The Failure of Free Will in Men

We are all sinners, sons of a merciful God. But to step back and consider the current state of men — the so-called “stronger sex” —  in this country and in our Church, one can’t help but be deeply saddened by what we find.

The following catalogue of statistics, compiled from various studies, does not tell the full story of sinfulness, but it serves as an index of leading indicators for how far men have fallen from the masculine ideal espoused by Our Lord — and by St. Joseph, the father of the Holy Family:

The common thread is that all of these tragedies are largely preventable, but require individuals to have early and continued formation in skills related to free will, such as emotional regulation, impulse control, if-then consequential thinking and delayed gratification. Some may argue that many (or some) of these statistics are no different than they were centuries prior (although certainly issues of obesity, pornography and other areas are difficult to rationalize in this way). But does it really matter if much of it has always been this bad? Whether dramatic shifts in population patterns or a reflection on the deeply sinful nature of men, taken together, these statistics present a cataclysmic failure of free will.

I believe that free will, more than life and unity, is the cornerstone of God’s design of this world. Through analysis of lifestyle patterns, a deeper understanding of the Eucharist as it pertains to personal consent, and an examination of just how attention and self-control underlies all this, we come to a seminal point.

If free will truly is the cornerstone of God’s design, then we must ask ourselves why we are struggling so much to harness what God hopes will bring us into union with others — and, more importantly, with God himself.

It is easy, and technically accurate, to say that failure of free will begins with the individual choices each of us makes — choices that affect our own well-being and also that of others. But even a cursory look at the statistics cited above suggests that, when a majority of the population is profoundly struggling to make healthy, harmonious, holy decisions, the question of individual decisions must be understood in the light of sociological and cultural considerations.

For such statistics reflect, if nothing else, that the problems men face today are not a matter of many individuals coincidentally making bad choices. Rather, there must be some deeper communal unrest or disorder that we can identify to better understand these trends.

For starters, we can look to formation within that most basic of social units, the family — for the seat of free will, although mysterious in its divine link, undoubtedly starts with brain development.

As I noted in the prior segment, few factors in early childhood are better predictors of every important adult outcome than self-control, largely predicated on a person’s ability to pay attention and direct his or her willful actions in a proper way. The cultivation of free will, first undertaken within the family, begins long before most children ever come to explicitly know who Jesus is and just what it means to be a Christian.

And yet, we as people of faith should consider that what goes on those first few years of life may have everything to do with not only whether this little boy will grow up in the faith that we profess, but also how he will embrace the virtues (and reject the vices) that are critical for now and forever. Such psychological concerns must be part of the equation if we are to understand anything about free will.

Yet how serious are we as the Church about not just understanding the theology of free will, but also the science of it, too? Unfortunately, the grim picture painted by the statistics above looks little better within our Church, although a decent body of research does indicate that those who truly embrace faith practices do show better outcomes in certain areas, such as reduced depression and anxiety.

Certainly men at times do not truly embrace all that our faith explicitly has to offer — and thus we fall into sin. But if we were to stop there, and just chalk our free-will failure up to a lack of adhering to explicit religious beliefs and practices, it seems we would once again be ignoring what has become so blatantly obvious even in the pews.

Ultimately, men of the Church fail for many of the same reasons that men outside of the Church fail — that is, men have been given conflicting messages in their development as children and as they grow into young adults. Parents often profess one thing, but model or sanction something quite different.

As parents, we say that sleep is incredibly important for our youth, but 85% of our teens sleep with a phone (that we parents have usually provided to our children).

As a Church, we say that fasting is central to our faith, and sloth and gluttony are deadly sins; and yet we make a regular living off the sale of cheap, high-calorie food. As Catholic parents, we teach our children chastity and Christian compassion; but by the same turn, we also regularly purchase and make available to our kids all sorts of questionable media that promote illicit sexual activity and excessive violence.

Furthermore, as a Church, we say that the Golden Rule is of utmost importance, but often provide scant details at just how early childhood communication patterns and other factors in developing relationships are critically important in making this pursuit possible throughout our children’s lifetime.

For example, there is abundant evidence regarding how communication deviance and expressed emotion affect psychological functioning and well-being in our youth and their long-term ability to adhere to the Golden Rule teachings, but rarely does the information find its way into the pews. And as parents and the Church, we repeatedly tell our kids to not be afraid (as unnecessary fear is the antithesis of love), but provide little reasonable advice (beyond explicit prayer), and often even less lifestyle support (e.g., clear recommendations from Church officials and teachings that relate to diet, sleep, exercise, natural exposure and screen time/content, etc., as it pertains to reducing anxiety) in implementing practices that make this possible.

These are only a few of the contradictions we as Catholic parents and the Church model or omit when it comes to the development of free will. Such a model frustrates, of course, the divine plan.

For God, in his love, seeks to transform humanity, but he depends on the cooperation of our free will to achieve that transformation. And we’ve seen this model before — recurring throughout salvation history. From Adam and Eve’s failure in the Garden, to the horrible levels of debauchery that precipitated the Flood that God orchestrated just a few generations later, to the repeated failure of the Israelites to worship the one true God, and into the years that would follow Jesus’ birth and resurrection, as even one of his very own apostles gave him away for a measly bag of silver, the same tale of sinfulness happens again and again.

Indeed, where a few succeed in truly uniting with God’s plan, humanity in general so often fails to align its will with his. And, sadly, we (especially men) often appear to be on a landslide that shows no signs of slowing.

You can call it a failure of faith or a failure of personal choice, but I believe it is mostly a failure of focus.

The Church provides plenty of things to focus our attention: I love and am inspired by the Church’s beautiful cathedrals — and few things are more comforting and moving than attending daily Mass.

As Catholics, we are blessed with all sorts of ceremonial rites and traditional prayer to direct us toward a divine pathway. But with such a rich patrimony to rely on, paid for in blood, talent and treasure, why are our men failing so horribly?

Answers do exist, and it is due time we as a Church body started shifting some of our time, energy and money to truly understanding free will and why men in particular are misusing their free will in a way that puts them at odds with their ultimate destiny in heaven. As St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” But in order to be fully alive, we must first understand how to truly harness his previous gift, that of free will.

(Editor’s note: Future parts of this series will discuss the elements that underlie the development and makeup of free will and what societal and personal factors are detrimental in its healthy and holy development. Using these elements as a framework, the author will examine how we as Christians can better apply what faith and science teach us about free will. Specifically, we would do well to understand how free will is intimately connected to the physical, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions that make us whole. The hope is that we all will consider the undeniable need and potential that comes with the God-given ability to choose our own way.)

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