During the last election several states in the Union (including California) decided to make recreational use of marijuana legal and over the last few years many states have recognized gay marriage. The argument in both cases was that citizens should be allowed to do what they want to do. It is their right either to smoke pot or to marry anyone they choose. Over the last several months I have been wondering about the way we think about freedom.
As someone who grew up in another country, I quickly learned that freedom is one of the greatest and most cherished American values. We Americans will not allow anyone to restrict or compromise our freedom in any way. The prototypical figure of the American ethos is the mythical cowboy who is a law unto himself and who establishes justice on his own terms. The battle lines that are often drawn in the cultural sand are fought over the definition and exercise of our freedoms. Whether it is gun control or abortion rights, the animosity is fierce and the arguments are loud. As a nation, America hates to concede any restriction on its freedom, whether real or perceived.
What is freedom? Is it the license to do whatever I like? Can freedom turn into licentiousness? Are our freedoms unlimited? Jean-Paul Sartre, the atheistic existentialist, believed that the only constraint on human freedom is that we cannot but be free. Does human freedom, in and of itself, have restrictions placed on it? Living in society, are we not expected to limit our freedom so that everyone may be able to enjoy a minimum of rights? These are questions that call for reflection and discussion.
Let me draw some wisdom from the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas. He avers that freedom is the capacity to choose the good. It is not about having the ability to do whatever we want. Freedom is a gift that God has given human beings to enhance their humanity.
Perhaps I can explain it in this way. Minerals, plants and animals do not have to make a special effort to be what they are called to be. For instance, a dog is a dog without any effort. If it barks, wags its tail and shows its affection for its master, it is a dog. A tree can be crooked and yet, in its crookedness it gives glory to God. On the other hand, a human being cannot follow his/her instincts or impulses. Human beings must make choices. To be human we need to be intentional.
Certain choices we make will enhance our humanity whereas other choices will diminish it. Freedom is the power to make the right choices so that we can grow and develop as human beings. Thus in the mind of St Thomas, the good person is truly the free person. On the other hand, our culture believes that the free person is the one who can act as he/she pleases. I remember seeing a bumper-sticker on a car several years ago: “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere!”
The teaching of the Church goes counter to mainstream American culture in this regard. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC #1733)
As Christians, we believe that when our First Parents were created their humanity was in perfect order. Hence they chose the good without much effort. Choosing the good was not a struggle. However, when they sinned their human nature became disordered. As a result, concupiscence entered the world and choosing the good is no longer easy. Paul writes about this in his Letter to the Romans: “I do the things that I don’t want to, and I don’t do the things that I want to.” We all experience that struggle.
It appears to me that our society is choosing the path of least resistance. We are listening to our impulses and giving in to our natural desires under the guise of freedom. In the process we are damaging and demeaning our humanity. I fear that we are walking down the road that other defunct great civilizations have taken. The eminent British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote: “Of twenty-one notable civilizations, nineteen perished not from conquest from without, but from decay from within.” Will Toynbee’s words become a prophecy for our culture? Only time will tell.
True freedom comes from aligning our will to the will of God. It is in our ability to know and to love that we are created in God’s image. Therefore it is by choosing the good, by desiring God Himself, that we will be authentically free – and not by doing whatever we please. Loving authentically, as God intended us to love, is the path to true freedom.
May the Lord of Life and the God of freedom teach us His ways and help us to choose the good always!
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...