Freedom, Bondage & the Pope

Pope Francis Amoris Laetitia

In his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis distinguishes between different types of action-

273A distinction is not always adequately drawn between “voluntary” and “free” acts. A person may clearly and willingly desire something evil, but do so as the result of an irresistible passion or a poor upbringing. In such cases, while the decision is voluntary, inasmuch as it does not run counter to the inclination of their desire, it is not free, since it is practically impossible for them not to choose that evil

The question of free will has great significance for both philosophy and theology. Historically the Catholic Church and, after it, social conservatives have stressed both the reality and importance of the concept. Over against this during the past several millennia opponents as varied as astrologers, Calvinists, neuroscientists and Marxists have argued that the stars, neurones, environment or *something* all but negates free will and leaves the human will subject to control by forces external to it. Is the Pope here signalling an intention to lead the Church into changing horses in midstream? Or is his primarily pastoral concern simply leading him to emphasise the need for mercy without resiling from the traditional stand of Catholicism?

The expressions ‘irresistible passions’ and ‘poor upbringing’ are, perhaps deliberately vague. They cover a multitude of possible situations. The second one clearly fits in with established thinking which holds that background, education, environment and so on can create circumstances in which the culpability that the individual bears for a particular action is lessened because an invincible ignorance beyond their power prevents them fully appreciating the moral content of their acts. This does not make a wrong action right nor does it provide an exemption from the demands of a moral law but it does affect how punishment and rehabilitation should be tailored to meet the precise needs of the case.

The idea of an irresistible passion however seems to me to be more problematic in the context of free will. One of Pope Francis’ predecessors, St John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor

33…Side by side with its exaltation of freedom, yet oddly in contrast with it, modern culture radically questions the very existence of this freedom. A number of disciplines, grouped under the name of the “behavioural sciences”, have rightly drawn attention to the many kinds of psychological and social conditioning which influence the exercise of human freedom. Knowledge of these conditionings and the study they have received represent important achievements which have found application in various areas, for example in pedagogy or the administration of justice. But some people, going beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations, have come to question or even deny the very reality of human freedom

For John Paul the human will was sovereign, behind all the various influences of environment and passion the mind could always access Reason and base its decisions with reference to that. When humans acted irrationally or wickedly it was because they made choices which were both voluntary and free. Pope Francis appears to have in mind a situation where passions habitually override reason and exclude choice. This begs the questions what kind of passions would have this effect and how would they arise in the first place?

The paragraph in which the Holy Father’s comments come is in a section about the moral development of children. Although he illustrates it with the example of drug addiction it is not to fanciful to suppose, given the politics of the Catholic Church, that he also intends his remarks to point to sexuality. Given that sexualities develop in childhood and adolescence his thesis would point to a situation where homosexual people have an irresistible passion to act in certain ways which being voluntary but not free should not be condemned. This would not, in theory, stop the Church from considering the actions sins but would militate against any punishment, such as exclusion from communion, for something which the individual had no agency to prevent.

Such an approach would not change Church doctrine with regard to sex and sexuality but would change Church practice. Clearly this would be a development somewhat in line with Pope Francis’ pastoral concern to offer mercy to all people all the time. More profoundly though, if the Church were to back away from its absolute adherence to the reality of free will it would be no exaggeration to call it an event of world historical importance. If human acts are not really free then right and wrong become more or less meaningless categories. Actions can be divided between necessary and unnecessary and all necessary acts, provoked by irresistible passion, can be labelled good and unnecessary ones as good, bad or neutral with reference to relativistic criteria. Were the Church to accept the premise that free will is illusory then social conservatism and society at large would lose a bulwark that has stood firm for centuries in defence of the need for moral education and high moral standards. The world would never be the same again.

@calmlyobserving

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4 Comments

  1. The fault is not in our stars Horatio, but in ourselves”. Hamlet

    Perhaps the Pope is referring to something like kleptomania where the individual feels obliged to do a certain thing even though he regrets it later. My old parish priest used advise us to consider what our “predominant passions” were during our examinations of conscience and be on guard against them in our daily lives. We may be avaricious or covetous without being aware of it but everyone else will know! Our prejudices can reveal our own blind spots back to us as a good mirror does.

    My old parish priest used remind us that as the tree is bent, so shall it grow. Bad habits, once established, can be difficult to change, even for children.

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  2. This is where frequent confession, avoiding situations where one might fall and calling on the Lord and our guardian angels for assistance can help us. If constant water can wash away a rock, diligent attention to it can uproot even the most ingrained habit.

    And if the devil is behind the temptation, a swift prayer or Psalm will see him off : he cannot stand it and the more you pray the less he’ll bother with you.

    X

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