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Deep Freedom and Political Liberty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | May 09, 2008

Jesus Christ says: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). He also says: “Truly, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34). This does not sound like the American notion of liberty, the freedom from restraint that we are so carefully taught to cherish. Nor does it sound like freedom as discussed in the contemporary culture wars, the freedom to do whatever we want, especially sexually, without regard to the question of virtue. What can Our Lord possibly mean?

Let’s step back a moment and reflect. Living things are free insofar as they are not hindered from reaching their true ends. For living things that are not persons, of course, the notion of freedom is attenuated by the fact that these beings cannot choose. But we would still say a caged dog has had its freedom restricted, because movement is essential for the dog to achieve the ends for which it was created. Putting a fence around a plant does not similarly restrict the plant’s freedom. For human persons, who do have the power of choice, freedom becomes what we can only call personal; it makes us uniquely able to choose how to best direct ourselves toward our proper ends. Thus, a person can have his freedom limited not only by external restraint, but also by choices which make it more difficult to achieve his proper end. In the latter case, a person can abuse his freedom, with the result that he actually diminishes it for the future.

Because men and women were created for moral perfection, they were created with this power of self-direction, for without choice virtue is both impossible and meaningless. This capacity for free, interior self-direction is part of the innate dignity of man. Therefore, sound governmental systems recognize this dignity through the extension of political liberty – that is, freedom from governmental restraint – to the degree which best secures the common good. Nonetheless, political liberty is an extremely limited reflection of the essential core of human freedom. Insofar as political liberty is not purely pragmatic, it derives from the recognition that man was designed to achieve his true ends through the exercise of what we might call deep freedom. But again it is capable of only a shadowy recognition of this deep freedom—this power of choosing the good, this capacity for command and control in pursuit of a rational end which is so integral to man.

Freedom and Slavery

Just as unwarranted external restraints, including physical slavery, limit or destroy political liberty, it is possible for the deep interior freedom of the human person to be severely limited. On the other hand, it is also possible for a person to be externally restrained without losing the greater freedom that lies within. While this sort of externally-imposed suffering is unfortunate, it is not the primary drama of human life. That drama is played out at the heart of things, in the choices a man makes as he directs himself toward his end. If he understands his end and steadfastly guides himself toward it, he achieves ever greater perfection, including ever greater freedom. Otherwise, his choices will weaken him, make him less perfect, and ultimately reduce his freedom.

To make this clear, a few examples may help. A man may claim that his liberty is compromised if he is not free to look at pornography, to have extra-marital sex, or even simply to smoke and to drink. He may claim that it is the essence of human liberty that such activities be unregulated. But let us ask a man who does these things to attempt to do without any of them for a month. He will quickly learn that true, deep freedom consists not in the ability to do these things, but in the ability to give them up. He will find that it is not the law that enslaves him, but his own habits, desires and vices. For this reason, the wise man will so regulate his life that, over time, he finds it progressively easier to resist the incessant pull of such habits and vices. In this he is actually cultivating freedom, for freedom and perfection are closely related. Just as man was created for moral perfection, so each person discovers that as he brings his attachments and desires under control, he finds it easier to direct himself toward rational ends—rather than being mastered by desperate cravings. As persons grow in moral perfection, their freedom increases. As they slide away, it decreases.

Recognizing this fundamental reality, Christianity is full of reflections on the willingness of the spirit and the weakness of the flesh. St. Paul is particularly eloquent on the subject. Nor does he rely on theory alone. Like the rest of us (if we are honest), St. Paul has his own personal experience of the problem. In his letter to Titus, he reminds everyone that he and his coworkers were “once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures” (3:3). Nor should we be surprised to find St. Peter offering the same message. In a passage which could serve well for our contemporary situation, both personal and political, Peter rebukes especially those “who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority”:

For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved. (2 Pt 3:18-19)

It is difficult to explain this relationship among virtue, perfection and freedom to a materialist, for the materialist worldview has no theoretical room for virtues, or perfections, or freedom—though its proponents invariably act as if it does (which suggests that materialism is often a rationalization). But while the case is difficult without belief in a Creator, adherence to a specific Revelation is not necessary to see the point. The ancient philosophers saw it. They knew that the end of man was to perfect himself in virtue and wisdom, that man was born with the freedom to do so, and that growth in perfection always enhances freedom, making continued growth easier and faster.

Truth and Grace

We have already seen through St. Peter what it means to be a slave to sin. Let us now return to Christ’s promise that the truth will make us free. The first requirement of deep freedom is an understanding of the purpose for which we have been created—our end or goal. Described in various ways, that purpose is moral perfection, union with God, or Love properly understood. Love, by which we freely subordinate ourselves to the Good, is the essence of the proper use of our power to choose, and can be demonstrated and achieved only through the exercise of freedom. Any knowledge is liberating which enables us to understand this destiny of virtue, union and love, for such knowledge enables us to choose rightly, to direct ourselves toward the proper goal, and so to enhance both our perfection and our freedom.

However, since we are very easily distracted, impeded and even reversed in our moral progress, intellectual knowledge is rarely enough. The spirit may indeed be willing, but the flesh is certainly weak. Fortunately, there is another kind of knowing, an experiential knowing, which actually brings with it a certain power to strengthen the spirit and to help us persevere in right decisions. The name we give to this experiential knowledge is grace. Because grace is given whenever the Holy Spirit writes His law in our hearts, it is accessible in some measure to all men, as St. Paul makes clear in Romans. But its presence and power depend on Christ’s redemptive suffering, and so it is most evident and discernible in the Christian process of conversion. In his letter to Titus, St. Paul continues:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men. (3:4-8)

And Peter begins his second letter, from which I quoted previously, with these words:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (1:2-4)

Peter here concludes the double-argument that has been running through this discussion of the nature of freedom. The philosophical underpinnings are provided by natural reason; the explosive power is provided by Christ. Again, political liberty is only a shadow of our deeper freedom, and often a distorted shadow at that. But when Jesus Christ said the truth would make us free, He meant it completely, and exactly as He expressed it. If we continue in His word, we will be His disciples, and so we will actually experience truth. Why and how? Because Jesus Himself is the Truth (Jn 14:6). Again He explains: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).

It is, ultimately, the experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ— working either explicitly or implicitly everywhere the Holy Spirit acts—that enlightens and strengthens us so that we can direct ourselves to our proper end, exercising and experiencing freedom. We Christians and, yes, especially we Catholics, have unparalleled access to this experiential knowledge, this living truth that frees. Ideally our freedom will be exercised in a socio-political setting which recognizes human dignity through its own provisions for due liberty. Nonetheless, it is a grave mistake—some would say it is a typically American mistake—to confuse the absence of restraint in the social order with that deep liberty which all political systems should recognize and serve. For in the end, the drama of human life is about good and evil. Choosing the good brings us closer to our proper end, and so it liberates. But choosing evil takes us farther from our proper end. For this reason—even in the name of liberty—evil enslaves.

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