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Father Vincent Hawkswell

What do we mean by ‘freedom’?

Voices July 9, 2018

To understand what freedom means, we must ask two questions: “free from what?” and “free to do what?” writes Father Hawkswell.  (B.C. Catholic graphic)

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 
First Reading: Am 7:12-15 
Second Reading: Eph 1:3-14 
Gospel Reading: Mk 6:7-13

I learned as a child that God made us to know him, love him, and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next. But from my earliest years, I was afraid that serving God would mean giving up my own way.

We see examples in this Sunday’s liturgy. In the First Reading, God takes Amos from herding and tells him to prophesy. In the Gospel Reading, Jesus sends the apostles, whom he has called from fishing and collecting taxes, to preach repentance. The Second Reading says that God has “destined” us for “sonship.”

On the other hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that we are “created with free will.” We have “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions” on our own responsibility. “By free will” we shape our lives.

To understand this seeming contradiction, we must understand our own freedom. Of course, we know that it has certain “insurmountable limits” imposed by both our physical nature and our human nature. However, even in ordinary language, the word “free” cannot stand on its own.

Imagine hearing someone say, “I’m free!” Before we can understand what he means, we must ask him two questions.

The first is “Free from what?” He might mean free from debt, free from rules, or free from prison, but, in general, he means free from restraint.

The second is “Free for what?” or “Free to do what?” He might mean free to travel, free to spend money, or free to relax, but, in general, he means free to do what he chooses.

How free is this person? It depends on how he answers these questions. For example, if he means free from prison on weekends, or free to commit another crime so as to get back into the security of incarceration, we do not consider him to be “truly” free.

What, then, is “true” freedom?

We say that a person can be “imprisoned” by fears, like fear of getting fat, or “enslaved” by desires, like the desire for alcohol. We probably do not call him “imprisoned” by the fear of going into debt – unless it makes him pass up some very good chances of making money. We probably do not call him “enslaved” by his desire for knowledge – unless he puts his studies ahead of human relationships.

In general, we call something “imprisoning” or “enslaving” if it limits the pursuit of something we think higher or better. For example, if A prefers slimness to food, while B prefers food to slimness, then A calls B “a slave to food” and B calls A “a slave to fashion.”

We reason that no one would pursue the worse unless he were constrained to do so, like a slave. We are “free,” then, insofar as we use our freedom to pursue the better; we are “truly free” when we pursue the best.

“Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness,” says the Catechism; “it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.”

“At the heart of the divine act of creation is the divine desire to make room for created persons in the communion of the uncreated Persons” of the Holy Trinity, says the International Theological Commission. In heaven “we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise,” St. Augustine says. “God himself will be the goal of our desires; we shall contemplate him without end, love him without surfeit, praise him without weariness.”

Until then, “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him,” St. Paul says. Accordingly, out of his love for us, God makes known to us “the mystery of his will.”