This weekend is filled with the various observances and festivities of the Independence Day of the United States of America. It’s a cause to celebrate, as well as to reflect, on freedom.
Such reflection is needed as freedom and moral license have blurred, with many now hailing moral license as if it were freedom. The difference is found in our capacity for goodness and the distinction between good and evil. Freedom, as taught by good philosophy, biblical wisdom, and good societies through the ages, is the power to do what is right and good. Moral license, however, is the power to do whatever we want, however evil or irresponsible it might be.
Freedom has always been the mark of civilization, while moral license has been the rallying cry of barbarism. There is no common good with moral license, while freedom makes civil society possible.
As Christians, this is an easy one for us to grasp and understand. Our faith teaches us that moral truth is a gift given by God. It helps to order our fallen nature. It prepares our hearts for virtue.
While human persons are created good, we have a fallen nature and disordered attractions to everything under the sun. We have the power to pursue these wayward attractions and can rationalize and justify all kinds of evil, and even call good things evil and evil things good.
In light of this inclination, we need help. We need instruction. God, therefore provides a natural moral law, written on the human heart and discernible within the consciences of all people of goodwill. The moral law, as Saint Paul teaches us, is humanity’s pedagogue – its tutor. It which shows us the right path to live according to our nature and sound reason.
As the moral law teaches us, it clears the way for true freedom. Freedom is a maturity of our souls that empower us to act above our passions and desires. It allows us to see the proper order of things, and to do what is right. We need to grow into our freedom and safeguard it, so that our freedom itself does not become enslaved. St. Paul summarizes these truths when he writes: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
This understanding of freedom from St. Paul helps to highlight the proper relationship between the moral law and freedom. Oftentimes, the moral law and freedom are falsely portrayed as being in contradiction, as if the two are in tension with one “versus” the other. The reality, however, is that there is no “versus” between the moral law and freedom, but rather a rapport of “via,” meaning “by way of,” which demonstrates that the moral law is in service to freedom and freedom benefits from the discipline of the law. The moral law helps the person to be free.
The person who repeatedly breaks the moral law and lives by moral license is enslaving freedom. He is not free. He is a slave to his passions and whims. For the person to mature fully, he needs both the law and freedom, and together they pave the way for a virtuous life.
Virtue is best understood, therefore, as a good habit that governs human action, orders its passions, and guides its conduct according to faith and reason. It is the power to make the right choice, at the right time, in the right situation. As the law secures freedom, so the law and freedom become the means for grace to ennoble the person to exercise virtue and live a holy life.
Examples of virtues include, faith, hope and love, as well as prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Other virtues include patience, compassion, gentleness, self-control, and generosity.
The person of good will, who perhaps has no religious faith, can aspire to freedom and the process of exercising natural virtue in his own interior life. The natural virtues, upon which the Christian virtues flourish, are available and justly expected of every civil person by their spouse, family, society, culture, and professional association. The Christian witness can be of supreme help to others without religious faith who are trying to live up to the call for virtue and goodness.
These are important reminders as we celebrate the Independence Day of the United States. They serve as the foundation of the founding principles and ideals of the United States. While humanity is fallen, freedom is possible, but only through the moral law and virtue.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby.