BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (171): What factors can diminish freedom or enhance it?

Rev José Mario O Mandía 


The CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) (No. 1735) explains the factors that could vitiate the freedom of an act, and therefore diminish our responsibility for it: “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.”

The above-mentioned factors can affect our judgment (an act of the intellect) on whether an act is good or evil. Such is the case of ignorance, inadvertence, psychological or social factors.  The voluntariness (referring to the will) of the act may be reduced by duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.

If a thought, word, action or omission is done with full awareness, and is directly and fully willed (in other words, “the decision is fully mine”), then the person who did it deserves fully the corresponding praise or blame for it. CCC No.1736 says: “Every act directly willed is imputable to its author. Thus the Lord asked Eve after the sin in the garden: ‘What is this that you have done?’ (Gen 3:13). He asked Cain the same question (cf. Gen 4:10). The prophet Nathan questioned David in the same way after he committed adultery with the wife of Uriah and had him murdered (cf. 2 Sam 12:7-15).

“An action can be indirectly voluntary when it results from negligence regarding something one should have known or done: for example, an accident arising from ignorance of traffic laws.”

How about those things that are not directly willed? The CCC No. 1737 teaches us:

  • “An effect can be tolerated without being willed by its agent; for instance, a mother’s exhaustion from tending her sick child.”
  • “A bad effect is not imputable if it was not willed either as an end or as a means of an action, e.g., a death a person incurs in aiding someone in danger.”
  • “For a bad effect to be imputable it must be foreseeable and the agent must have the possibility of avoiding it, as in the case of manslaughter caused by a drunken driver.”


It would seem that grace diminishes freedom because it comes from the outside. But St Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (3:17), tells us: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Why is that so? God’s grace works in us not as a kind of exterior force or inspiration, but as a light that illumines our intellect, and a power that strengthens our will. That’s how grace works. The work of sanctification is an “inside job”! St Paul spoke of “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Ephesians 1:19).

We will recall that freedom is rooted in the intellect and the will. Therefore, since grace provides the light for our intellect and the power for our will, it enhances our freedom, and does not curtail it. This explains why, in our good acts, it always appears as if goodness emanated from us, when in fact, it was God’s grace working in us.

Our most loving Father God does not want slaves, He wants His children to be free. Consider the following passages:

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13).

“Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God” (1 Pt 2:16).

On the other hand, this is what Scripture says of those who rebel against God: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pt 2:19).

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