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.

38 Responses to On Sin and Human Freedom

  1. ben says:

    This sounds a little too pelagian or semipelagian. Especially when you say that fidelity to the natural law is sufficient for salvation.

    you may want to check out the Second Council of Orange.

  2. Joe Hargrave says:

    Either make an argument or don’t. Why don’t you quote it for us?

  3. Joe Hargrave says:

    I mean, do you read? I wrote:

    “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. ”

    Did you not see “provided that”? Or did you stop reading just then? I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but what part of that did you not understand?

  4. ben says:

    I missed the part about the “efficacious virtue of divine light and grace” that is an essential part of the Pius IX quote but seems to be missing from your analysis.

  5. ben says:

    From the Canons of the Second Council of Orange 529 AD:

    CANON 6. If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

    CANON 7. If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).

    CANON 13. Concerning the restoration of free will. The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it. Hence the Truth itself declares: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

    CANON 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.

  6. Joe Hargrave says:

    No, it’s not missing. Again you didn’t read.

    I made a distinction between freedom and salvation. Pius IX says that “eternal life” – salvation – is attained through God’s grace. Not moral knowledge, and not free will.

    That’s my argument too.

  7. Joe Hargrave says:

    Regarding 6: The Church teaches that the moral law is written in our hearts by God. If one wants to call that “grace”, one can, I suppose, call that grace. Likewise free will can also be called “grace”, and then we have no problem. Nothing contradicts the Apostle, because it is given that both moral knowledge and free will are gifts from God.

    Call them “graces” if that is how you must square the circle; my argument is (and the plain fact is) that they both precede knowledge of, and submission to, Christ and the Church.

    Regarding 7: Again we enter into a sort of word game. What is meant by “which relates to the salvation of eternal life”? Certainly I don’t believe that a heathen ignorant of the Church can fully understand what is, or how to attain, eternal life. I affirmed this in my post – did you miss it? The Church has the fullness of the faith and the most sure path to salvation precisely because of this.

    No one argues that a person will spontaneously “assent to the preaching of the gospel” in a state of invincible ignorance, but rather that they can be sufficiently moral to warrant God’s merciful judgment in their favor.

    Regarding 13: The Church today does not teach that free will was “destroyed.” This may be a linguistic issue. If it is really the concept here, though, then there is a clear contradiction. The Catechism says:

    “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.” (CCC 407)

    Man remains free. That is the essential point. Man remains free. The Catechism speaks of man’s inclination to sin, but an inclination is not a certainty.

    Regarding 20: See above.

  8. Joe Hargrave says:

    In order to further clarify my views, I’m going to cite this Wiki paragraph. If there’s something in it that isn’t accurate, I’m willing to look at what you or someone else does consider to be accurate.

    “Pelagius was opposed by Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential early Church Fathers. When Pelagius taught that moral perfection was attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace through human free will, Augustine contradicted this by saying that perfection was impossible without grace because we are born sinners with a sinful heart and will.”

    I agree with Augustine: moral PERFECTION is not attainable, but SUFFICIENT moral behavior is possible through both the moral law and free will we are created with, that are inherent to man.

    Only by conflating sufficiency with perfection can you argue that I have a “pelagian” view.

    “Augustine also taught that a person’s salvation comes solely through an irresistible free gift, the efficacious grace of God, but that this was a gift that one had a free choice to accept or refute[1].”

    Agreed again – one has a free choice to accept or refute. But not everyone faces the choice, like people who lived and live in places where there is no Church, no Christians, or any trace of them. They have to be accounted for, and they are, by the teaching of the Church.

  9. Thomas held — and this is the theological consensus, but is not defined by the Magisterium, as far as I know — that without grace, sin is inevitable. Of course, while grace is always mediated via the Church — the Body of Christ — one needn’t be in the Church visibly in order to receive said grace.

    I don’t know that this contradicts anything that Joe said (particularly the first point), but it needs to be said.

  10. Joe Hargrave says:

    I don’t see why it should. I agree that sin is more or less inevitable without grace, though each sinful act is one freely chosen.

    A will corrupted by sin is not a pre-determined will. These are two different things.

