True freedom lies in seeking to do God’s will for the good.
There is one thing that most Americans associate with this country above all else: Freedom. Of course, we Americans did not invent freedom, but it is the idea upon which the United States was founded. So, with the Fourth of July just a couple days away, I would like to take a look at how freedom was viewed by those who came to this land and started this country, and see how the Catholic tradition elevates this idea and moves people to a deeper unity in the good of God.
Before we look at the Catholic perspective, it is important to understand how the idea of freedom developed in America so that we can see the contrast between the two. Leading up to the founding of the American colonies in the early 17th century, Europe was dealing with the Protestant Reformation throughout most of the 16th century. And in England, where the founders of the colonies would come from, there was a decidedly anti-Catholic sentiment growing. As Protestant ideas permeated the culture, so did the idea that freedom meant being able to interpret Scripture and tradition according to one’s own judgement. No longer did one have to submit themselves to a higher authority. Naturally, people began to see the Catholic Church, with its hierarchy and magisterium, as completely antithetical to freedom as they saw it.
As the United States of America comes into being, this idea of freedom, carried over from Protestant England, is very much at the heart of the country’s genesis. The Founding Fathers wanted independence, they wanted freedom from those evil, taxing English folk across the sea. They no longer wanted to be beholden to living according to someone else’s rules, someone who was even on the same continent. They believed they should be governed by themselves as they saw fit.
Freedom in America
Fast forward to the 19th century. Immigrants were flooding into the United States from Ireland, Italy, Germany, etc., and many of these immigrants were Catholic. This poses a problem. As Catholics, their obedience was to the Pope, or as Americans saw it, another leader across the sea telling people how to live. Such a way of life was seen as incompatible with the American promise of freedom, and was seen as a threat to the fabric of the society by Protestant Americans. This mindset of freedom developed over the years in America, growing in subtlety, but never losing its flavor. We can see this in our American culture today. When people talk about freedom in this country, many either implicitly or explicitly frame it as meaning a person can do whatever they want when they want. This is held up as the greatest good for modern culture because it seemingly allows people to do what is good for them, or rather what they think is good. This is where the Catholic perspective can be of assistance.
Freedom in the Church
God created human persons to be free, as such He gave them free will. He gave humanity this power to “initiate and control his own actions” (CCC #1730) out of reverence, and indeed, out of love, so that every person would choose the fullness of being by “cleaving to Him [God]”. So, we have the ability to do as we will, but to reference an oft quoted line: Just because we can do something, does not mean we should. God gave us freedom to be used so that we would choose the good, which ultimately is God Himself, the source of all goodness. The more we choose God and bind ourselves to Him, the more free we become because we live in accordance with how we were made by Our Creator. We grow deeper in love of God, and therefore deeper in union with those made in His image, namely the men and women around us.
This is where the two ideas of freedom can rub up against one another. When carried out without restraint, one of these freedoms is used for selfish ends while the other is used to glorify God, which means drawing people together in an authentic communion of love through truth, beauty and goodness. One holds the self up as the most important being, while the other holds up the Other as above all else and works to serve Him and His creation. We are not self-sufficient creatures made to simply enjoy what is good in this life as if that were all there was to living. That does not mean the things of this world are bad, on the contrary, many of them are quite good! But they are a foretaste of the truest and fullest good, life with God in eternity. If we choose lesser goods over God in the name of freedom, and live according to ourselves rather than Him, we actually become less and less free. We become slaves to sin, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans. Part of the definition of sin is that it is a “perverse attachment to certain goods” (CCC #1849). We lose our freedom to live a full life because we are enslaved to this one thing, or many things. We, as fallen persons on our own, can error in judgement of the good, and fall into sin.
That is why as Catholics we hold to the Church’s teaching on freedom and look to her for guidance because she, as the Bride of Christ, points us to the ultimate good, who is Christ, God Himself. As we choose to conform our lives to Him in dependence, we grow in maturity of truth and goodness, and attain through Christ the fullness of our lives. And in so doing, we draw others into this way of life, the way of freedom. We unite as one people free under God. So, as we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, remember that true freedom lies in seeking to do God’s will and lovingly depending on Him for our fulfillment.