President Bush used the word “freedom” 27 times in the course of his second inaugural address in January. Pundits immediately began analyzing and picking the speech apart.
In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, pointed out that freedom means different things to different people (“The Speech Misheard Round the World,” 1/22/05). In the United States, he suggested, two versions of freedom had emerged during the 20th century.
The “modern liberal” version emphasizes civil liberties, political participation and social justice.
Most Americans, Patterson said, have a “radically privatized” understanding of freedom, one that leaves out politics, civic participation and traditional rights. It is “largely a personal matter having to do with relations with others and success in the world. Freedom, in this conception, means doing what one wants and getting one’s way.”
A history of the concept of freedom would certainly include the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and the other major philosophers and theologians of the Scholastic period, as well as later religious thinkers on both sides of the Reformation divide, including surely Martin Luther. Post-Reformation philosophers such as Descartes, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel carried the discussion to new levels of intellectual complexity, while others, such as Marx and his interpreters, applied such speculation to the world of economics and politics.
Having worked their way through this history by the light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the church’s own lived experience, Catholic theology and doctrine eventually developed a few basic principles to help guide future discussion about human freedom.
For Catholicism, freedom involves, on the one hand, the ability to act in accordance with one’s conscience and one’s understanding of the will of God, and, on the other, an immunity from coercion to do this or to do that against one’s will, self-interest and better judgment. It is the capacity to be and to become more fully ourselves, both as individuals and as members of society.
But freedom is never absolute, nor is it license. One’s freedom to do something is always qualified by another’s freedom to be protected from injury.
In his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII declared that a “well-ordered” political society that promotes human dignity is grounded not only on truth, justice and charity, but also on freedom — a freedom that involves a sense of moral and civic responsibility consistent with our nature as rational beings (n. 35).
“It is only in freedom,” the Second Vatican Council declared two years later, “that people can turn themselves towards what is good” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 17).
Our God-given freedom, however, is radically affected by sin. The exercise of freedom is, at both personal and political levels alike, often tainted by selfishness, greed and lust, not only for sexual gratification but also for power and domination.
For Christians, the Gospel proclaims our freedom from the bondage of sin by the grace of Jesus (Romans 6:14; 7:6). Politicians may call it by some other name.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.