• Seeds of the Word

What is human freedom?


Deacon Georges Bonneval

While he was in the presence of Christ, the Truth Himself, Pilate asked the question, “What is truth?” (Jn 18: 38).

For us Christians, the question of freedom is linked to truth. This theme is more important than it seems. Moreover, it is often ambiguous to speak of "liberation" if we have not first clarified our concept of "freedom". It is therefore necessary to know: "What do we mean by freedom"?

The “right to freedom” is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, art. 18): “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.1

Someone once said, “There is nothing but freedom”. There are indeed several types and levels of human freedom: social freedom, political freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, freedom of faith, freedom of action, freedom of morals, freedom of expression, economic freedom, etc.

Some authors highlight three main types of liberalism, inspired by different schools of thought: philosophical liberalism, political liberalism and economic liberalism.

These three, each in their own spheres and according to their respective inspirations, hold something in common: the defense of individual freedom of action when it is threatened by manipulative, dictatorial or absolutist powers.

We want to speak here about freedom and the grace of liberation from the perspective of theological anthropology, in relation to our life of faith and our spiritual life. We also want to speak to the concerns of Christians who are surrounded by a culture that is increasingly inclined towards an isolated and closed individualism.

The Lutheran existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (19th century) looked at anxiety in an original way, regarding it as an appeal and possible "door" to inner freedom. In his treatise, "The Concept of Anxiety", Kierkegaard wrote: “Anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility".

“It is what allows sin, and therefore it goes hand in hand with freedom. In the absence of freedom, no sin can occur and without anxiety no freedom is possible. Anxiety is that strange moment when nothing happens, but everything is being prepared.” 2

One can never conceive freedom as an established fact. Freedom cannot be confused with "license", i.e., license to do whatever you want, without limits. This pseudo-freedom would allow us to self-define freedom according to our own nature, as did Jean-Paul Sartre in his atheistic conception of freedom.3

The human person is a free being

Human freedom has been a subject of debate among philosophers since the beginning of philosophy. It seems that the Greeks "invented" the concept of freedom, especially at the level of moral life and politics. In Platonic and Aristotelian thought, freedom was considered in reference to "Good" and "Being". In these "classical philosophies" (especially in Aristotle’s), we find a definition of freedom that is constitutive of the human person and which is ontologically a part of the human essence: the human person is a free being.

It was only in the 4th and 5th centuries that the question of "free will" clearly appeared together with St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote "The Treatise on Free Choice of the Will". This Augustinian theme then became an essential feature in the anthropology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which in turn deeply influenced the conception of freedom in the West.

Later on came the concepts of "freedom of reason" (Descartes, 17th century) and "conscience"

(Reformation, 16th and 17th century). Even later still, the concept of "social freedom" appeared, as did that of "interior freedom".

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote (1968): “If Platonism provides an idea of the truth, Christian belief offers truth as a way, and only by becoming a way has it become man truth.” 4

What are the internal obstacles to our freedom? How far do we go in our (legitimate) desire for freedom?

Do we have the freedom to choose the good we want, as well as the evil when it seems good or pleasant? Is freedom the ability to act according to one’s desires and will, through the means at one’s disposal, without being hindered by the power of others?

In Georges Bizet, Carmen (end of the 19th century), one of the most frequently performed operas in the world, the main character declares: “What I want is to be free and to do what I like... to have the universe as my country and its will as my law”.

The power to do what we want, how we want it, and when we want it is ultimately the absence of limits to our personal freedom. Is this realistic or does it not lock us in a form of slavery to our dreams, desires and illusions?

The philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 18th century, states: “There is no freedom without law” 5. The law gives us limits in the very interest of freedom, making it possible to avoid tyranny, conflicts and slavery. That is why, according to Rousseau, we must have recourse to "a social contract" and must be governed by laws. However, Rousseau’s conception of freedom (he was not a Christian, even though he called himself a "believer"), also had its limits, especially when he stated that “Man is naturally born good, but it is society that corrupts him” 6. Even if one cannot entirely agree with Rousseau’s idea (working on the principles of education with his only pupil: Emile), we can at least ask ourselves the same question today: how can one educate a child in a healthy way if the society in which the child will grow up tends to distort and corrupt the people who live in it?

