March 2020 Print

Complex Questions & Simple Answers: Part Two

By Prof. Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series of straightforward responses to frequently-encountered questions and objections concerning the Catholic Faith. The questions and answers are adapted from Professor Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels, O.P.’s The Most Frequently Encountered Difficulties, published originally in Dutch in 1939.


The Catholic Church teaches that man is free yet also maintains that God is the cause of everything. If that is so, is not God the cause of our will? And if God knows what we will do in advance and even causes what we do, how can we be free?

Persons who ask questions of this nature are often confused about the concept of “cause.” A complete and scientific treatment of this question requires intense philosophical training. Therefore, only a few comments will be made here.

The statement “God is the cause of everything” could lead to much misunderstanding. One could conclude from it: “So God is also the cause of evil,” and that conclusion would be completely crooked. So we should rather say: “God is the cause of all good.” And now since there is something good in every human act, so God is also the cause of every human act. However, God is not the only cause of that act. 

God moves everything, but He does that as the first cause. This means that He gives to us our free will. The free will is thus, as a gift from God, itself the cause of our free deeds. And that cannot be otherwise: the free will is created, and must therefore depend on the first cause, namely God. And by being the first cause, God moves all things according to their nature. According to God’s design, it is our nature to be free.

So neither God nor the free will is the only cause of free human actions: God and the will work together as the first and second cause. That does not mean that God and the will each provide a piece of those acts; but both God and the will are both involved in causing the act all along. God is the first cause and the will is the secondary cause. And if God did not work as the first cause, the will could never be a secondary cause.

That is undoubtedly a difficult issue, and we cannot make a comparison to clarify this. Because only God, who is the Creator of everything, is a first cause, there is nothing like it. The solution to the question therefore lies in this: God is a cause that causes another, lower cause to be a cause.

How can original sin be reconciled with God’s justice? After all, due to original sin we are deemed guilty for something we did not do ourselves, but rather Adam did at the dawn of creation.

We know from the Bible that God created the first people in a state of happiness. He bestowed the great privileges of a soul and body. Above all He appointed people for a supernatural purpose, that is, to the eternal salvation that consists in the blissful sight of God. As a means of attaining that supernatural goal, man received from God sanctifying grace, making him an adopted child of God with the right to Heaven as an inheritance. 

These and other privileges, both in the natural and in the supernatural order, were given to man as a gift wholly undeserved and absolutely not due. Now all of this was not only given to the first people personally, but in and through them to all their descendants, that is, to all who would descend from them by birth. But the first people had to make themselves worthy of those great privileges through faithful fellowship with God and adherence to His commandments, namely the law of nature and especially the specific commandment: not eating the forbidden fruit.

After all, Adam was not only the natural ancestor of the people, but he was also appointed by God’s free disposition to the moral head, that is, as the representative of all humanity, with regard to sanctifying grace and eternal salvation in Heaven. Adam bore not only the physical and natural, but also the supernatural, life of humanity. If he continued to obey God’s command, his descendants would be happy; if he became unfaithful to God’s command, mankind in and through him as its representative would become unhappy. 

We know what happened. Thus, the supernatural life of humanity was desecrated by the representative of humanity: Adam. And from there it became that the people who are born without grace suffer not a mere loss, but robbery. All who are descended from Adam have been robbed of the good they should have had. This has left human nature in a state of spiritual despair, which we call original sin.

This original sin is not contrary to God’s justice. After all, a prince can also raise a peasant to the level of nobility with his entire family, but on the condition that such a person serves the prince faithfully. If he does not, he loses the nobility not only for himself, but also for all his descendants. Could those descendants accuse the prince of injustice because they are born without nobility? Of course not! We must therefore pay attention to this: because of Adam’s sin only those goods were lost to which the people were not entitled. Nature itself with its natural gifts survived the destruction of sin.

It is therefore better that we should look at the boundless love of God, who gave us a Redeemer, Christ Our Lord, and thus made Adam’s sin according to the word of St. Augustine a felix culpa, a happy guilt. This sin is fortunate in that it brought us the blessedness of Redemption.

We believe that Christ, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, knows everything for He is God. So how is it that He can say that He does not know the Day of Judgment, but only the Father knows it?

The words on which this difficulty is based can be found in Mk. 13:32: “But no one knows about that day or the hour, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

These words can be explained in two ways which refute the apparent difficulty raised in the question.

First, we can point out that God the Son, Who had become a man, speaks to people here not as God, but as a man. We could conclude from this that He is talking about the knowledge that He possesses as a person. For Christ, who was both God and man, had an infinite, perfect knowledge as God. But as a human being, of course, He possessed a different kind of knowledge with which he did not know everything that he knew as God.

And then we might say that Christ speaks here in the same way as when He says that the Father is greater than He: that He speaks of His human nature and His human knowledge, and that He therefore merely indicates that He does not know the Day of Judgment as a man.

However, this explanation was rejected by a decree of the Holy Office on June 5, 1918. And so we must believe that even as a human being, by virtue of His human knowledge, Christ knew all the past, present and future; and therefore also the Day of the Judgment. And that is why we do better to adhere to the traditional statement which St. Thomas also gives: Christ did not know the day and hour of judgment with a scientia communicabilis, that is, with a knowledge that He was also allowed to share with others. That is why He said that He did not know. After all, we may also answer inappropriate questions about things that we should not mention with, “I don’t know.” 

With this considered, we can say that the apostles showed an inappropriate curiosity about Judgment Day. And so Christ indicated that day and hour should remain unknown until the Father Himself would make it known.