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A New Birth of Freedom

This week, as our nation celebrates Independence Day, we remember with gratitude the freedoms that we enjoy in our country. It’s certainly not a given that we should have the blessing of these freedoms; many people in the world, and most people throughout human history, have not. But as central as the idea of “freedom” is for our national identity, it is widely misunderstood. This should give us pause: if we’re constantly talking about something and appealing to something and yet have a misdirected understanding of it, then it’s going to be very difficult to live it out properly. 

During my teaching years, I asked hundreds of people to define “freedom,” and almost all of them said something along these lines: “Freedom is the ability to do what I want, when I want, and how I want, without any external forces influencing me.” Sometimes they would add the caveat, “as long as I don’t hurt anyone else.” This understanding of freedom is shared by virtually all, faithful Catholics and otherwise. The great moral theologian Servais Pinckaers called this “freedom of indifference,” or “freedom understood as indifference.” If freedom meant “indifference,” then it would mean that I could stand before multiple options among which I could choose, and be “indifferent” before all of them, with equal chance of choosing any one of them. When people say, “God wants us to follow the moral law, but He made us free, so we can choose to disobey it,” they’re understanding freedom as “indifference.” The problem is that freedom of “indifference” doesn’t actually exist. We are always influenced by the world around us; we are always inclined by our nature to desire some things and not others; we value the influence of people whom we respect; we determine the course of our lives by choosing to marry this person, which means we can no longer marry that person; and so on.

Against freedom understood as “indifference,” Pinckaers offered a different view: freedom understood as “excellence.” If “freedom” means “excellence,” then we are more free when we become virtuous rather than evil, more free when we bind ourselves irrevocably to our spouse, more free when we delight in God’s law. Freedom is a state of being, a perfection, rather than a simple act of choice. To illustrate this, he used the example of playing a musical instrument. If freedom meant “indifference,” then only someone who knew nothing of playing that instrument would be “free”: she would be equally likely to play any of the notes on the piano. But this so-called “freedom” is actually completely impotent: she cannot actually do anything. She might hear a piano concerto of Beethoven in her head, but she cannot produce it. She might want to play it, but she is unable to. If freedom means “indifference,” then paradoxically, the “indifferent” person is incapable of doing what she wants! In contrast, someone who has dedicated herself to studying the piano, and has achieved mastery over it, can play whatever pieces she desires, and can even create new pieces. Because she has learned proper technique, because she has spent countless hours drilling her scales, because she has listened to the instruction of her teachers—in a word, because she has “submitted” to the “law” of excellence in the piano—she is “free.”

What if the citizens of our nation understood that we are truly free only when we live according to the goodness of our humanity as a unity of body and soul, when we honor and delight in the promises and vows upon whose permanence the family is founded, when we respect the givenness of the moral law and live it through lives of virtue? What would our nation be like if we understood our hard-won freedom not as “indifference,” but as “excellence”?