Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


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".[56] "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".[57] 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.[58] As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: "Conscience has rights because it has duties".[59]

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 his greatness.

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 cannot.

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".[57]

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 the problem?"

"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 in trouble.)"

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

------------------------------------------------------------------- The electronic form of this document is copyrighted. Copyright (c) Trinity Communications 1994. Provided courtesy of:

The Catholic Resource Network Trinity Communications PO Box 3610 Manassas, VA 22110 Voice: 703-791-2576 Fax: 703-791-4250 Data: 703-791-4336

The Catholic Resource Network is a Catholic online information and service system. To browse CRNET or join, set your modem to 8 data bits, 1 stop bit and no parity, and call 1-703-791-4336. -------------------------------------------------------------------