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Dear Father Angelo,

I ask you this very important question for me: does free will really exist?

Honestly, it seems to me (maybe it’s a serious mistake…) that people are much more driven by emotionality in acting than by reason consciously choosing, and therefore their action, being rather instinctive, is not very free, as when you say words that you don’t really think because they’re driven by negative feelings like contempt, hate, resentment, these things affect you to act and darken reason.

In the same way the goodness or wickedness of a person could be the result of genetic conditions that then determine the brain chemistry, therefore the “bad” would only be the result of a natural error that drives him to behave in an antisocial manner, but God would then have created him so for purposes that we do not know and which can also respond to his inscrutable plan.

Are my reflections acceptable or should I reject them as contrary to Catholic teaching?

A warm greeting


Dearest,

1. Your reflections are partly true and partly not.

The portion of truth lies in recognizing that our emotions and the conditioning deriving from our character undoubtedly have their weight.

2. John Paul II in Reconciliatio et paenitentia says that “this individual may be conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external factors. He may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits linked with his personal condition. In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt” (RP16). Later he talks about “the undeniable environmental and historical conditioning and influences which act upon man” (RP18).

3. In Veritatis splendor he points out that “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.  […] 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” (VS 33). 

4. These influences should therefore be taken into account when assessing the responsibility for the actions.

Only in some extreme cases they eliminate it completely.

They can usually attenuate it.

5. On the existence of freedom, except for innate ideas, one may agree with what Descartes wrote: “There’s freedom in our will, and we often have the power to give or withhold our assent at will – that’s so obvious that it must be regarded as one of the first and most common notions that are innate in us” (Principles of Philosophy, 39).

Everyone has the awareness of being free.

If such a universal and absolute witness were erroneous, it would be necessary to question all the other testimonies of conscience, those testimonies in force of which we say to be good or bad, to be hungry or cold, to love a person and so on.

6. So John Paul II stated “it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals’ sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people. Above all, this would be to deny the person’s dignity and freedom, which are manifested-even though in a negative and disastrous way-also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin” (RP 16).

7. It is clear that without freedom there would be no imputability.

Equally if man were not free “counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,  I-II, 83,1).

8. Moreover, human reason itself is the root of freedom because, unlike animals acting by instinct, reason evaluates, observes and chooses.

The choice includes the emotional aspects and the conditioning.

There are very few choices made in a cold way, without any emotional participation.

But emotions generally are not enough to erase freedom, also because not infrequently you make choices that go directly against your own sensitivity, as happens when you act out of pure duty.

I thank you for the question, I wish you well, I remind you to the Lord and I bless you.

Padre Angelo