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Divine Providence and Human Freedom

1986, May 21

General Audience

In our journey into the depths of the mystery of God as Providence, we frequently face the question: if God is present and operating in everything, how can man be free? Above all, what meaning and task does his freedom have? How are we to understand in the light of divine Providence that evil fruit of sin which derives from an abuse of freedom?

Let us take up again the solemn statement of Vatican I: "All that God created, he conserves and directs by his Providence 'reaching from end to end mightily and governing all things well' (cf. Wis 8:1). 'All lies bare and exposed to his eyes' (cf. Heb 4:13), even what will take place through the free initiative of creatures" (DS 3003).

The mystery of divine Providence is deeply inscribed in the whole work of creation. As the expression of God's eternal wisdom, the plan of Providence precedes the work of creation. As the expression of his eternal power, it presides over it and puts it into effect. In a certain sense it can be said that Providence is realized in it. It is a transcendent Providence, but at the same time immanent in things, in all things. According to the text of the Council that we have read, this is valid especially in the order of creatures endowed with intelligence and free will.

While comprising "mightily and disposing well" the whole of creation, Providence embraces in a particular way those creatures made in the image and likeness of God. They enjoy, through the freedom granted to them by the Creator, "the autonomy of created beings," in the sense understood by the Second Vatican Council (cf. GS 36). Created beings of a purely spiritual nature should be included within the sphere of these creatures. We shall speak about them later. They constitute the invisible world. In the visible world, man is the object of particular attention on the part of divine Providence. According to the teaching of Vatican II, man "is the only creature on earth which God has willed for itself" (GS 24), and it is precisely for this reason that "man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (cf. GS 24).

The fact that the visible world is crowned by the creation of man, opens up before us completely new perspectives on the mystery of divine Providence. That is indicated by the dogmatic statement of the First Vatican Council when it emphasizes that to the eyes of divine wisdom and knowledge all lies "bare" ("open"), and in a certain sense naked-even what the rational creature does by virtue of his freedom. This involves that which results from a conscious choice, and a free decision of the human person. Even in regard to this sphere, divine Providence preserves its superior creative and regulating causality. It is the transcendent superiority of the Wisdom which loves, and through love it acts mightily and gently. It is a Providence which solicitously and paternally guides, sustains and leads to its end his own creature, so richly endowed, while respecting its freedom.

In this meeting point of God's creative eternal plan with human freedom, a mystery as inscrutable as it is adorable indubitably looms up. The mystery consists in the intimate relation, first of all ontological and then psychological, between the divine action and human self-determination. We know that this freedom of decision pertains to the natural dynamism of the rational creature. We also know by experience the fact of human freedom, authentic even though wounded and weak. As regards its relation to divine causality, it is opportune to recall St. Thomas Aquinas' emphasis on the concept of Providence as the expression of divine Wisdom which orders all things to their proper end: ratio ordinis rerum in finem, "the rational ordering of things to their end" (cf. Summa Theol., I, 22, 1). All that God creates receives this finality, and therefore becomes the object of divine Providence (cf. Summa Theol., I, 22, 2). In man-created in the image of God-the whole visible creation should draw near to God, finding again the way of its definitive fulfillment. This thought already was expressed, among others, by St. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., 4, 38; 1105-1109). It is echoed by the teaching of Vatican Council II on the development of the world by the work of humanity (cf. GS 7). Man is called upon to carry out a true development in the world. This progress should have a character which is not merely "technological," but especially "ethical," in order to bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment in the created world (cf. GS 35, 43, 57, 62).

Created in the image and likeness of God, man is the sole visible creature that the Creator has "willed for itself" (GS 24). In the world subject to God's transcendent wisdom and power, man is also a being which is an end in itself, though having his finality in God. As a person he possesses his own finality (auto-teleology), by virtue of which he tends to self-realization. Man is enriched with a gift which is also a duty. He is wrapped up in the mystery of divine Providence. We read in the Book of Sirach:

"The Lord created man out of earth.... he granted them authority over the things upon the earth.... He forms men's tongues and eyes and ears, and imparts to them an understanding heart. With wisdom and knowledge he fills them; good and evil he shows them. He looks with favor upon their hearts, and shows them his glorious works.... He has set before them knowledge, a law of life as their inheritance..." (Sir 17:1-2, 5-7, 9).

Endowed with such "existential" equipment, man sets out on his journey in the world. He begins to write his own history. Divine Providence accompanies him throughout his journey. Again we read in the Book of Sirach:

"Their ways are ever known to him, they cannot be hidden from his eyes.... All their actions are clear as the sun to him, his eyes are ever upon their ways" (Sir 17:13, 15).

The Psalmist gives to this same truth a touching expression:

"If I take the wings of the dawn, if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall guide me, and your right hand hold me fast" (Ps 139:9-10).

"You know me full well; nor was my frame unknown to you..." (Ps 139:14-15).

Divine Providence, then, makes itself present in human history, in the history of thought and freedom, in the history of hearts and consciences. In man and with man the action of Providence acquires a "historical" dimension. It does this in the sense that it follows the rhythm and adapts itself to the laws of development of human nature, while remaining unchanged and unchangeable in the sovereign transcendence of its subsisting being. Providence is an eternal presence in the history of humanity-of individuals and communities. The history of nations and of the whole human race unfolds beneath the "eye" of God and under his almighty action. All that is created is "cared for" and governed by Providence. Full of paternal solicitude, God's authority implies full respect for freedom in regard to rational and free beings. In the created world, this freedom is an expression of the image and likeness to the divine Being itself, to divine freedom itself.

Respect for created freedom is so essential that God in his Providence even permits human sin (and that of the angels). Pre-eminent among all but always limited and imperfect, the rational creature can make evil use of freedom, and can use it against God, the Creator. It is an agonizing subject for the human mind, and the Book of Sirach has reflected on it in words of great depth

"When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him. Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing. The eyes of God see all he has made; he understands man's every deed. No man does he command to sin, to none does he give strength for lies" (Sir 15:14-20).

"Who can detect failings?" the Psalmist asked (cf. Ps 19:13). Yet divine Providence sheds its light even on this unheard of rejection by man (through sin) so that we may learn not to commit it.

Sin was not only possible in the world in which man was created as a rational and free being, but it has been shown as an actual fact "from the very beginning." Sin is radical opposition to God. It is decidedly and absolutely not willed by God. However, he has permitted it by creating free beings, by creating the human race. He has permitted sin which is the consequence of the abuse of created freedom. This fact is known from revelation and experienced in its consequences. From it, we can deduce that from the viewpoint of God's transcendent Wisdom, in the perspective of the finality of the entire creation, it was more important that there should be freedom in the created world, even with the risk of its abuse, rather than to deprive the world of freedom by the radical exclusion of the possibility of sin.

By God's Providence, however, if on the one hand he has permitted sin, on the other, with the loving solicitude of a father, he has foreseen from eternity the way of reparation, of redemption, of justification and of salvation through love. Freedom is ordained to love. Without freedom there cannot be love. In the conflict between good and evil, between sin and redemption, love has the last word.