Q: We celebrate Independence Day on July 4 with parades, picnics and fireworks. Freedom is foundational to our identity as Americans. But what does it mean to be truly free? How should Catholics think about freedom?
A: The call came from the county jail. John (not his real name) was beginning to serve a lengthy sentence,
With Christ’s words in my ears, “I was in prison and you visited me,” I rehearsed vague messages of hope and reassurance in the car. I am not sure just what I expected, but John was a surprise.
Young, clean-cut, articulate, respectful, John greeted me warmly. He spoke openly of his past and took full responsibility for his actions. He wanted to use this time in prison to grow in his faith. But that was not the biggest surprise. When I offered my condolences on his incarceration, he said, “Thanks, but I need to be here. I don’t do well on the outside. I get in with the wrong people, do things I know I shouldn’t. Here, everything is clear and I know what’s expected. Freedom is too hard for me.”
Freedom is an essential part of being made in God’s image. But John is right: freedom can be hard.
July 4 celebrates the history of our national independence from Great Britain in 1776. That freedom is essential to our country’s sovereignty on the world’s stage. Yet this is only one type of freedom.
In his classic work on moral theology, “The Sources of Christian Ethics,” Dominican Father Servais Pinckaers distinguished “freedom from” and “freedom for.” National independence is one kind of “freedom from.” We also desire to be free from illness, persecution, want, gossip and many other negative factors.
But “freedom from” can have a negative side. When it is lived only as liberty from obligations, responsibilities, consequences, objective demands — doing whatever one wants, with little concern for the impact on others — it undermines social order and the virtue of justice. This is what John discovered — “freedom from” can become its own burden that may enslave us.
“Freedom for” is the positive pole of liberty. It is freedom for a purpose, namely, the pursuit of excellence, to seek what is good in itself and fulfills one’s human potential. It is inherently linked to responsibility and truth, as St. John Paul II so often stressed. “Freedom for” allows us to develop our gifts and cooperate with others to become fully the person God intends each to be.
Of course, by definition, no one can make us live in this kind of freedom. As Jesus teaches in the parable of the talents, we are free to choose whether we will use what is entrusted to us for our own purposes or those of the Master (see Matthew 25:14-30). But no one is free of the consequences of choices, no matter how independent we feel or may wish to be; what we do affects those around us since we are interconnected as members of one Body (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
As Pope Benedict observed, knowledge accumulates and we can benefit from discoveries and inventions that precede us. But freedom is different, new with every person and each situation: “Since we always remain free and since freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. … every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed” (“Spe Salvi,” 24-25).
True freedom requires responsibility to and for others lest we become isolated individuals who can see others only as competitors and problems. Without that commitment to the common good, we cannot become a community that thrives precisely because the lives and good of each of its members is respected and advanced.
Yes, we are free to go, buy, consume, forward, text, and more, in whatever ways we choose. But freedom for excellence helps us reflect: It is possible, but is it right? I can, but ought I? As John knows so well, freedom can serve us, or it can imprison us.
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