We are blessed with many freedoms in the United States. Freedom is one of our nation’s founding principles, and we rightfully hold it in high regard. We believe in the freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to worship as we choose. We typically think of freedom as the absence of restrictions or control by other people or powers. But, for Christians, freedom is more than a license to do whatever we want. It’s more than a “freedom from” certain things; it’s also “freedom for” doing good. It comes with responsibility. As St. John Paul II said during one of his visits to the United States: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
As Christians, “to do what we ought” means living out the truth of our faith. It means exercising our personal freedom with charity, justice and the good of other people in mind — “the common good” upon which so much of Catholic social teaching rests. Pope Benedict XVI explained it well in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”): “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is the good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of ‘all of us,’ made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society.”
What does this mean, especially today, when we face extreme challenges posed by a pandemic, racial tensions and polarized politics? In large part, it means remembering that “it’s not all about me” and that individual choices often impact others — for better or worse. In this light, we promote the common good when we wear our masks in public spaces and take other precautions so we don’t risk the health and safety of others who may be more vulnerable to illness. We promote it when we discuss and debate issues of the day with civility and Christian charity, and when we defend human life and human dignity, no matter a person’s skin color, age or status.
This is how Christians demonstrate love and concern for others. This is how we promote the common good. This is how we are called to exercise our freedom. It may strike you as simple, maybe even simplistic. But how well do we practice this in our lives on a daily basis? In our public discourse? In how we treat our fellow Catholics? “To do what we ought” — that’s the challenge for all of us. Are we up to the challenge?