Why Be Catholic? 2: Freedom
Among the great issues addressed by Christianity, two generally strike each of us as more than merely academic. These are the issues of suffering and freedom, which touch us so very personally. Many would give the issue of suffering the first place. After all, suffering is a profound riddle and, by definition, it is the most painful riddle of human life. But I prefer to examine the issue of freedom first.
An initial caveat is required. I do not wish the title of this series (“Why Be Catholic”) to give the impression that I deny that non-Catholic Christians will very often share the key insights which characterize the Catholic faith. There are many significant things that divide Catholics from other Christians, beginning with their handling of Revelation, as I discussed in the first item of this series. Nonetheless, in those areas in which other Christians have not (or not yet) deviated from the original Christian message, they share in Catholic truth. This is largely true regarding freedom.
For the Christian, then, freedom is not the mere absence of restraint, either external or internal. Various prominent schools of thought, none of which are Christian, identify freedom with the absence of external restraints, such as political or economic restraints or even the restraints of cultural convention. Others identify freedom with the absence of interior restraints, such as compulsions of various kinds (a valid insight) or ignorance (a semi-valid insight) or guilt (an invalid insight, unless the guilt is unwarranted). But for anyone who has thought deeply enough about the matter, freedom is essentially the spiritual power to perfect oneself.
This is a natural or philosophical truth, but it is one of those natural truths most of us will not reach without benefit of Revelation. Still, once one grasps the idea, it appears silly to regard the deepest sort of freedom as anything less than the ability to direct ourselves toward our true end. Insofar as we are to one degree or another incapable of doing so, it is because we are enslaved to something. Insofar as we can perfect ourselves in this way, we are enjoying freedom. Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of what our true ends might be.
Cutting through both intellectual labor and philosophical chatter, St. Paul gives us a short course in freedom based on Christian Revelation, in a passage on which one can meditate for a lifetime:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rm 6:16-23)
The fact that Saint Paul speaks about two different kinds of slavery here should not confuse us for a moment. Slavery to sin leads to death, but our free offering of obedience to God leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ. Thus did our Lord challenge those among the Jews who had begun to believe in Him: “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 8:31-32). Typically we live under the illusion that we are most free when we have “chosen” to do something evil. But generally we are just indulging our passions, to which we are enslaved. If we have any doubts, the simple test of trying to break a bad habit should remove them.
But when we turn to Christ, we are given a share in Christ’s life by which our intellects are illuminated and our wills strengthened. It is this grace, and this alone, which enables us to perfect ourselves, to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). Because the end or purpose of anything is simply its own proper perfection, for us this means life in Christ—perfection in this life, and the vision of God forever in the next. It is not coincidental that this is the same thing as a life of perpetual love, though love itself is a topic for another day. For now, we must be content with the facts about freedom—a powerful and personal reason to be Catholic.
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