In The Truth About Freedom, Avery Dulles writes, “If my motives could never transcend my individual self-interest or the collective self-interest of my group, I could never be truly free.” For years I was convinced that any life lived under moral ‘rules’ or guided by maintaining a certain amount of restraint was like living in a prison cell. I lived a life based on self-interest. The real crux of the problem? It didn’t work. It was my first glimpse into Dulles’ words that freedom is meaningless if choices are arbitrary.
The law was not much different in my eyes. I not only broke the laws of God, but the laws of man as well. The problem I see with mankind in today’s world is that the only place freedom and law mix is when a person breaks one, gets caught, and loses the other. I don’t know if I am just more tuned in or if using the Lord’s name in vain has reached the level of quite possibly being an epidemic. The sexual norm in western civilization has transformed to the point that I bet we are not too far off from having the debate of dropping all age of consent laws. An article I read recently concludes that teenage sex is just part of growing up. The story about David Bowie having sex with a fifteen-year-old girl gets plenty of defenders. Missing the relationship between freedom and the law is not unique. The Catechism says it best, “The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the “slavery of sin”” (CCC 1733).
The Problem with Freedom
The problem with freedom is that man abused it. God commanded; Adam disobeyed. Pope John Paul II writes in Veritatis Splendor that “the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone” (no. 35). I certainly have been a victim of my own brilliance. We act like children with his ball threatening to go home. Americans suffer from this twisted version of freedom more so than others. Our extreme version of individualism has a tendency to have us leaning more towards who was right rather than what is right. If we ever realize what is right it will lead us to the true freedom we all crave. We will shine even brighter on that hill President Reagan once alluded to.
Pope John Paul II writes that God’s law does not do away with freedom, but instead protects and promotes it. I can’t imagine telling this to a skeptic. But man instead uses his freedom to “create values,” as the pope puts it. “You’re free to do as you want,” is the message the devil wants all of us to hear and abide by. What are we really being told is this quote? That we don’t matter. That our lives have no purpose. That it really doesn’t matter what we do. The idea that we are getting what we want by doing whatever feels good leaves us empty. When I look up at the cross at Sunday Mass I can pretty much guess that what Jesus did for us didn’t “feel good.” A life lived chasing that “feel good” always leads us needing more.
And so we start looking for how we can find the right kind of freedom. For some it is found in their childhood beliefs. Others have been exposed to it, but never quite understood it. Then, there are some that discover it like a child that experience Christmas for the first time. The law. It’s already something written in our hearts and stamped into our souls. However, the cynical world we live in mixed with a heavy dose of ego buries the truth. At some point, or maybe there’s a thousand of them, each person is faced with the question, “What is the meaning of life?” A tap on the should by God himself. Some accept, skeptical at first, others say no until they find themselves begging to say yes, and a few train themselves to ignore the question entirely. But each of us ask ourselves that very question. It is in our answer that we can find true freedom. It is in our answer that we discover the good in the law.
God’s original law, the Ten Commandments, brought joy to the people. Finally, a way to live our lives. It embodied the message Jesus would bring thousands of years later: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. It was exterior and didn’t speak to the heart of the people. Some ended up not paying as much attention to it as they should, not much different than today, and others used it as a self-righteous club to knock down those they saw as inferior, not much different than today. The problem was they were incomplete, and only guided the people but telling them what not to do. The negative liberties in the U.S. Constitution is similar; the people tell the government what they can’t do. In theory both work perfectly. In practice man brings his humanness to them.
Jesus showed up to make the law internal. “The moral law finds its fulness and its unity in Christ” (CCC 1953). It no longer becomes a white-knuckle journey to be good, but instead a journey in love. Christ comes in friendship and shows us how to act like a servant-leader. The command that we follow the law is not an order like the military officer asking us to clean the latrine, although sometimes, at first, it feels just like that. Instead, it is what happens to be in our best interest. Following His path will create the freedom we truly crave. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, the law is not “mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did.” The law has purpose. We have purpose.
Freedom and Law: A Love Story
Today we are presented with a dilemma. A growing number of people find that freedom and the law are in conflict, but Pope John Paul II writes that they intersect. Humans experience freedom in obedience to God. However, we don’t obey out of fear, but out of love because of Christ. The internal love story that brings our freedom in line with the law allows us to see how beautiful (and free) life is when we obey God’s law. Even when we forgive, we free ourselves. Emmet Fox, in his book, The Sermon on the Mount, writes, “It is a Cosmic Truth that it takes two to make a prisoner; the prisoner — and a gaoler” (pg. 173).
So, what does happen when we disregard the law? When we claim to be free to decide for ourselves, individually, what is right or wrong? Doesn’t it make sense that if we all have our own truth that nothing is true? Something must be universal. I believe the law is just that, universal. And since God is not a dictator, we are free to follow it, or not follow it. However, once we “disregard or are ignorant” of the law, as the former pope puts it, our actions always cause real damage. A lie keeps us separated, first, from the one we told it to, but ultimately from all those in our lives. If we are angry with someone we might talk badly about them, spreading negativity, or stew within ourselves lashing out at those closest to us. Our best bet is to freely choose God. His grace will save us in the times we get it wrong, but will free us the more we get it right. “For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified” (Rm 10:4).