Personal Freedom in Catholic Social Teaching
Our society is preoccupied with the subject of personal freedom, but the subject, as we see it presented through political speeches and in popular culture, is often sentimentalized and loaded with unspoken presuppositions that may or may not be Catholic.
Thus, in order for Catholics to participate meaningfully in these discussions, clarification is necessary. We need to know where exactly the Catholic traditions stands on these matters, and how it explains the nature and limits of human freedom. Such is the purpose of this section.
We can begin by repeating a saying of St. John Paul II: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Within this simple motto is a treasure-trove of meaning.
First, freedom should not be understood merely as the arbitrary exercise of the individual’s will, but that it consists in the ability to direct one’s will toward a certain end—the good. This means that freedom is purposive, which is to say teleological.
But even if we acknowledge the nature of freedom as having a specific direction, we immediately run up against another question: how is one to know which direction is right? We then come to understand how knowledge is a necessary prerequisite to the healthy exercise of freedom.
We finally realize why man is the only “free” creature—because freedom requires intelligence and the choice to act in accordance with the truth gained thereby. Here lies the essence of human responsibility. Man can be free because he can seek truth, adhere to it, and act upon it.
a. Purposive freedom
Freedom is neither an end nor an absolute. Its legitimacy is contingent on its vector—on how it is directed—and any formulation that divorces it from its directional aspect also destroys its validity. The Second Vatican Council put it thus:
“God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God.”
In saying this we acknowledge not only that freedom has a direction, but we acknowledge also its proper goal, which is communion with God. These characteristics temper the mentality, all too prevalent today, that in order to consider ourselves free we must also consider ourselves separate from the influence of our fellows. On the contrary, authentic freedom “is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self.” Likewise it balances a second tendency of the same mentality, which would prefer a freedom almost without limits and which is also contrary to the Catholic understanding of the matter:
“That freedom is real but limited: its absolute and unconditional origin is not in itself, but in the life within which it is situated and which represents for it, at one and the same time, both a limitation and a possibility. Human freedom belongs to us as creatures; it is a freedom which is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly.”
b. Freedom of the will depends on intelligence
As we have already suggested, human liberty presupposes intelligence. “Liberty…belongs only to those who have the gift of reason or intelligence. Considered as to its nature, it is the faculty of choosing means fitted for the end proposed, for he is master of his actions who can choose one thing out of many.” And so there can be no freedom—of will or anything else—without the human power to discern what is true and good:
“Now, since everything chosen as a means is viewed as good or useful, and since good, as such, is the proper object of our desire, it follows that freedom of choice is a property of the will, or, rather, is identical with the will in so far as it has in its action the faculty of choice. But the will cannot proceed to act until it is enlightened by the knowledge possessed by the intellect. In other words, the good wished by the will is necessarily good in so far as it is known by the intellect; and this the more, because in all voluntary acts choice is subsequent to a judgment upon the truth of the good presented, declaring to which good preference should be given. No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will. The end, or object, both of the rational will and of its liberty is that good only which is in conformity with reason.”
Thus, liberty must not be envisaged as an inborn capacity, but is more accurately described as an achieved and maintained condition which may exist to a greater or lesser degree in an individual depending on whether or not he lives within the dictates of right reason. “Such, then, being the condition of human liberty, it necessarily stands in need of light and strength to direct its actions to good and to restrain them from evil. Without this, the freedom of our will would be our ruin.”
c. Freedom and truth
What has been said so far can be summarized through words of Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For this reason he proclaimed to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” And in bearing witness to truth, he set humanity free.
Thus, John Paul II spoke correctly when he said that the “[w]orship of God and a relationship with truth are revealed in Jesus Christ as the deepest foundation of freedom.” “[O]nly the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth.”
d. Freedom and morality
Just as freedom is always dependent on the truth, it is also inescapably connected with the question of morality, since right conduct is nothing more than action in accordance with the truth. To illustrate this connection, John Paul II frames his discussion in Veritatis Splendor around Christ’s conversation with the young rich man who asks: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” Based on this question and Christ’s response to it, the saint explains:
“The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: ‘It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good’. But what sort of freedom? The Council, considering our contemporaries who ‘highly regard’ freedom and ‘assiduously pursue’ it, but who ‘often cultivate it in wrong ways as a licence to do anything they please, even evil’, speaks of ‘genuine’ freedom: ‘Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man ‘in the power of his own counsel’ (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God’.”
Elsewhere the same pontiff explains that it was through the question of morality that God taught man to take his first steps in freedom. This was accomplished in the Garden of Eden by placing before man the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The command “you shall not eat” is not some sort of cruel setup, a trap set for a creature doomed to failure: it was the necessary training ground for an education in freedom, the good of which was known to be so great that it was destined to outweigh any evil that might result from its abuse.
It is through this example that we learn the positive purpose of moral prohibitions, and how “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom.”
Here St. John Paul II is arguing against the popular tendency to speak of morality and freedom as if the two were in opposition, as if for one to be cultivated the other must be destroyed. Leo XIII had dealt with the same misunderstanding long before him, and had spoken against it frequently in his battle with the Enlightenment philosophers: “Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason.” Moral laws, far from depriving the human being of his freedom, “make him at once the possessor of a more perfect liberty.”
“Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command: ‘The Lord God gave this command to the man…’ (Gen2:16). Human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect, in the sense of man’s free obedience to God and of God’s completely gratuitous benevolence towards man. Hence obedience to God is not, as some would believe, a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, ex-traneous to man and intolerant of his freedom.”
e. Freedom and society
If human freedom is brought to fruition to a greater or lesser extent depending on the degree to which the individual acts in conformity with truth and the will of God, then we can apply the same reasoning to society as a whole:
“From this it is manifest that the eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man, but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united. Therefore, the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.”
