The Guardian of Freedom

 

Deacon Keith Fournier

 
  7/9/2008
 

"Since man's true freedom is not found in everything that the various systems and individuals see and propagate as freedom, the Church, because of her divine mission, becomes all the more the guardian of this freedom, which is the condition and basis for the human person's true dignity. Jesus Christ meets the man of every age, including our own, with the same words: "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world." Pope John Paul II ( Redemptor hominis (12), Encyclical Letter "The Redeemer of Man, March 4, 1979)

One of the great themes of the pontificate of Pope John Paul the Great was his teaching concerning - and his insistence upon- a true and authentic definition of human freedom to guide the lives of individuals, communities, Nations and the international community. John Paul was a true freedom fighter. Whether it was in his unashamed opposition to State tyrannies, both left and right, or his insistence upon the existence of absolute moral truths that are intended to guide all human behavior, he proclaimed, in both word and in deed, that the struggle for freedom is the struggle of our age. Now, his friend and successor, Pope Benedict XVI has taken up this important mission.

In a recent homily in Rome, Pope Benedict spoke of his Petrine mission. He reminded those gathered that "Peter expressed in the first place, on behalf of the apostles, the profession of faith: 'You are the Christ, the son of the living God.' This is the task of all the Successors of Peter -- to be the guide in the profession of faith in Christ, the son of the living God… this teaching authority frightens many men within and outside the Church. They wonder if it is not a threat to the freedom of conscience, if it is not a presumption that is opposed to freedom of thought. It is not so….The power conferred by Christ to Peter and his Successors is, in the absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The authority to teach, in the Church, entails a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch, whose thought and will are law. On the contrary, the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his word… He must not proclaim his own ideas, but constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to the word of God, in face of attempts to adapt and water down, as well as of all opportunism."

The Catholic Church exists to proclaim to every age the truth concerning authentic human freedom. According to Pope Benedict , this was Pope John Paul II's mission, "…when, in face of all attempts, apparently benevolent, in the face of erroneous interpretations of freedom, he underlined in an unequivocal way the inviolability of the human being, the inviolability of human life, from its conception until natural death." Clearly, this work of exposing the "erroneous interpretations of freedom" and proclaiming the full truth concerning its constitutive nature, now continues under the inspired, intelligent, profoundly spiritual and deeply theologically leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. In one of his seminal works entitled "Introduction to Christianity" he wrote "…one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom."

And, so it is.

Philosophy deals with the existential questions. We hear the men and women of this age asking these fundamental questions. Central to them all is the nature of freedom and how it is to be exercised. This contemporary neo-pagan and post modernist age has become intoxicated on the wine of a false notion of freedom as a raw power over others who are weaker and the "right" to do whatever one wills. In this same homily, the Pontiff exclaimed "The freedom to kill is not true freedom, but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery." While calling what is wrong a "right," contemporary men and women are bound in the chains of their own self delusion, materialism and nihilism.

Yet, more and more people are beginning to see the real horror of the "culture of death" and the deceptions of materialism. The new slavery of this age treats persons as property to be used and disposed at will, even for convenience. The real task of this hour, and the one for which the Catholic Church exists, is to proclaim a different way, the "more excellent way" that St Paul writes of in his letter to the Corinthians, the way of love. (I Cor. 12 and 13) That is also the way of authentic human freedom. It now falls upon the shoulders of the Church to help the men and women of this age to build a culture of life and a civilization of love. The "Guardian of Freedom", following in the trail of the One who was Crucified and raised can lead the way out of bondage. In a homily on the Second Chapter of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, Saint Gregory, a Bishop of Nyssa and Cappadocian Father of the fourth century, reflected on timing in the Lord. The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything. As we enter into the Third Christian Millennium, the Catholic Church is uniquely equipped - and positioned - to rise to the hour and help modern men and women to reclaim freedom, by wrenching it away from those thieves who have stolen it. It is time. Those who have substituted a false, insidious and errant notion in its place have led so many astray. The Catholic Church is, a "guardian of freedom" precisely because she continues the redemptive mission of Jesus to every age, proclaiming and demonstrating the fullness of the Gospel within the context of the hour. It is Jesus Christ who eternally proclaims that all men and women can "know the truth and the truth shall set you free." (John 8:32)

To an age enamored with false concepts of "choice" the Catholic Church rightly insists that some "choices" are always and everywhere wrong. She teaches that what is chosen not only affects the world - but changes the "chooser." Saint Gregory gives some unique insights concerning our choices in this homily, "Now, human life is always subject to change: it needs to be born ever anew…but here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings, it is the result of a free choice. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions." Moral theologians refer to this insight as the reflexive nature of human choice. Freedom has consequences and our choices make us.

The very capacity to make choices is what makes us human persons. It reflects the very "Imago Dei," the Image of God, present within every human person. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their wonderful document on the Mission of the Church in the Modern World, "Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man." (Gaudium et Spes, "Joy and Hope," 17). The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the sobering implications of the exercise human freedom when it reminds us that "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself." (CCC, 1861.) In other words, what we choose truly matters. Authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against the Natural Law. Authentic freedom has a moral constitution. It must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, our obligations in solidarity to one another and the common good. That is why the fullness of authentic human freedom is ultimately found in a relationship with the God who is its source and who alone can set us free.

In his encyclical letter on Faith and Reason, John Paul the Great wrote: "It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth." Fides et Ratio (13), Encyclical Letter (Sept. 15, 1998)

Choosing the good is the pathway to the realization of the fullness of authentic human freedom. Again the Catechism of the Catholic Church is helpful "The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin." (Cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC 1733)

Taking on the task of being the "Guardian of Freedom" in this hour is one of the highest and most perilous challenges that the Catholic Church faces. Endemic to the counterfeit nature of the various claims of "freedom" in our day is an accompanying disdain for a Church that insists on the very existence of moral absolutes and right and wrong. Again, the Catechism, "So-called moral permissiveness rests on an erroneous conception of human freedom; the necessary precondition for the development of true freedom is to let oneself be educated in the moral law. Those in charge of education can reasonably be expected to give young people instruction respectful of the truth, the qualities of the heart, and the moral and spiritual dignity of man." (CCC 2526)

As sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, we need to live the fullness of the truth we profess in every area of life. We also need to fervently pray for Pope Benedict and for all those who lead our Church in this age.

May she truly become the "Guardian of Freedom" to an age that longs to lose the chains of the slavery of sin and find authentic human freedom.