I met a lady once who described herself as a “recovering Catholic.” She was wrestling with a long series of personal mishaps that more or less coincided in her mind with her upbringing as a Catholic. She felt psychologically traumatized by a broken marriage, unruly children, conflicted views of sexuality, guilt rising from a fear of hell and, finally, a desire to chuck the whole thing. She wanted to be free of her Catholicism the way an alcoholic wants to be free from the craving for drink.
A psychologist once said to me that Catholics were his most guilt-ridden clients. I said that might just be because Catholics are the last people in this country who understand that there are certain things about which we ought to feel guilty. Still, does being a Catholic hold one in a kind of moral bondage, as its many critics allege?
Our society is full of ex-Catholics who think the church restricts their freedom. This is not a new charge. Martin Luther once blasted the magisterial claims of Rome in his famous “The Freedom of the Christian.” Thirty years of classroom experience has taught me that many students see the church devoting most of its time to saying, “Thou shall not . . .” And these days I hear many people describing themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” because “spiritual” denotes freedom and largesse while “religious” means rules and restrictions.
The Catholic church does have some stern injunctions as part of its teaching. It does tell us that certain things are wrong and certain things are true and, further, that we should act on what is right and resist what is wrong. As Pope John Paul II has said, the greatest truth the martyrs teach us is that certain matters are so right that we should give up our lives for them. This will to do what is right is not, however, a commitment to a book of rules or a set of stipulations. It is a way of life and a basic determination to choose this way of life over that way.
Catholic moral theology has always recognized that free will —the freedom to choose—can be, and often is, impaired. The will is traditionally seen as dependent upon the intellect to provide it choices, and some people are mentally dim or incapacitated, addled by circumstance, intellectually underdeveloped, confused by drugs or blinded by moments of passion. What the Catholic tradition emphatically denies is that we are constitutionally incapable of making a free choice. And Catholic thinking has always argued against those who exalt total human autonomy and self-interest, as well as those who insist that we are solely shaped by psychological forces (behaviorists) or the unblinking forces of the environment (Darwinians) or subterranean powers within ourselves about which we have no conscious knowledge (Freudians).
Being Christian is to fundamentally affirm that everyone is given the offer of salvation. If we are saved, then that salvation comes from the grace of God. If we are not saved, then that derives from a free, radical choice to say “no” to God’s love. We are saved by grace that is freely given.
It is striking how often Jesus offers choices to people. He calls Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him. He issued the same invitation to Levi (Matthew) the tax collector. In all cases, they took up his invitation and followed him. When he made the same offer to the rich young man, the young man went away sorrowing because, as the Gospel said, he “had many riches.” In both cases there was an element of choice. At the heart of the Gospel is the idea of graced freedom—a call from God.
The message Jesus preached and the acts he performed were all about liberation. Jesus freed the blind from their darkness, opened the ears of the deaf; he preached hope to the crowds, elevated the marginalized from their low status as tax collectors or prostitutes. Jesus, in a dramatic scene in a synagogue, applied to himself the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
More crucially, even if we sophisticated moderns are skeptical, Jesus drove out demons; he was an exorcist. Jesus freed people from those malign forces that kept them in a state of despair, lack of control, bondage. We may conjure up lurid images when thinking about exorcism, but the Gospels affirm that some forces attempt to control and dehumanize us. The Gospel insists, however, that these powers are not superior to the power of God.
Every effort of the people of the church to overcome powers that enslave people—enslavements to sin or ignorance or evil impulses or degradation or addiction or hate or evil or revenge —is a kind of exorcism done in Christ’s power. To aid love, provide forgiveness, demand justice is to extend Christ’s acts of exorcism, to move away from bondage and toward freedom.
Later theology would insist that the decision to say “yes” to Christ’s invitation is impelled by grace. This means there has to be some interplay of freedom and grace, some nexus between divine call and human response. In those subtle and mysterious lines between human freedom and divine prompting are theological issues that vex even the most sensitive Christians.
Martin Luther taught that the human will was a slave to sin, incapable of choosing good and ineluctably bent to evil. Determinism, predestination and other elements of the complex theological debate have persisted since Christian antiquity. How could a person freely choose if God already knew the outcome? If people could freely choose good or evil, then what was the need for someone to save them from sin? What was the need of God’s grace? And if acts resulted from evil, passion, physiological defects or conditioned responses, what of personal responsibility and accountability and . . . free will? We still seek those answers.
Unlike Martin Luther, Saint Thomas Aquinas asserts that humans are oriented by nature to choose good. Even when someone chooses what is morally evil, Aquinas writes, he does so thinking it is good. Acting out of malice or ignorance or bad formation or socially oppressive situations may lead a person to commit this or that immoral act, but the person always thinks—for whatever reason —that it is good. The purpose of preaching the Gospel is to help people see and pursue what is authentically good.
Human freedom is intrinsically linked to social justice. A true Catholic humanism would be woefully inadequate if it passively accepted conditions that put stumbling blocks in the path of persons making reasonable choices about the moral life or that diminished their power to choose the good. Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, once said he struggled for a world in which it was easy for a person to be good. The prophetic voice calls others to resist those forces that degrade human dignity, confine people to the struggle for mere survival and diminish their capacity to enjoy the good things of this world. The bombardment of propaganda that overwhelms people with pornography or false promises of rewards for greed, or those socio-political systems which take away basic rights all militate against human freedom and weaken the will to choose good.
Therefore, all the energies of the church to preach the Gospel and to live out its message are, at the most ideal level, an effort to hold out a basic truth: There is freedom in Christ. The Catholic tradition carries within it a message of freedom succinctly expressed in a single line in the Gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
What is that freedom? It is freedom from whatever it is that makes us unhappy, insecure, doubting, addicted, self-loathing. It is freedom from all those things that make us yearn to be something else. It is the freedom that leads to the greatest freedom— the freedom from want. And ultimately it is the freedom to love.
In fact, the desire to affirm the good and the freedom to choose it is, in the Catholic tradition, an inchoate step toward recognizing God even when a person does not use the word God. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom asserts that humans, “endowed with reason and free will,” have both the right and obligation to seek the truth and in its discovery to lead lives “in accord with the demands of truth.” It is a deeply held conviction of the Christian tradition that the freedom to know good and to seek truth is to come close to that God who is goodness and truth. That drive for the ultimate object of the will is a kind of yearning for something always in front of us as a further good. For that reason we pray that God will help us see the good and follow it. It is here that grace and freedom coincide.
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame.