Freedom: What Is It, Really?

As we Americans celebrate Independence Day and our cherished freedoms, it’s worth taking a moment to consider: what is freedom? How does it make our lives better?

TODAY IS JULY 4, when we Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the things that we enjoy by virtue of being citizens of this country—the chief of these being freedom. What do we mean by freedom, though? Lately, it seems that one man’s freedom is another man’s oppression.

As soon as this question occurred to me, I was reminded of Montague Brown’s nifty book, The One Minute Philosopher: Quick Answers to Help you Banish Confusion, Resolve Controversies, and Explain Yourself Better to Others (Sophia Institute Press).  On facing pages, Brown defines a common term and another term that is often confused with it (such as “patriotism” and “nationalism”), not only to define what each term means precisely but also to distinguish between the two. Although the discussion of each term is fairly brief (a single page), Brown manages to bring to light many interesting shades of meaning that illuminate how truly distinct (sometimes even opposite) the two apparently synonymous terms really are.

The American Ideal of Freedom

Today, I’d like to do something similar (probably not so succinctly) with the term freedom and its synonyms, liberty and independence. What are we really talking about when we use these terms? It seems to me that, as we engage in the on-going national debate about this idea of freedom, which is so integral to our national identity, we need to know what we are really talking about.

Of late, the idea of American freedom has become blurred. The American flag, symbolizing the unity of the nation, has been displaced by other emblems—the rainbow banner, the Stars and Bars, and other contentious emblems. Is there no banner under which Americans can still unite? Can we still claim to hold a shared understanding of the freedom we all claim to cherish?

 When I think of “freedom” in the context of being an American, some of the images that spring to my mind are Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations of “The Four Freedoms.” The idea of these “four essential human freedoms” had its origin in a State of the Union address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt was trying to convince the American people that the United States should help to defend Europe against the spread of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and he implied that joining in the fight against these regimes would safeguard “four essential freedoms” for people everywhere in the world. A few months later, Roosevelt would refer to these freedoms as “essential human rights.” A couple of years later, after the U.S. had, in fact, become embroiled in the European war (as well as war against Japan), the iconic illustrations of illustrator Norman Rockwell revived the idea that these four “freedoms” are essential to the American way of life.

Today when I look at these “four essential freedoms” defined by Roosevelt and movingly illustrated by Rockwell, I see that they are not all cut from the same cloth; there seem to be two different ideas about freedom at work here. First there are the freedoms of religion and of speech—these I’ll call the “freedom to”—freedom to speak, freedom to worship (or not) as we choose. These are essential rights that were not only endorsed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence but also enshrined in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution as being essential to a free society, safeguards against the kind of tyranny which first caused the American colonies to declare independence from the British monarchy. These “freedoms to” (speak and worship) are regarded as basic civil rights.

The other two freedoms that President Rockefeller referred to, the “freedoms from,” are, it seems to me, quite different. We can certainly aspire to be free from want or from fear, but can we really claim a “freedom from” as a right? “Rights,” properly speaking, are things we can exercise for ourselves, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Rights and Responsibility

When he first included these two “freedom from” rights, President Roosevelt was trying to build a case for the American government, and military, to act on behalf of others (the British, French, etc.). When Rockwell illustrated them, he also was depicting not something we do for ourselves, but something provided through a greater agency than we are capable of individually. In other words, “freedom from” is not a “right” at all, but something that may have to be provided by an agency greater than ourselves. Roosevelt might have defined the final two of his four freedoms as “freedom to prosper” and “freedom to defend oneself from aggression,” but he didn’t. By saying, instead, that people have a “right” to be “free from” want and fear, he is referring to something that not everyone can do for himself—something for which, in fact, we depend on a higher political power, our national government; although he seems to have been affirming a right, in fact he was arguing that we should grant permission for our government to engage in war on our behalf, which is quite a different thing.

(By the way, at the time he first made his “four essential rights” speech, many astute Americans asserted that Roosevelt was trying to pave the way for his New Deal reforms by encouraging people to think of rights as something for which the government, not they themselves, should be responsible.)

