The Oxford English Dictionary defines freedom as “The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty.” Growing up and living in the US, I am constantly exposed to this definition of freedom, a definition in terms of license–a freedom to do whatever you want. By this understanding of freedom, one is free when there are no external forces hindering or restraining oneself. There is little inherent moral weight to this understanding of freedom. You can use your freedom to act for good or evil. So long as the government is not mandating us into action, we are free to pursue the good life or leave it.
With this understanding in mind, it is of little surprise that my initial reading of works by Saint John Paul II and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was somewhat confused. Saint John Paul II writes in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.” When I read this the first time I did not understand what definition the Saint was ascribing to freedom. Outside of allowing us to pursue truth, what does freedom have to do with truth? How can freedom be something that is shaped; isn’t it simply a state of being? The concept that freedom is shaped by truth is one deeply foreign to my intuitive conception of freedom as license.
Cardinal Stefan Wyczynski was imprisoned by communist government officials in Poland during the early fifties. He was accused of standing against the Communist government of the day and sentenced to house arrest without a trial. During this period he wrote a series of journal entries later titled, “A Freedom Within.” These entries document many of his reflections on God and truth. It also was a testimony to how he used his time under house arrest to focus on his relationship with God in discovering true freedom. The following quote from his work left a significant impression on me:
“I will cease to think of myself — it is enough that You [God] think of me.
I will cease to speak of myself — You are the Word of Life, not I.
I will cease to listen about myself — let them speak to You about me.”
This attitude of surrender is deeply moving and speaks to the Cardinal’s ability to maintain joy in difficult situations. Yet the question remains: what does “surrender” have to do with freedom? When I was younger I took these comments on freedom to be Church speak. It was simply an example of the Church misusing the definition of freedom, co-opting it to suit its own purposes. Thus, like a good Catholic, I ignored the Church’s statements and continued on with life.
Over time my perspective began to change as my understanding of the nature of evil developed. For a long time I thought of evil as an action. To steal was evil, to kill was evil, etc. I never considered evil as a state of being. Yet evil is more closely described as a state, in addition to being connected to action as well. To steal turns one into a robber, to kill makes one a killer, and to do evil puts one in a state of sin. This state IS enslaving. A good habit, such as working diligently, is easy to break; a vacation does this regularly. But a sinful habit, from sloth to lust, can consume a person and is extremely difficult to ever fully get out of. As St. John Paul II writes:
“Those who live ‘by the flesh’ experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Gal 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practise love as something freely chosen and freely lived out.” Veritas Splendor, 18
For those of us under the influence of sin, which is all of us, God’s law can be experienced as a burden and something that limits freedom. God’s law tries to pull us away from what we are attached to, and when it is forced on us by religious authorities we do experience a loss of our freedom. We must decide to accept God’s law, freely, and realize that we will not be able to escape the slavery of sin without him. Evil is not simply a descriptor for an action (i.e. this action is evil, that one is good). Evil is also a state we exist in and can be tied down to. This understanding of evil saturates John Paul II and Wyczynski’s understanding of freedom with much more significance.
While the common addictions (alcoholism, pronography, gluttony) are easier to identify as limiting to our freedom, all sin has the same enslaving quality. It could take the form of an unhealthy attachment to work, where we focus so much on success that we fail to even be able to see a better opportunity that may require change. Sin can also enslave us in the form of pride. I often find myself pursuing a certain course of action because I want to be respected, honored, and praised, not because it is the right thing to do.We are really only free to make decisions if we are able to separate ourselves from the primacy of self and look at a situation in terms of the objective good.
We are creatures of God’s beautiful creation which was intended to be truly good. When we put ourselves at the center of it, we distort the world and seek to dominate others in our lives. Truly willing the good of others is where we find freedom, because it forces us to transcend out of our natural preference for self. We are most free when we are able to look at any decision, remove the primacy of self-interest, and make a decision according to what is right. True love breeds freedom to love, and sin leads to possession and cycles of dominance. Free Will is God’s gift to man to strive, with God’s support, towards things nobler than himself. As John Paul II writes, “By free will, he [man] is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection ‘in seeking and loving what is true and good.’”