Lawrence Feingold on Freedom of the Will

Apr 15th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Two days ago, Professor Lawrence Feingold of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology and author of The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and his Interpreters gave a lecture titled “The Freedom of the Will” to the Association of Hebrew Catholics. The audio recordings of the lecture and of the following Q&A are available below. Some parts of the lecture and certain questions in the Q&A are highly relevant to points of disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Below I have provided a brief outline of the lecture (including in parentheses the minute number in the audio recording), and the subsequent Q&A.

Lawrence Feingold


I. Freedom is in the will, on account of our intellect; we cannot love what we do not know.
A. Our will is open to all goodness. (2′)
B. Natural desire (3′) — some things we naturally desire, and not by free choice. We’re free to choose the means to those ends.

II. Three different sense of the term ‘freedom.’ (5′)
(A.) Natural freedom (freedom between),
(B.) Circumstantial freedom (freedom from coercion), and
(C.) Acquired freedom (freedom for the good, virtuous freedom).

‘Free will’ refers to natural freedom (between goods, to act or not to act). The most important kind of freedom is freedom for, but to acquire it, we need natural freedom.1

III. Both human experience and divine revelation show us that we have natural freedom. (9′)

Q1. If God is the total good, then how can we be free to reject God, if we are not free with regard to the total good? (15′)

Q2. If one alternative is better than another, are we still free to choose between them? (16′)

IV. The denials of free will (17′)
A. Gnostics / Manichees (18′)2
B. Protestantism: Luther and Calvin (19′ – 31′)
Response by the Council of Trent (31′)
C. The heresy of Jansenism (33′)
D. Materialism/determinism (35′)
E. Freudianism (35′)

V. John Paul II “Reconciliation and Penance” (36′)

A. Free will and self-determination: By building up our identity through our free choices, we become our own fathers and mothers (Gregory of Nyssa) (38′)
B. Free will and Day of Judgment (39′)

VI. Pope Leo XIII “Libertas Praestantissimum” (39′)
A. The distinction between “natural freedom” (freedom between), and moral freedom (freedom for the good).
B. Freedom and the ability to sin. The ability to sin accompanies the kind of liberty we have on earth, not of the essence of freedom. (41′) The ability to sin belongs to us during the state of trial. (42′)
C. The freedom of God and the blessed in heaven. (42′)

VII. Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. (44′)

VIII. The truth shall set you free. (47′)

Q. In what sense does the person in a state of grace have freedom, and in what sense does the person in a state of mortal sin have freedom? (50′)

IX. John Paul II’s 1985 “Letter to the Youth of the World” (Dilecti Amici) (51′) —
A. What does it mean to be truly free?
B. What is the relation between freedom and the divine law? (52′) Contemporary confusion regarding the relation of law and freedom (54′). Jewish conception of Torah.

X. Freedom between and Freedom for
A. Liberation theology (55′)
B. Freedom and the new atheism (57′)
C. Sartre and unlimited freedom (58′)
D. Freedom for is for self-giving to God and neighbor (61′)
E. St. Ignatius of Loyola on freedom (62′)


(1) Does prayer affect God’s freedom? If not, how can it be efficacious? What can it change? (1′)

(2) When a tragedy happens, such as 9/11, we may say it was God’s will. And yet sin is a turning away from God’s will. And that act of terrorism (i.e. 9/11) was a sin, and thus a turning away from God’s will? So how do we reconcile these two claims? (5′)

(3) Is the law contrary to the lower freedom (freedom from coercion)? (11′)

(4) If God gives efficacious grace only to some, how is that compatible with Christ dying for all, and with His universal salvific will? (12′)

(5) If man is free to cooperate with grace or resist grace, how is that not Pelagianism, and how does that not make man his own savior, and rob God of all the glory? (18′)

(6) How is predestination compatible with freedom? (22′)

(7) Isn’t one of the problems determinists have with freedom how they can conceive of time, since they operate with a clock-sense of time? (26′)

(8) If people don’t believe in the authority of the Church are they effectively outside the Church, or is it that they just don’t have direction, or are they in “freedom from”? (28′)

(9) Is the definition of ‘good’ love? (31′)

(10) If you wanted to enlighten your friend concerning the errors of Luther, what would you say in less than 50 words? (32′)

Download the mp3s here.

  1. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Evil, Question VI, “On Human Choice.” []
  2. See, for example, Orthodoxus’s last reply to Valentinus in St. Methodius of Olympus’s “Concerning Free Will. []

Leave a comment »

  1. If you’re short on time, listen from 19′ through 31′ of the lecture, and 12′ through 26′ of the Q&A (i.e. questions 4, 5, and 6).

  2. Thanks Bryan!
    Professor Feingold’s lectures as well as this website was one of the leading factors in re-invigorating my nominally Catholic upbringing to a stronger belief in the Church and in her teachings.
    God bless,
    -Steven Reyes

  3. Awesome! Thanks Dr. Feingold!

  4. “Freedom is in the will, on account of our intellect; we cannot love what we do not know.”

    As expressed, this doesn’t make much sense. If freedom is something that pertains to the will, it does so from the nature of the will, not from some other power. At best, I think all you can derive from this statement is that the intellect is a sine qua non cause for volitional activity. but that has nothing to do with freedom.

  5. Lee,

    That sine qua non is just what is meant here.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. Thanks for the clarification.

