The moral law and our freedom are both gifts from the same Creator, who loves us and blesses the world with order and goodness. Both the moral law and freedom are meant to intersect and work together for our growth and flourishing as human persons. Sadly, it has become fashionable in our twenty-first century Western culture, to allege a conflict between the moral law and freedom. Questions abound: How can one be free and still have to follow the moral law? Don’t I lose my freedom in being told how to live by a moral law? Isn’t a moral law repressive and controlling? Isn’t freedom being able to do whatever I want, whenever I want, and however I want? In their core, these questions indicate a lack of reality and scream barbarism.
If freedom is defined as the power to do whatever I want, then no one is ever free. Even on the practical level, we are told what to do all the time, ie., when to put out our garbage for its collection, what foods we can eat, what medicine is permissible, how fast I can drive, etc. If freedom is so radically defined, then freedom is a mere dream, a distant longing that can never be actualized. But is this a proper definition of freedom? Does freedom and law have to be in conflict?
Rather than defining freedom in terms of autonomy and self sovereignty, perhaps we should place freedom within our lived experience? What if freedom is attainable, but rather than being in opposition to the law, it worked with the law, and allowed the law to guide and mature it? Rather than seeing freedom as the power to do whatever I want, freedom can now be seen as the power to do what is right and good. The law, especially the moral law, can then give direction and instruction to the exercise of freedom.
Freedom is not unlimited. It actually finds its true and complete fulfillment in the acceptance of the moral law, since it needs the law to know what it right. Freedom by itself cannot discern right from wrong. The moral law is a root of freedom as freedom gives wings to the moral law. The moral law is in service to freedom. It protects and promotes authentic freedom.
An example might help: if a young person wanted to learn how to play the piano, the student must learn the laws of piano playing. The laws of playing will be difficult and maybe tedious at times, they will require regular exercise and practice, and the student must be attentive to the goal and persevere. In time, the student learns how to play the piano and is able to perform beautiful masterpieces and perhaps even right some works of their own. The laws of piano playing matured and gave the student the freedom to play the piano. Imagine if the student had quit the lessons and decided that they would play the piano however they would like. While one could beat on the piano keys in sporadic fashion however they want, such a person would not be playing the piano. Their freedom towards the piano is wayward and immature. We could apply the same principles to sports, to driving a car, to doing laundry, etc., etc. We see lived experience illustrate this point. It leads us to apply the same principle to the moral law and to our moral freedom. If we follow the moral law, then our freedom is matured and ordered, and we begin to desire virtue and have the formation and strength within us, initiated and inspired by God’s grace, to live a life of virtue and moral goodness. We are free. We are holy.
A brief application: This past week, we celebrated the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who was a martyr of charity in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II. In having been taught by the moral law and living a life of virtue, Fr. Kolbe could face total chaos and the loss of any sense of order in the camp. He carried the internal rationale of freedom and, amidst a shocking state of affairs, his freedom gave him the strength and courage to continue in virtue and holiness when everything else was torn down. When all else seemed lost, he knew himself and what was right, and he did it with all his heart.
This is what freedom, tutored and grounded in the moral law, can also give to us…a knowledge and comfortability in ourselves, in what is right and good, and a graced strength to do it well. This is freedom. This is virtue. This is holiness.