In September of 2003 Pope John Paul II spoke an urgent message from Slovakia to the world. In a closing outdoor Mass, attended by 150,000 faithful, he gave a homily that contained these words:
"In our days, many baptized Christians have not yet made their faith their own in an adult and conscious way…They call themselves Christians and yet they do not respond in a fully responsible way to the grace they have received; they still do not know what they want and why they want it…. This is the lesson to be learned today: An education to freedom is urgently needed…. Especially in the family, parents must educate their children to a correct freedom, so as to prepare them to respond properly to God's call… . The family is the nursery where the little plants, the new generations, are nurtured. In the family, the future of the nation is forged."
This "education to freedom" is the antidote for a Western culture that has become diseased, drunk and debauched on what this Pope has elsewhere called a "counterfeit notion of freedom." In fact, it may be the greatest need of a culture and society that is on the road to its own demise. We live in a culture and an age that has succumbed to a false understanding of freedom. Let me give just a few examples.
This culture has hidden the intrinsic evil of killing innocent human life in the first home of the whole human race, the womb, behind the language of "freedom of choice". Yet, the truth is that some choices are always and everywhere evil and wrong. They should not be called free. In fact, they are criminal even if not currently deemed to be so in the positive law.
This culture gives legal protection to the commercial trade in pornographic images that turns the bodies of women and men into objects to be used for self centered deviate sexual gratification. This is not freedom. True freedom is promoted when a society recognizes that the whole person, body and soul, is an image of God. Such a truly free society protects and esteems the dignity and beauty of sexual relations within the stable bond of heterosexual marriage and builds itself upon the natural fruit of that bond, the family. Instead, this society uses the police power of the State, through the judicial branch, to protect even child pornography under a misguided notion of free speech.
This society is on the brink of destroying itself by failing to protect its first, vital cell, the family. It encourages a social and cultural revolution, which has as its explicit goal giving promiscuous, non-unitive, non-procreative deviate sexual acts between men and men and women and women, equal legal status with marriage. If this profane goal is achieved, this counterfeit of marriage will then be "protected", with the power of the State, by the very Judges who are now using misguided and errant notions of freedom to advance this Cultural Revolution. The effect could be the demise of true marriage - the plan that is written in the natural law for human fulfillment, flourishing and the continuation of the human race - as well as the erosion of a healthy social fabric. These new Caesars in Black robes hide their fundamental error concerning the meaning of life and sexuality under a banner of a counterfeit freedom for people to do whatever they please as long as it can be found within some "penumbra" of privacy. Such a "brave, new world" as the one they are trying to force upon others will be hell for all, including those who struggle with homosexual temptation.
Finally, though this society has the most potential for expanding economic freedom, opportunity and participation, perhaps of any society in history, it fails to hear the cry of the poor. It allows its vibrant economic order, with so much potential to truly liberate people, under some mistaken notion of economic freedom, to instead protect the misuse of the goods of the earth, which have a universal destination. This kind of a notion of economic freedom can devolve into a sanctioned selfishness that fails to recognize that for the market to be truly free it must be at the service of the person, the family and the common good.
This Pope’s profound insights and teachings on the beauty and dignity of marriage and family, the human body and human sexuality (compiled under the theme of a "theology of the body") has revolutionary potential and is the path to authentic sexual liberation and true freedom. His insights into freedom, including economic freedom have immense potential to help build a more just society. We desperately need an education to freedom.
To understand how we can respond to this Pope’s call to an "education to freedom" we need to understand the theological hermaneutic that informs John Paul II’s entire body of teaching. Such an effort could take volumes. However, for purposes of this piece, let me attempt to do so in short order.
The philosophy that guides the thought of Pope John Paul is referred to as personalism. Personalism positions the human person and the dignity of the human person at the center and foundation of all philosophical and theological analysis. In the writings of Pope John Paul II, from his monumental "the "Love and Responsibility", onward through his vast body of papal pronouncements, this personalism provides the roadmap for all who would seek to understand and mine the deep insights and treasures which this great philosopher Pope expounds.
Some important personalistic insights in his thinking include: that subjective experiences can only be fully understood through their relationship to objective truth, which can be known by all men and women through the Natural Law; and which is confirmed through revelation; that, fundamentally, human persons are relational in their ontology, their essence, and, because of that, it is only in and through relationship with the "other" (individually, in family and community) that they become the persons they were created – and re-created in Christ- to be.
This personalist vision views human freedom as a "good" of the person which can only be truly and authentically exercised in relationship to truth, in conformity to an objective moral order and must be placed at the service of the person, the family and the common good. Freedom is thus not an abstract concept. Only human persons can be free because only human persons have the capacity to make choices. The fulfillment of the call and vocation to the right exercise of human freedom is found in the free choice of the good and the free gift of self to others in love. Love is, in essence, the gift of self. Finally, only an authentic exercise of human freedom is the path to human fulfillment as well as to building a truly just social order.
