Although William of Ockham once spoke of freedom as the absence of restrictions, the Catholic Church has always thought of freedom as something more than our ability to think, move, and act as we please.
St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., following the example of the early Church Fathers, describes freedom as our capacity to do the good. This is reiterated in The Catechism, which states, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (CCC, 1733).
Such an explanation is in stark contrast to how modern society defines freedom. Taking their cue from John Stuart Mill, most people now speak of freedom as our ability to do what we like. “The principle of human liberty,” Mill writes, “requires liberty of tastes and pursuits, of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow” (On Liberty).
The effect of Mill’s definition became clear in 1992, when United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
For many, freedom and liberty are now understood as an exercise of one’s individual rights. This, in itself, is problematic, especially considering the fact that before the modern era, rights were understood as mutual obligations, not personal prerogatives. The right to own land involved caring for that land, for the sake of one’s family and community. To separate rights from responsibilities leads to the kinds of arguments we are seeing in the courts today.
This is why The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church warns that “The meaning of freedom must not be restricted, considering it from a purely individualistic perspective and reducing it to the arbitrary and uncontrolled exercise of one’s own personal autonomy” (CSDC, 199).
In other words, we should not define liberty simply as the “freedom to do what we like.” Instead we should follow the example of Servais Pinckaers, O.P., who speaks of the “freedom for excellence.” Like Aquinas, Pinckaers believed that the practice of true liberty results in our fulfillment and ultimate happiness.
But this is not possible if what we choose to do with our freedom is sinful. True liberty, then, also involves freedom from the power of Satan and slavery to sin. We find numerous examples of this in the Gospels, when Jesus heals those who have been possessed by evil spirits. In some cases, these individuals are bound and held captive, unable to move about as they please. Christ does not merely set them free, so that they can go about doing evil. Instead he frees them from their spiritual imprisonment, exorcising the demons that torment them.
In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas explains why the New Law – Christ’s teaching – is called the law of liberty: “because it does not bind us to do or avoid certain things, except such as are of themselves necessary or opposed to salvation, and come under the prescription or prohibition of the law,” and “because it also makes us comply freely with these precepts and prohibitions, inasmuch as we do so through the promptings of grace” (ST, I-II, q108, art1, ad2).
It is when we obey the law of liberty, following Christ’s example as we grow in virtue, that we attain true freedom. This means turning away from vice and sin — those things which are opposed to our salvation.
If we are to do this in our day and age, while maintaining a Catholic understanding of liberty and freedom, then we must remember the words of John Dickinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. “Our liberties do not come from charters,” he said. “They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.”
–Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.