    My argument is summed up in three words: man remains free. He free without grace, and he is free with grace, for freedom is a property of the spirit imbued in us by God – one cannot have a spirit and not have freedom, nor can one be without a spirit and have freedom.

    Without grace man’s freedom is far more constrained and burdened than it is with grace, but it is not unfree. Without grace man will never grow to moral perfection (and we are commanded by Christ to be perfect as God is perfect), but that does not mean he is not free.

  11. Yeah, I’m not sure that there’s not disagreement… there is a paradox here, and the challenge is to acknowledge both sides of it and not reject one… I tend to focus more on our need for grace to avoid sin, so your final ‘graph can sound to me like you’re holding that it might be possible for someone with concupiscence to go their entire life without sinning, but the larger context of your comment (and the OP) indicates that you don’t hold this, so I need to get over it. 🙂

  12. Joe Hargrave says:

    It does seem like a paradox, but I believe in erring on the side of freedom.

    “your final ‘graph can sound to me like you’re holding that it might be possible for someone with concupiscence to go their entire life without sinning”

    Their whole life? No. We’re all born as little heathen barbarians and will inevitably commit sins.

    But the example of sainthood shows us what it is possible to attain; to come within the grasp of the moral perfection to which we are called, through the training and honing of the will.

    Jesus would not have commanded us to “be perfect” if it were not possible to actually be perfect. But it is possible only through God. That is the clear teaching of Christ and the Church.

    A person outside of the Church cannot attain moral perfection, but they do have the sufficient equipment (moral knowledge and free will) to attain salvation IF and only if they follow the moral law and are “invincibly ignorant.” They won’t even know they are being saved; God will save them, because God is just.

  13. On this point, we seem to be in agreement.

    On the matter of the two sides of the paradox, it seems to me that whichever side of the paradox one tends to emphasize has significant repercussions for one’s conception of social & political order… *very* significant repercussions. Which is why it’s so important for me to avoid overemphasizing my “preference”.

  14. Marie says:

    On consideration(social and political order) I remember several years ago a nun who I believe was laying out her position on feminism, human rights, started from social sins, sinful structures, and the general judgement. To make sense my mind went to an example like Nazi Germany. Yes they would have to have a harsher judgement. It was a long period of time before I examined that assertion. Freedom to choose the right way, Freedom to fight unjust laws, to counter sinful structures. Our Holy Father lived and received the gift of his vocation during the period of Nazism, is he going to receive a harsher judgement? Does he have to repent of not going against his countrymen?

  15. Nate Wildermuth says:

    There are depths here which the greatest minds of our Church have fought over. May God bless us with an understanding of the different sides of this issue. Here are a few articles from the Catholic encyclopedia that give a lot of background:


    To give some vocabulary to all of this, there are different forms of grace: preventive grace, cooperative grace, sufficient grace, and efficacious grace. On preventive and cooperative grace, the Catholic encyclopedia has this to say:

