Conversations about moral issues today are often fueled with passion. But in many cases I have found that they are also rooted in a great deal of misunderstanding about the idea of freedom. For many people in our modern culture, the freedom to choose is exalted to the point of rejecting truth and any authority outside of one’s self.
For example, I was recently having a conversation with an acquaintance about the moral issues of our day (abortion, same sex marriage, gender identity, euthanasia). The individual is an admitted relativist and he promoted the opinion I hear often. “No one should impose their moral views on others,” he said. His arguments were typical as he continued by making the point that, “Even though there are some actions I oppose personally, I cannot profess that everyone should hold these same values. Everyone should have the freedom to choose what is right and wrong and how they want to act.”
This mindset is pervasive in our culture, yet it is also a very inconsistent ideology. In my conversation, I told him I hold there are absolute moral truths binding on all people. As an example, intentionally ending an innocent human life is murder. It is always wrong, such as in abortion or euthanasia. In response he said that this is intolerant of other people’s opinions and to enforce this as a law would be an act of oppression.
Relativism is hypocrisy
I immediately pointed out to him the hypocrisy of such a position. As a relativist, he is claiming to be tolerant of subjectivity yet this did not to apply for people like me who hold to absolutes. I went on to explain that if people are consistent about allowing people to make gods of themselves, defining what is right and wrong, then we have to admit that anything goes. A relativist cannot criticize the Nazis, Stalin, the KKK or the 9-11 terrorists nor can he even hold these acts as being heinous and evil since that would be an absolute judgment.
But the most important point I tried to make in my conversation was that at the heart of the relativistic worldview is a denial or blindness to the reality of who man is and what we were created for. While I agree that every person should have the freedom to choose, I oppose relativism, individualism, and subjectivism because I believe we should be fighting for something far greater.
The reality is our freedom to choose was given to us for the sake of higher freedom – an authentic freedom we are being offered in Christ Jesus. And if we deny the existence of absolute truths and goodness, if we reject sin and disregard the need for repentance, and if we glorify the freedom to choose as an end in itself, we are losing this true freedom. This is not only dangerous but destructive.
As Christians, we acknowledge God has given us the gift of free will. However, this freedom to choose is not an end in itself. Rather, we recognize God calls us to a higher freedom – the ability to become the person God created us to be. As Christians, we desire this true freedom for all but, in order to fight for it, we must better understand what God has revealed about this authentic freedom.
Scripture tells us, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). In this passage, Paul tells us that Christ freed us from something for something. Paul teaches us that, as a result of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, we were made free, not simply from sin but for freedom. This authentic freedom allows for the ultimate expression of our free will. It is the ability we now have in Christ to become holy and righteous. We are now free to receive the gift of eternal life with God.
Aspects of Freedom
In trying to better understand this further, it may be helpful to look at the different ways we can ponder the idea of freedom. From one perspective, we could speak of extrinsic freedom. This is freedom from physical slavery or oppression. Slavery is always wrong, and we should fight for this type of freedom for all. But extrinsic freedom is not the kind of freedom Christ won for us on the cross. Yes, Christ came to “set the captives free,” but with his death we do not see the shackles literally falling off. The kind of slavery and freedom Christ cared most about was something far greater. It was so great that even a person unjustly enslaved could possess it.
Freedom can also be understood from an intrinsic perspective. One form of this internal freedom is our freedom to choose – our free will. This is the power to do this or do that by my own judgment. This gift was given to us by God as part of our human nature but, after the sin of Adam and Eve, man’s free will was weakened. Man became more easily moved to choose evil over the good. But since man never lost this freedom to choose, this also cannot be the freedom Christ offers us.
What we then discover is God gives us the freedom to choose for the sake of another type of intrinsic freedom. It is this higher form of freedom Paul speaks of when he writes, “For freedom Christ has set you free.” This freedom Christ has now made possible for us is the ability to live according to God’s plan and design for our life. It is the freedom to become the person God made us to be.
The mistake our culture too often makes is seeing our “freedom to choose” as an end in itself. In reality, we are to cooperate with God’s grace and use our free will to choose the good, the noble and the true. In following this path of holiness, we are becoming Saints. And since God has made us for heaven, it is only in this pursuit that we are able to fulfill our purpose and experience authentic freedom.
Abuse of our Free Will
Rather than extol this true freedom though, our culture glorifies a counterfeit freedom. In this counterfeit freedom what matters is the freedom to choose regardless of what choice is made. One is to do whatever one wants and disavow any constraints, rules, or objective moral laws. For those who accept this distorted view of life, the emphasis is on selfishness and desire. It disregards truth and objective goodness. The tragedy of this is that one holds the ego supreme while turning away from God’s plan and purpose.
As Christians we are grateful for our freedom to choose and we oppose any attempts of coercion and oppression such that one loses this freedom. However, we are cognizant that this gift is to be used according to God’s design for it – to choose the good, the holy and the true. The unchanging reality is that we are creatures who have been made for heaven. We were made to be in communion with God for eternity. We are free to be rebellious children who turn away from the life of holiness to which we are called, but we will never be free from the consequences of our choices.
The Consequences of Freedom
In every human heart there is a longing for happiness, goodness, truth, joy and peace. But without God, these desires will never be satisfied. We will only fulfill our God-given purpose when we use our freedom to choose to accept the authentic freedom Christ offers. Only then will we experience perfect fulfillment in heaven and lack nothing. But if we abuse our free will and reject God’s divine plan preferring instead one of our own making, we are opting for a life separated from God. Removing ourselves from the fount of all life, results in a life of misery, pain, anguish, sorrow, despair and unfulfillment, both in this life and the next.
We need to evangelize our culture and echo the words of St. Peter: “Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). We need to inform others that we are not to use our gift of free will to choose evil or see it as a license to do whatever we please. In order to fulfill our purpose, we are to choose holiness, righteousness, obedience and Godliness.
God made us for heaven
Some people seem to have a hard time grasping this. We should not be celebrating our freedom to choose but the true freedom Christ won for us. Authentic freedom is not founded on relativistic, subjective, individualistic views of the world. It is founded on the reality that God made us for heaven. Anything we freely choose that turns us away from this goal enslaves us and we become less free to become the person God made us to be. It is only in striving for holiness and desiring to become Saints that we will truly experience what it means to be free.
(I highly recommend reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1730-1876.)