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Freedom And Truth

June 23, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


A preeminent truth that no man can deny is the universal desire for happiness — it is a goal that is common to all. This innate desire was identified and written of more than three centuries before Christ by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his classic work entitled Nicomachean Ethics.
At the same time, the pagan philosopher realized that not all agree on what constitutes happiness. For as St. Augustine wrote centuries later in his Confessions: “As one looks for his joy in this thing, another in that, all agree in their desire of being happy” (book X, chapter 21).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that this desire is divine in origin. Our Creator has “placed [the natural desire for happiness] in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it” (CCC, n. 1718). Furthermore, as aptly encapsulated by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, we saw that “unlike the fleeting pleasures we may receive from wealth, power, human admiration, and so on, only the happiness promised by Christ . . . will endure. It alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart. It alone provides a foretaste of the perfect happiness in store for us in eternity” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 99).
Fr. Hardon further observed that because the desire for happiness originates with God, it can be realized only through our generous cooperation with His will, by our sincere effort to live out the eight Beatitudes. “The Beatitudes confront us with decisive choices concerning earthly goods,” teaches the Catechism. “They purify our hearts in order to teach us to love God above all things” (CCC, n. 1728).
Final beatitude, however, is a gift from God that cannot be earned by our efforts alone. It requires the help of God’s grace; it is imperfect or incomplete during our earthly pilgrimage; it is made perfect or complete only in Heaven; and it is the experience of our response to grace in this life, and our hope of glory in the life to come (cf. BCCC, p. 99).
The Catechism next focuses its attention on a topic of utmost importance for the moral life, namely man’s freedom, by affirming that “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions” (CCC, 1730).
This aspect of our human nature, of having been created in the “image and likeness of God” (cf. Gen. 1:26-27) with an intellect to know and free will to choose, was similarly underscored by the Second Vatican Council fathers:
“God has willed that man remain ‘under the control of his own decisions’ (cf. Sirach 15:14), so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. . . . Man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 17).
It would be good at this juncture to look closely at the meaning of the term “freedom.” The Catechism defines freedom as “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” (CCC, n. 1731).
Furthermore, freedom is inextricably linked to truth, for as Jesus solemnly proclaimed to His disciples: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). In an instruction entitled Christian Freedom and Liberation (CFL) that was issued in 1986 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as prefect, it was stated that these words of Jesus “must enlighten and guide all theological reflection and all pastoral decisions in this area” (CFL, n. 3 § 1).
Regarding this same verse, St. John Paul II stated in the first encyclical of his pontificate that “these words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world. Today also, even after two thousand years, we see Christ as the one who brings man freedom based on truth, frees man from what curtails, diminishes, and as it were breaks off this freedom at its root, in man’s soul, his heart, and his conscience” (Redemptor Hominis, n. 12 § 3).
“All men are bound to seek the truth,” affirm the council fathers, “especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 1 § 2).
In his groundbreaking encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor (VS), which was promulgated in 1993, Pope St. John Paul II began his teaching with an affirmation that people “are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Peter 1:22)” (VS, n. 1 § 1). Despite the fact that his intellect has been darkened due to the effects of original sin, every man retains “a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it” (VS, n. 1 § 3).
However, at the same time, the Holy Father identified a “genuine crisis” in the contemporary world characterized by “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine” (VS, n. 4 § 2).
The crux of the modern-day crisis is that the world tends to view freedom and God’s moral law as being in opposition with one another; in other words, the moral law is perceived as a limit or constraint to one’s freedom. As expressed by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in volume 3 of Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The profound misunderstanding of the modern age is believing that human freedom consists in the completely unrestrained, unconditional determination of self, which is limited only from outside, by laws and norms” (p. 20).
In reality, the exact reverse is true: “The more we do what is good and practice virtues . . . the more firmly established we become in our freedom” (ibid.). True freedom consists in choosing fitting means to attain the end for which we were created, above all through the perfection of charity which consists in the authentic gift of self in imitation of our Crucified Savior.
“Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness,” teaches the Catechism. “It attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC, n. 1731).
If freedom is not directed toward God, what is the consequence? The Catechism answers this question by instructing us that if our use of reason and free will “has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning” (CCC, n. 1732).
However, man must realize it is not he who creates and determines what is good and what is evil. Being a creature, man must recognize and respect with trust that he is “dependent on his Creator and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom” (CCC, n. 396).
This truth of man’s nature is clearly manifested in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis (see Gen. 2:16f). As retired Cardinal Justin Rigali explains in an article entitled “Freedom and Responsibility,” one aspect of the great dignity with which man was created is “the freedom to choose between the two. By using our reason and following a well-informed conscience, we are able to discern what is good and what is evil.”
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve succumbed to the Devil’s temptation by trying to create and determine good and evil on their own.
Pope St. John Paul II explains this truth of human nature in his 1986 encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem (DeV): “‘The tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ was to express and constantly remind man of the ‘limit’ impassable for a created being. . . . God the Creator is the one definitive source of the moral order in the world created by him. Man cannot decide by himself what is good and what is evil — cannot ‘know good and evil, like God.’ In the created world, God indeed remains the first and sovereign source for deciding about good and evil” (DeV, n. 36 §§ 1-2).
In contemporary times, due to unprecedented scientific and technological advances, many have concluded that man can “become master of nature,” that “the servitude which he had experienced up to this point was based on ignorance and prejudice. By wresting from nature its secrets, man would subject it to his own service” (CFL, n. 7).
A principal error that manifests itself with this thinking is “the widely held conviction that it is the progress achieved in the fields of the sciences, technology, and economics which should serve as a basis for achieving freedom” (CFL, n. 21 § 1).
Based on this false ideology, man considers himself free “when he is able to do whatever he wishes without being hindered by an exterior constraint and thus enjoys complete independence” (CFL, n. 25 § 1). However, as the Church teaches: “There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (CCC, n. 1733), a topic that will be examined more fully in future columns.

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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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