Inherent in these insights is the profound understanding that there is a reflexive nature to the exercise of human freedom and choice. That is to say that not only do our choices affect the world around us, but our moral choices actually change us; they make us to be the persons that we choose as acting persons. Our choices not only affect the "outside" world but the "inside" world as well. In the very act of choosing we change ourselves. There is a self- determining character to our exercise of the freedom of choice.
The ancient Christian Father, Gregory of Nyssa expressed this insight so well in reminding us "… we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our own decisions." The New Testament is filled with the insight. We "become" adulterers when we look at a woman with lust (Mt. 5:28); what comes out of our "heart" (The "heart" is the biblical center where freedom is exercised, human choices are made and character formed) is what makes us "unclean" (Mk 7:14-23).
In an age in which has collectively chosen to worship the golden calf of unencumbered "choice"; we who are Christians must ask ourselves some very serious questions. Who are we making ourselves to be---as individuals and as a nation--in the choices we are making?
Not only is personalism the key to unlocking the content of Pope John Paul’s teaching, it is essential to understand his deep theological insights, which is essential if we are to engage in any fruitful effort to apply them to our lives, use them to rightly order society and allow them to inform our real work in the real world.
In the teaching of Pope John Paul II, Divine Revelation is the self-communication of a personal God to human persons; the Incarnation is the "meeting" of two personal realities - human and divine in Jesus Christ; and religious freedom is fundamental to any authentic vision of human freedom because we cannot become fully who we are created to be without a relationship to God. Social ethics and justice can only be truly understood within a vision of the human community that views the dignity of all human persons as the polestar of economics, politics, education, the arts…. indeed all of human social life and existence.
It is not an accident of history that this profound philosopher/theologian Pope has been entrusted with the most important role of service in the Church and the world at this critical time in human history. Many, myself included in their number, believe that he is also a Prophet for our time. In his missionary message, carefully developed from his first encyclical letter entitled "The Redeemer of Man" forward, he has not stopped passionately re-presenting the classical, unchanging, Christian message with a prophetic urgency, profound clarity and contemporary relevance for our time.
In so doing he has left no area of human existence untouched. The central core tenets of his personalism are unpacked and expounded upon in a beautiful, coherent, body of philosophy and theology that will be left as the legacy of this great thinker and Pope. The transforming themes of his work form a body of rich theology (and philosophy) that lays the ground for the authentic renewal of the Church and through her, the transformation of human culture. However, they are all too often left on the page or remain in the academy. How desperately we need this "education in freedom." Our task is to read them, unpack them, understand them and then use them to frame our response to this "education to freedom" by responding to our call to both sanctify ourselves and transform the age. When I did graduate work at his Institute (the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and family of the Lateran University) I once commented to a colleague that I personally believed that the writings of Pope John Paul II had for this age the same -or greater- potential than the writings of Thomas Aquinas did for his age to transform the world. I went further as my studies progressed and said one day "a greater than Thomas is here". My colleague was incredulous at first, but as our studies further unfolded, he came to consider my claim to be a distinct possibility. I stand by the statement.
The great "personalist" in the Chair of Peter understands man and woman. In the oft quoted paragraph 22 of the great Church document "Guadium et Spes" (Joy and Hope) we find a key to his deep anthropological vision and profound faith: "In reality, it is only in the mystery of the word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling."
An Authentic Vision of Human Freedom
An authentic vision of human freedom is one of the great themes - or "hermaneutics" - of this Popes’ thought and teaching. A "hermeneutic" is a lens through which one views something. One of the Lenses through which John Paul II views the panorama of current global challenges facing us all as we seek to live the Christian vision and mission is the lens of "authentic" versus "counterfeit" notions of human freedom. The fact that there are counterfeit notions of freedom is one of the reasons that an "education to freedom" is so desperately needed in our time. We need to, in his words, "set freedom free."
Freedom is a "good" of the person. Not an abstract concept, freedom must be exercised by acting, human persons. The fullness of freedom is found in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, who through His life, death and resurrection has shown us in His Sacred humanity the path of the fully and truly human and in Divinity has capacitated us all to an exercise of authentic freedom through His Redemption. He is the One who truly sets us free! It is sin, and the resulting "concupiscence" that has fractured our capacity to exercise freedom correctly. That "sin", which was in its first instance the wrong exercise of freedom, has led to the errant notion of freedom as a right to do whatever one pleases.