St. Augustine wrote: “In temporal law there is nothing just and lawful, but what man has drawn from the eternal law.” 7

Today’s men and women really need to hear again, and believe in, Christ’s affirmation: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn 8: 36). It is an affirmation which reminds us that the human person cannot, by natural means alone, enjoy his or her fundamental freedom. Nor can the human person "liberate" him or herself.

“Entranced by an exclusive reliance on technology, reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence.”8

The modern idea of absolute freedom, situated in personal will and unrelated to the truth, ignores the fact that freedom itself must be freed from the limitations that come from sin.

Written between the 6th and 4th century B.C., the wisdom of the Biblical Book of Jeremiah declares: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert and shall not see when relief comes.” (Jer 17: 5-6).

You have been called to freedom; but do not let this freedom become an excuse for the flesh

If our concept of freedom and inner liberation is not enlightened and held up by the grace of Christ, our faculties of reason and will become weakened.

In this sense, it is common today to see the exercise of reason affected by rational apprehension toward reality, and it too often becomes dominated and influenced by one´s sensitivity (feelings). The person is no longer guided so much by who they are, but by what they feel.

The reasoning often comes afterwards, but as if it were a trailer, and only as a means to justify their initial reaction: "Go where your feeling takes you". Thus, feelings unduly governs over reflection and discernment.

As we can see, therefore, the feeling or intuition of freedom is neither conclusive nor sufficient, especially if the morals at stake are not considered. For example, a father clouded by alcoholism may believe that he is acting according to his own will and freedom, but in turn he is causing serious harm to his family.

Even a sane person is likely to have serious illusions about their own freedom.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love become slaves to one another.” (Gal 5: 13)

When we hear these Pauline expressions in the Liturgy, or when we read them in our Bible, we all too often reduce "the flesh" to mean the "eroticized" body. We need to awaken our attention to a deeper understanding. Pope Benedict XVI explained:

“The ‘flesh’ is not the body, but, in the language of St. Paul, ‘flesh’ is an expression of the absolutization of self, of the self that wants to be all and to take all for its own. Th e absolute ‘I’ who depends on nothing and on no one seems to possess freedom truly and definitively. I am free if I depend on no one, if I can do anything I want. But exactly this absolutization of the ‘I’ is ‘flesh’, that is a degradation of man. It is not the conquest of freedom: libertinism is not freedom, but rather freedom´s failure.” 9

To abandon one’s personal freedom to the desires of this "absolute self" and to the arbitrariness of one’s carnal wills, let alone to obey them – would it not be the equivalent of slavery?

Some of our contemporaries think that faith in God seems unbearable in the face of personal freedom. God is immediately thought to be an obsessive and conditional god who observes, judges and threatens to permanently invade the interior space of our legitimate freedom. It is not uncommon to observe this line of thought and type of reaction even in a "believing" person: "I have the right to live as I want and God will bless me anyway!"

This is the conception of God that we see in the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, when he says: “I did not recognize... the one whom my soul was awaiting: I needed a Creator. I was given a Big Boss.” 10 How sad that Sartre was evangelized so little (or so badly)!

This conception of God, and of our freedom as children of God, is totally devoid of the idea of a "God who loves us" and who wants our happiness. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5: 8). In effect, in His transcendence and His alterity, God gives us this exact "insight about ourselves" and about our own mystery of freedom.

“If… this Creator loves us and our dependence means being within the space of His love, in that case it is precisely dependence that is freedom.”11

It should be pointed out here that the New Testament does not treat the question of freedom only in the dimensions of justice and social liberation. The biblical interpretation is to be understood as integral human liberation which is achieved through Christ’s redemption, and which unfolds into all the realities of the human condition.

“For he who submits to the Lord and serves him, the source of freedom is not in the reform of institutions, but in the Lord.” 12

Key Bible verses on the theme of freedom New Testament

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to

the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4: 18-19)

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn 8: 31-32)

“For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” (Rom 8, 19-22)

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3: 17 )

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5: 1)

“Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. ” (1 Cor 8: 9)

Two basic references on Christian Freedom, from the Church documents

a) Pastoral Constitution from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes

“Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to

attain his goal apart from God. Therefore, man is split within himself. As a result, all of human

life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains. But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out that ´prince of this world´ who held him in the bondage of sin.” (cf. Jo. 12, 31)” 13

Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil.

