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Catholic Social Teaching and Authentic Human Freedom

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By Andrew Greenwell, Esq.
12/27/2011 (7 years ago)
Catholic Online (

The fullness of freedom consists in the capacity to be in possession of oneself in view of the genuine good

Many kinds of slavery wear a false frock of freedom to cover their blemishes.  But the freedom the Church has in mind is a responsible freedom, not an irresponsible freedom, which in fact is no freedom at all.  As John Paul II defined it in his homily in Orioles Park at Camden Yards in October 1995, "freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - "For freedom,Christ has set us free", the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians (Gal. 5:1): qua libertate nos Christus liberavit.  Freedom is a central value of the Church's social doctrine, along with truth, justice, and love. Libertas Christi urget nos. The freedom of Christ spurs us on.

Freedom, however, is one of those words that is so easily abused on the lips of the libertine, of the moral relativist who considers himself unbounded by objective truth and objective right.  "O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!" exclaimed Madam Roland as she bowed before the statute of liberty in the Place de la Révolution before the guillotine severed her head from her body.  "O Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!"

Many kinds of slavery wear a false frock of freedom to cover their blemishes.  But the freedom the Church has in mind is a responsible freedom, not an irresponsible freedom, which in fact is no freedom at all.  As John Paul II defined it in his homily in Orioles Park at Camden Yards in October 1995, "freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."

It is not the freedom to do what we want, but the freedom to do what we ought that is the "highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, as a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person." (Compendium, No. 199)  An irresponsible freedom detracts from the freedom of the sons of God and consequently stains--even eclipses--his dignity. 

"Every human person," states the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, "created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being." (Compendium, No. 199)  It is important to note the conjunction: we have a natural right to be "free and responsible," not simply free.

Freedom is not something we exercise only in regard to ourselves, solipsistically, egoistically.  Such a restrictive notion of freedom is Hell.  "Hell," T. S. Eliot had the loveless husband say to his unloving wife in his play "The Cocktail Party," "is oneself, Hell is alone, the other figures in it, merely projections.  There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to. One is always alone."  In such a place, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. All is restraint. There is no choice.  There is no freedom.

In his "Stanzas on Freedom," the American Romantic poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell asked this question:

Is true Freedom but to break
Fetters for our own dear sake,
And, with leathern hearts, forget
That we owe mankind a debt?

Freedom is exercised not only for oneself, but with regard to others, that is to say, communally.  Freedom is necessarily "exercised in relationships between human beings."  For this reason, 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." (Compendium, No.199)  Heaven is not alone.  Heaven is communion, communion with God, and with his angels and saints.  To invoke again James Russell Lowe, who answers the question he posed just earlier in the poem and quoted above:

No! true freedom is to share
All the chains our brothers wear,
And, with heart and hand, to be
Earnest to make others free!

The Compendium summarizes this quite nicely: "Far from being achieved in total self-sufficiency and the absence of relationships, freedom only truly exists where reciprocal bonds, governed by truth and justice, link people to one another." (Compendium, No. 199).

While communal and not solipsistic, the cloth of freedom is not dyed one color and does not come in one size, like a Mao suit.  Freedom allows for legitimate self-expression within certain moral constraints and constraints required by the requirements of civil society and life in common.  Freedom's value allows for the "expression of the singularity of each human person" within the constraints of right and due order. (Compendium, No. 200)

This sort of freedom should be reflected in the civil liberties enjoyed and practiced by those in a well-ordered polity.  In a well-ordered civil society, the following are the broad freedoms within which one can express his personal autonomy responsibly:

-    the freedom to fulfill his personal vocation;
-    the freedom to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural, and political ideas;
-    the freedom to express his opinions;
-    the freedom to choose his state of life, and, as far as possible, his line of work;
-    the freedom to pursue initiatives of an economic, social, or political nature.

Naturally, these freedoms are not exercised in vacuo, in a vacuum.  They are exercised in communio, within a community.  For this reason, they must be exercised within the matrix of a "'strong juridical framework,' within the limits imposed by the common good and public order, and, in every case, in a manner characterized by responsibility." (Compendium, No. 200)

There are some places where freedom cannot go, where it may not enter.  For there are places where one goes from freedom to unfreedom, from true freedom to what are just elusive shades and shadows of freedom.  Freedom will recognize those limits, and therefore it will "refuse what is morally negative, in whatever guise it may be presented."  Freedom accordingly includes the "capacity to distance oneself effectively from everything that could hinder personal, family, or social growth." (Compendium, No. 200)  This suggests that freedom is found only in virtue, and never in vice.  "Only a virtuous people," wrote Benjamin Franklin unerringly, "are capable of freedom."

In short, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it (§ 1731): "Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude."

The Compendium summarizes its view of freedom in this manner: "The fullness of freedom consists in the capacity to be in possession of oneself in view of the genuine good," which, of course ultimately is God, "within the context of the universal common good." (Compendium, No. 200)


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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