The Necessary Unity of Intellect and Will

Charlotte Evans of Catholic News Agency released an article August 5 on the ecumenical discussions at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.  She noted the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made the statement that he and most Anglicans acknowledge the pope to be “the father of the Church in the West.”  However, Welby and other Anglicans remain separated from the Catholic Church.  Why is this?  Why this seemingly contradictory position?  It would seem if one accepts the pope as their spiritual father or leader, it would follow accordingly that they would come into communion with the Church.  Many of us likely have family and friends who are very close to the Church but not quite ready to take that final step, to cross the Tiber, as we often say.

What we see in Welby’s statement and subsequent action (or rather, inaction in not joining the Church) is the timeless conflict and struggle between the intellect and the will.  Welby’s intellect tells him the pope is the father, the head of the Church.  Welby’s will, however, has not yet come to agreement with his intellectual discovery.  This dichotomy is something we experience daily, as it is a part of the human condition and our fallen nature.  Daily we Christians sin and fall short of the glory of God, even when we consciously know what we are doing is a sin.  Our intellect tells us Scripture, Tradition, the Church teaches that something is a sin and yet our will still desires to do that thing.  Oftentimes, our will does not yet believe our intellect or is simply the stronger of the two.  The goal of every Christian is to join our own will to God’s, yet this is a lifelong process that will not fully, truly be complete until we, God willing, reach the heavenly kingdom, cleansed of every attachment to sin by Christ’s Precious Blood.  St. Thomas Aquinas believed “the intellect in itself and absolutely is higher and nobler than the will.”  St. Augustine articulates this perfectly in his famous prayer from Confessions, “Lord, make me chaste but not yet.”  Written after his conversion, St. Augustine presents this as an example of knowing the truth in his younger years but not yet being able to bring himself to act on it.  We can see this not only in Welby’s statement on the pope but also in our own sinfulness.  The intellect might know the truth but the will must still accept and assent to it.

The well-known Catholic author, Michael O’Brien, explores this conflict between intellect and will in one of his novels, Strangers and Sojourners.  The book follows the main character, Anne Delaney, through her life, from England to Canada, to marriage and motherhood, from a young girl to an old woman.  Anne, though married to a Catholic, is an agnostic throughout the novel.  She wants to believe in God but is unable to make that final step of faith.  She describes faith as being behind a glass wall.  She can see it there but cannot get through the glass on her own.  A step like this takes not only our intellect and will working together, but the grace of God assisting us.  God works in His own time in ways and for reasons unknown to us. 

So, although we would expect Welby and the other Anglicans to come into communion with the Catholic Church now that they have acknowledged the pope as spiritual father, it should not come as a surprise that the intellect and the will do not always reach the same conclusion at the same time.  How often that is for us as well.  Pray daily for the unity of all Christians.  The Protestants I know all love Our Lord dearly and wish to serve him in truth.  Pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Pray for the Anglicans.  Pray for your Protestant friends.  Talk with them and teach them about the fullness of the Christian faith but do it, as St. Peter advises, “with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).  A conversion may happen quickly or it may take years or even decades.  Perhaps God intends for it to be a long journey because in His plan it will lead to a greater number of souls won for Christ.  How joyful it will be for them and for us all when one day, by the grace of God, they come into communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Photo by Matthieu Comoy on Unsplash

Avatar photo


Eamon O'Brien is a sheriff's deputy in Oregon, where he lives with his wife and 5 children. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Portland State University.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage