Currently The Catholic Church in America is promoting its “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign. Throughout the United States Catholic Diocese are getting involved with prayer services and events that mark their support for religious liberty and their concern for issues that they fear are infringing on this “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.”
The only thing I want to contribute to this period of reflection is a thought on the idea of freedom from the perspective of our Christian faith. In reading the documents and listening to the rhetoric and concerns that are being expressed I hear the cause of freedom being raised that is distinctly American. In other words Freedom, as it is being used, is primarily expressing individual and institutional liberty. People and organizations are concerned that institutional (governmental) encroachment is threatening their liberties in how they live their lives or carry out their mission. In my last blog I shared my thought on this specific concern.
But if the aim of the “Fortnight of Freedom” event is to offer the Catholic community an opportunity to reflect on their civil identity and responsibilities than I would like to remind us that our faith tradition is a champion of a different notion of freedom, a freedom to live by the Spirit, a freedom from sin, a freedom, as St. Paul puts it, to “serve one another through love.” (Gal. 5:13)
In this passage in Galatians St. Paul extols freedom as a Christian virtue but he does not define it as liberty in the way that we Americans tend to see it. Instead, he defines freedom within the dualistic tension of living between the flesh and the Spirit. This is the tension of living within the framework of our society versus the framework of God’s divine plan. In Galatian chapter 5 verses 19 through 23 St. Paul offers the community in Galatia two list that depict the contradicting lifestyle between these two tensions. To live within our social norms is to embrace a lifestyle of self-centeredness and personal desires. It is a lifestyle that opts to be in selfish competition with one another. To live within the framework of the Spirit, on the other hand, is to embrace a lifestyle of service and compassion with one another. Instead of breaking each other down in competition we who live by the Spirit are called to build each other up in promoting the common good.
The great American theologian, John Courtney Murray, expressed it in this way:
Freedom therefore is authenticity, truthfulness, fidelity to the pursuit of the truth and to the the truth when found…. Freedom is experienced as duty, as responsibility – as a response to the claims of justice, to the demands of rightful law, to the governance and guidance of legitimate authority. In its intimately Christian sense, however, freedom has a higher meaning than all this. Freedom, in the deepest experience of it, is love, to be free is to be-for-others. The Christian call to freedom is inherently a call to community, a summons out of isolation, an invitation to be-with-others, an impulse to service of others.[i]
In this passage Murray hails the American ideal for promoting and protecting freedom but then he goes on to remind us that “to be free is to be-for-others.” Competitive individualism is not framework of freedom that our Catholic faith and tradition endorses. Our Church is the champion of a freedom that serves and builds up the social community in a manner that is consistent with the common good. In addressing the HHS Mandate or the state laws infringing immigrant services the Church is not oppose to the idea of universal healthcare or national security, rather it calling on the government to pursue these measures in a way that does not infringe on the Church’s mission to provide these services in a manner that reflects our values to serve the human community.
As Catholic Americans I believe that this is the proper contribution that we need to make to the American experience in our time. In his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII reminds us (as he was approving the framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with this Papal document) that we are called to express this authentic definition of freedom, a “freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person”[ii]