Fr. Britto's Blog

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. With the politicization of every issue nowadays, the struggle over our freedoms has become even more serious.

Over the last decade several new laws have been passed to allow certain things that were once frowned upon or even forbidden. The argument in these cases has been that citizens should be allowed to do what they want to do. It is their right to do whatever they choose and the government or others cannot prevent them. Sometimes even the common good is no longer a concern. People claim that our freedoms are limitless. As the well-known French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre used to say, “You have no choice but to be free.” Over the last several months I have been wondering about the way we think about freedom.

What is freedom? Is it the license to do whatever I like? Can freedom turn into licentiousness? Are our freedoms unlimited? 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? Shouldn’t my freedom be restricted sometimes for the sake of the common good? These are questions that call for reflection and discussion.

Let me draw some wisdom from the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas. He states 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 always follow his/her instincts or impulses. Human beings must make proper choices.

Certain choices 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 chooses.

In our Christian faith 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 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. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has these words in this regard:

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.” (#1733)

May the Lord of Life and the God of freedom teach us His ways and help us to choose the good always!

Who is Fr. Britto?

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...

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