Depending upon my mood when you ask me, Braveheart is my favorite movie (or Shawshank Redemption or Glory). The movie reaches its climax when the protagonist, Scottish rebel William Wallace, is being tortured in the public square for treason. He indicates to the executioner that he wants to speak and renounce his treasonous actions and ask for mercy. Instead, he cries out one word: “Freedom!” It is a remarkably moving scene. It’s almost enough to make one wish they were a Scotsman (almost). Freedom is a powerful idea that so many have fought and died for. With our Independence Day coming up we will certainly hear a lot about freedom. Whether the wars waged for independence were just wars is up for debate, but the power of freedom to stir many to make the ultimate sacrifice is unquestionable.
So what does freedom mean in the context of our Catholic faith? The dictionary definition of freedom is “the right to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” I think Catholics need to reject this definition as false. To have rights without responsibility is license, not freedom, and it is beneath the dignity of a human person. Consider someone who struggles with an addiction to drugs, or alcohol, or pornography. They could be provided with unlimited access to the object of their vice “without hindrance or restraint” but this would hardly qualify as freedom in any true sense. If anything it’s an example of slavery to a disordered will. Or, think of a factory owner who pollutes water with all kinds of toxins without government regulation to restrain them. Are they exercising the sort of freedom that inspires so many people? I tend to think not. But this popular notion of freedom—being allowed to do whatever we want—seems to be the dominant view in our society and we suffer for it.
As fallen humanity we can’t be free by doing whatever we will because our wills are corrupted. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) And we can’t be free by doing the will of other mere human beings because the corruption of the will affects all of us “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That means everyone, even the very best of us. Then how can we be free?
This Sunday’s second reading challenges our idea of what it means to be free and helps us to understand the truth about freedom. Saint Paul tells us that it was “for freedom” that Christ set us free. What is the freedom that Christ brings us to? Service in love to one another. True freedom is life as a disciple of Jesus Christ and only by sitting at His feet can we possibly be free. It might seem counterintuitive that surrendering our will to another person frees us, but Jesus isn’t just any person. He made us and knows the deepest desires of our hearts. He is the Divine Physician who heals our disordered passions and gives us the freedom to which we were called. The only way to truly declare our independence is to declare complete dependence on Jesus Christ.
“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
-Saint John Paul the Great
Last month, for Mother’s Day, I offered a reflection on the idea that a domestic Church (the family) can be analogized to a ship at sea. We are the pilgrim Church on earth, bound for our Heavenly homeland and the family is a microcosm of the Church. In the analogy I said that Mom was represented by the sails of the ship. If Mom is the sail then Dad is the rudder. The rudder, submerged in the water, gives the ship direction. This direction is the spiritual headship of the father and it is rooted in Scripture and Church teaching (notice I said “spiritual” headship, not “tv remote” headship or “I don’t have to do any housework” headship). Dads have the duty to bring family to God through a style of leadership that is modeled by Jesus and his adoptive father, Saint Joseph.
Saint Joseph has no lines in all of scripture. Like a rudder he remains mostly obscured. What speaks most loudly are Joseph’s actions, specifically his obedience to God. Even when he was told that God’s will for him was to risk public shame in marrying Mary, or to display humility in accepting less than ideal conditions for his wife to deliver Jesus, or to risk life and limb by escaping King Herod or to risk it again by returning to Nazareth, in all these instances Joseph obeyed. As head of his family Joseph gave Mary and Jesus the best thing he could give—subordination to God’s will without complaint or compromise. The same is required of all good fathers.
Christ shows what it means to be husband and father by dying for his Bride, the Church. Nothing Jesus said or did was to glorify himself or assert his own authority. Jesus only ever did the will of the Father. He was obedient to God even unto death, due to love for his Father and love for us. It is only through the lens of this kind of servant leadership shown by Christ and Saint Joseph that Ephesians 5:28-33 makes sense (the infamous “wives be subordinate to your husbands” passage). I encourage you to look it up and reflect on it in light of Christ and his Church, or Joseph and the Holy Family. There’s a tendency, especially in our more progressive and egalitarian society, to dismiss this passage as an embarrassing vestige from a lesser time. And while it is true that many men have been guilty of abusing their headship and “lording it over others” in the past and some still do today, I think it would be a mistake to throw a truth away because of a corruption of that truth. In this week’s gospel Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Despite the way headship can be misconstrued, a father is still called to lead his family to Christ by denying himself and taking up his cross first.
I’ve had the opportunity to observe the family dynamics of raising children to be faithful disciples of Jesus. In my experience the faith of a child can have a coldness and rigidity when mom’s input is muted or absent. When dad doesn’t take up his role as spiritual head there is almost no faith to be found at all. My father and mother worked together in a complementary way to raise us as Catholic disciples of Jesus Christ. We participated in Holy Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. We prayed the Rosary as a family. We talked about Jesus openly and often. My father and I would go camping and have some really great talks about what about our faith in God meant. It is because he took his duty as spiritual head seriously that I have a relationship with Jesus. I never got that football scholarship to Notre Dame. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class. I have yet to earn my first million. But I know who I am and I know am loved. I know Who made me and why He made me. And thanks to my dad, I know what kind of father I must be.
“‘Remember that one day your child will follow your example instead of your advice.’