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Evangelium vitae and the Truth about Freedom[i]
Steven Meyer, S.T.D. 20 September 2018
The gift of freedom comes from being created in the image and likeness of God. (cf. Gen 1:27) In the history of theological thought, from Tertullian through modern Popes, the freedom of the person has been promoted and defended despite certain arguments for determinism and the fact that humans are fallen in nature and susceptible to error.[ii] St. John Damascene taught “The image of God in man means intellect, free will and power over oneself.”[iii] This image is badly damaged by the action of Adam who chooses what is pleasing to the senses over what he knew with his reason. The result of his freely willed act is crippling to his freedom and his meriting this defect for human nature. One aspect of the Good News is that Christ restores the image of God in us. As the New Adam he merits the graces to assist in becoming free once again. This is why St. Paul says that “Christ sets us free for freedom.” (Gal 5:1) Sin is another way to say that we abuse our freedom using our free will. By sinning we become less free.
In Evangelium vitae St. John Paul II identifies four roots of the culture of death: a misunderstanding of personhood, a false sense of freedom, the eclipse of God, and the confusion of moral conscience. (cf. EV 19-24) As mentioned in a previous Sebastian’s Point, God endows persons with subsistence. That is to say possession of self.[iv] Were it not for a real capacity to freely act and choose, life would be meaningless and loving relationships could not really consist of a total giving of self to another. One of the key things John Paul II means by freedom, which is a continuation of a theme from Veritatis splendor, is “its essential link with the truth” (EV 19.5). Freedom is articulated by reflecting on the words of Jesus, “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)[v] For John Paul II “These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to the truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom…”[vi] For John Paul II, free actions are not necessarily acts of freedom. When human action is uncoupled from accountability to the truth it amounts to being less free.
Freedom in English is rendered from the Greek term eleutheria. In the first instance it refers to the community, not to the individual. Eleutheria as indicated by the adjective eleutheros means that the person “belongs to the people.”[vii] Only if the state or polis is free from tyranny or captivity can the individual exercise personal freedom. As Cardinal Avery Dulles applies this to the United States, “The free society rests on the supposition that the members are endowed with inalienable rights. If the rights of individuals were conferred by the state or by the society, they could be removed by human power, and the way would be open to tyranny. As the authors of our Declaration of Independence recognized, the Creator Himself has given human beings an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, though of course the exercise of these rights has to be regulated with regard to the common good.”[viii]
In one sense freedom means “…not being interfered with in the working out of natural and necessary tendencies.”[ix] An enslaved or imprisoned person is not free. In a second sense, freedom is the “…ability to choose among the various means open…in the achievement of his destiny.”[x] Human freedom is limited. When I choose something I commit myself to it. When I make this commitment, I limit choosing other things. We are free to choose, but we cannot choose everything. Why are we free to choose? To become who we are made to be!
Liberty is the freedom of self-realization or actualization. For St. Paul and St. Augustine, “liberty” is the fulfillment of freedom, the state of satisfying our true nature. Through our freely chosen actions we enhance or diminish our true potential. Choice is not an end in itself. When we make choices we must live with the consequences as they affect our human nature. The truly liberated person is a master over themselves. Training and discipline, for example, reading, fasting, meditative prayer, and exercise of the body can enhance freedom.
A metaphysical framing of freedom runs counter to many post-Enlightenment philosophies that divorce freedom from truth. These philosophies when applied at societal levels amplify the use or misuse of freedom in the pursuit of liberty. In Veritatis splendor John Paul II rejects utilitarianism, pragmatism, proportionalism, and consequentialism as reducing or denying freedom as coupled to truth.[xi] About this great divorce Cardinal Francis George makes an observation in regards to Planned Parenthood vs Casey (1992). He writes, “The majority of the justices determined that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” What we see here, with breathtaking clarity, is the complete eclipse of truth by freedom and hence the subjectivizing of any and all moral, metaphysical, or religious claims.”[xii]
For John Paul II, freedom is not license. Like John Paul II we must stand firm in holding with the tradition of Christianity as espoused in the theological anthropology of Gaudium et spes article 17, “It is only in freedom…that human beings can turn to what is good, and our contemporaries are right in highly praising and assiduously pursuing such freedom, although often they do so in wrong ways as if it gave license to do anything one pleases, even evil. Genuine freedom is an outstanding sign of the divine image in human beings.”
[i] This article continues a reflection on the roots of the culture of death as indicated in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium vitae. The title is inspired from that of Avery Cardinal Dulles’s reflection, “The Truth About Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II,” in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, edited by J.A. DiNoia, O.P., and Romanus Cessario, O.P., 129-42 (Princeton, NJ: Sceptor, 1999). A version of it can be found as “John Paul II and the Truth about Freedom” First Things online edition (August 1995), https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/08/004-john-paul-ii-and-the-truth-about-freedom.
[ii] The false narrative of abortion rights groups to be popularly labeled as “pro-choice” and groups that work to defend the unborn as “anti-choice” is not lost on John Paul II. See Evangelium vitae 17.2 where he writes,“…by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life…”
[iii] John Damascene, De fide ortho. II, 12, as quoted in Paul O’Callaghan, Children of God in the World: An Introduction to Theological Anthropology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2016) p. 442.
[iv] See Steven Meyer, S.T.D., “The Culture of Death and the Person” 14 June 2018 https://www.societyofstsebastian.org/index-06-xx-18-meyer
[v] Cf., John Paul II, Veritatis splendor 31-34; the full text can be found here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html
[vi] John Paul II, Redemptor hominis 12; https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html; see also Avery Dulles, “The Truth About Freedom,” p. 129-30.
[vii] See Paul O’Callaghan, Children of God in the World pp.445-7.
[viii] Avery Dulles, “The Truth About Freedom” p. 138.
[ix] Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1964) p. 134.
[x] Ibid., p. 135.
[xi] Avery Dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), p. 189.
[xii] Francis Cardinal George, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009) p. 49.
Steven Meyer, S.T.D., Dr. Meyer currently serves as an assistant professor in theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and is on the Editorial Board of the Society of St. Sebastian's Journal of Bioethics in Law in Culture.