In his monumental work "The Gospel of Life" Pope John Paul warns of what he called a "counterfeit notion of freedom". He positions this counterfeit as the root cause of what he has labeled the "culture of death." By using that phrase, "culture of death", he has coalesced all the current social evils; from abortion (which is always and everywhere intrinsically evil); to modern slaveries, (including pornography and drug addiction); to disdain for the poor and a cheapening of all life (which has sustained capital punishment, which, though not taught to be intrinsically evil, is clearly taught by the Church as no longer justified to protect the common good of society when bloodless means are available and to be rejected); as well as the foreboding momentum toward misguided use of technologies, active and passive euthanasia and the return of eugenics.
All of these evils find their roots in a utilitarian worldview that sees human persons as instruments and property rather than images of God, unrepeatable gifts, with endowed, inalienable rights. He warns that what he calls a "Promethean attitude" that is being embraced by individuals, groups, states and regimes, which view the person as some "thing" rather than someone to be received as a gift.
This attitude has become institutionalized in "structures of sin" that are rooted in - and propelled by - a view of freedom as a raw power over others, especially the most vulnerable. This notion of freedom as some "right" to do whatever one chooses without reference to what is true, moral or in keeping with our obligations in solidarity, has led to what he calls "the death of true freedom" in that same extraordinary encyclical letter.
In his letter, the "Splendor of Truth" he further develops this important "hermeneutic." This letter is a "magna carta" on the moral life. In it he brilliantly articulates the path to recovering authentic human freedom through the proper understanding and exercise of the freedom to choose the good. The profound insights of this letter reveal the stuff that families, communities and nations can be built - and rebuilt- upon.
He has written more than any occupant in the Chair of Peter. His exhortations, apostolic letters and encyclicals contain an extraordinary philosophical and theological framework for the education in freedom." The real problem is they are often unread, even by Catholics. Contrary to what some Catholics may think, these "Encyclical Letters" contain extremely relevant insights not just for Christians or ‘religious" people but for all people. After all, no one owns truth; it has a claim upon all of us. Only the truth will set us free. Interestingly, the word "Encyclical" simply means "circulating" and was coined in the first centuries of the Church when these letters were literally circulated to be read. They should be once again. They are the path to this "education to freedom".
The Response to the Challenge
He spoke the message with which I began this discussion, where he called for an "education to freedom" from Slovakia. He stood beneath an image of Mary, the mother of the Lord, to whom he is so profoundly devoted precisely, among other reasons, because she is a model of the ultimate exercise of Human freedom. Through her "Fiat", her freely chosen surrender of love to God’s invitation, heaven was brought to earth and earth to heaven. True freedom still can bring heaven to earth. Forty years ago that exact image of Mary had been removed from the same site when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the city. His message was decidedly different.
Also in the backdrop behind the Pope were two other banners. The first was an icon of Marxist-Leninism, only one of the many failed ideologies of the bloody twentieth century. Movements, right and left, that embraced and proclaimed a false view of freedom, characterized that century A counterfeit a-theistic promise of freedom led to enslavement and killing fields - all in the name of creating a "new man" and a utopian State, without reference to God. The second was an icon of Jesus Christ, who still proclaims to the men and women of all the nations of the world that authentic freedom is found at a cross of true love and progresses along a path of repentance and forgiveness. He is the One who proclaims that we can "know the truth and the truth will set us free".
Here is the real question; are we listening?
Will we who are joined through our Baptism to the Body of Christ, which carries on the great redemptive mission of Jesus, hear the invitation of this giant in Peters’ chair? Will we educate ourselves in freedom and rise up to set the captives of our age free? Authentic Freedom is, after all, our mission. This frail but powerful lion in the Chair of Peter is calling all those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, to freely give ourselves away in redemptive love. We are called to walk the Way with the Redeemer of man so that the world may be set free!
How will we respond?
Today, like millions of others, I rose to once again read a newspaper filled with stories of crisis. The world teeters on the brink of collapse as it continues to be deluded by the siren songs of counterfeit notions of freedom, right, left and in between. False visions of man, some profanely dressed up in pseudo- religious language, continue to lead many to horror and bloodshed. False visions of freedom as a "right" to do whatever one chooses in a moral vacuum predominate, propelled by a false notion of the autonomous self as the measure of all things. A plague of license masquerading as liberty rages, and our age has become entrenched in a "new morality" that is no morality, in fact, it is actually a thinly disguised "new" paganism.
How desperately we need this education to freedom!
The West, with all of its promise of freedom, still flirts with "economism." This is a phrase used in the social teaching of the Catholic Church to refer to an instrumentalist materialism devoid of any understanding that the market was made for man not man for the market. In this kind of economic order the accumulation of capital triumphs over the flourishing of the person, the family and the common good and the poor are forgotten. The current market economy (which could be such a force for good if it were to be truly humanized and expanded to offer participation to all men and women) teeters on the brink of what the Pope has rightly labeled a "savage capitalism." It is no surprise that such an opportunity for good could be corrupted in a culture that has lost its moral compass. We desperately need this education to freedom.
