What does it mean to be free in America today? Religious freedom faces many threats. What about spiritual freedom? Can we still be free, even if we should lose all our rights?
Western culture now interprets freedom as license. Freedom means being able to do whatever one wishes without anyone standing in one’s way. Verbal criticism is discrimination or hate speech. We cannot remain silent. We cannot respectfully excuse ourselves. We must celebrate immoral behavior, by force when necessary.
This is what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI meant by “a dictatorship of relativism.” If I have a “right” to do whatever I want, then you have a duty to allow me, or even aid me, to do it. You cannot opt out. The freedom of the majority is quickly becoming tyranny over the minority.
In contrast to this understanding, Catholic philosopher Montague Brown defines freedom as “taking responsibility for our own life.” License for him is “the throwing off of all responsibility.” As you can see, the two terms have nearly opposite meanings in Catholic thought.
Cardinal Avery Dulles writes:
If my motives could never transcend my individual self-interest or the collective self-interest of my group, I could never be truly free. I could always be manipulated and compelled to act in specific ways by fear of punishment or hope of reward. Just as animals can be drawn by dangling a carrot or banana in front of their noses, so a child can be induced to behave in certain ways by the prospect of gratification or the fear of pain. Unable to escape from the determinism of instinct or appetite, we could be forced to act by threats and promises.” (John Paul II and the Truth about Freedom)
True freedom proceeds from love
True freedom does not come from government. It begins in the heart of God. It begins with love.
Love and freedom are both gifts. They must be received. They cannot be demanded. They cannot be seized.
Our real rights (as opposed to those created by the government) come from God.
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.” (Declaration of Independence)
Our freedom is part of our very nature as beings made in the image and likeness of God. Animals act merely by instinct or appetite. Man alone among earthly creatures is able to act by reason, and above all, by love. He alone is able to abstain from doing things he feels drawn towards doing. He alone is able to call an act good or evil, rather than just desirable.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (Gen 3:6)
Eve’s act was not an act of love. She abused her freedom.
The greatest act of freedom
Jesus performed the greatest act of freedom when He went to the Cross. He freely chose what He first begged God to spare Him from. Rejection, scourging, crucifixion, and death did not appear desirable.
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:3)
He could have turned away from suffering. He could have called on angels to protect Him. Instead, He gave everything He had for our sakes. He gave Himself.
And now it is our turn.
Jesus asks one thing of us. He asks of each of us the unique gift only we can give–the gift of ourselves. He doesn’t promise freedom from persecution, from pain, or from death. He promises us the true freedom of love.
Holiness, not political activism
What the world and the Church require of us today is not political activism, but holiness. We must pursue true freedom, the freedom of total surrender to God. This does not mean that we should abandon the world to its resources. But it does mean we must abandon the world’s standards for God’s. The problem in our nation is not at root a political problem. It is a spiritual problem. It is a problem we all contribute to, to greater or lesser extents.
So I ask you the same question I am asking myself: What are you holding back from God?
What vice have you refused to die to? What attachment do you cling to? What appetite or party platform or material possession or pastime continues to enslave you?
Are you ready to give your life for the Gospel if you must?
Look around you. God is not calling you to some future martyrdom. He is calling you to die to yourself now. Today. “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb 3:15).
Die to yourself. Surrender to love. Be free.