I’d like to think that I have a pretty easy time accepting what the Church teaches. My go-to answer whenever I don’t know how to feel about something is to see what the Church says. But, because I’m just a creature, with limited intellect, there are definitely some teachings that are harder for me to accept than others.
One of these is the Church’s understanding of freedom. Why is it that following the Law is what sets me free? How can it be that limiting my options actually gives me the most freedom?
The more that I’ve thought about this, the clearer it has become. There’s still a lot that I don’t understand, but through a lot of reading and contemplating, I think I’ve gotten a little bit of a better handle on it.
Three sources in particular stand out to me as influential in my understanding of freedom. By sharing them with you, I hope that you’ll be able to better grapple with the reality of what the Church teaches on freedom.
The first source is a secular one. I wish that I could recall where I first saw it. In any case, this is not an original idea of mine. I found myself reading an argument by a lawyer who was challenging some societal paradigms with regard to abortion. Without going down that rabbit hole, I do think the gist of their argument is germane to this discussion.
To this lawyer, the notion that freedom necessarily means having the most amount of possible choices is not correct. Put another way, just because one person has more choices than another, it doesn’t mean that the first person has more freedom.
To illustrate this point, the author proposed the following scenarios. Considered a man who suffers from alcoholism looking at a table with various beverage options. In the first scenario, the table has a case of beer, a bottle of wine, some rum, and a pitcher of water. In the second scenario, the table only has a pitcher of water. If we go by the societal paradigm, then the man has more freedom in the first scenario. Obviously, however, because of his condition, he actually has more freedom in the second scenario. Because of his propensity to abuse alcohol, he has more freedom over his choices when the temptation to abuse is removed.
The same principle is at work in the Law of God. The Lord gives us these commandments, binding us under pain of sin to follow them. While it may cause our choices to be restricted, that which we are prohibited from doing is only what would harm us.
The second source is Pope Saint John Paul II. In one of his most famous quotes, he once mused that
“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
This quote really encapsulates what I was trying to express above. Our Lord imbued us with our free will so that our love for Him might be authentic. This is THE thing which we ought to do above all else. The virtue of religion has to do with properly acknowledging God for who He is and rendering Him His due praise. If we aren’t using our gift of freedom for this most important end, then we might as well not use it at all.
The third source is Frank Sheed’s 1957 classic, Theology for Beginners. On page 79, he discusses the nature of freedom and how it relates to the law. He invites the reader to consider two laws, that of gravity and that of dietetics. He proposes that by learning and following these laws, we gain newer freedoms.
Contemplation of and obedience to the law of gravity gives us the ability to fly. When we do the same for dietetics, we learn how to live healthier. He later continues by pointing out the fact that laws cannot truly be broken. Nothing we can ever do will change the fact that it is always wrong to take innocent life, for example.
We can, however, ignore laws. In doing this, we only make ourselves less free, by choosing that which would not work in support of our flourishing. This is the essence of sin. When we choose to ignore the Law written upon our hearts, all we do is act against our best interest.