This may seem like hair-splitting, but we need to be careful when we talk about “rights.” Peter Singer, a very sloppy modern philosopher, has caused no end of trouble by claiming that animals have “rights,” when what he really means is that humans have a responsibility for their welfare. He would probably be the last person to assert that animals themselves have any “responsibilities.” Yet every right, properly speaking, has a corresponding duty or responsibility. Duty is governed not by animal instinct but by the moral sense, which animals lack. By virtue of our free will, we are free to choose how to act, but we have a duty to choose well. For instance, if we exercise our civic right to free speech, we have a responsibility to speak as truly as we are able. When we choose to speak falsely—to lie and mislead others—we abuse that right. If we forget the close correlation between rights and responsibilities, we run the risk of misconstruing altogether what a “right” is. How can we exercise our right to freedom, for example, if we misunderstand what the term means?

The Christian Understanding of Freedom

All of this is not to suggest that freedom is not important or that we don’t have a right to be free. Quite the contrary! In fact, the concept of freedom (properly understood) is absolutely fundamental to the Christian understanding of Man.

At the very beginning of human history, as depicted in the second chapter of Genesis, we see that we humans were created to be free: the first man and woman were given the whole Earth, without constraint, except for a single prohibition: not to taste the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We should note that here, as in many other places throughout the Bible, to “know” something does not refer simply to intellectual, but to experiential, knowledge. Now, all of Creation was good, so Adam and Eve already experienced (knew) the good. Therefore, the prohibition “not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” really meant “not to know (experience) Evil,” since they already knew Good. This was the only thing forbidden to them—yet it was perfectly in their power to disobey this prohibition. They had free will—they could avoid that fruit, or they could defy God, take a bite, and experience the consequences of their actions, which turned out to be all kinds of evil.

Mary’s willing fiat restores what was lost through Eve’s willful disobedience.

Notice that our First Parents did not enhance or enlarge their freedom by throwing off God’s authority; rather, they abused the freedom they already possessed when they chose to rebel. God created them to be free, but they chose to be something other than as He had made them—they chose to know (experience) evil. This suggests that “freedom,” at least in a Christian understanding, does not mean simply “license.” License indicates absence of all constraints, even the God-given sort. When Adam and Eve defied the Divine prohibition, they acted licentiously. And as soon as they did that, they were no longer truly free.

Nor were they truly independent. From the moment of our First Parents’ disobedience, the human race has had to toil for the bread we eat, yet it is still God who provides the soil, the seed, and the rain to make it grow. Our pioneer ancestors were certainly mindful of this truth, but as our lives have become more comfortable, we have lost sight of our own radical dependency upon Divine Providence. Little wonder then, that Franklin Roosevelt could assert that we have a fundamental “right” to be “free from” unpleasant conditions such as want and fear. Philosophically speaking, however, something can only be called a “right” if the bearer of that right has the power to fulfill or to be that which the right asserts. So if we claim a “right” to be free from want, we are asserting that we can provide for our own needs—that is, we are denying our dependence upon Divine Providence. This is different from being “free to”—free to provide for our own needs, to the best of our ability, or free to defend ourselves against an aggressor. Since our abilities and our strength are limited, we might fail, so there can be no guarantee of a right to be “free from” any adverse condition.*

I’m sure Adam and Eve, and all their progeny down through countless generations, would have loved to be “free from”—free from want and fear, disease and worry and death, but once they had asserted their own will over God’s Will, they made themselves subject to all kinds of troubles. On our own, we cannot be free in that way, at least not since that Original Disobedience. In fact, we might say that everything that happened between the Expulsion from the Garden until the Incarnation was an opportunity for humankind to learn just how inadequate our own efforts are, and how greatly we depend on the Almighty for any good that comes our way. To acknowledge our human limitations can be a liberating, if humbling, experience. If you don’t believe me, look at the example of Mary, the New Eve, who, when given a choice by God, chose humility and submission to the Divine Will rather than exerting her own will. Her humble “fiat mihi” completely overturned the act of her original predecessor, who was enticed by the promise that “you shall be like gods” when she reached for the forbidden fruit.

If we claim a right to be free from want, we are denying our dependence upon Divine Providence.

