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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

12/4/2012 (2 years ago)

Catholic Online (

As a nation, it seems that we need to re-think freedom.

In the public square, our country speaks of freedom to the point where it is hackneyed.  But the "freedom" touted on the television, taught in our public schools, claimed by all manner of activists, and heard in every political stump speech is a far cry from Servais Pinckaer's "freedom for excellence" or Blessed John Paul II's "authentic freedom" or "perfect freedom."


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

12/4/2012 (2 years ago)

Published in Politics & Policy

Keywords: freedom, Veritatis splendor, authentic freedom, freedom for excellence, freedom of indifference, Andrew M. Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - What is freedom?  Careful how you answer the question, because the first step makes all the difference in the world, and a large number of Americans have taken a false first step.

The medieval theologian Peter Lombard defined "free choice" (liberum arbitrium) as "that faculty of reason and will by which we either choose the good with the assistance of grace, or choose evil without such assistance." (Sent. b.2, dist. 24, c. 3)

But there is an ambiguity in the definition which gives rise to a question.  Depending upon your answer, you are going to go one way or another entirely different way.  One way leads to authentic freedom, the other way to a false freedom, a slavery. 

You might call this question the question of original responsibility. 

The question is this:  Does free choice precede reason and will, or does free choice proceed from reason and will?

Put another way: Does free choice command reason and will, or is free choice subject to reason and will?

The reason why this can be called the question of original responsibility comes from the word "responsible." 

The word "responsible" comes from Latin verb respondere, "to respond."  The word respondere is formed from the prefix re- which means "back" or "again" and spondere which means "to pledge," "to promise," "to hold oneself accountable," even "to betroth" or marry. 

To be responsible, then, means we have to answer back to someone because of something we have been given, in this case, freedom.

The reason why freedom involves a question of original responsibility is because free choice always involves a fundamental question: Is my free choice answerable to anyone, e.g., God, or to anything, e.g., human nature, reason?  Or, rather, is it answerable to nothing but myself?

That's the watershed question.

If your response to the question of original responsibility is that you are answerable to someone or something, then you believe that free choice follows reason and will, and, if you are believer, God's revealed commandments.

If your response to the question of original responsibility is that you are not answerable to someone or something but only yourself, then you believe that free choice commands reason and will.  This means there will ultimately be no morality other than your whimsy.

In discussing this issue, the moral theologian Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., speaks about two kinds of freedom which follow from how we answer this fundamental question.  He calls these two freedoms the  "freedom for excellence" and the "freedom of indifference." 
If you believe that free choice follows reason and will, then you believe in the "freedom for excellence."

If you believe that reason and will follow free choice, then you believe in the "freedom of indifference."

(Personally, I do not like the term "freedom of indifference," because the "freedom of indifference" is not really authentic freedom.  It is more like enslavement.  The philosopher Hume (who went down this "freedom of indifference" path to his probable damnation, but Deus solum iudicat), famously (and more accurately) said that, in his view, "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of passions."  I see this Humean "freedom of indifference" path not as offering any "freedom," but rather a slavery that is the natural punishment for rebellion.  St. Paul calls it living under the "wrath of God," the orgç theou, or ira Dei.  (Rom. 1:18)). 

"Freedom for excellence" is the only real route to freedom.  This, of course, is the freedom that is the subject of the great encyclical of Blessed John Paul II, Veritatis splendor (in which, by the way, the word freedom is used 192 times and the word free 27 times). 

Authentic freedom requires us to be answerable to the gift of freedom, and to the giver of that gift.  That means that free choice must be exercised in a way that respects our nature, our reason, and ultimately God, the author of nature and our reason. 

As Pope John Paul II noted in his encyclical Veritatis splendor, what Pinckaers calls "freedom for excellence" and the Pope calls "authentic freedom" requires certain things from us.

First, it requires obedience to God's commandments.  Obedience to the commandments is the "first necessary step on the journey toward freedom."  But as Pope John Paul II makes clear, "this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom."  (Veritatis splendor, No. 13).

What else, in addition to keeping the commandments, is required for perfect freedom?

According to Blessed John Paul II, to achieve perfect freedom, human freedom must mature.  He recognized that even if we keep the commandments we are, as St. Augustine put it, still "in part freedom, in part slavery," ex parte libertas, ex parte servitus. 

Perfect freedom demands that this half-free-half-slave condition be overcome by training in selflessness to the point where we are able to exercise "self-giving."  "Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called."  (Veritatis splendor, No. 17).  We have to be able to love God and love neighbor, and this requires moral training and moral effort.

How do we mature our freedom so that it may be perfect?

The growth toward perfect freedom requires the recognition that the moral life is connected to truth, and so involves the exercise of reason.  In particular it requires the exercise of conscience and the proper formation of conscience.  (In this regard, conscience has to listen to, and abide by, the teachings of the Church's Magisterium regarding the natural moral law and the divine law.)

It requires training and growth in the virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. 

It requires listening to one's human nature, its well-ordered inclinations, including the "theology of the body," but only when concupiscence is stilled.  Perfection is not gained by following the demands of a body that thirsts for a disordered passion.  "The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator,"  as John Paul II put it.  (Veritatis splendor, No. 48).

Perfect freedom is not something, however, we can achieve on our own.  We are not a bunch of Pelagians running around trying to save ourselves.  Even if we wanted to save ourselves and perfect ourselves, we can't.

To achieve perfect freedom requires the gift of God's grace.  (Veritatis splendor, No. 17)  It is "grace, which enables us to possess the full freedom of the children of God, and thus to live our moral life in a way worthy of our sublime vocation as 'sons in the Son.'"  (Veritatis splendor, No. 18). 

Perfect freedom is in fact the calling of the Christian.  "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."  (Gal. 5:1, 13).  There is therefore an "inseparable connection between the Lord's grace and human freedom."  (Veritatis splendor, No. 24) 

It is grace that allows the Christian to obey "the new law of the Holy Spirit," and thereby grow "in the freedom to which he or she is called by the service of truth, charity, and justice."  (Veritatis splendor, No. 107). 

It is also grace that obtains for us forgiveness when we fail in our pursuit for the "freedom for excellence."  "[I]f redeemed man still sins, . . .  though he has fallen into sin, [he] can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit."  (Veritatis splendor, No. 103)

In the public square, our country speaks of freedom to the point where it is hackneyed.  But the "freedom" touted on the television, taught in our public schools, claimed by all manner of activists, and heard in every political stump speech is a far cry from Servais Pinckaer's "freedom for excellence" or from Blessed John Paul II's "authentic freedom" or "perfect freedom."

Where are the cries of a responsible use of freedom?  Where are the suggestions that we may be answerable to God for the use of our freedom?  Where is the insistence that we must abide by the commandments?  Where is the realization that we must inculcate and grow in virtue?  Where is the awareness that we must properly form our conscience?  Where is the knowledge that we need God's grace to be free?

As a nation, it seems that we need to re-think freedom.


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for October 2015
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