-“The Feast of Herod”, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1531, oil on panel, Height: 81.3 cm (32 ″); Width: 119.7 cm (47.1″), Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT (please click on the image for greater detail)
“Today is the memorial of the Passion of John the Baptist, who was killed by the corrupt King Herod for condemning the monarch’s illicit marriage (Mk 6:17-29). For John, this was the culmination of a life of sanctity announced by an angel even before his conception (Lk 1:11-17). (Ed. Freed from sin by the Magnificat, John leapt in his mother’s womb.) This divine decree presents a curious paradox. God, being all-powerful, was able to determine the course of John’s life before his birth (ST I q. 23, a. 6), but at the same time, God respected John’s free will (ST II-I q. 6, a. 4, ob. 1). How is it that God can determine what we will freely choose?
Modern thinking often seems to suppose that freedom of the will means that our choices have no cause other than the will, as if the will depends on nothing. Thomas explains instead that the will is free because it proceeds from an interior principle, namely knowledge, that allows us to act for an end which we know (ST II-I q. 6, a. 1, 4). God did not ‘force’ John the Baptist to give up his life; rather, by his grace he enlightened John the Baptist so that he would understand the good of preaching the truth even when it endangered him.
As a rather crude analogy, consider how a parent can teach a child to make good choices, not by compulsion, but by education. Keep in mind also that some knowledge is abstract, as when a smoker who is trying to quit knows that his habit is bad for him, but rationalizes that away each time he smokes. John’s knowledge was entirely practical; he knew clearly that in his situation the only thing worth doing was to tell the truth. He saw clearly the disappointment inherent in every other course, and so he was free to act for the sake of the truth.
Furthermore, there is never competition between divine and human causality. Two human agents can operate on the same level, when for example two men pull on a rope. In that case, we can ask who pulls harder, and if the men are pulling in opposite directions, maybe the rope will not move at all. But God operates on a completely different level. He is the one who created humans and ropes and set all things in motion.
As another crude analogy, if I write with a pencil, both I and the pencil are equally truly causes of the writing, but in very different ways. Even though I am “in charge,” I do not force the pencil to do anything unnatural. God has even more causal power, because he created pencil-materials in the first place. In the same way, God created John the Baptist as the kind of person who would give up his life for the sake of the truth. God is the first cause on which all else depends. Nothing escapes his causal power, not even the interior life of John (ST I q. 19, a. 6, ad. 3).
You might have noticed that, left to our own devices, there are actually significant limits on our freedom. Those who struggle with habitual sin will know well the painful cycle of repeatedly making a bad choice. The will continually inclines toward damaging action, misapprehended (deceived) for the moment as a good.
Our choices are rather dependent on our own fallen selves, and so we will not always be able to avoid deceiving ourselves and making poor choices. True freedom, then, can only be found outside ourselves, in grace given freely by God that can break us out of our own self-imposed prison. It is by such grace that John’s interior movements were so perfected that he was able to freely give his life. It is only by such divine grace, and not by some creative act of the will, that we can truly draw closer to God”
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "“Si comprehendus, non est Deus.” -St Augustine, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, “Yet such are the pity and compassion of this Lord of ours, so desirous is He that we should seek Him and enjoy His company, that in one way or another He never ceases calling us to Him . . . God here speaks to souls through words uttered by pious people, by sermons or good books, and in many other such ways.” —St. Teresa of Avila, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity… I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism, and where lie the main inconsistences and absurdities of the Protestant theory.” (St. John Henry Newman, “Duties of Catholics Towards the Protestant View,” Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England), "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom