Meditations on Freedom

At our conference in October, the speakers will be considering the theme, “Right and Freedom: Catholic Considerations on Misused Concepts.” As we are in the thick of summer, when many people “free” themselves to go on family vacations, I offer some advanced considerations on part of our conference theme: freedom. These reflections are in no particular order, and are slightly in imitation of Brother Francis’ method, employed in The Challenge of Faith.

If freedom is defined as the ability to choose between good or evil, then God is not free, nor is the Man Christ Jesus, nor is the Blessed Virgin Mary. For that matter, the blessed in Heaven are all slaves, since their wills remain fixed on the Supreme Good that is the object of their everlasting contemplation.

Freedom is the ability to do or not to do. Further, it is the ability to do this, rather than do that.

Freedom can be considered under various aspects, some of which would render it a mere quality (e.g., being unimpeded from taking a walk), others of which fall under Aristotle’s category of substance, being essential to man, or part of his nature. An example of this is free will or free judgment (liberum arbitrium), which St. Thomas says is identical with the faculty of man’s will (voluntas).

To be able to do evil is a defect in the human will. True freedom lies in the choice of the good.

Without freedom, there would be no responsibility.

The libertine is the most captive man in the world.

If liberal education is the intellectual formation of the free man, then we may conclude that authentic freedom requires preparation, learning, discipline, and virtue.

A free society that is also just incarcerates those who, because of their crimes, endanger the common good. Thus it is evident that limits must be put on vice in order to protect the rights and, indeed, the freedom, of the populace. Freedom, therefore, is not absolute, but conditioned on justice.

The good, the true, the beautiful: these are the pursuits of the free man.

The good frees us from evil; the true frees us from error; the beautiful frees us from ugliness.

To be made free requires the acquisition of certain perfections. When I gain knowledge, I free myself from ignorance; when I learn a skill (e.g., how to grow my food), I free myself from the dependence on another who has that skill; when I acquire a virtue, I free myself from the opposite vice, with all its captivating and degrading acts (e.g., of drunkenness or debauchery).

The rule of a religious order fosters moral perfection and mystical union with God. These “limits” on a man’s autonomy lead to the transcendent freedom we call holiness.

When I unite my will with the Will of the all-powerful Liberator, who frees me from the limits of my nature, then am I free in the highest sense, for I have that “freedom wherewith Christ has made us free” (Gal. 4:31).

The Church has us pray libera nos, Domine! — sometimes translated as “deliver us, O Lord,” or “Lord, save us,” but meaning also free or liberate us. In the Litany of the Saints, we ask to be liberated:

  • From all evil,
  • From all sin,
  • From your wrath,
  • From a sudden and unprovided death,
  • From the snares of the devil,
  • From anger, hatred, and all ill-will,
  • From the spirit of fornication,
  • From lightning and tempest,
  • From the scourge of earthquake,
  • From plague, famine, and war,
  • From everlasting death,

Freedom is not an end in itself, but the means to an end: in general, the good; in specific, the Trinity.