God created man to be free, putting us into the hands of our own counsel (cf. Sirach 15:14), so that he might freely seek his perfection by loving his creator. As the Second Vatican Council explains:
“God willed that man “of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint” (Gaudium et Spes 17).
Eternal beatitude requires love, and we can only love if we are free.
But freedom does not mean the right or ability to do or say anything we want to (see CCC 1747). Freedom is the ability to love, which means to seek the good of one’s beloved and to unite oneself to him. The more one does what is good the freer one becomes. To disobey, to be unfaithful, and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (see CCC 1733).
Actions can only be evil if they are free. We wouldn’t think of punishing an asteroid for slamming into the earth and killing someone. Nor would we punish a man-eating shark, although we may kill it to prevent future attacks. We punish murderers and hold them responsible because they are free human beings.
“The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end…. Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness…. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 72).
Actions that are pure impulsive or reflex reactions can only be evil if the impulse or reflex was freely chosen, as when we deliberately give in to a habit that we know will lead to sin. For example, if we know that when we drink it leads to surfing the Internet and to falling into to compulsive pornography then choosing to drink would be the sin. Likewise, if we know that watching football will lead to angry outbursts and violent reactions, then to turn on the football game is the sin. Having a sinful dream in the middle of our nighttime sleep is not freely willed and therefore is not a sin.
Cultivating virtues—habitual acts of doing good—and overcoming vices increases our freedom to love and to do good.
Freedom and Responsibility, Grace and Law
Each of us is responsible for his acts to the extent that those actions are voluntary (see CCC 1734). Ignorance (of a child, for example), duress and manipulation, fear and other psychological or social factors can reduce or even eliminate our ability to make free decisions (see CCC 1746). Such factors coerce us into doing what we do know want to do (see Romans 7), thus reduce our responsibility. So to overcome ignorance, manipulation, and fear increase our freedom to love and our responsibility to pursue the good of the one we love.
God’s grace also increases our freedom because it gives us an ability to love. Grace is God’s love for us—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Knowing that we are loved by God—grace—gives us an opportunity to love God the Father and God the Son in return. This is “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Through the grace of the Holy Spirit working in our life through faith in Jesus Christ helps us to grow in our inner freedom, giving us the strength and confidence to endure periods of trial (see CCC 1742).
As God’s law is a gift—a grace—that guide the use of our freedom by directing our actions in ways that lead to union with God and the pursuit of the good of our beloved. That is why Pope St. John Paul II tells us:
“God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom: rather, it protects and promotes that freedom” (Veritatis Splendor 35).
So, let’s embrace a life of grace, law, and freedom that we can truly be free to love as God so created us.
Fr. John R. Waiss
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