    Graces regarding free will

    If we take the attitude of free will as the dividing principle of actual grace, we must first have a grace which precedes the free determination of the will and another which follows this determination and co-operates with the will. This is the first pair of graces, preventing and co-operating grace (gratia praeveniens et cooperans). Preventing grace must, according to its physical nature consist in unfree, indeliberate vital acts of the soul; co-operating grace, on the contrary, solely in free, deliberate actions of the will. The latter assume the character of actual graces, not only because they are immediately suggested by God, but also because they may become, after the achievement of success, the principle of new salutary acts. In this manner an intense act of perfect love of God may simultaneously effect and, as it were, assure by itself the observance of the Divine commandments. The existence of preventing grace, officially determined by the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, cap. v), must be admitted with the same certainty as the facts that the illuminating grace of the intellect belongs to a faculty not free in itself and that the grace of the will must first and foremost exhibit itself in spontaneous, indeliberate, unfree emotions. This is proved by the Biblical metaphors of the reluctant hearing of the voice of God (Jeremiah 17:23; Psalm 94:8), of the drawing by the Father (John 6:44), of the knocking at the gate (Apocalypse 3:20). The Fathers of the Church bear witness to the reality of preventing grace in their very appropriate formula: “Gratia est in nobis, sed sine nobis”, that is, grace as a vital act is in the soul, but as an unfree, salutary act it does not proceed from the soul, but immediately from God. Thus Augustine (De grat. et lib. arbitr., xvii 33), Gregory the Great (Moral., XVI, x), Bernard of Clairvaux (De grat. et lib. arbitr., xiv), and others. As the unfree emotion of the will are by their very nature destined to elicit free salutary acts, it is clear that preventing grace must develop into helping or co-operating grace as soon as free will gives its consent. These free salutary acts are, according to the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, cap. xvi), not only actual graces, but also meritorious actions (actus meritorii). There is just as little doubt possible regarding their existence as concerning the fact that many men freely follow the call of grace, work out their eternal salvation, and attain the beatific vision, so that the dogma of the Christian heaven proves simultaneously the reality of co-operating graces. Their principal advocate is Augustine (De grat. et lib. arbitr., xvi, 32). If the more philosophical question of the co-operation of grace and liberty be raised, it will be easily perceived that the supernatural element of the free salutary act can be only from God, its vitality only from the will. The postulated unity of the action of the will could evidently not be safeguarded, if God and the will Performed either two separate acts or mere halves of an act. It can exist only when the supernatural power of grace transforms itself into the vital strength of the will, constitutes the latter as a free faculty in actu primo by elevation to the supernatural order, and simultaneously co-operates as supernatural Divine concurrence in the performance of the real salutary act or actus secundus. This co-operation is not unlike that of God with the creature in the natural order, in which both perform together one and the same act, God as first cause (causa prima), the creature as secondary cause (causa secunda). For further particulars see St. Thomas, “Contra Gent.”, III, lxx.

  16. Nate Wildermuth says:

    In short, I believe that man is not free to choose God without ‘preventive’ grace. I also believe this is a widely accepted doctrine within the Church.

  17. Nate Wildermuth says:

    And from the Council of Trent, we have this:

    The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.

  18. Joe Hargrave says:

    A couple of things.


    Let us look at what the Council of Trent said of prevenient grace:

    “The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.”

    Please note the words “freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.” The free act begins in the human will. We co-operate with grace; it doesn’t invade us and negate our will (except in rare circumstances).

    Let us next look at the historical circumstances of this controversy, and ask if we are not in similar circumstances today:

    “How must this attitude of the Eastern Church [which was supposedly “semi-pelagian”] be explained?

    To gain a correct notion of the then existing circumstances, it must be remembered that the Greeks had to defend not only grace, but almost more so the freedom of the will. For the antichristian systems of Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and neo-Platonism–all products of the East–stood completely under the spell of the liberty-destroying philosophy of fatalism. In such an environment it was important to preserve intact the freedom of the will even under the influence of grace, to arouse slothful nature from the fatalistic sleep, and to recommend the ascetical maxim: “Help yourself, and Heaven will help you.” It may have been imprudent to leave the necessity of prevenient grace altogether in the background because of false considerations of timeliness, and to insist almost exclusively on co-operating grace while silently presupposing the existence of prevenient grace. But was Chrysostom opposing a Pelagius or a Cassian?”

    A few things to note, then!

    1. No, Chrysostom was not “imprudent”; look at the words of the Council of Trent, where co-operation and free assent are prominently featured in the teaching on prevenient grace.

    2. Those times are similar to our times. Then, deterministic theories were under the banner of fatalism; in our own time, mechanistic materialism. The negation of the will serves a definite ideological purpose – to obliterate the concept of personality responsibility, to ultimately justify the expansion of the state.

    The modern denial of free will, as I argued in my post on social sin, comes from Marxism. It reduces man solely to a product of society (and later “social structures”), denies his individual soul and spirit (because nothing exists but matter, which always obeys laws and is not free), and argues that historical outcomes are virtually pre-determined.

    Against this, Christians MUST re-assert the freedom of the human will, and of moral responsibility. We are in the same position as those Greeks who had to defend freedom of the will against the fatalists. We must defend it against the materialists, and particularly the communist and socialist materialists (individualist materialists often hold to an inconsistent notion of free will).

    Man is always free to choose God. He is always free to choose good. And he is likewise free to reject God, and to choose evil. This is because man is CREATED with freedom and moral knowledge.

