Potest Qui Vult: Free Will and Responsibility
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
A while back, Greg wrote an article on this blog inspired by his secondary school motto – Ora et Labora. It’s a great article, a reflection on the need to ground our work in prayer. However, I too, have a pretentious secondary school Latin motto – Potest qui Vult, and not to be outdone, I present to you, dear reader, an article based on its English meaning: he who wills, can. Now, before I start, I should point out that the Latin here is not gender-specific; potest is simply the third person form of the word possum, which means ‘to be able to’. She who wills can, too. My school translated it that way because it was a typical Catholic boys’ school. For the sake of convenience however, I’m going to stick with the masculine translation I’m familiar with. So please keep in mind that if you happen to be a lady, I’m writing this article for you too!
The question I would like to ask and answer, then, is this: he who wills can… what?
The immediate answer may seem to be this: that he who wills can succeed. And indeed, from a secular viewpoint, it should seem an obvious conclusion to draw: whoever dreams big can then work hard and achieve those dreams. But yet, basic economics seems to disprove this. We live in a world of scarcity, and that means that in a dog-eat-dog competition, there are bound to be losers. Indeed, for some (but not all) of us in my secondary school days, the very fact that we were in this school meant that we failed to get into a different school. Perhaps because we did not Ora et Labora hard enough. Rather, we had to learn what it meant to get up after receiving a hard knock, and to this day some of my friends love our alma mater for imparting to us that very lesson.
From the viewpoint of faith, as well, this answer does not seem to hold water. I’m reminded of Mother Teresa’s famous saying: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And indeed, doing and believing the right thing can sometimes result in being martyred for those very actions and beliefs. One needs to look no further than Jesus himself, who had to suffer so greatly on the Cross. Of course, as a Christian I believe Jesus does succeed in his goal of bringing salvation to man, but this requires me to believe in a truth that transcends my physical existence, to believe in the existence of the soul, and in salvation and damnation. For the Christian, ‘he who wills can succeed’ is true only if we are not referring to a worldly success, but rather, a heavenly one.
Perhaps then we can propose another answer: he who wills can endure. And indeed, endurance is an important aspect of faith, and perhaps even a positive quality to have in the secular world too. “The Sovereign Lord comes to my help,” says the writer of Isaiah, “so that I am untouched by the insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.” (Is 50:7) And indeed, with God’s help we can overcome the trials of this life, come what may, in the hope of passing to our heavenly reward.
But to interpret it this way has its negative connotations too. After all, is life nothing but an endless stream of misery to be endured? True, life can be hard, but as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, traditionally Catholic countries like Spain, France and Italy have a well-deserved reputation of being merry and festive. This miserable view of life clashes with the idea of Christians as people of the Gospel – good news. Catholics are called to be joyful. As Hillaire Belloc wrote:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and fine red wine. At least I’ve always found it so, Benedicamus domino!
Perhaps then to come to a satisfying answer, we have to take a few steps back, and take the phrase as it is: he who wills, can. As Catholics, will in this context invokes the idea of free will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
CCC 1730: God created a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.
CCC 1734: Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.
Free will is sometimes puzzling to me. I sometimes feel that people can be saintlier than angels, or more evil than devils. (Is that a quote from somewhere? It might be.) But perhaps that is a testament to God’s love for us that He allows us to be as good or bad as we possibly can. That is why we are responsible for the freedom given to us. That is another lesson that my alma mater imparted to me. It’s been almost ten years since I left my school. Some of my schoolmates have done extremely well for themselves, and some live exemplary Christian lives. On the other hand, as a good friend of mine stated to the more contemporary students there during his stint as a relief teacher: "Take a good look around you. Ten years from now some of you will be in jail." Perhaps not the most tactful pearl of wisdom, but a true one nonetheless, from our experience.
So today, Potest Qui Vult to me signifies the wondrous and awful responsibility God has placed in my hands. The responsibility to live the life that He has given me well. To make the truth known to all mankind: that he (or she!) who wills can seek the face of God. Can bear the light of Christ even in places of the most hopeless darkness. Can love God, and be loved by Him in turn. And of course, can truly be with Him one day in Paradise.
© 2018 Christ Centered Convo/Garrett Christopher Ng