The recent celebration of Independence Day is an opportunity to reflect upon our country’s great esteem for the value of freedom. Here, one does not need to be a scholar or historian to recognize that the idea of freedom has undergone—or I should more accurately say—is undergoing an incredible evolution.

For example, at a recent city council meeting I attended (incidentally, my first), I witnessed the city leaders appear completely paralyzed as local citizens petitioned for the public library to remove risqué and pornographic “literature” which is accessible to children.

While the parents were concerned for their children’s well-being, the city’s hesitation was clearly founded upon confusion about the purpose and boundaries of free speech and expression.

lady liberty statue of liberty freedom

The Statue of Liberty, a classic symbol of freedom.

In another recent episode, I had a therapist ask for my advice in directing a family who has a young person struggling to identify with his biological gender. The therapist and the parents were confused about how to help this young person because they both want to support the child’s freedom yet are concerned simultaneously for the child’s judgment and choices in this matter.

I begin with these anecdotes precisely because I am confident many others share similar experiences relating to our modern confusion over this issue of freedom. Surely, it would not be an exaggeration to say that a certain notion of “absolute freedom” has become an idol within our contemporary world. Indeed, this idolization is not anything new. One can trace it as far back as the primordial sin whereby Adam and Eve arrogated to themselves the decision to eat of the forbidden tree to make themselves like unto God (Genesis 3:5) yet to their destruction. 

Today, this same idolization is recognized in the sexual revolution’s so-called “free sex,” an attempt to “liberate” sexual expression, which is carried forward in one’s sexual activities as well as by removing any definitions or distinctions of sexual difference between men and women. 

Furthermore, this idol of freedom is witnessed in the relativistic philosophical undercurrent almost universally supported within modern academia which claims that truth, beauty, and goodness are not objective realities to be discovered, but rather, are self-created or self-determined by man either individually or collectively within a particular historical period.  Hence, we encourage people today to “find and express their truth,” signifying that each person has ownership over truth. We take pride in self-expression because we see it as “virtuous” to “create virtues,” that is, to create our own values.  

Without reflection, we have traversed so far down this “freedom road,” that many are realizing intuitively, yet almost in a daze, that many things seem to be quite “off” in today’s culture.  However, having breathed in the “freedom drug,” they simply sigh and remind themselves that they can’t judge others for exercising their right to freedom. 

How often do we hear people say something to this effect: “I disagree with _________, but who am I to judge (him/her/them/this situation, etc.).”? 

Usually, we only care to draw a line in the sand if someone else’s actions suddenly begin to “step on the toes,” of others in a way that prevents some individual or group from exercising its freedom. Such an idea is tied to the Enlightenment’s political philosophy.  According to this ideal, the government does not have in mind the good life but is only meant to safeguard the “social contract.” This ideal cultivates a base level of harmony among individuals in society, so each person has the opportunity to pursue what he or she decides is worthy. 

Many are satisfied with this idea of government because it elevates individual freedom.  In its defense, one might certainly point to the twentieth century which alone provided ample evidence of how authoritarian regimes can bring about untold tragic destruction to life, liberty, and the flourishing of persons. Nevertheless, just as Adam and Eve’s idolization of freedom in the Garden paradoxically brought about the most profound loss of freedom in the history of humanity, so too, I believe that as long as we wrongly idolize freedom we are fated to devolve into tyranny and bring about our own demise.  

Here, we would do well to harken to the words of a man who personally lived through both oppressive political regimes of Nazi fascism and Soviet Communism: Pope St. John Paul II.  In a homily given during a visit to the United States in 1995, this pope said, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Here, St. John Paul II challenges us to reconsider the common way we conceive of human freedom. He directly challenges the modern premium placed on freedom as an absolute end and offers instead that freedom is meaningful only to the extent that it opens the way for the human person to live according to the truth of his given human nature. He states:

Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities.”

What is this truth that must be joined to freedom?  It is the truth of the human person.  Unless we understand who the human person is, we cannot understand the real meaning or value of freedom. St. John Paul II says that freedom divorced from the truth is merely license, and such license does not guide the human person or society to flourish.  Rather it runs like a madman blindly towards his own destruction.

Hence, freedom can only be understood rightly when we understand the meaning of the human person. Communicating the truth of the human person more fully is precisely what St. John Paul II strives to accomplish within his work of the theology of the body (TOB). Take, for instance, the fact that he refers twelve times in TOB to the passage from Gaudium et Spes: “Man cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself.” (GS 24). If this is true, it communicates that man’s flourishing and fulfillment cannot be found outside of relationship with other persons, and most especially outside of one’s relationship with the Trinity of Persons: God Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is very different from the modern world which advances one’s freedom outside of relationships with others and therefore sees divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and contraception as promoting freedom. Instead, when we understand the truth of man, we can recognize that these are in fact evils that undermine his true freedom.  

In summary, we might say that freedom is meant for man, not man for freedom. We are not meant to pursue freedom as an object set apart from the truth of who we are as persons.  Like other human powers, freedom is an invaluable personal good that allows us to live and flourish as persons.  As such, it is a good worth defending. 

However, when freedom is pursued apart from Truth, it becomes in fact what the twentieth-century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted as an incredible burden. This modern “burden” of absolute freedom is the reason I witnessed city council leaders appear helpless and unable to make the simple, moral decision to remove pornographic materials from a public library. 

It is the reason parents and therapists worry more about whether they might be violating their children’s so-called freedom (also note the truly devastating burden this gives to children!), more than lovingly guiding these young people to recognize the truth, beauty, and goodness of their nature as persons created in God’s image.

As Christians, we view freedom very differently. Freedom is recognized as a gift from God that radiates man’s transcendence as a creature made in God’s own image and likeness.  

Here I give the final words of exhortation from St. John Paul: 

“Catholics of America! Always be guided by the truth—by the truth about God who created and redeemed us, and by the truth about the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and destined for a glorious fulfillment in the Kingdom to come. Always be convincing witnesses to the truth. “Stir into a flame the gift of God” that has been bestowed upon you in Baptism. Light your nation—light the world—with the power of that flame! Amen.” 

Patrick Gordon writes for TOBET from Irving, Texas.