“Therefore, the nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether in individuals or in society, whether in those who command or in those who obey, supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God, commanding good and forbidding evil. And, so far from this most just authority of God over men diminishing, or even destroying their liberty, it protects and perfects it, for the real perfection of all creatures is found in the prosecution and attainment of their respective ends; but the supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.”
f. Freedom, natural law, and the body
Our discussion would not be complete if we failed to take into account the body as it pertains to freedom. In the eyes of natural law, the body acts as a fundamental part of morality and the exercise of freedom, but as freedom became doctrinaire, considered more and more in terms of liberal and libertarian ideologies, the body became irrelevant—a mere vehicle for use by the person trapped within it, a piece of property owned by the self, to be used according to whim and fancy, with nothing more to tell us about right conduct. This becomes blatantly obvious in systems where freedom is viewed as absolute, at which point the body is deprived of all objective meaning and is treated as chattel or property:
“A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act…This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church’s teachings on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter the form of his body. The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole — corpore et anima unus — as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties.”
The body, because it has meaning, also has the ability to inform us as to the content of natural law, and as such it is never a hindrance but a created good, ready to assist man in the pursuit of the truth. Because of this it is an error to reduce morality to a spiritual and abstract thing, as if man were not both body and soul:
“A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a ‘spiritual’ and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behaviour involving it…body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.”
It is only through these precepts that the meaning of the natural law can be properly grasped:
“The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body.”
The natural law does not allow for any division between freedom and nature, but rather acts as a harmonizing principle between the two.
g. Freedom and conscience
We are now capable of addressing the issue of the relationship between conscience and freedom. This relationship is of particular importance in our present political context, where debates frequently erupt regarding what pertains to the private judgement of the individual’s conscience, what behavior can be coerced by a social authority, and what authority is capable of decided on such things.
These debates sooner or later lead to the invocation of phrases such as the “primacy of conscience,” or complaints that a particular issue is a matter for “prudential judgment.” These two concepts are distinct in themselves, but tend to become confused when converted into political slogans—but always they pertain to freedom and are invoked under the pretense of defending a valid freedom. We will discuss each of these at a later point, when we come to the subject of Catholic morality in particular, but for now we should pause to mention that the conscience itself, while it must always be respected, can never be imagined as something operating arbitrarily, as if it has no limits or obligations external to itself.
The freedom of the conscience must be considered in the same fashion as in the preceding sections. The proper view can be summarized in the words of John Paul II:
“Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: ‘Conscience has rights because it has duties’.”
Although a lengthy discussion could be carried out with respect to what this means in practice for political and religious authorities, those points will be elaborated elsewhere. Here we will merely mention that the most important duty of the conscience is to be properly formed, and formed by that teacher who is most competent to instruct it, which is the Church:
“…the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.”
It seems prudent to close our discussion of freedom with a few observations regarding slavery. This is because, as obvious as it may seem, the prevalent misunderstanding of human liberty leads directly to a misunderstanding of its opposite extreme. For example, because of the tendency to oversimplify freedom as the absence of restraints on personal conduct, then we inevitably reduce slavery to nothing more than an excessive restriction on one’s actions. Usually once this happens, the defenders of this misunderstood freedom begin to construe every limit to freedom as a step in the direction of slavery, which is obviously not the case at all.
However, if we take into consideration what has been said above, we see first and foremost that freedom consists in action in accordance with the true and the good, and that action in contradiction to truth and goodness is only the semblance of liberty. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on the words of our Lord, says the following:
“Everything is that which belongs to it naturally. When, therefore, it acts through a power outside itself, it does not act of itself, but through another, that is, as a slave. But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions. Therefore, ‘Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.’ ”
Leo XIII observed that even the pagans recognized this fact when they said that the wise man alone is free.
Yet our study would be incomplete if we did not mention a second aspect of the Christian doctrine concerning slavery, which perhaps runs even more contrary to the modern way of thinking. Because freedom is often seen as an absolute good, then it is easy to draw the conclusion, unconsciously and automatically, that any sort of servitude is somehow subhuman and evil. But scripture and the constant teachings of the Church again offer a much different view. Since liberty lies in conformity with the good, then it is more accurate to say that slavery is only degrading to the person if he is enslaved to sin; but, on the contrary, slavery to God would amount to the highest realization of liberty.
And so we conclude with words of warning given by St. Augustine:
“In the house of the Lord, slavery is free. It is free because it serves not out of necessity, but out of charity… Charity should make you a servant, just as truth has made you free… you are at once both a servant and free: a servant, because you have become such; free, because you are loved by God your Creator; indeed, you have also been enabled to love your Creator… You are a servant of the Lord and you are a freedman of the Lord. Do not go looking for a liberation which will lead you far from the house of your liberator!”
 St. John Paul II’s words are worth citing in greater depth, as he is speaking in America and to Americans: “One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ could ‘long endure’. President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is: ‘how ought we to live together?’ In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? Can the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate? Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. 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.” Homily given at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore on October 8, 1995, 7.
 Jn 8:32.
 Jn 18:37.
 St. John Paul II, Address to those taking part in the International Congress of Moral Theology (April 10, 1986), 1.
 Mt 19:16.
 St. John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Boston: 2006), pp. 150-156.
 See upcoming section V, parts 1c and 4g.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Gospel of St. John, ch. 8, lect. 4, n. 3.
 St. Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum XCIX, 7.