    Never forget Pope Benedict’s assessment of Marx in “Spe Salvi”:

    “[Marx] forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.” (21)

  19. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Joe, the definition of prevenient grace is that it frees us to cooperate with grace. Are you denying that definition, or that when the Council of Trent supports such a doctrine, that they don’t really mean ‘prevenient grace’ even though they use the words?

    Man is not always free to choose God. We are only free insofar as God reaches out to us first.

  20. Man is not always free to choose God. We are only free insofar as God reaches out to us first.

    Perhaps you can help me understand this a bit more, though, Nate.

    When you say this, do you simply mean that we as human beings are not of our own power and separate from God able to choose God, choose the good, etc.? Surely, this is true, in that it is only to the extent that we have an immortal soul, endowed with free will, created directly by God and made in the image of God that we have the ability to choose God. I would think that we could call this ability to recognize and move towards the divine (something which is unique to us as humans and lifts us above the determinism of material creatures) “prevenient grace”, in that it is something given us by God which allows us to choose him.

    Or does the above instead mean that in some cases, God chooses to reach out to certain persons and infuse them with prevenient grace, thus allowing them to choose him, but in other cases God declines to reach out to them in this way, thus leaving them literally without freedom, enmeshed in a creaturely deteminism and unable to choose the good?

    I’m assuming you mean the former and not the latter, but if so I’m not sure that you and Joe are necessarily saying anything that is substantially different.

  21. Joe Hargrave says:


    Are you saying that free will lies dormant within us until it is arbitrarily activated by God?

    Or that we aren’t even created with it?

    I ask in seriousness, because to me these are the only logical alternatives. If there are others, I don’t see them.

    To choose God – to know, love and serve God – is the entire reason we are created. That is practically the first thing in the Catechism.


    So it follows then that every human being must have this prevenient grace, that it is basically just another way of saying that we have free will as a gift from God. But it is universal in man. Barring serious defects, no one is created without free will or without moral knowledge, and thus no one is exempt from moral culpability.

    Lets look at the exact language:

    “that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.”

    Note, again, “by freely assenting to and cooperating WITH that said grace.” If there were no free choice in the matter, then paradoxically it would have read “by freely assenting to and co-operating BECAUSE OF that said grace.”

    There are two “things” involved here – the man, and the grace. They exist independently of one another; neither is the cause of the other. They work WITH each other, and not BECAUSE OF each other.

    It also says “convert themselves to their own justification.” What can this mean other than self-conversion as an act of the will, aided by God, but ultimately chosen by us?

    And what about the rest of my points? What about the historical context? What about Spe Salvi? I would like to know what your silence on these points means: do you agree with them, do you disregard them, or do you plan to get around to it later?

  22. Joe Hargrave says:

    I’m sorry if that sounded like a harsh series of demands, but I do want to know what you think.

  23. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Thank you for that clarifying question, Darwin. I’m on the latter side. I want to say, however, that prevenient grace is granted to all who encounter Christ. The Catechism has this to say:

    1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation . . . Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.

    God takes the initiative to save sinners through Christ’s Body, the Church, and visibly through the sacraments. Those who encounter the Church receive prevenient grace – but must then freely (as Joe is so right!) cooperate with that grace.

    Those who do not encounter Christ and do not receive prevenient grace . . . can be saved in ways known only to God.

  24. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Joe – “dormant freedom” – perfect way to put it! That freedom is activated by encountering Christ, by hearing the Gospel, by having a chance to accept the invitation of baptism.

    I do want to address the other things you brought up, but I have to think on them.

  25. Boy is this a hairy topic for a blog combox! 🙂

    Nate’s reading is correct: in order to respond to God, God first gives us his grace. But we cannot misconstrue this in a Calvinist manner which would imply double predestination, in that the common theological tradition also holds that “sufficient grace” (for salvation) has been given to us.

    It also must be specified that the freedom specifically being discussed in this context is our freedom to move towards God, not our ability to freely choose in the daily, mundane sense… in this latter sense, we obviously always have it.

    Just to clarify your final point, Nate: *all* those who are saved are given prevenient grace… they do not receive *sacramental* grace, but they do receive sanctifying grace.

