How can we have free will and still obey God’s law? What follows is a paper I wrote for moral theology on this topic and whether or not I agree with JPII. It was limited to two pages in length. Man, that was hard!
Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (hereafter referred to as “VS”) discusses the gift of human freedom in relation to the law of God. In the book of Genesis, God gives man reign over the garden, able to eat freely of all of it’s fruit and able to choose freely what he would do. This came with one stipulation: that man would not eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[I] Later in Romans we read that “What the law requires is written on their hearts.”[II] This idea of having freedom to choose a path yet being restricted by a set of rules has caused serious debate over the centuries. John Paul II writes to dispel these myths and show how freedom and God’s law go hand in hand.
In reading “VS” I find that I agree with the idea of freedom being in agreement with God’s law. In fact I find that freedom in its purest sense requires some sort of guidelines or rules to ensure it’s survival. As John Paul II states: “The different ways in which God…cares for the world and for mankind… support each other and intersect.”[III] Looking to scripture we find in Genesis 1:26 the mandate from God for man to have dominion and rule over the land. Later in 2:3, we see God give man the gift of free will with the rule regarding the Tree of Good and Evil. God establishes a rule and order to life in his creation, and then he gives dominion to those created in his image and likeness (mankind), entrusting them with the care of the world and promising them a life of happiness and well-being in response to obeying what he asks.
John Paul II discusses further in “VS” the idea of this intersection of God and man through the moral law as being a “properly human law…whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided.”[IV] John Paul II later quotes his predecessor, Leo XIII, in saying that “natural law itself is the eternal law… inclining them (beings with reason) towards their right action and end.”[V] This end, which he mentions, is ultimately God and the perfect union with him. Since the fall of man in the garden after denying the invitation of God to walk alongside him and trust in him, man has had a struggle with obeying the eternal law in light of the reason and freedom which he had been given. In choosing right from wrong, man is charged with a dilemma; either obey the law of God written on the heartII or follow through with earthly and temporal desires.
John Paul II closes by discussing the unified factors of body and soul. Since they are inseparable, the law of God written on the heart (or soul) must be an integral part of the human person. It can then be said that the gift and use of freedom and reason are inseparable from the law of God. The use of one cannot exist without being informed by the other. Thus man cannot “freely” exercise freedom without having it be informed by the law of God and vice versa. The very nature of God’s law is pointed to the good, as our nature is pointed to eventual unity with him in the afterlife. Without taking away our freedom, God’s eternal law points us to that which frees. Freedom and law are inseparable, just as our body and soul are inseparable. The unity displayed by our body soul composites point to the freedom, which lies in the lawful execution of our reason and will: Heaven.
[I] Genesis 2:16-17
[II] Romans 2:15
[III] Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II, p. 45
[IV] Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II, p. 40
[V] Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II p. 44