There is a lot of talk today about freedom. I know that there is a political side to that, but it is still an important part of our American way of life. Why is the Catholic Church not more out in front of all this and strongly supporting our freedoms?
“Freedom” is a rather complex term these days that means many different things to different people. The Catholic Church is not at all afraid to speak about the importance of freedom. But it does so from a unique perspective that transcends any national conversation, and is rooted in a reality about which the Church has a great deal to offer.
The Catholic Church believes that human freedom is an essential component of human identity. It is not something benevolently bestowed by any government but something that comes from the Creator.
But it is not enough to promote freedom without considering the responsibilities that come with it. Some people see it as “freedom from” something but not “freedom for.” Why do we feel comfortable talking about our freedom to have no restraints, but speak so little about our freedom to do the good, the just and the uplifting? So often, we find that discussion of one’s freedom is limited to the ability to “do what I want.” Freedom can never be viewed in isolation.
Within Catholic teaching there is never limitless freedom. Our personal freedom must be seen within the context of the rights of others and the common good. My freedom only extends as far as another person’s rights. That was seen clearly in the long public debate about the freedom to smoke cigarettes anywhere one wants. That freedom became curtailed by concern for the health of others, similar to the current debate about choosing not to wear a face covering during this pandemic and risking the physical health and lives of others.
The Church benefits from the experience of centuries. It is skeptical of the exaltation of freedom without attention to the responsibilities and the common good. The Church has watched and suffered under freedoms that were applied to only a few, or that led to anarchy. In some cases freedom was denied to many in favor of the powerful, rich or the members of a single race, religion or culture.
Freedom can be taken to extremes that actually imprison. This is true of those who find themselves making bad decisions in the name of freedom. People spend a lifetime recovering the freedom that they gave away.
The Catholic Church understands freedom as an essential element of our human life. But it does so in the context of responsibility and the rights of others. Freedom seen as totally subjective or isolated can lead to personal suffering and communal chaos.
Photo credit: Dena Koenig Photography