By Fr. Shenan J. Boquet
Something very odd happens whenever a spiritual leader publicly defends some unpopular moral principle. Inevitably, people react with outrage, accusing the spiritual leader of restricting their “freedom,” and telling them to mind their own business.
When, for instance, a Catholic bishop publicly reprimands a pro-abortion Catholic politician for his or her position, the politician and the media will get up in arms, chastising the bishop for “meddling” in politics, and for trying to “impose” the Church’s teachings on the person. “I’m my own man/woman,” the politician will say offendedly. “I’m free to make up my own mind. I’m a devout Catholic, but I won’t let the Church tell me what to do.”
This same attitude is reflected in almost all language crafted by pro-abortion propagandists, all of which ultimately returns to the notion of the “freedom to choose.”
Consider, for instance, that appalling Facebook post that I addressed two weeks ago, put up on the official page of the Vatican’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The post linked to an article that spoke glowingly of President Joe Biden’s Catholic faith. When faithful Catholics responded by pointing out that Biden is extremely pro-abortion, the page moderator responded, “[D]efending the right to abortion does not mean defending abortion.”
In other words, a pro-abortion politician like Biden may not personally support abortion, but he believes that women should still have the “freedom to choose” abortion if they like. We shouldn’t inhibit other’s freedom by outlawing abortion.
St. Anselm’s View of Freedom
At the root of this mentality, which is utterly pervasive in our culture, is a perverted understanding of the nature of freedom. According to this erroneous notion, freedom is simply the “right” to do whatever you want, regardless of whether or not it is the right thing to do.
The great medieval doctor of the Church, St. Anselm, however, had a very different, and extremely instructive, definition of “freedom.” Freedom, St. Anselm famously wrote, is “the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake.”
Granted, this definition is couched in somewhat stuffy philosophical language. But what St. Anselm is saying is, someone is truly “free” only insofar as they have the ability or strength to do the right thing, not for the sake of any reward or any other motive, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
To contemporary ears, this definition of freedom sounds very odd, even flat-out wrong. “Sure,” many people might respond, “it might be better to choose to do the right thing. But in order to be free, somebody has to have the ability to choose to do evil. That’s what freedom is!”
St. Anselm, however, disagreed. He pointed out that God cannot choose to do evil. God’s essence is goodness itself. Were God to choose evil, it would mean that He violated his own nature – an impossibility. Furthermore, the angels also cannot choose to do evil. Once they made their single choice – either to serve God or to reject Him – their wills were confirmed in that choice. The same is also true of the saints in heaven. Once they enter the Beatific vision, and see God face to face, they no longer have any desire whatsoever for evil, to the point that they cannot even choose it!
Faced with these facts, St. Anselm asked a key question: Is God unfree? Are the angels, or the saints in heaven unfree?
The answer is clear. No! Far from being unfree, God, and the angels, and the saints, are the most free beings there are. Freedom, therefore, is not found in the capacity to choose evil, but rather in the act of choosing good!
St. Anselm fully understood, of course, that humans do have the capacity to choose between good or evil. However, he simply didn’t believe that this, in itself, is what constitutes freedom. The ability to choose good or evil is an important precondition for freedom, but humans are only truly free when they use that ability in the right way. The more often a person chooses good, the easier it becomes to choose good, and the less capable the person becomes of choosing evil. Ultimate freedom is found when, after a life of virtue, a person’s will becomes so utterly drawn to the good, that they lose all desire to choose evil.
I was pondering this topic this week, after reading an excellent interview with Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who is currently serving as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
In the interview, the archbishop strongly called President Biden to account for his pro-abortion views.
“The president should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic, and acknowledge that his view on abortion is contrary to Catholic moral teaching,” the archbishop said. “It would be a more honest approach from him to say he disagreed with his Church on this important issue and that he was acting contrary to Church teaching.”
The archbishop also pointed out the irony that while the pro-abortion cause is built around the language of “choice,” Biden now seems to be “moving away” from that approach, and instead “coercing people to get involved with abortion, in this case using their tax dollars for something they believe is immoral.”
The archbishop was referring to Biden’s pledge to eradicate the Hyde Amendment, which currently prevents taxpayer money from being used to fund abortion. In other words, in the name of “freedom,” the president wants to force all of us to support and pay for evil! The archbishop urged pro-lifers to contact their representatives to oppose this radical move. “This is unacceptable,” he said.
While Biden, and the media, might feel that the archbishop is overstepping his bounds, what struck me reading the interview is how the archbishop was acting as a true shepherd. Far from restricting Biden’s freedom, the archbishop was lovingly offering the president a path towards freedom – either the freedom to stop living a lie (i.e. to admit that he isn’t really a “devout” Catholic at all), or the higher freedom of living according to the truth!
“When [Biden] says he is a devout Catholic, we bishops have the responsibility to correct him,” said Archbishop Naumann. “Although people have given this president power and authority, he cannot define what it is to be a Catholic and what Catholic moral teaching is.”
“What he is doing now is usurping the role of the bishops and confusing people. He’s declaring that he’s Catholic, and is going to force people to support abortion through their tax dollars. The bishops need to correct him, as the president is acting contrary to the Catholic faith.”
Sin Binds Us
In the Gospels, Christ speaks of the Good Shepherd as the one who leads his sheep through the gate. Being told to go through a gate may seem restrictive, binding. The sheep would be freer if they just go wherever they choose! However, adds Christ, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)
Going through the gate, in other words, is both not restrictive and the only path towards life and freedom! The piano player does not complain that he must follow the notes on the page. The notes free him to produce beautiful music. Similarly, we should not complain when our shepherds exhort us to follow God’s laws. They are not binding us; they are showing us the path to life.
In fighting for the Culture of Life and the family, it is important that we constantly remind others that we are not interested in telling them what to do, or in “controlling” their lives (as pro-abortion activists so often accuse us of doing). Quite the contrary; we are anxious to help them live truly free lives.
A politician who risks his soul, scandalizes others, and who brings suffering and death on so many men, women, and children by supporting abortion, is not free. A man who pressures his partner to abort their baby, because he is not man enough to accept the responsibility of new life, or because he has given in to fear, is not free. A woman who gives in to pressure or fear, or who sacrifices the life of her own child because she values something else more, is not truly free.
In Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II decried the “sinister and disturbing” tendency to treat “crimes” like abortion and euthanasia “as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights.” (EV, no. 18) Indeed, to consider these “crimes against life” as rights confers a false freedom. We outlaw robbery and murder, not to “restrict” freedom, but rather to protect the freedom of all, including the freedom of anyone who might be tempted to commit robbery and murder.
We see this truth manifested in its most obvious form in the lives of those who have given in to addiction. The drug addict may have “chosen” to try drugs, knowing that it could be harmful to him. And yet, we intuitively recognize that he is not free. He is a slave to the drugs. He used his “freedom” to choose slavery.
All sin is like an addiction. All sin harms us. All sin binds us. When we sin, we use our higher nature (our intellect and will) to say “yes” to our lower nature (our passions and base motives). We prioritize power, or pleasure, or money, above truth and goodness.
“But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance,” writes St. Paul. “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Romans 6)
St. Paul then adds, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Slavery to sin is death. But “slavery” to God is no slavery at all, for it leads to life.
Thank God for good shepherds like Archbishop Naumann, who know that they would be betraying their role were they to remain silent, as souls committed to their care enslave themselves to sin and error. Let us pray that all shepherds similarly embrace their role and guide their flock to true freedom.
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at hli.org/2021/02/spiritual-shepherds-must-correct-false-freedoms.