This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Freedom and morality

Just as freedom is always dependent on the truth, it is also inescapably connected with the question of morality, since right conduct is nothing more than action in accordance with the truth. To illustrate this connection, John Paul II frames his discussion in Veritatis Splendor around Christ’s conversation with the young rich man who asks: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”[1] Based on this question and Christ’s response to it, the saint explains:

The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: ‘It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good’. But what sort of freedom? The Council, considering our contemporaries who ‘highly regard’ freedom and ‘assiduously pursue’ it, but who ‘often cultivate it in wrong ways as a licence to do anything they please, even evil’, speaks of ‘genuine’ freedom: ‘Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man ‘in the power of his own counsel’ (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God’.”[2]

Elsewhere the same pontiff explains that it was through the question of morality that God taught man to take his first steps in freedom. This was accomplished in the Garden of Eden by placing before man the tree of knowledge of good and evil.[3] The command “you shall not eat” is not some sort of cruel setup, a trap set for a creature doomed to failure: it was the necessary training ground for an education in freedom, the good of which was known to be so great that it was destined to outweigh any evil that might result from its abuse.[4]

It is through this example that we learn the positive purpose of moral prohibitions, and how “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom.[5]

Here St. John Paul II is arguing against the popular tendency to speak of morality and freedom as if the two were in opposition, as if for one to be cultivated the other must be destroyed. Leo XIII had dealt with the same misunderstanding long before him, and had spoken against it frequently in his battle with the Enlightenment philosophers: “Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason.”[6] Moral laws, far from depriving the human being of his freedom, “make him at once the possessor of a more perfect liberty.”[7]

“Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command: ‘The Lord God gave this command to the man…’ (Gen2:16). Human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect, in the sense of man’s free obedience to God and of God’s completely gratuitous benevolence towards man. Hence obedience to God is not, as some would believe, a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, ex-traneous to man and intolerant of his freedom.”[8]

[1] Mt 19:16.

[2] VS, 34.

[3] St. John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Boston: 2006), pp. 150-156.

[4] ST I, q. 2, a. 3.

[5] VS, 25.

[6] LP, 7.

[7] LP, 12.

[8] VS, 41.

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