Thoughts about human freedom
I've recently had some thoughts bouncing in my mind about human freedom and how it relates to counseling, politics, and theology. I'm not really arguing for a position here, just musing.
Among the different theories of psychology, there's a spectrum of answers to the question, "Do human beings have freedom?"
On one end of the spectrum there's determinism, which is the belief that human behavior is predetermined by past experiences and that the individual really doesn't have freedom. On the other end is what I'll call the "superman mentality," that's the idea that human beings always, in every circumstance, possess freedom. Now, most theories avoid these extremes and simply lean one direction or the other.
I think that how a particular theorist views human freedom relates to their conceptualization of the human person as either independent or interdependent. Do they view the human person as self-sufficient? Do they think that the individual is the fundamental unit of society?
If human beings are independent individual units, then a person's freedom would be less impacted by others, but if we are interdependent on others, then our circumstances and relationships will affect our freedom.
I see this question of human freedom playing out in political discussions as well.
I was recently listening to a politically conservative commentator—who readily says that the individual is the fundamental unit of society—talking about how counseling for drug addiction needs to focus more on helping people find personal agency and focus less on the social factors that may encourage addiction.
If I'm making broad generalizations about right/left political ideologies, in my experience, the right tends to focus a lot more on personal agency and individuals reaping (positively or negatively) the consequences of their actions. The left, on the other hand, tends to place significant emphasis on the impact that a person's social context has on their freedom, things like economic status, race, or gender.
I also see this playing out in pastoral discussions. I have heard so many Catholics talk about sin and culpability with a superman mentality. That is, if someone knows that X action is gravely wrong, but they do X anyway, then they are guilty of a mortal sin. Period. There are also people in Catholic circles who emphasize reduced culpability so much that they almost deny human freedom entirely. This is a kind of universalism that says people really can't make the kind of free choice necessary to reject God.
Here's how Church teaching navigates this question.
First, the Church rejects individualism because human beings are made in the image and likeness of a God who is a triune Communion of Love. People are radically interdependent on each other. I didn't bring myself into existence. I didn't raise myself. I didn't educate myself. And living in total isolation from others is recognized as one of the worst kinds of punishment. Thus the Church teaches that the family, not the individual, "is the original cell of social life" (CCC 2207).
The Church also rejects determinism: "God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions" (CCC 1730). And "Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary" (CCC 1734).
However, the Church also recognizes that there are internal and external factors that can limit, even nullify, a person's freedom in a given circumstance: "Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors" (CCC 1735).
Pope Francis seems to emphasize the limitations of human freedom. He is critical of what he calls “contemporary pelagians,” in the Church who even though they “tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. […] Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once” (Gaudete et Exsultate 49-50).
In studying for my counseling degree, I've been encouraged to reflect on my own beliefs and values when it comes to how I understand human freedom. That reflection has been fruitful not only as I think of myself as a future counselor, but in my life and ministry now. How I respond to the question about freedom shapes my political opinions, how I interact with others, how easily I’m able to forgive others, how I view myself, and how I form my own conscience.