The following article appears in the July issue of Faith: West Tennessee. If you want great monthly content to help you grow in your faith, visit the Catholic Diocese of Memphis website to subscribe to the magazine.
During July each year, Americans are thinking about freedom. We celebrate the independence of our United States from Britain on July 4 by watching fireworks and eat copious amounts of grilled meats. We might even watch a documentary or listen to a radio broadcast about our beloved Constitution and Bill of Rights, which came soon after the War for Independence. And, of course, many of us belt out the classic Independence Day ballad by Lee Greenwood: “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free….”
As we celebrate in these ways, it is important to remember that our Catholic faith has a rich and beautiful teaching about what it means to be free. We need to realize that our freedom doesn’t come from the nation of our birth but, rather, from the content of our character. Freedom happens not because of our nation’s Constitution, but because of our habits.
Our faith teaches us, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (CCC 1733). So, if we are to be truly free, we must develop these habits of freedom. We must cultivate a virtuous life. This is our highest, most important freedom: to lead a life of virtue, and to become more fully who God intends for each of us to be.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this connection specific. In order to be free, we must master our desires and passions, which are usually errant because of our fall from grace. So, we are taught, “Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts” (CCC 1734). See that? Progress in virtue is the first thing that allows our wills to fall into natural order under our intellects and under God’s law. Having those things in right order is what allows us to be free.
As sin leads us astray in every way, it weakens us and lessens our freedom, too. “By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth” (CCC 1740). We’ve all heard it said, “America is a free country, so I can do what I want.” Well, the reality is that if what I want is contrary to God’s plan, I am not free at all, but enslaved, even if I live in America. In a very real sense, Americans will be enslaved if they don’t cultivate virtue, serving the natural moral law and helping others to do the same.
In conclusion, we should recognize that our nation’s founding principles and our Constitution do, in fact, open up for us a greater possibility of following God’s moral law and growing in virtue. In that sense, the United States of America, more than many or most other countries, allows us to be free people. In the final analysis, however, we don’t need military defense and capable politicians to create and protect freedom so much as we need to build a culture of virtuous people. Then, we will be truly free.