VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 18)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
This week, I will give the section of VS first, and then take
some time to deal again with the subject of freedom.
VS>> 34. "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?"
"The question of morality," to which Christ provides the answer,
"cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers
that issue central," for there can be no morality without freedom:
"It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good".
"But what sort of freedom?" The Council, considering our contemporaries
who "highly regard" freedom and "assiduously pursue" it, but who
"often cultivate it in wrong ways as a license to do anything
they please, even evil", speaks of "'genuine' freedom:" "Genuine
freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in
man. For God willed to leave man 'in the power of his own counsel'
(cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own
accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection
by cleaving to God". Although each individual has a right
to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there
exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek
the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal
John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of
conscience, forcefully put it: "Conscience has rights because
it has duties".
Certain tendencies in contemporary moral theology, under the influence
of the currents of subjectivism and individualism just mentioned,
involve novel interpretations of the relationship of freedom to
the moral law, human nature and conscience, and propose novel
criteria for the moral evaluation of acts. Despite their variety,
these tendencies are at one in lessening or even denying "the
dependence of freedom on truth." If we wish to undertake a critical
discernment of these tendencies--a discernment capable of acknowledging
what is legitimate, useful and of value in them, while at the
same time pointing out their ambiguities, dangers and errors--we
must examine them in the light of the fundamental dependence of
freedom upon truth, a dependence which has found its clearest
and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ: "You
will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).
FP>> Two posts ago, I ended my installment with a question.
I asked whether there might be a "seed of truth" in the ideas
of people who "exalt freedom to the extent that it becomes an
absolute, which would then be the source of values." To answer
my own question, I would say, yes, there is one. People who exalt
freedom as an absolute do have one thing right -- namely, that
freedom is a magnificent thing. In and through freedom man shows
When God created the universe, he could have made only inanimate
beings, such as rocks, as well as lower forms of life, such as
plants and animals. But in addition to these, He made man, a
being that has free will and the ability to know. Why did God
create such a being? He did so because He wanted to receive from
man the glory that can come only from a love freely given, and
bestow upon man His love in return. We can hardly imagine how
far this glory given to God by man's free choice surpasses the
glory that can be given to Him by the rest of material creation.
Think of it for a moment. If we look in the night sky, we may
see what we think is a star. Actually, it may be an entire galaxy,
so distant that it appears to the naked eye as a single point
of light. It is a glorious thing and manifests the great power
of God. However, you can give God greater glory than a hundred
galaxies, simply by loving Him. No galaxy can offer God what
you can -- the free gift of your love. You can love him. A galaxy
And if your love is to be worth something, it must not -- indeed,
cannot -- be forced. No one can make you love God. Perhaps someone
could influence you by threats or force to show some outer manifestation
of honor to God, but it would be useless from a spiritual point
of view. Love that is worth anything must come from the inner
sanctuary of your freedom, or it is not love at all. Hence, no
one should try to make you love God or believe in Him. God himself
respects the free will he gave you. So should everyone else.
Thus we come to the quotation from Gaudium et Spes on true freedom:
"Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine
image in man. For God willed to leave man 'in the power of his
own counsel' (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator
of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed
perfection by cleaving to God".
That is why we are given freedom, that we may seek our Creator
OF OUR OWN ACCORD -- not because we are forced to, not because
we are "programmed" to, but because we want to.
The problem then with people who make freedom an absolute value
is not that they love freedom, but that they don't know why they
were given freedom in the first place.
The following example might help. Suppose there were an artist
who has been put in prison because he created a piece of art that
offended the local authorities. (Perhaps he used a grant from
the NEA to paint a picture of Jesus.) In his cell the artist
weeps, and a prison guard comes over to him, and asks, "What's
"Don't you understand?" says the artist, "I lost my freedom."
"Not so," the guard replies. "You are free here. You are free
to go to the bathroom; you are free to pace back and forth in
your cell; you are free to go to the mess hall three times a day;
you are free to sweep the floor; you are free to pick arguments
with the other prisoners."
"That's not what I meant. I am an artist. I want to draw, to
paint, to sculpt. If I cannot do those things, I am not free."
"Sorry," says the guard. "Due to the nature of your crime, these
things are not allowed to you. (Besides, if you do, you might
draw a picture of the Blessed Virgin, and then you'll REALLY be
Let us further suppose that this discussion goes on every day
for a number of years, so that eventually the artist begins to
accept the guard's point of view, and decides that freedom really
does mean being free to sweep the floor, pace his cell, eat in
the mess hall, and argue with the other inmates. Indeed, let
us also say the artist becomes so convinced that he has "real
freedom" in prison, that when his sentence is over, he does not
want to leave. He does not want to lose his "freedom" to do what
he now prefers to do. Would we not pity such a man, who would
rather use his freedom to pace back and forth in a cell than to
return to normal life and create beautiful works of art?
Yes, I know it is hard to imagine a person thinking in such a
way, but then again, is it so very from the way many people in
our society think? Allow me to make a comparison. The artist
is a man who has been given a gift from God -- a talent -- to
create beautiful paintings and sculptures. But you and I, and
every person on earth has been given another gift that far exceeds
it -- a mission in life to accomplish for God, at the completion
of which we will glorify Him eternally in heaven. If the artist
uses his freedom well, he will choose to create works of art,
and he will find happiness therein. If each of us uses his freedom
well, we will do many great and beautiful things for God, and
receive from him in return a joy that the world cannot give.
The artist in our example given above will squander and waste
his freedom if he stays in the prison instead of leaving it to
continue his great work. Many people today waste their freedom
by doing things that are useless at best, and evil at worst, instead
of serving God and growing in holiness. Finally, the artist will
have to answer to God if he does not use his freedom to exercise
the talent God gave him. Also, we will have to answer to God
if we do not use our freedom to accomplish the good work He sent
us here to do.
Do you see my point? God gave us freedom, not just to do with
it as we please. He gave it to us for a reason. He wants us
to use it to accomplish the great and beautiful work he sent us
here to do, and therein find our happiness. Sadly though, many
people use their freedom not to do the greatest and holiest things
in life, but often enough, the worst. They insist that they must
be free to surrender to their passions, deny the claims of truth,
kill the inconvenient innocent, break sacred vows, and silence
those whose voices too much resemble that of conscience. They
are worse off than the artist who gives up the freedom to paint
and sculpt so that he can be free to sweep the prison floor.
They give up the freedom to be children of God so that they can
be free to destroy themselves.
God then not only gives us freedom, but he expects us to use it
well, which means choosing to follow the plan He has made for
our lives. Some might say that this is unfair, and that we should
be free, not to follow God's plan, but to make our own plan.
Such people forget that we are creatures. Not only is it not
our place to decide what the path of our life should be, but we
not capable of making a plan nearly as good as the one God has
made for us. We must accept the limits God has placed on our
lives -- that is, if you could call a destiny of eternal happiness
with Him a limit!
Next time we will begin looking at Part One of Chapter II, Freedom
and Law. This is the most difficult part of the document, and
I will be grateful for any feedback you have to offer. In the
meantime I would like to ask you to think about this question,
and perhaps give your thoughts on it sometime in the future:
How would you try to explain the following statement to someone:
"Lying is wrong because it is against the natural law"?
I am always happy to hear from you! Fr. Peter
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