In the Church’s anthropology, our will is one. We have ‘free will.’ Saint Irenaeus, in the third century, wrote that the human person is ‘master over his acts’ precisely because of his free will. We are therefore responsible for our decisions and actions. Those decisions and actions of which we are ashamed cannot be panned off on some other sort of ‘will’ present within us.
At the same time, we know that our will’s capacity to respond to the promptings of our conscience is not always immediate or consistent. Although Augustine thought our emotions and our will can and should work as one, the fact is that sometimes the will is under the sway of our emotions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this important observation:
Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts [no. 1734].
Let us pause over this sentence and savour it a bit. It means that if we want our will to function properly with ‘mastery’ over our acts, it needs some help. First, as the Catechism indicates, help is needed on the level of virtue. The Church defines virtue as ‘an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. Virtue allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself’ [Catechism, no. 1803].
What is important to note here is the encouraging news that we can grow in virtue. Each time we do something truly good, the will is strengthened by that action, and we grow in our ability to continue to do good. We grow not only in terms of the ease with which we act in a good way, but we grow in our understanding of what we are doing and why: we grow in spiritual depth. We thereby make real progress in virtue, and strengthen the power of our will.
The next idea in the sentence we are considering is that our will’s mastery is strengthened by our progress in ‘knowledge of the good.’ Perhaps you are someone who has been a Christian all your life, or perhaps you are someone who is just discovering God, Jesus, Christianity. But, wherever we may be on the Christian timeline, we all need to grow in our ‘knowledge of the good.’
We do not live in a society that accepts that ‘the good’ exists in a way that makes requirements on all people. Much of what Christianity declares to be truly good in an unchanging and universal sense, our society simply writes off as mere opinion – not binding on anyone except those who hold such opinions. This can be confusing, both for long-term Christians, and new Christians. To really know ‘the good’, it is necessary to turn to the teaching of the Church, to pray for understanding, and to be courageous enough to reject some counterfeit notions of goodness that are the currency of our culture. The Church has always been counter-cultural and Christians must simply expect that the ethical and moral teachings of the Church will be a challenge to many of our society’s popular notions of morality. As we gradually come to understand what is truly good, and live in accordance with our knowledge, our will is strengthened, and its mastery over our acts is enhanced. We become more alive, more joyful, on a very deep level.
And lastly, our phrase from the Catechism uses the word ‘ascesis.’ What is that? Perhaps we can call it the ability to set limits on our pleasures. Living for mere pleasure can quickly degenerate into addiction. And it is well known that addiction’s pleasures operate by the law of diminishing returns. This is not to suggest that a Christian should have no pleasure, but that pleasure is the by-product of joy, and joy comes when our will, guided by our reason and informed by faith, exercises mastery over our acts. Perhaps it is easiest to understand ascesis as self-discipline that functions for the purpose of enabling us to be free of dependences in order to live fully for God. St. Augustine’s prayer, published at the beginning of these posts, affirms God helps us on the level of our will. He is the strength of the will that serves him.