On this Fourth of July we rightly remember the founding of our nation. We remember ideals of democratic government that had only intermittently been practiced to greater and lesser extents throughout human history. We remember blood shed in sacrifice so that democratic governance might be born and maintained.
It is also a good time to reflect on the nature of freedom. False notions of freedom are potentially as dangerous as the deprivation of true freedom.
Civil law that is not rooted in natural law has power, rather than justice, as its foundational principle. Laws rooted in fear, expedience, or a distorted conception of the individual undermine democracy. Abortion is a prime example of this problem.
True freedom has boundaries. I have heard it said that a fire within the confines of a hearth heats the home, but outside the hearth, the fire burns down the home. We must rid ourselves of the idea that restrictions by definition mean the limiting of freedom.
St. James reminds us that law in its restrictions gives us liberty:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
The law of liberty gives us not only rights, but obligations as well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of this fact regarding the Ten Commandments:
They shed light on the essential duties, and so indirectly on the fundamental rights, inherent in the nature of the human person. The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law.... (CCC, 2070)
I am currently reading Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), which elaborates the connection between human freedom and truth. There he quotes the above passage from the Catechism. I hope to comment on Veritatis Splendor more after finishing it.
The Christian tradition emphasizes that freedom is necessary for love, for without free will there cannot be love, since love is an act that cannot be compelled. As a result, the Christian experience is filled with people who freely chose to endure tremendous restrictions on their own will to do God's. In the Agony of the Garden, Jesus submits his human will to the Father's to endure torture and execution. "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39). In the Annunciation, Mary submits to God's will to bear the Messiah, although it will cause her great sorrow. "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). In fact, the Greek word translated here as handmaid is doule, which is a female slave. A slave has no freedom in the legal sense. St. Peter would follow Jesus to the end (with some detours), himself facing crucifixion. After telling Jesus three times that he loves Him (a kind of reparation for his three denials of Jesus at the time of His Passion), Jesus tells Peter:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, "Follow me." (John 21:18-19)
Human beings often do not do what they should do or what is best for them because these things do not correspond with our desires. But freedom is not doing whatever we want whenever we want it. Freedom is choosing the good for the sake of God, and the benefit to others and oneself.
Hugo Munsterberg made this comment on the state of American education 100 years ago in 1909:
We began to feel that those who had never learned to obey never really became their own masters.... (The Atlantic, October, 1909).
It seems paradoxical that obedience can lead to mastery, but it is true. I have heard it asked, who is more free: the musician who through discipline and self-denial has learned through many years of practice how to play a piano beautifully, or the untaught person who simply bangs on the keys?
We are very fortunate to live in the United States and have all the freedoms we enjoy. To be sure, we have not always lived up to our ideals (slavery and the genocide of Native Americans being two of the most notable instances). However, given our fallen human nature, we should not be surprised by this fact. We should not settle for it, but we should not be surprised.
We should remember on this day those who, like Jesus, chose to be "obedient unto death" (Philippians 2:8), sacrificing their lives for us. They knew a kind of freedom of which the rest of us have but a dim vision.