    On the topic of grace in general and its interaction with human freedom in particular, I cannot recommend highly enough Cardinal Journet’s little book “The Meaning of Grace”, which is fortunately online in its entirety at EWTN: http://www.ewtn.com/library/DOCTRINE/MNGGRACE.HTM.

    Later tonight I might post a section of it which is very relevant in which Journet notes that we cannot treat grace & human freedom in the manner, because the former is supernatural and the latter isn’t, but in these sorts of discussions we need to naturalize grace and in so doing make it a “competition” between our freedom and God’s grace.

  26. Joe, Trent says that we are given prevenient grace *so that we may be disposed* to conversion… but as I noted above, sufficient grace *is* given to all.

  27. Nate Wildermuth says:

    On Spe Salvi – I completely agree, and that passage is so very striking. Human hearts are fragile things, easily broken, easily tempted and seduced by sin. Nothing we do will ever change that. Yet God’s grace can guard us.

    On the historical context – I’m not sure I what you are saying, as it seems to indicate that prevenient sin shouldn’t have been dismissed, even if there was the need to reinforce the matter of free-will against the Greek world.

  28. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Thanks for the clarification Chris. Like I said at the beginning – these are very deep waters which I can only hope we simply understand, let alone solve. My unorthodox position, I think, is less about grace and salvation and more about grace and sin being transmitted by social structures (kingdom of darkness vs. kingdom of light).

  29. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Chris, must sufficient grace be accompanied by prevenient grace?

  30. Joe Hargrave says:

    Without intending to offend anyone, I must say that this is one of the most convoluted discussions I have ever had. It’s no one’s fault here; there’s a whole history of unclarity and obfuscation to deal with.

    Nate, you said to Darwin that you were on the “latter side.” That means then, unless you misspoke, that you agree with this:

    “in other cases God declines to reach out to them in this way, thus leaving them literally without freedom, enmeshed in a creaturely deteminism and unable to choose the good?”

    This contradicts everything the Church already teaches about human NATURE. Let me spell it out, this time with simpler quotes from the Baltimore Catechism:

    1. Spirit is freedom; a spirit is by definition free.

    “A spirit is a being that has understanding and free will, but no body, and will never die.”

    2. Man is created in the image of God, with a body and soul (spirit).

    “Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God… The soul is like God because it is a spirit having understanding and free will, and is destined to live forever.”

    Freedom of the will is a part of who we are. I completely disagree that it lies dormant within us until it is arbitrarily activated by God. It is woven into the fabric of our being, we cannot exist and not be free.

    This is the fundamental premise. At no point in our existence are we without free will.

    You say, Nate, that

    “Those who encounter the Church receive prevenient grace”

    If this grace is limited to people who encounter the Church, then it follows that goodness and salvation are both possible without grace – because again we go back to the doctrine of “invincible ignorance.”

    If a person can be saved without grace, and without knowledge of the Church, then what is saving them? It is their free choice to follow the moral law that is written in their hearts, to which God reacts with “supreme kindness and clemency”, according to Pius IX.

    And we have to be honest and forthrightly admit that there are non-Christian societies in which plenty of people do exactly that. Now when they do so, is it because of grace? I honestly don’t know, and frankly I can’t see how it matters.

    I prefer to speak of God’s justice, and I think 99% of these disputes can be set aside if we stop dissecting this argument about the relationship between freedom and grace and contemplate instead this justice. For justice, and judgment, presuppose free will. This Pius IX affirms as well, when he says that God will not “permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.”

    This has nothing to do with grace as I see it, but with justice. Is that heretical? I don’t know. But I will continue to err on the side of freedom because this is really the only thing that makes us different not only from the animals, but from inanimate objects.

    And this will bring me to the historical context. Nate, I don’t know how I could have made it more clear, what I was talking about. The Catholic encyclopedia says that the Greek arguments emphasizing man’s freedom were necessary to combat fatalism; I’m saying that today we need to re-emphasize freedom to combat the materialism and determinism of the communists, the socialists, the social engineers, who want to create a utopian society because they believe man is almost exclusively a product of structures and has little or no free will at all.

  31. Joe Hargrave says:

    Let me add this:

    Chris writes,

    “It also must be specified that the freedom specifically being discussed in this context is our freedom to move towards God, not our ability to freely choose in the daily, mundane sense… in this latter sense, we obviously always have it.”

