Freedom & Authority

It’s said that when John Paul the II came to visit America, President Reagan met him at the airport and said, “Welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave” and JPII responded, “Free…for what?”

And in that short conversation are the two aspects of freedom that will be the focus of this post.

Freedom ‘From’

The first aspect of freedom is what Servais Pinckaers, a Dominican theologian, calls a freedom of indifference. This is a freedom specifically “from” things. When the American president said the land of the free, he likely meant that we are free from tyranny, religious persecution, or historically speaking, English rule. We have a freedom from coercion or constraint, which is undoubtedly a good thing.

And this is usually the kind of freedom that comes to mind when we use the word. For example, when I asked teenagers, during a summer working at the parish, what the definition of freedom was, they said, “to be able to do whatever one wants, whenever, with whomever one wants.”

The problem with reducing the whole of freedom to this single aspect, is that this type of freedom doesn’t necessarily lead to freedom.

For example, if someone wants a college degree, a good job, or a healthy relationship, is it true that he can do whatever he wants, however he wants, with whomever he wants and still, for example, graduate college? Surely not, for if he takes the liberty not to study, he will lose the liberty to get a college degree. Or can someone do whatever he wants and have a good job? Likely not. If he takes the liberty not to show up to work he will soon lose the liberty to have a good job. Or can someone do whatever he wants and still have a healthy relationship with his spouse? Of course not. If he does whatever he wants with whomever he wants, he will, in splendid fashion, forfeit the liberty to retain his significant other. 

Thus, in each of the above scenarios, in order to be free to obtain the object desired, one must at the same time actually restrict his or her freedom. But to restrict oneself is the opposite of being able to do whatever one wants. So either freedom is a contradiction within itself or there is another aspect of freedom we have yet to consider.

Freedom “For

JPII’s statement, “free for what,” is an example of what Pinckaers calls “freedom for excellence.” This type of freedom is not necessarily concerned about being free from things but free for things. And for one thing in particular. The crowning excellence of a life well traveled, a life in which happiness is obtained (for more on happiness see here).

And if its true as Aristotle said, that happiness is the goal, “for which all other things are sought,” then the freedom most worthy of discussion is the kind that gives us the liberty to be happy.

Freedom of Excellence

To demonstrate the relationship between these two kinds of freedom, in relation to the “pursuit of happiness,” let us use a short analogy. Imagine yourself standing on the beach looking out towards an island which is called “happiness.” Also imagine, that on the shore with you their are two possible boats on which to travel to the island.

The first boat has a hole in the bottom of it. However, beached on the sand it looks perfectly fine. But, once it gets out to sea, the hull is going to fill with water and eventually sink it. It might even take a considerable amount of time to sink, but it will sink. On the other hand, the second boat on the sand is perfectly fine.

The question is: “If someone takes away your option to travel by the ‘leaky boat’; has he, in that case, diminished your freedom?”

If we consider freedom, in the first sense, the answer is clearly “yes” because the available options have been cut in half. But is that okay? Especially, since means are judged by their capacity to meet their prospective ends? I think most would agree, that in losing the option to take the “leaky boat” one actually gains freedom, he has gained the freedom to reach the end more certainly.

Freedom & Authority

What then can we about the relationship of freedom with the various authorities in experience, especially since authorities, as a rule, often restrict and narrow our number of choices. 

Well again, if freedom is, to us, being able to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants, then authorities which limit our freedom, are not very helpful. They are to be avoided at the very least and may be even disliked. But again if freedom is primarily for something, if it’s for reaching our crowning end, then authorities can actually assist our freedom.

Firstly, by making us aware of the “leaky boats” in our life, and at times even removing them as an option altogether. 

Secondly, by providing the structures with enable us to grow in temperance, courage, and prudence, so that over time we might develop the strength to not choose the ‘leaky boats’ in our life out of our own free choice.

Parents are a good example of this kind of beneficial authority, as parents prohibit all kinds of things, all the time, and for good reasons. 

Taking myself as an example, I remember as a kid living at home and being prohibited, firstly, by my mom from sleeping in on Sundays, and secondly, by my dad, from staying out past midnight because as he put it, ‘nothing good happens after midnight.’ 

My parents took away options and by doing so, one gave me the freedom for life eternal through observance of the Third Commandment, and the other might have saved my life temporally, by keeping me out of danger.

Eventually, when I moved out, these “leaky boat” options became available to me; I could stay out as long as I wanted, and choose not to go to church if I wanted. Yet even then, and this ought to be goal of a good authority, old habits kept me from taking the “leaky boat” options.

Good authorities can help us to possess true freedom, the freedom that God has. God does not have the freedom to do evil or act imperfectly. His only option is excellence.

Would we ever say that a saint is less free because his virtue prevents him from evil? Or in another way, that a star-athlete, like Michael Jordan became less free when he no longer had much of a choice to miss his free-throws?

The true freedom of man is the freedom to be virtuous, to make the right decision, in the right way and at the right time, easily. This is the freedom exemplified by our Lord: the freedom to accomplish one’s course, perfectly and resolutely. 

This is the freedom we too can have in Him as He Himself says, “if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). 


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