Today in the United States we celebrate Independence Day. Two hundred thirty-seven years ago our Founding Fathers declared our nation’s freedom.
Freedom is a good thing but, at the level of the individual, it is not always what people think it is. True freedom does not mean having the ability always to do whatever we want or whatever others might expect us to do. In fact, it sometimes entails acting against our desires or the expectations of others. To do otherwise can actually lead to the opposite of freedom, to slavery. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything. It is false to maintain that man, the subject of this freedom, is an individual who is fully self-sufficient and whose finality is the satisfaction of his own interests in the enjoyment of earthly goods… By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth (CCC 1740).
St. Paul considered everyone to be a slave of one kind or another—that is, a slave to whichever he chooses, good or evil:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. . . . When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life (Rom. 6:16-22).
Slavery considered as such can be a bad or a good thing: Slavery to sin leads to death (i.e., hell) while slavery to righteousness leads to sanctification and eternal life (i.e., heaven). These two opposite propositions Paul elsewhere distinguishes in terms of slavery and freedom:
[D]o not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [i.e., sin] (Gal 5:1, 14).
This, of course, mirrors Jesus’ teaching:
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, `You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”.(John 8:31-36).
Thus, embracing morality—however difficult that may be—brings true freedom. Engaging in immorality, on the other hand, brings enslavement. The Catechism explains:
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 (CCC 1733).
Considering all this, it is quite easy see why the freedom to act morally and to shun immorality (cf. 1 Cor 6:18) must be a fundamental human right that every government protects without undue hardship on its citizens. Tragically, today such crucial freedom is threatened here in “the land of the free.” Issues such as the HHS mandate and the redefinition of marriage continue to chisel away at true freedom as they attempt to enslave Christian citizens.
As we celebrate independence today with family barbecues and local fireworks displays, I hope we also will reflect on the seriousness of the deteriorating state of our religious freedom. Let us pray for its full return so that we may enjoy the authentic freedom that God intended for every citizen.