    I suppose I can go with that, though I don’t see how it is possible to dissect freedom in such a way. This is a cop-out I used to see, ironically, on the Marxist left, among those who wanted to carve out a space for free will within materialist determinism. I used to argue hard for that position, but it is ultimately inconsistent.

    We’re free to do everything – except choose God? I think the argument here is that no man, on his own, could possibly come to know the fullness of God’s love, wisdom, morality, his divine plan; these things you can only acquire if you make the free choice to accept God’s grace. Ok, I agree with that.

    But not to make moral decisions! Because the moral law is written in our hearts, and we all have a conscience.

  32. Joe Hargrave says:


    I read part of the link you gave. Its fascinating. Two things stand out for me so far.

    “The normal process is a series of graces which can be resisted but which, if accepted, will lead to one which is irresistible, victorious—a grace that will make me produce the good act and I will thank God for giving me the strength to do so.”

    I kinda have a problem with the “make me” part. There is just an inconsistency in language in all these discussions. Is God giving me strength so that I do the good act, or is this infusion of grace mechanistically forcing me to do the good act?

    Here I think I want to explore Molinism. Not now, but perhaps in a future post. I haven’t seen it denounced as a heresy, and indeed was meant to combat it, this time against the Protestants. From the Encyclopedia:

    “Molinism combats the heresy of the Reformers, according to which both sinners and just have lost freedom of will. It maintains and strenuously defends the Tridentine dogma which teaches:

    that freedom of will has not been destroyed by original sin, and
    that this freedom remains unimpaired under the influence of Divine grace”

    You might call me, for the moment, one who is sympathetic to Molinism.

    The article you posted also says,

    “God is doubtless free to give his children different and unequal graces, to one two talents, to another five. But he is not free to deprive any soul of what is necessary to it. He is bound by his justice and love to give each of them those graces which, if not refused, will bring them to the threshold of their heavenly country.”

    So, what I said before was right and wrong. I shouldn’t have tried to draw a line between grace and justice; God’s justice demands that everyone gets sufficient grace, just as you said in an earlier post.

  33. Angela says:

    Ok I know I am joining in late in the discussion, but I have a burning question about invincible ignorance. There are people who have not ever heard about Christ and the church but continue to live good lives according to natural law. and because they could not make a choice to follow God, they will be accounted for what they knew.

    if this is the case, why bother to evangelize then to those people? If the ultimate goal is eternal salvation, then what use is there in telling them about christ?

    I do not agree with the point above though, because Christ also said to go out into the world and tell the good news, and eversince the beginning of Chrisitanity it was taught that no salvation can be found outside of the Church. (maybe my wording is a bit off, but i hope you understand what i mean)

    I really do not know how to reconcile these two points, but they should not be mutually exculsive given they come from the same Church. Is there any way to reconcile this, if it has not yet been brought up?)

  34. Joe Hargrave says:


    Here’s how I understand it.

    “if this is the case, why bother to evangelize then to those people?”

    Because we can only be reasonably sure of our salvation through Christ. Once we know about Christ and we freely choose him, we can be somewhat confident in our salvation, though becoming too confident is a sin of presumption.

    Christ really is “the way” – the clear and unobstructed path to God and eternal life. Others can kind of stumble along it, and God’s justice/grace will save their souls, but it is going to be harder for them.

    But if they know, and then reject Christ and presume that they can attain salvation “on their own”, THEN they’re in trouble.

  35. Joe Hargrave says:

    Regarding the debate between Nate and Chris and Darwin and I… the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

    “The problem seems to lie so far beyond the horizon of the human mind, that man will never be able fully to penetrate its mystery. ”

    I’ll drink to that.

  36. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Haha, me too, Joe! And I also am intruiged by Molinism.

  37. David Raber says:


    It’s a good question, and here is one good answer.

    I believe I am a better person and have more joy in my life because I know about Jesus and his Good News (even if getting to heaven is out of the picture). Maybe that could be stated theologically, but maybe it doesn’t need to be–or at least it doesn’t have to be to convince me that everyone needs to know about Jesus.

  38. Joe Hargrave says:


    Why is “going to heaven out of the picture”?

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