Freedom. It’s that idea that America hinges on. A new world, the land of the free. The casting off of old traditions and dynasties and oppression. A fresh start. Every man the master of his fate. It’s the foundation of the nation and pinnacle of our goals, but what exactly is freedom? And what is the point of it?
In the modern, relativistic understanding, freedom means I am able to make my own choices without interference. It doesn’t matter what I choose, as long as I have the choice. I do what I want. Having the choice is tantamount. What choice is made is secondary.
As a teenager, I’d say, “Well, I’d never get an abortion, because for me, it would feel like killing my child. But I can’t tell someone else not to.” I got to avoid advocating abortion while promoting the freedom of choice. All it took was a worldview where killing is a personal feeling. What may be killing to one person isn’t to another. Relativism: the original alternative facts.
In a world like that, there is no right choice or wrong choice, because having the choice itself is virtue. St. John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” We should not be hindered by the state or by others. We do have the right to freely exercise our conscious. But our conscious should be informed by a moral guide. Our choices should matter. We need freedom in order to pursue the truth. Without truth, freedom is a useless tool.
Living under a communist state, St. John Paul II had a lot to say about freedom. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he cited John 8:32 (“and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”) and said: “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 freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.”
We are mired in illusory freedom, hollow promises that we control the universe, that we shape the truth to our desires. In a way, we are all little Veruca Salts; we want whatever we want, and we want it now. If freedom only means getting what we want when we want it, then we are never any better than a whiny, spoiled child. We never have to grow up or develop virtues like patience, charity, and self-control. In fact, it makes us slaves to our impulses and desires. Jesus goes on in John 8 to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).
True freedom means we are not subject to physical and psychological pressures and temptations. We can pick up crosses and flee temptations. We can help the needy and ward off demons. We can turn from our sinful nature and resist a sinful world. Freedom means being free from both external forces and internal impulses.
Choice is not the goal of freedom. Choice is only an opportunity to exercise freedom, to exercise one’s conscious free of coercion. There is no point in being free to make up my own truth and have choices in which my decision is arbitrary. But freedom to pursue and affirm truth, to reject that which enslaves me, to make the right choice: that is a worthy virtue.