In the United States, we’ve just celebrated the Fourth of July, or Independence Day. It’s a day celebrating the freedoms for which our forebearers fought and died. Around the world, peoples are protesting, fighting, praying, and working for greater freedom.
When we evangelize, it is to set others free in Christ. He is the truth, “and the truth will make you free.” (Jn 8:32 RSV) We ought to know what these freedoms are, but even moreover, we ought to know what freedom is. What does it mean to be free?
Fr. Frederick Faber drew inspiration from John 8:32 in writing his hymn, Faith of our Fathers:
“Faith of our fathers, we will strive
To win all nations unto thee;
And through the truth that comes from God,
We all shall then be truly free.”
“Through the truth that comes from God, we all shall then be truly free.” But some will say, “Sure, you want everyone free to think like you. That’s not freedom!” They may say that they “want to be free of God” or “want to be free to do what they want”. Is that freedom – to be free from God or free from limitation? Are we misusing the word “freedom” to trap people into just the opposite?
Fr. Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary defines freedom this way:
“Immunity from determination or compulsion; hence the absence of all antecedent necessity, whether internal (from within a person’s will ) or external (from an outside source).”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees. In paragraph 1731, freedom is described as “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.”
“See!” they may say. “Even your Church says that freedom means choice!”
Let’s look closer, though. The Church teaches in the Catechism that freedom is the power to act or not act…on one’s responsibility. It is, as Fr. Hardon wrote, “immunity from…compulsion.. whether internal…or external.”
A drug addict is not free. He has an internal compulsion to buy those drugs. Likewise, someone with a gun held to their head is not free. They have an external compulsion. Choices those two make cannot be said to be free choices.
What about most of us who aren’t drug-addicted or being held hostage? We are not free from internal or external compulsion. Long-held and deeply-engrained sin can have similar coercive power to a drug addiction. Someone committing sexual sin over and over, or lying repeatedly, or desiring more and more things can find themselves fantasizing, lying, and coveting without any conscious thought. It just “pops in there”. The acts are not totally free if they happen without the will acting, without consciously thinking “I want to do this”.
Social pressure or verbal abuse can also be coercive – to some, as much as having a gun to one’s head. Many of us fear what other people will think of us or say about us, we fear the inconvenience (or worse) that comes from not “fitting in” with the culture. But “fitting in” is not freedom.
Finally, misusing a thing cannot be a freedom-preserving act. I may feel “free” to make the choice to use my iPhone to hammer in a nail. It will work – at first. And it’s my phone. Who are you to tell me how to use it? The problem is that it will no longer be my phone – it will be broken after enough misuse. I will no longer be free to use it.
Misuse of a person’s body – your own or another’s – or mind or emotions, misuse of the good things God has given us in this world, are not free acts in that they destroy our future free choices. If I freely choose something that will addict me, misuse my body, or cave to external pressure, then I am lessening my future freedom. I am making myself less free, not more.
Yes, we should let our freedom ring out – but not the mistaken notion of freedom as license to do anything we please. Freedom is a gift of God to direct our hearts, mind, and bodies; and to use the things in the world, in ways that fit with their purpose and our good.
Freedom, truly expressed, makes us more free. (cf Catechism ¶1733) Christians believe that the greatest preventer of freedom, then, is sin – and the only solution ever found to the “sin problem” is Jesus Christ. (¶1741)
“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jn 8:36 RSV
Copyright © 2013, Joe Wetterling