On April 24, 2005, I had the privilege of being in St Peter’s Square in Rome for the inaugural Mass of the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. His homily that day was interrupted several times by applause but especially after he spoke the following words towards the end:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that he might take something away from us? . . . Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

I remember joining in that sustained applause with the conviction that the Pope had got right to the heart of something essential in our culture—namely, the perceived clash between faith in God and the exercise of our freedom. He had identified the issue behind so many of the moral issues of our time, including the issue of abortion that has again come under the spotlight in recent months in America and in other countries around the world. Now, if what we worship is the guiding principle of our lives and governs what we say and do, in order to justify anything in the name of freedom, including the destruction of unborn life, then that very freedom becomes what we worship. Absolute freedom becomes our god and our highest good. It therefore becomes the great golden calf of our age and the false god of our time.

Of course this debate about absolute human freedom is not new. It has a history that we need to be aware of. Prior to the first sin in the Bible, we see the signs of rebellion against God being played out along the lines of human freedom. In the garden of Eden, the tempter’s tactic was to set God up as the enemy of man’s freedom: “Did God really say you are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? . . . No! You will not die. God knows that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods” (Gen. 3:1-5). In other words, “Use your own freedom to do what you want. Forget God and be your own god. Decide what is good and evil yourselves.”

Jump forward through the centuries to William of Occam’s (1285-1347) teaching of human freedom as a self-contained absolute, and then forward again to the Enlightenment and the philosophy of self-determination of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). On further to Jean Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) mantra that “existence precedes essence.” All of these thinkers had huge influence on the political and social history of their time. In recent years, the same exaltation of absolute freedom has been taken up vigorously by the new atheists including late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), whose thought can be distilled down to a stark either/or choice: Either God is free or I am free. I am free; therefore, God does not exist.

So how do we as people of faith respond to this challenge? Here are five key points that help us to be clear about the nature of freedom:

  1. Modernity celebrates human freedom and seeks to protect its integrity. So do we! We Catholics value freedom as one of our greatest gifts and what distinguishes us from animals. The Church insists that faith in Christ is not the enemy of this freedom but the guarantor of freedom. As St Paul insists: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), and we who are baptized enjoy the gift of liberty, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). So as we dialogue with people who think that human freedom is threatened by faith in God, a good starting point is the common ground of celebrating the goodness of freedom and to “glory in the liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). This was the thinking behind Pope Benedict’s beautiful teaching: “Only in Christ’s friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”
  2. Much of the alleged conflict between human freedom and faith stems from how we understand the human person to be. We humans are beings in relationship. Therefore, our understanding of being free accommodates some degree of commitment and self-sacrifice to our friends and those we love. This “being in love” does not damage our freedom but enhances it. Unlike Sartre, we do not understand ourselves as units of absolute autonomy who pursue freedom by disconnecting ourselves from others. Based on human experience alone, the majority of people would not agree with Sartre’s famous adage: “Hell is other people.”
  3. We Christians recognize that freedom, by nature, is not absolute but is conditioned by what freedom chooses. Our choices either enhance freedom or diminish it. True freedom is not arbitrarily doing what we want but to delight in choosing the good and the true: ‘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. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1733). The same holds for truth. Choosing a falsehood leads to the slavery of self-deception, whereas choosing what is true leads to liberty. As Jesus himself put it, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
  4. We Catholics do not hold that our freedom must be destroyed or replaced by God’s freedom. It is not about replacing our will with God’s will but aligning our will to God’s will. This guarantees our freedom because our freedom is conditioned by God’s freedom in creating it. How does this alignment happen? Not by coercion, for God respects the freedom he gives us. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “God cannot ravish; He can only woo” (The Screwtape Letters). He woos us with the Holy Spirit that is active in our minds and wills as it moves us toward a choice of what is good and true. The fruits of this choice are inner freedom, maturity, and harmony with God, oneself, and others.
  5. The pursuit of absolute freedom ends up destroying freedom. Why? Because sooner or later, my insistence on absolute freedom will clash with your insistence on absolute freedom, which leads to conflict and violence, which ends up with one of us or both of us not being free. In a brilliant critique of liberalism, Patrick Deneen points out that as we pursue absolute freedom “in the name of expanding liberty and increasing our mastery and control of our fates, the vehicles of our liberation have become iron cages of our captivity” (Why Liberalism Failed, Yale University Press, 2018). A modern example of this is the environmental crisis. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis teaches that “all things are interconnected” (para. 70). Recent scientific studies on the environment reveal that patterns of human choices are damaging the planet. This, in time, will limit our freedom and that of future generations. Here is an example of how human freedom is not absolute but limited and relational. This fact completely undermines the efforts we have made for so long to master our nature and subjugate it for our own ends, in the name of freedom.

Collectively, we need to do a better job convincing people that God and the Church are not the enemies of freedom. If the issue of human freedom is an obstacle to people coming to faith, then we need to get clear and show how God is not the enemy of liberty but both the condition of our freedom and its guarantor. The concept of absolute freedom has increasingly become the golden calf of our time—and, like all false gods, worship of it only leads to sadness and a lack of true freedom. I conclude with more of those memorable and prophetic words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his first homily as the successor of Peter: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life. Amen.”