By Cardinal Justin Rigali
From time to time, we all seem to resent the freedom we have been given to choose between good and evil. Sometimes, our human tendency is to wish that we had been “programmed” to automatically choose what is good over what is evil. However, one of the aspects of the dignity that God has created us with is the freedom to choose between the two. By using our reason and following a well-informed conscience, we are able to discern what is good and what is evil. However, it is important to remember that we ourselves do not create or determine these realities.
This is clearly manifested in the second chapter of the book of Genesis. Although man and woman had access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and were free to choose between the two, they themselves did not determine what was good or evil. In their human pride, which tempts all of us, they gave in to the temptation of the devil to try to create and determine good and evil on their own. For this they were driven from the Garden and they were punished for their pride.
Pope John Paul II explained this scene in this way: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to express and constantly remind man of the limit impassable for a created being” (Dominum et Vivificantem, 36). The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council teaches: “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him” (Gaudium et Spes, 17).
With freedom comes responsibility
As a result of the conflict within our nature due to sin, while we yearn for freedom, we can often ignore its responsibilities. We sometimes see this in our young people, who look with great anticipation to the age or period of life when they will be free from the constrictions of home and parents and yet they are often unwilling or unable to accept the responsibilities that go with that freedom.
We must all admit that this weakness is not found in young people alone! The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that our freedom does not guarantee that we will always make the proper choices which God wills according to His plan.
We read in the Catechism: “Man’s freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom” (CCC, 1739).
We know that Jesus did not come to take away our freedom but to free us from our sins. In this liberation from sin, which He brought about for us by His Death and Resurrection, He gives us the power to resist temptation and to choose rightly. In His teaching, Jesus instructs us in the proper use of freedom, so that we may be pleasing to Him and one day share His glory in Heaven.
He entrusted this teaching to the Church which He founded. This Church is certainly made up of imperfect sinners and led by imperfect sinners. However, despite the imperfection of the members and the leaders, Jesus guarantees the message and transmission of truth through the Church.
This is why we can say with confidence that the sins and imperfections of the shepherds do not take away the truth of the message they have been entrusted with. This is part of the marvelous guarantee which Jesus gave to His Church.
Freedom and civil authority
The Declaration on Religious Liberty of the Second Vatican Council teaches that the right to exercise freedom is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. It also teaches that this right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, chapter 2). The Church does not interfere in the freedom exercised by legitimate civil authority. In this, she follows the teaching of Jesus: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).
If and when “Caesar” in the person of the state or civil authority seeks to harm the common good or go against the natural or spanine law, which is superior to all civil law, the Church must speak out as the defender of the truth which Jesus has entrusted to her.
We can find a dramatic example of this in the condemnation of the National Socialist ideology (Nazism) by Pope Pius XI in 1937. For a time, the Holy See attempted to deal with the German government of the Third Reich as a legitimately constituted government because its leader, Adolf Hitler, had come to power by means of a popular vote. However, when that government was clearly seen to be abusing its own freedom and depriving some of its citizens of their own God-given dignity, the Church could not be silent.
In a courageous act, Pope Pius XI wrote an Encyclical, which was smuggled into Germany and read from the pulpit of every Catholic Church on an appointed Sunday. In this document, the Pope condemned the myths of race and blood and the substitution of a false and secular gospel for the Gospel of Christ.
He reminded the German people that: “The believer in God is not he who utters the name in his speech, but he for whom this sacred word stands for a true and worthy concept of the spaninity. This God has issued commandments whose value is independent of time and space, country and race. Rulers and subjects, rich and poor are equally subject to His word” (Mit brennender sorge, 14 March 1937).
We are living in no less dramatic times when it comes to the defense of God’s commands and the dignity of the human person, especially those who are most vulnerable. Our personal responsibility is no less than those confronted by the evils of Nazism in the last century.
Just as the raising of false ideological gods and the exaltation of a false sense of unbridled freedom for the State and the inspanidual led to so many tragedies-among them the Holocaust in which so many innocent Jewish people were killed-so a false sense of freedom and the worship of popular ideologies has led to the terrible Holocaust of millions of children in the wombs of their mothers in our own beloved country.
No lover of freedom or human dignity would criticize Pope Pius XI for raising his moral voice for those who had no voice. In the defense of all human life, we also raise our voices.
If the common good is not well served by the State, the inspanidual is still not absolved from his or her responsibility never to take part, in any way, in what is intrinsically and gravely evil.
The Church and her members know that no earthly state is perfect, just as no citizen is perfect. However, there are issues which are so fundamental to human dignity that we cannot group them into mere matters of policy or inspanidual choice.
No particular platform is ever perfect because none of us is perfect, but a platform that contains a foundation based on what is intrinsically evil can never be supported in any way. Freedom does not absolve us from responsibility before God or before the weak and the innocent.
Upon his arrival in St. Louis on January 26, 1999, Pope John Paul II laid down a challenge, which he placed within the context of American history. He said: “There are times of trial, tests of national character, in the history of every country. America has not been immune to them. One such time of trial is closely connected with St. Louis. Here, the famous Dred Scott case was heard. And in that case the Supreme Court of the United States subsequently declared an entire class of human beings-people of African descent-outside the boundaries of the national community and the Constitution’s protection. After untold suffering and with enormous effort, that situation has, at least in part, been reversed. America faces a similar time of trial today.
“Today, the conflict is between a culture that affirms, cherishes, and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings-the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered “unuseful” – to be outside the boundaries of legal protection. Because of the seriousness of the issues involved, and because of America’s great impact on the world as a whole, the resolution of this new time of testing will have profound consequences for the century whose threshold we are about to cross.
“My fervent prayer is that through the grace of God at work in the lives of Americans of every race, ethnic group, economic condition and creed, America will resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of life” (Address, Arrival in St. Louis, 26 January 1999).
As creatures of God, we have been given the precious gift of a free will. As American citizens, we enjoy a marvelous freedom. Let us never forget that we are responsible before God, in this life and in the next, for how we exercise that freedom.
September 11, 2008