For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God

has willed that man remain “under the control of his own decisions” (Sir 15: 14) so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him.

Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.

Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skillful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil (cf. 2 Cor 5: 10).” 14

b) The Encyclical of Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor

Saint John Paul II begins his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor with these words: “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.”15 God created us! God is free! He created us in His image and likeness, which is why human freedom is a gift received from the "Beginning"!

About the relationship between Dignity and Liberty:

“Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means.” 16

In the light of these magisterial texts, we can consider and summarize three essential and basic elements of freedom:

1) The human person is a free created being! Freedom is a Gift.

This gift makes it possible to be "creative" in the likeness and image of the Creator. It is a "creative freedom", which in turn gives dynamic meaning to our life. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century Bishop and brother to St. Basil of Caesarea): “Freedom is one of the manifestations of the image of God in human nature... Man has become like God and blessed, because he has received freedom.” 17.

2) At the beginning of human history, "evil" entered the world through the original fall called "original sin".

For Saint Gregory of Nyssa, the fall of our first parents is interpreted as a “trial and perversion of freedom”, today we would say it was an "abuse" of freedom. Man discovers a division within himself: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7: 15). However, this evil only exists by "accident"! It is good for us to remember that it does not belong to the nature of things that God created and willed from the beginning.

The human person discovers the drama of an evil which has “alienated his freedom” and which is reflected in the whole of individual and collective life, requiring an often-intense struggle between good and evil; between light and darkness.

3) Human freedom can lead to participation in the Mission of Christ, in the creativity of the Holy Spirit.

Our original freedom was perfectly given. Though today it is certainly "damaged and wounded", it is "not destroyed". Th at is why the human person, created out of love in Gods image, must persevere in the work of resembling our Creator.

Thus, our concept of freedom cannot be reduced to a simple acquiescence: “Sure, I accept. I want to be free!” In God’s plan, the freedom we received which was then lost and redeemed – is capable of gradually becoming a powerful source of creativity!

St. Francis of Assisi prayed before the Cross in the church of St. Damian of Assisi, and heard Christ say to him: “Go, rebuild my Church which is falling into ruins”. God both called him and sent him on a mission. Like Francis, we have to get to work! We are sometimes told that there is a lot of work to be done in the new communities. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done, just as was the case in every moment of revival in Church history: among the first monks, then in the construction of abbeys and cathedrals, then the first hospitals, schools, etc.

Without ever forcing us, frustrating us or withdrawing anything from us, Christ offers us a "freedom for the mission". With this freedom, the human being is no longer obliged to build up "their own world", but with Christ and through Him, can now build up the "Kingdom of God"! Th e human person is then associated with a design that is larger than their own, and can enter into the process of listening for their own vocation and exercising "missionary freedom": “For you, my brothers, have been called to freedom.” (Gl 5: 13)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: “This is why we must no longer remain in this intermediate state of anxiety... but make a leap of faith, hope and charity, offering our “yes” to God, abandoning our protective differences... and participate in God’s infinite freedom by no longer leaning on ourselves.” 18.

If Cardinal Balthasar was able to make this observation just after the Second World War, what would he have to say and advise us today, after this pandemic that swept across the world?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, states: “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.” 19.

1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

2. Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety.

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Paris, 1943.

4. Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 1968.

5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract , 1762.

6. Idem, Emile or Education, 1762

7. St. Augustine, Free Choice of the Will, I, VI, 15.

8. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, nº 74.

9. Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Seminarians of the Diocese of Rome. February 20th, 2009.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words, 1973.

11. Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Seminarians of the Diocese of Rome. February 20th, 2009.

12. Charles Biber, Vocabulary Biblical, article on Freedom.

13. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n° 13.

14. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n° 17.

15. St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1993.

16. St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1993, nº 42

17. St. Gregory of Nyssa, Discourse on the Dead.

18. Cardinal Urs Von Balthasar, Th e Christian and Anxiety, 1942.

19. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n° 1733.