The Truth About Human Freedom

What is freedom then? Is it merely submission to a Divine Overlord? If that’s the case, then what is the point of free will? There are various sorts of gnostic heresy—Mormonism is one—which claim that when Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation and bit that fruit, she did the human race a favor by making a “grown up” choice. In this mistaken way of looking at things, being thrown out of the Garden was a good thing: it showed that humankind was now ready to “go it alone” and pull itself up by its bootstraps. Thus, according to this view, the disobedience of our First Parents was a kind of emancipation proclamation, making Satan the Promethean figure who made it possible for men to become godlike in their power over their lives.

It is easy to fall into this kind of heresy if we don’t have an adequate understanding of the true nature of human free will and its purpose. These questions are dealt with in the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with Man’s freedom. Paragraphs 1731-38 elaborate the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Because we have the gift of reason, we have the ability to choose our actions. This distinguishes us from animals—they act by instinct or necessity, we by reason and choice. In this way, we bear the image of God, who is all-knowing and all-good. To the extent that we use our free will to choose the Good, we become more like God. Conversely, to the extent that we neglect or refuse to use our God-given reason to make good choices, we demean the divine image in us by acting no better than animals. This is why the Catechism says that

Freedom characterizes properly human acts. It makes the human being responsible for acts of which he is the voluntary agent. His deliberate acts properly belong to him.

To the extent that we act willingly (voluntarily, freely), we are responsible for our acts, accountable for the choices we make. (Ignorance and duress can mitigate our responsibility for our actions, of course.) Now, Scripture has it that “the Truth shall make you free,” so the more we act in conformity with Truth—i.e., the more we choose the Good—the freer we become. Mary, in voluntarily submitting to the will of God, in giving her fiat, chose the ultimate Good and therefore exercised human freedom most perfectly of all mortals. That is why she is called Full of Grace.

Grace, as the catechism points out, is what makes true freedom possible:

[T]he more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1742

The Catechism, in fact, recognizes just one fundamental human right: “Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect.” (CCC 1738) Notice the duty that accompanies the right—to respect each other’s freedom, because of our natural human dignity. The paragraph goes on to say: “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.” (Italics in the original)

The Impostors and the Truth

A Christian anthropology clarifies the differences between true freedom and its impostors. It is not license—in fact, it is the opposite of license, for it recognizes God’s just authority. Nor is it mere independence—a willful independence can cut us off from the source of grace that makes true freedom possible. What about liberty, then? Are liberty and freedom identical?

Even liberty is an impostor when it masquerades as freedom. Liberty is a legal concept, while freedom is a moral concept. Liberty can be conferred or denied by a legal authority. Naval personnel are said to be “given liberty” when they are permitted to leave their ships in port; slaves are “given their liberty” when their legal owners emancipate them. Saint Paul was put in chains by the Roman authority, and he submitted to that authority, yet he never surrendered the freedom that he had in Christ Jesus.

Catholic Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently caused a minor uproar in his dissent to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision when he said, “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.” He might just as truly have said that they did not lose their freedom just because they were denied their liberty. George Takei’s intemperate response to Thomas’s statement was born of a misunderstanding, for Takei apparently assumed that Thomas was denying or overlooking the lack of liberty imposed upon the enslaved and the interned (Takei has since apologized for over-reacting, and for failing to understand what Thomas intended). In fact, Thomas was speaking out of a Catholic understanding, which recognizes that even slaves possess an innate human dignity that allows them to make reasoned, voluntary choices (to be free), even while living under constraint.

This kind of misunderstanding only feeds division and sows hatred. If we truly care about the common good, it behooves us to avoid equivocation and make sure that what we mean is said in a way that will be understood by those we hope to convince. We can do this if we keep clearly in mind the Christian understanding of the true nature of freedom, and the ways it differs from its counterfeits, liberty, independence, and license. One is an absolute good, which must always be valued and preserved, while the others are limited and contingent goods that can serve true freedom or hinder it.

So, while we celebrate our American freedom, let us remember that, while we must respect the freedom of others, we are truly free only when we act in conformity with the Truth, which is found in its fullness in Christ Jesus. To act otherwise is not to be free, but “is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’” (CCC 1733).

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Galatians 5:1

Finally, let me add this beautiful collect, a translation from the Anglican tradition but now added to the treasury of Catholic prayers through the Personal Ordinariates, which is a wonderful reminder of the limits of our human freedom, and our dependency on God for freedom from adversity.

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended against all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, Divine Worship: The Missal

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