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