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True Freedom and the Beautiful Life

Independence Day-July 4th

Today our country once again celebrates the day of our independence. Today is a day which we rightly commemorate because of the victory won for human dignity, as freedom was gained for a people to live life according to the dictates of conscience, not the mandate of the state. In the midst of this celebration, we would do well to examine how we understand freedom, and how we have made use of the freedom that has been given to us.

Let us begin by asking the question, what is freedom?  For many of us, freedom is something akin to being able to live according to the determination of our free will, coming and going as we please, pursuing the career we wish to, and living where we’d like. In short, freedom for many of us is having the ability to make decisions for our lives and the lives of our families without being held back by any outside authority. To be sure, this is a very American way of thinking of freedom. But does this understanding of freedom capture all that freedom is? More importantly, is it the Christian conception of freedom?

Well yes and no. Yes because the Church teaches that “freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 199). Already we see a slight tension between the Church’s understanding of freedom and the American conception thereof. To be sure there is agreement between the two. The freedom proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence states that as Americans,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice, that both understandings of freedom are based on the conception that freedom is not first won, but given to human persons by their Creator. However, there is a divergence. We can say that the Christian conception of freedom goes deeper and is more specific than that which we find in the Declaration. The Christian conception of freedom is not based on a vague notion of the Creator, but a God who is in intimate relationship with the human person by virtue of their created nature as creatures created in imago Dei (Gn. 1:26-27). As creatures created in God’s image, our freedom is not simply a right given to us, but a reflection of the very life of God. Accordingly, on the Christian conception thereof, freedom is not the claim to live according to the arbitrary dictates of our free will, but a mandate to imitate the freedom of the Creator (cf. Eph. 5:1). More on this in due course.

However, first it is worth pointing out further similarities between the American enshrined conception of freedom and that of Christianity. If we read just further on in the Declaration of Independence, we find the assertion that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,” that is, the pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness by the People,

it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These are extremely powerful words. So adamant were the Founders of this country that the freedom given to human persons by the Creator must be preserved that they included within the documents by which they founded the country the assertion that if said country no longer provided for the people to live in freedom, that same country should be readjusted so as to align with these basic freedoms, or dismantled. There is great wisdom here. And, on a purely civic level, we ought to consider whether or not the current situation reflects it. For what is expressed here is not a situation wherein a limited number of people, the so-called elites of society (business and media moguls, academics and politicians), impose their way of ordering society on the rest of the People. Such would be an oligarchy, rule by a select few, which is not all that different from a monarchy, the very sort of government the Founders of this country broke ties with. And further on in the Declaration they say why explicitly. The first reason they give is that the King “has refused his Assent to Laws, the most welcome and necessary for the public good.”

It is at this point that the first lines cited from the Declaration make sense. The reason for cutting ties with England was that the government didn’t provide or work for the common good, but rather was self-interested as the complaints listed after this first one makes clear. For the Founders of the United States of America, the government was established to serve the People, not to rule as King, or as Oligarchs. Thus, to ensure as far as possible that such would never take place in these newly freed United States, a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. The first amendment echoing the lines from the Declaration cited above. That as the People pursue Life, Liberty and Happiness,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Again, we do well to ask ourselves, on a purely civic level, how our situation compares to that described in these founding documents. Do our leaders work for the common good? Do they work to protect freedom for every last American citizen? Do they seem to have hearts of servants or oligarchs? In all of these elements, the Church agrees with the American conception of freedom that leaders are to be servants, and more specifically, servants to ensure and cultivate the common good. Accordingly, in the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine we read that

The value of freedom…is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfil his personal vocation; to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state in life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature. This must take place within a “strong juridical framework,” within the limits imposed by the common good and public order, and, in every case, in a manner characterized by responsibility. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 200). 

It is at this point that we see the Church go beyond what is taught by the founding documents of this country. This is not to say that the two conceptions are at odds, but rather that Christianity articulates a deeper and more profound understanding of authentic freedom than is described by the founding documents of the United States. Accordingly, as it moves beyond the US conception of freedom, the Christian conception specifies it, perfects it, and thereby, beautifies it. The distinction is seen first and foremost in the emphasis on responsibility. For the Church, freedom, far from denoting the arbitrary dictates of the free will, speaks of a responsibility we have to one another. Freedom is thus a “gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly” (Ibid., 138). If, on the other hand, we exercise this gift irresponsibly the consequence is that “freedom dies, destroying man and society” (Ibid.).  Here the Church turns and speaks to our civic situation. If it feels as though our freedoms are dying, the Church suggests, we ought to ask ourselves whether or not we are using the gift of freedom responsibly. Our next question must be then, how do we exercise freedom properly?

