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What is freedom, anyway? And how are we living it?


Chakravarthy | CC

Judy Landrieu Klein - published on 07/08/17

To paraphrase John Paul II, are we living together as we ought?
Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.  — St. John Paul II, October 8, 1995 Homily, Apostolic Journey to the United States of America

July 4, 2017 is now past, but it’s never too late to ponder a fundamental question related to our nation’s founding: What is freedom? 

That’s the exact question with which I began each semester of classes during the seven years I served as an adjunct professor of theology at a local Catholic college, teaching Healthcare Ethics and Sexual Ethics.

Every year, students’ answers inevitably boiled down less and less surprisingly to one clear mantra: freedom is the ability to do whatever we want, without restriction. I would then spend several weeks explaining the Christian concept of freedom, and why it has more to do with having the grace and strength to exercise self-restraint than the ability to act upon limitless choices.

I am reminded of that experience every July 4th, when I hear these words from America The Beautiful:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law!

Our freedom is made possible in large part through the practice of self-restraint, and as Pope John Paul II said on his apostolic visit to America in 1995, through “a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community.”

He went on to ask:

The basic question before a democratic society is: “how ought we to live together?” In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? Can the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate?

St. Paul gives us some key points of such Biblical wisdom in his letter to the Galatians, wherein he writes about freedom:

For freedom Christ has set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.         Galatians 5:1, 13-15

As we Americans celebrate freedom, and concurrently observe the world around us engaged in macro and micro level wars (including those among our brethren on social media), we would do well to ask ourselves how free we really are, and whether we are personally promoting war or peace, slavery or liberty. More specifically, are we engaging in behaviors that prevent us from “inheriting the kingdom of God,” including “hatreds, rivalry…outbursts of fury…dissension, factions and the like?” Or in contrast, are we allowing the Holy Spirit to grow us up in true freedom; freedom that is manifested in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?  (Galatians 5:19-23)

To paraphrase John Paul II, are we living together as we ought?

Of course, I’m preaching the Gospel to myself, and it is a message I am earnestly asking God for the grace to take to heart and live.  Will you join me?  Let us pray together the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which first appeared in France in 1912 on the eve of World War I.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.


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