On the hundreth anniversary of his predecessor’s encyclical letter on economic issues, Pope John Paul wrote these words: " Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model, which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World, which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress? The answer is obviously complex.
If by capitalism is meant an economic system, which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a `business economy,' `market economy,' or simply `free economy'. But, if by `capitalism' is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative." (Centesimus Annus, n. 42)
In the West, increasingly Stat-ist regimes are now demoralized from within and throwing off any vestiges of their Christian history and soul, even in their new constitutions. The last vestiges of the twentieth century’s flirtation with the counterfeit of Marxist ideology have so isolated themselves that they seem hidden in the cave of ignorance while still armed with the weapons of a potential nuclear holocaust. They are racing toward the "promethean attitude" of which John Paul II warned in the "Gospel of Life."
And then there are those in the East, who under a frightening notion they are serving God by committing egregious acts of terror, now hide in caves in a repulsive notion of being "freedom" fighters, while they call evil good and insidiously plot murderous tirades in an insane aberration of dedication to some pseudo-religious worldview.
Is it any wonder that this now frail representative of Christ on earth, has so urgently called for an "education to freedom"?
When I first read this powerful message I decided that I would do all that I could to educate my family because I know, as the pope said so beautifully: " The family is the nursery where the little plants, the new generations, are nurtured. In the family, the future of the nation is forged." I then rededicated myself to clerical service in my own little portion of the Lords Church, that wonderful Body of Christ on earth, the "seed and beginning of the kingdom" as the Council fathers so beautifully proclaimed the Church to be, to help advance this education to freedom as a Deacon of the Church. Finally, I re-dedicated my social activism and professional pursuits as a human rights lawyer to the Lord and His Church, deciding to engage the age even more and determined to effect lasting change. I know that the social teaching of the Catholic Church contains both a framework and a set of principles that can lead us all in responding to the work that such an "education to freedom" entails. These principles are not true because they are Catholic; they are Catholic because they are true and they offer the path to lasting and effective change.
As we begin the Third Christian Millennium, we are sent into a world that is yearning for truth, authentic human freedom and waiting to be born again. This Polish Pope understands that only authentic freedom can satisfy the deepest longing of all men and women. We were made for freedom because we were made for God. He also knows that the path to this freedom leads to and through the One who not only reveals the Father to man but reveals man to himself, Jesus Christ.
After completing his homily in Slovakia, two young people came forward to give Pope John Paul a handwritten copy of the New Testament. They had spent two months handwriting the text. The final words were written by Cardinal Jan Chryzostom Korec, who had spent 12 years in prison under the tyranny of communism. This sacred text reveals the One who is the hope of the entire world, the Word become flesh, Jesus the Christ. They are the greatest textbook for this education to freedom.
This Pope has demonstrated the exercise of authentic freedom in his life and in his courageous leadership. He has lived a life of poured out love for God and for the world. The Pope knows, as we must know that God still loves the world so much that He sends His Son into through those of us who are incorporated into His Body through Baptism. It is our task to undertake this education to freedom. This is the Pope that helped to bring down that wall in Berlin, a symbol of one past counterfeit notion of freedom. He tirelessly labored on behalf of the Lord, the Church and for the world. He has now left a legacy to be unpacked, proclaimed, incarnated and lived. When the Lord calls him home, he will be remembered as "John Paul the Great" but his real mission will have only just begun. The legacy of wisdom and insights that that he has left the Church and the world will need to taken up and used to forge a future of authentic freedom.
In the twilight years of his service to the Church and the world, these two young followers of Jesus Christ who presented this gift of the New Testament in Slovakia stand as symbols of a generation that have now inherited a world deceived by a contemporary counterfeit notion of freedom. They represent the generation that must take up the task of authentic human freedom. As I saw the innocence, piety and resolve in their eyes I was encouraged and reminded of one of Pope John Paul’s favorite expressions, "Christ is forever young." It was obvious to me that they understood that this warrior Pope embodies a mission that their generation must now take up.
All of us who choose to respond to the invitation to an education to freedom have a monumental mission. The service of this Pope will bear lasting fruit if we not only read his words but also make them our own and then use them to build a new culture of life and a civilization of love characterized by authentic human freedom. Only then will the springtime of the Church that he has proclaimed come about.
It is time for an education to freedom.
Rev. Mr. Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia and also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, The John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Long active at the intersection of Faith and Culture as a human rights lawyer and public policy activist, Deacon Fournier is the founder and Thomas More fellow of the Common Good Movement