Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Evangelization, Free Will, and the Spiritual Works of Mercy

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was first published 21 May 2016 . To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

Why evangelize and pray for the conversion of other people? Are we just “pushing” our views on others and thereby impinging on their free will when we do so? This is a question that was recently put by a young non-Catholic Christian to an online community that I moderate. Now, I had never considered that informing or attempting to persuade somebody, much less praying for them, somehow interfered with their ability to make free choices; on the contrary, without free will, such efforts are pointless. Nonetheless, I have heard similar questions from other young people as well. Most young people today (and many older ones as well) have been formed in a popular culture that teaches that simply disagreeing with somebody can be a “microaggression”, particularly if the alleged microaggressor holds more traditional views, and most especially if those views can be traced back to orthodox Christian morality.  Given that, how can we respond to the question posed above?

Instructing the Ignorant: Mariano Fortuny's "St. Paul on the Areopagus"

    The first thing, I think, is to stress that evangelization and prayers for conversion are an act of mercy. How? Since we are all ultimately held accountable for the things that we do with our free will, we try to save others from the consequences of bad decisions, which is to say, sin. It is, of course, merciful to save another person from sin (and, potentially, from eternal damnation). Conveniently, the Church is currently conducting a special Year of Mercy, so we can put it in that context.  More specifically, I think we can profitably look at this question in terms of several of the traditional Spiritual Works of Mercy.
    Let’s start with free will itself. Even though our will is free, that doesn't mean that it isn't influenced by many things.  Not only that, we can't make good choices if we're missing essential information.  Let us suppose, for instance, that a friend is about to dive into a lake that has just been declared unsafe due to high levels of harmful bacteria. Informing him of the danger doesn’t violate his free will; in fact, it allows him to make a truly free choice, because it’s based on the truth, and not on a false belief that the water is safe. If it’s merciful to protect a friend from getting sick in this way, how much more so if we can give him information that can save his soul for eternity? This is the 2nd Spiritual Work of Mercy, "Instructing the Ignorant" ("ignorant" isn't meant as an insult; it simply means someone who doesn't know).
    We sometimes have the right information, but we may also have disordered desires (that is, attraction to sin) that lead us to do things that we know are wrong. Disordered desires such as greed, lust, envy, etc., pull our will away from what we know is right. Consequently, it often happens that a Christian who knows full well that a particular act, adultery for instance, is seriously wrong, follows his or her desires instead. The consequences can be disastrous for such a person and for others involved in his sin. It is merciful to point out these abuses of our will to each other, because in doing so we can sometimes bring a sinner back to right conduct. As an added bonus, we help ourselves as well, as Holy Scripture tells us:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

This is the 3rd Spiritual Work of Mercy, "Admonishing Sinners" (and we are all sinners who sometimes require admonition).

   In the end, of course, none of us exercises our free will perfectly, and none of us can save ourselves: that's why we needed Christ to die on the Cross for us.  For that reason we "Pray for the Living and the Dead" (the 7th Spiritual Work of Mercy). When we pray for the living, we are asking God not to override their free will, but to give them the Grace (His help and support) to freely use their will in accord with His Will, and not according to their disordered desires. We also pray for the dead in Purgatory who are being cleansed of the consequences of the misuse of their free will, that God’s mercy might ease their passage into His Presence.
    We hear a lot less about the Spiritual Works of Mercy these days than we do about the Corporal Works of Mercy.  That’s a shame, because in the midst of the greatest material prosperity that this world has ever seen we have a vast sea of spiritual suffering. The world is full of people, including me and you, whose choices are hampered by ignorance, whose desires are disordered, and who are desperately in need of prayers. Answering their needs isn’t an imposition: it’s an act of mercy.

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