power of God, of performing any act at all, even a sinful act. (And that, by the way, is what makes sin so supreme an insult to the Divine Majesty.) But does not that then mean that it is God who is doing everything, and that we are not really free agents? Is it not He who acts, not us?

In times past there have been certain well-meaning but misguided philosopher and theologians who argued that God is in fact the direct, one and only cause of everything that happens in the universe. What this erroneous line of thinking does is remove the critical distinction between primary and secondary causation. God is indeed the First Cause, the ultimate explanation, of everything that is, and everything that happens. But in His divine wisdom He has created a whole array of secondary causes, causes which, though they act in subordination to and in absolute dependence upon His primary causality, are nonetheless real causes, acting with the kind and the degree of autonomy He has given to them. You and I, as free agents, are secondary causes. Albeit not without the enabling power of God, we are the true efficient causes of any number of things that happen in our lives, a fact which none of us have any doubts about. Because we are truly free agents, we are responsible for what we bring about through our free agency. But think how it would be if what the above-mentioned philosophers and theologians taught was true. If God were, as they say, in fact the one and only cause of everything, that would mean that He is also the cause of sin, and that, of course, is blasphemy. “In no way,” proclaims St. Thomas, “is God the cause of sin.”

But back to our question: If we are incapable of doing anything without God’s enabling power, how can we be said to be truly free agents? As is the case with God’s omniscience, in this case too there is no incompatibility between God’s omnipotence and our free will. Here is the key to the issue. God enables us to act precisely as creatures who are possessed of free will, just as He enables all of the non-free agents in the universe to act according to their proper natures, in strict obedience to the laws He has established for them. God’s power is the explanation for the action of non-free agents, as non-free agents; and His power is the explanation for the actions of free agents, as free agents. The fact that we can do nothing without God does not cancel out our freedom; it in fact makes it possible, for what He enables us to do is to act as free agents. God wills that we should act just as the creatures He created us to be, that is, as intellectual beings who are themselves the originating sources of the choices they make.

It is God’s power that explains the necessity behind the apple falling from the tree to the ground. It is God’s power that explains the freedom of the man beneath the tree who bends down and picks up the apple. “Without me you can do nothing.” Yes, but what we do, as rational creatures, we do freely.