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Human Freedom In The Economy Of Salvation

July 7, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

In last week’s reflection on the relationship between human freedom and responsibility, it was established that “freedom makes people responsible for their actions to the extent that they are voluntary” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 364).
Implied by this statement is that “not all human actions are equally imputable,” explains Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. “The two foci around which imputability revolves are knowledge and freedom; when both faculties are fully operative, the responsibility is complete, but when either is somehow inhibited, the resulting imputability is lessened” (The Catholic Catechism [TCC], p. 285).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) lists several factors that can diminish or nullify responsibility for an action: “ignorance, duress, fear, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC, n. 1746).
We also saw last week that ignorance is a somewhat ambiguous term — it can all too often be taken to mean the mere lack of knowledge. “Properly speaking, however,” asserts Fr. Hardon, “ignorance implies the absence of knowledge that somehow should be present, and then, depending on whether the absence is culpable or not, the knowledge is said to be vincible or invincible” (TCC, pp. 285-286).
Ignorance is invincible (derived from the Latin invincibilis, i.e., “unconquerable”) when there is no reasonable way, here and now, of dispelling it. Thus, a person cannot be held responsible for doing what he does not and could not know is wrong.
For vincible ignorance, however, lack of knowledge — whether direct (purposeful avoidance of knowledge) or indirect (due to negligence or indifference) — must be rectified. Failure to do so makes the person culpable for his or her action (or lack of action in the case of omission).
What about the second factor required for one to be morally responsible for his or her actions, the freedom to choose? Common human experience demonstrates that “emotions [or passions] are powerful inhibitors of clear thinking and free choice….People under emotional stress are not themselves and therefore should not be held as accountable for their actions as when their feelings are not strongly aroused” (TCC, p. 286).
In a class by itself is the emotion of fear — it “deserves special attention because of its pervasive influence on human conduct” (TCC, p. 287). In broad terms, fear can be defined as mental anxiety due to an impending evil; it is perhaps most intense when the danger faced could result in death. It should be noted that “fear is seldom so great as to deprive a person of all responsibility for actions performed” (ibid.).
One need look no further than Sacred Scripture to see the effect the emotion of fear can have on even the most ardent follower of Christ. Not long after Simon Peter, the first Vicar of Christ, declared to our Lord: “I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33), he denied His Master three times out of fear for his life (see Matt. 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Lk. 22:54-62).
How is fear (or any passion) vanquished? First, and most assuredly, it is not possible without the assistance of Christ’s grace. On our part, however, conquest over our unruly passions is acquired only through the practice of mortification — denying oneself of what is unnecessary on a daily basis — so as to progressively advance toward self-mastery.
As expressed by Fr. Albert Shamon in his commentary on Veritatis Splendor, “by doing so, we can become masters of our fate and captains of our souls” (Reflections on the Encyclical, p. 36).
To conclude its section on freedom and responsibility, the Catechism emphasizes that “the right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person” (CCC, n. 1738).
As proclaimed by the Vatican II fathers: “This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2 § 2). But this foundational freedom is one that has increasingly come under attack in recent years as influential government leaders, particularly in the former administration, have routinely replaced “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship” in policy speeches.
The distinction between the two is important, for as former U.S. Sen. Rick Sanctorum told students at Hope College (a Reformed Church school) in a presidential campaign speech: “Freedom of worship is what you do within the four walls of the church. Freedom of religion is what you do outside the four walls of the church” (Paul Moses, Commonweal, February 22, 2012).
An excellent explanation of what this subtle but far from harmless change in phraseology represents was outlined by Wesley Smith in a July 13, 2012 essay in First Things magazine:
“Under freedom of worship, the Catholic and Orthodox churches both remain perfectly free to teach that the Eucharistic bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ. Muslims can continue to require women to be segregated from men at the mosque. But outside worship contexts, the state may compel the faithful to violate their faith by acting in accord with secular morality rather than consistently with their dogmatic precepts” (emphasis added).
One need only consider a case that is currently making its way to the Supreme Court for a Christian man — whose only “crime” was to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding in violation of his deeply held convictions — to see the serious nature of attacks on religious freedom.
The Catechism ends its treatment of man’s freedom with a section entitled “Human Freedom in the Economy of Salvation” which briefly instructs the faithful on four topics: freedom and sin, threats to freedom, liberation and grace, and freedom and grace (see CCC, nn. 1739-1742). Sin, which in its very essence entails the creature’s rebellion against his Creator, limits and makes fallible man’s freedom: “By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin” (CCC, n. 1739).
“Often refusing to acknowledge God as his beginning,” state the Vatican II fathers, “man has disrupted his proper relationship to his own ultimate goal as well as his whole relationship toward himself and others and all created things” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 13 § 1). Truly, “sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons” (CCC, n. 387).
As demonstrated in an earlier column, “the exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything” (CCC, n. 1740), for “there is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (CCC, n. 1733).
As taught by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 Instruction Christian Freedom and Liberation, the widely held individualist ideology that freedom is possessed by the individual who is “fully self-sufficient and whose finality is the satisfaction of his own interests in the enjoyment of earthly goods” (n. 13 § 1) is deeply flawed.
By adhering to such a creed of life, man disregards the moral law written within his heart — he “violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth” (CCC, n. 1740). Indeed, true freedom is possessed only by those who put aside self-love and tirelessly strive to offer a complete gift of self.

True Freedom

In its brief paragraph on “liberation and salvation,” the Catechism immediately affirms that it is “by his glorious Cross [that] Christ has won salvation for all men” (CCC, n. 1741). Indeed, it is “for freedom [that] Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1); it is “where the Spirit of the Lord is [that] there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
However, when one hears the word liberation in a religious context, what first comes to mind for many is liberation theology, a movement within the Church that “has held as its main concern the exploitation of the poor” (Fr. John Hardon, SJ, Modern Catholic Catechism, p. 318).
Fr. Hardon goes on to warn against such false propositions as “God’s kingdom centers on this world, and not on the next; that sin is essentially a social evil and not an offense against God” (ibid.).
In an address he delivered in Puebla, Mexico in 1979, Pope St. John Paul II firmly taught that true liberation consists not only in “liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is, above all, liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by him” (III. 6; Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 9).
Lastly, in its teaching on freedom and grace, the Catechism purposefully teaches that “the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world” (CCC, n. 1742).
With firmness of heart, then, let our prayer be one with that of the Church: “Almighty and merciful God, graciously keep from us all adversity, so that, unhindered in mind and body alike, we may pursue in freedom of heart the things that are yours. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever” (Roman Missal, Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Collect).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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