Can anyone think of an American city with more references to freedom and liberty than Washington? Monuments and friezes on buildings are just the beginning. Consider our living witnesses to liberty: Protests, visitors lobbying Congress, the role of our Courts ensuring “equal justice for all,” the free exchange of ideas in our many universities, the free and flourishing interactions of religious groups, the music of any and every type that resounds from our concert halls, pubs, coffee houses and conservatories. Even “K Street,” oligarchic as it can sometimes feel, is ultimately a testimony to the free exchange of words and ideas at the root of our civic pride.
Liberty, understood through eyes of faith, is something deeply sacred in Catholic teaching because it’s not just the heart of an artificial reality (the U.S.A., Washington DC, or some other man-made civil entity). Liberty is at the heart of our human reality. God made man and woman in his own image. Unlike any other creature under heaven, he gave humanity free will, and even more uniquely, the ability to consciously and rationally self-sacrifice for the good of another. This is the “freedom of the sons of God.” The lived experience of that freedom is expressed most fully in this beautiful quote from Rev. John Saward’s book, Cradle of Redeeming Love, “He who made us without us, will not save us without us.” The Father gave us freedom in the very beginning… and he is so faithful to that gift that even for the sake of our salvation, he will not “force” us to be saved. He respects us so much he allows us to make our own decision.
As a man, as a priest, I freely choose to follow the God who would love and respect me so much.
The objection I often hear goes something like this: “If you Catholics are so into liberty, what about the inquisition, or all your rules and catechisms?” It’s a good question. Until fairly recently, the vast majority of those living in the Christian world generally adhered to a common set of principles/ethics and desired to help each other live those out. Examples of these disciplines cover a huge range: abstaining from meet on Fridays, making a good confession EVERY Saturday, Giving to the poor, dressing modestly… and, yes, in the extreme, acknowledging that those who live radically outside the Christian norm with no desire to change ought not call themselves Christian (i.e. excommunication). To the post-modern eye, these might seem like restrictions on freedom, but they’re not all that different from civil laws. If I drive 110 mph on an empty road, and a hidden policeman pulls me over to ticket me, he does so to guard my freedom. Driving so fast, even on an empty road could result in my death. Disciplining me gives me the greater freedom to live. If I commit treason, if functionally speaking, I cease to be a citizen, is it really so irrational to be be exiled? The greater freedom of the rest of the people who do agree to live under a country’s laws depends on my no longer living in that community.
Culture has changed, many question whether a sense of “Christendom” still exists at all. I don’t know about that myself, but I love a phrase that (I think) comes from St. John Paul II: “The Church always proposes, she never imposes.” What we propose is a way of life characterized by the self-denial and giving that is the greatest expression of our God-given freedom. Others are “free” to take that or leave it, but I find it beautiful.