  7. Perhaps I missed it (and if so please direct me to the relevant portion), but I did not see much interaction with the idea of God’s decree. Dr. Feingold mentioned the idea of foreknowledge and I think he ably demonstrated that it in no way limits freedom. I put forward the following questions though,

    Does God decree whatsoever comes to pass?
    If so, what is the relationship between God’s decree and his foreknowledge?
    If so, how does Dr. Feingold’s analogy of the arrow speak to the decree and not to foreknowledge. More clearly, can God’s decree be thwarted or his foreknowledge incorrect if man’s free will allows him to always resist grace?
    This is perhaps a Protestant misunderstanding, but how do operating and cooperating graces work given Dr. Feingold’s scheme?

    Thanks in advance for what I’m sure will be thoughtful responses.

  8. I’m going to give this a shameless bump because I really do want to see thoughts on these issues.

  9. RefProt (re: #7)

    Does God decree whatsoever comes to pass? If so, what is the relationship between God’s decree and his foreknowledge?

    Nothing occurs outside God’s consequent will, but His consequent will takes into account our free choices. (On the distinction between antecedent will and consequent will, see here.) He wills that we have natural freedom, and so He governs all things while preserving the integrity and secondary causality of the things He has made, include the freedom of the rational creatures He has made. We’re not puppets driven by forces beyond us toward an inevitable fate about which we have no true choice.

    If so, how does Dr. Feingold’s analogy of the arrow speak to the decree and not to foreknowledge. More clearly, can God’s decree be thwarted or his foreknowledge incorrect if man’s free will allows him to always resist grace?

    God’s consequent will cannot be thwarted. But His consequent will has already taken into account our free choices. His foreknowledge cannot be incorrect, but that in no way removes freedom (“freedom between”) from the rational creature, just as knowing what someone has already chosen does not impose necessity on his choice.

    This is perhaps a Protestant misunderstanding, but how do operating and cooperating graces work given Dr. Feingold’s scheme?

    I recommend listening to minutes 25′ through 62′ of the *second* lecture (i.e. the one on actual grace) at “Lawrence Feingold on Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  10. In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote the following on free will:

    Know also that you have a soul self-governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator : immortal because of God that gives it immortality; a living being, rational, imperishable, because of Him that bestowed these gifts: having free power to do what it wills. For it is not according to your nativity that you sin, nor is it by the power of chance that you commit fornication, nor, as some idly talk, do the conjunctions of the stars compel you to give yourself to wantonness. Why do you shrink from confessing your own evil deeds, and ascribe the blame to the innocent stars? …

    And learn this also, that the soul, before it came into this world, had committed no sin , but having come in sinless, we now sin of our free-will. Listen not, I pray you, to any one perversely interpreting the words, But if I do that which I would not Romans 7:16: but remember Him who says, If you be willing, and hearken unto Me, you shall eat the good things of the land: but if you be not willing, neither hearken unto Me, the sword shall devour you, etc. Isaiah 1:19-20: and again, As you presented your members as servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness unto sanctification. Romans 6:19 Remember also the Scripture, which says, Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge Romans 1:28: and, That which may be known of God is manifest in them Romans 1:19; and again, their eyes they have closed. Matthew 13:15 Also remember how God again accuses them, and says, Yet I planted you a fruitful vine, wholly true: how are you turned to bitterness, thou the strange vine Jeremiah 2:21?

    The soul is immortal, and all souls are alike both of men and women; for only the members of the body are distinguished. There is not a class of souls sinning by nature, and a class of souls practising righteousness by nature : but both act from choice, the substance of their souls being of one kind only, and alike in all. …

    The soul is self-governed: and though the devil can suggest, he has not the power to compel against the will. He pictures to you the thought of fornication: if you will, you accept it; if you will not, you reject. For if you were a fornicator by necessity, then for what cause did God prepare hell? If you were a doer of righteousness by nature and not by will, wherefore did God prepare crowns of ineffable glory? The sheep is gentle, but never was it crowned for its gentleness: since its gentle quality belongs to it not from choice but by nature. (Catechetical Lecture 4)

  11. D.B. Hart writes:

    In simple terms, if a deranged man chooses to slash himself with a knife or set fire to himself, you would not be interfering with his “freedom” by preventing him from doing so. You would be rescuing him from his slavery to madness. This is why the free-will defense of the idea of an eternal hell is essentially gibberish.

    Hart’s argument treats what in the lecture above is referred to as “acquired freedom” (or freedom for excellence) as though it eliminates or rules out “natural freedom.” But acquired freedom does not eliminate the possibility of natural freedom.

  12. (Reposting this here on the proper thread).

    I have written here before (a good while ago). I am in the Reformed/Evangelical tradition, and have interacted a fair amount with Catholic thinking and teaching, including Thomistic thought, all to a limited agree. Of course I am more on the “bondage of the will” side of things. However, with that said, I am wondering about a deeper definition of the Catholic term “free will”, as it is used in Aquinas, Catholic teachings, et al. On the New Advent site, I read that it is the “rational appetite”. I am trying to get a better, somewhat deeper and more expansive understanding of the Catholic usage. To be sure, I do see the will as being biased towards its prevailing nature (sin for the unbeliever, good for the believer). However, still trying to make sure I get the Catholic definition correct. Thank you for anything

  13. Matt (re: #12)

    The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the will would be a good place to start.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  14. Thank you. Will consult this, freely. :-)

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