Called to Freedom
A controversial topic.
Freedom is one of the most controversial topics of our time. Freedom of speech vs freedom from hate. Freedom to live vs freedom to choose. Freedom of conscience vs freedom to be served. How can, or should, freedom be understood in the battleground of such polar opposites?
Freedom and responsibility.
Consider the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of freedom:
“Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility.”
— CCC 1731
Just a few paragraphs later it says: “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary,” (CCC 1734). So, as long as our actions are voluntary (and not coerced or externally influenced in some way), our freedom to do what we want makes us responsible for what we do.
For some, the connection between freedom and responsibility is rejected, hated, even loathed. “How can freedom be preserved if responsibility is imposed — doesn’t that block us from doing what we actually want? Further still, by what standards can we define ‘responsibility’ anyway and what compels us to those standards?” they may ask. All great questions.
Sin as slavery.
Unfortunately, ever since the first sin of man — that first time man was tempted by the devil, distrusted his Creator, and abused his freedom — man has been inclined to sin and summoned to the spiritual battle, (CCC 405). As fallen humans, we have to actively try to avoid sin and strive for virtue. Of course, when we pray and ask for grace or attend the sacraments this becomes easier, but there is no denying that being a good person is just simply hard.
In this battle, we are reminded that to disobey God and do evil is “an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’,” (CCC 1733). Think of the sin of lust, for example. When one first dabbles in lust, it might seem exciting, fun, even somehow ‘good’. However, over time, a certain amount of dependency and addiction is bound to form. The same can be said of any unchecked sin: gluttony, drunkenness, lying, gossip, the list goes on.
If God has called us to be virtuous people and to reject sin, yet we find ourselves inclined or even addicted to what we know we shouldn’t do (and sometimes to what we don’t even want to do), that is the greatest sorrow for us and for God. No one who knows the joy of a relationship with God wants to be chained to sin. Addiction to sin is the antithesis to freedom.
We are what we do.
As a wise man once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” If we are what we repeatedly do, what we do better be something good.
Of course some will disagree on what is objectively ‘good’: some might say living a promiscuous lifestyle, doing drugs, or bashing religion is ‘good’. However, as Catholics we believe God has a moral order for us to follow, as outlined in the Ten Commandments and interpreted by the Catholic Church.
If we believe that God made us, loves us, and has revealed how He wants us to act, it only makes sense that we will have a better, more satisfying life if we choose to do what He tells us is good.
How can obedience to God make us more free?
The next concept to explore is how doing good makes us more free. A rather dense line in the Catechism gives us a lot to chew on in this regard:
“Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis [self-discipline] enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.”
— CCC 1734
Mastery of the will over its acts. This phrase suggests that, while choosing what is bad (sin) leads to slavery, by progressing in virtue, knowledge of good, and self-discipline, we can have more control over our will and, as a result, build our ability to continuously choose what is good. By exercising our will, by training it to do what is good, we will be more free, more capable, and more disposed to choose what is good.
We could have all the ‘choices’ in the world, but without a properly trained will we would be inordinately disposed to choose what is actually bad for us. On the other hand, by following the will of God we can make ourselves free in two main ways: firstly by being trained and so free to choose the good (not bound by sin) and secondly through the good be made free — as Psalm 119:45 says, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.”
Being trained to be free to choose good relies on our virtue, while having the good make us free is based on trusting God’s word. In theory, it’s complicated; in practice, it works.
Objective morality exists, and so freedom has consequences.
What it boils down to is this: because objective morality exists, having freedom to do what we want doesn’t eliminate the rewards or consequences of good or bad actions.
God gave us free will so that we could freely follow or reject His moral code. He revealed to us His Commandments which are “the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin” (CCC 2057) and even left us His Church to help guide us and interpret His precepts. Besides this, God inscribed in the depth of our hearts a conscience so that, even without the Commandments and Church (which are very helpful), man could have at least some basic idea of right and wrong, so long as our conscience was not corrupt.
Where do people disagree?
So, how do some people fall on such different sides of the definition of ‘freedom’? Essentially, some believe in an objective moral order — that some acts are intrinsically good and some intrinsically evil — and others do not. From believing in a moral order, especially within the context of Catholicism, it easily follows that good acts lead to freedom and bad acts lead to slavery.
If objective morality cannot be understood, however, it subjects one’s life to the absence of truth. By failing to realise the irony of freedom — that its attainment lies in following an order — many people will never know true freedom and will struggle to find lasting happiness and fulfilment in this life, let alone in the next.
The moral of the story.
As Catholics, it is our duty (indeed, our responsibility!) to know and understand God’s Commandments so that we can share and give witness to this fullness of truth, trusting (and knowing from experience) that “the truth will set [us] free,” (John 8:32).
While we are certainly called to freedom, first we are called to follow God’s commands, which leads us to freedom itself.