Freedom exercised properly leads the individual to a full experience of life, and, we are most fully alive when we live a life that is consistent with our ontological end as creatures created in imago Dei. This ontological end being perfect unity with our God. Therefore, a freedom exercised properly is a freedom which moves the individual into an ever more intimate experience with the life of the Trinity (cf. ibid. 135).  For Christians, the way to accomplish this is through a life of discipleship to Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ, Who tells us, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).  Notice what is implied here, the Truth is consistently the same; it does not change (though it can be continually known to a greater degree), for the Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ. Moreover, there is no freedom to be had apart from this Truth, for only He has the ability to bring us to the fullness of life as only He can bring us into full and perfect communion with our God. Consequently, only He can reveal humanity to itself, both individually and collectively (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 8).

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery,” St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 5:1). Paul then goes on to describe what the yoke of slavery looks like. Broadly speaking, he describes it as “self-indulgence” (Gal. 5:13) before specifying this yoke as the “works of the flesh”: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal 5:19-21). By way of contrast, Paul proceeds to describe what true freedom is. For Paul, freedom is life in the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), which is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourselves.” (Gal. 5:14). A life lived in true freedom, accordingly, is evidenced by the “fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal. 5:22-23). How do we come to cultivate such fruits? By attending to the action of the Holy Spirit, Who compels us to imitate the self-sacrificing love of Christ, for “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Said differently, those who live a life of participatory imitation of the life of Christ are not fettered by the “works of the flesh,” but live in the full freedom of the Spirit and display Its fruits as evidence. Against such a life, there is no law, St. Paul tells us (Gal. 5:23).

Thus, we have arrived at the definitive point of our discussion on true freedom. The Founders of this country, in writing its Constitution, had sought to “form a more perfect Union,” by establishing

Justice, [insuring] domestic Tranquility, [providing] for the common defense, [promoting] the general Welfare, and [securing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…

Christianity perfects this union by way of calling the disciples of Christ to live by the power of the Holy Spirit within, and cultivating His fruits. In this, therefore, we see a profound distinction between freedom as conceived both by the founding documents of the United States, and the almost complete distortion of freedom we see promoted by today’s post-modernist secular society. For its part, the post-modern secular culture holds to the idea that truth is relativistic and ephemeral. This culture often speaks about making one’s true self, and ascribes to the idea that freedom can be found in this “making of the self” and living accordingly. However, because it does not hold to an idea of an immovable and unchangeable Truth, there is no assurance that one will move towards one’s truest self. In fact, it is just as plausible that one will move in the exact opposite direction. We have the distinct misfortune of living in a time and place where we actively seek to make our vices virtues. If we want evidence of this, consider that nearly every single act listed by St. Paul as a “work of the flesh” is actively promoted by society today as denoting a free life. Destruction of life and property, spewing hatred on the internet, and the demonizing of those we don’t agree with is actively promoted by many voices today, including our political leaders. We must ask ourselves, are we free?

As Christians, we must share the desire of our God that all might come to experience life to the very fullest (cf. John 10:10).  And therefore, we must never hold back from proclaiming the disquieting fact that the freest life ever lived was lived over two-thousand years ago in the Middle East, culminating on Calvary, and that if we desire to live a truly free life we must likewise pursue a life of self-giving love. To be sure, in a society that proclaims its vices to be virtues, living a virtuous life of self-sacrificing love is not easy. However, it is imperative that as Christians we hold fast to and live the Truth in all its Beauty, convicted by the knowledge that God’s Providential care will never abandon us, and “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

To be sure, this country has had and has its shortcomings and failures. One of the clearest of these being slavery, America’s original sin. As the Civil War was drawing to a close, on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln walked out onto the inaugural platform off the east front of the Capitol to deliver his Second Inaugural Address. This man who led America through its darkest hour, and who in the midst of doing so confessed that he had “been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I [had] nowhere else to go,” evidently had learned much in prayer about the mysterious workings of Divine Providence. For, as he reflected on the brutality and tragedy of the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address, assured the American People that

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” (Mt. 18:7). If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?

In his time of prayer, Lincoln had come to know a Just God, and he felt the weight of that Justice upon his shoulders as he fought to hold this, however unperfect union together so that it might one day become a more perfect union. Yet he knew that God was at work amidst the tragedy, purging society of sin and injustice in the process. As we celebrate this Independence Day, let us examine our lives to see if we have been exercising our freedom in the Spirit so as to form a more perfect union, or in the manner in which we see so many misguidedly abusing it around us that divides us and destroys the union to which we belong. If we do not see the fruits of the Spirit flourishing in our lives, we must resolve to cultivate them precisely amidst a culture that so despises them. It is only by living lives of self-giving love that we, as Christians become instruments of Divine Providence and make present the life of the Prince of Peace, who alone can transfigure a chaotic society into a more perfect union, and thereby bestow upon us a truly beautiful life.

Your servant in Christ,

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John Crescio
John Crescio
7 months ago

Abe might have held his own as a theologian. Nice introspection!

Michael Belongie
Michael Belongie
7 months ago

“ Over the uproar of the cities

Over the intricate threads of
life wavering and crossing

In the midst of problems we
know not, tangling, perplexing, ensnaring
Rises one white tomb alone.”

“Lincoln” John Gould Fletcher. 1886 -1950

presided as the most notable poem written
about Abraham Lincoln