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Freedom in the Present Age

In the face of the atrocities which we are witnessing today—war, the culture of death, etc.—several fundamental questions about modern human beings trouble our minds, particularly those concerning liberty. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II writes: “The human issues most frequently debated and differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: human freedom.[1] Modern people claim freedom of conscience, of speech, and of action to decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion.[2]

This concept of liberty forms the basis of various schools of thought, some of which diverge from the truth of human beings as creatures in the image of God. Certain currents of modern thought, Pope St John Paul II underlines, have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist.[3] This reflection is hinged on two approaches: the subjective approach and the Christian approach to freedom.

  1. The subjective approach to freedom

The contemporary conception of freedom claims to suppress God in the life of humans. According to the theories wrongly developed in this era, human freedom is a proof of the non-existence of God. Jean Paul Sartre states one of the theories which absolutise human freedom by postulating the non-existence of God: Either humans are free and God does not exist, or God exists and humans are not free. But since people are free, God does not exist.[4] These different theories gave people the illusion to think of themselves as masters of their future and of their lives. Certain theories, following the example of Neitzsche, did not hesitate to declare the death of God. Thinking along these lines is at the origin of the pseudo-anthropological conception of humans created in the image and likeness of God. Among the corollaries arising from this erroneous conception of freedom are: secularization, relativism, subjectivism, etc.

Subjectivism, which attracts our attention, is the fact of attributing to individual liberty the prerogative of being the supreme judge to autonomously determine good and evil, and to act accordingly. This leads to subjectivism in all its forms—social, cultural, intellectual, ethical, affective—with a tendency to suppress the other, and this other par excellence, is God. The ideology of modernism makes humans into an island closed in on themselves: I have the task of forming my own identity by my free choices: The unattached individual. According to the ethicist Marcus Ndongmo, this person is an individual turned in on himself, raised to the level of the first and last point of reference, the centre of his or her own decisions. S/he is a solitary individual, a being without prop or guardian, claiming to be totally free.[5] Individualism supported by the modern ideology does not capture the essence of a person, because to be free, don’t we need otherness and community in order to exist? We are always free in relation to others. No being is a monad, an island closed in on itself. It is essentially openness to the cosmos, to otherness, and to transcendence. We find this truth about human nature in the Christian conception.

  1. Christian approach to freedom

Trying to move away from God in human action, is an aberration of poorly understood freedom. The modern world which is developing the ideology of God as an usurper, deadening human flourishing, is robbing humans of their identity as beings in the image of God, and their vocation to resemble God. Christians living in this world should not model themselves on these fallacious ideologies cut off from God, but on the will and fear of God who is the source of human freedom. In this context the Church has a key role to play in the life of a Christian. It does not intervene in the freedom of the faithful to suffocate them, but to awaken their consciences against the falsely developed ideologies whose goal is to move them away from the truth of the Gospel. In this sense, the Magisterium plays an important role of vigilance, and the promoter of freedom of conscience, speech and action. However, human freedom and divine law are to be understood from the fact that human freedom and he will of God are not heterogeneous realities. They don’t stifle each other. As a precious gift from God to humans, freedom only finds it full realisation in God. This realisation is only meaningful when it humbles itself and abandons itself to the will of God. Consequently, freedom is not a licence to do whatever we please, including evil. Nor is it a force for the autonomous affirmation of oneself, often against other people, for one’s own egotistical good. Rather, it is the capacity to realise God’s real plan.

But the question still remains concerning human action: how to choose good and avoid the evil brought by all the different catastrophes which people are experiencing across the world? Could we strongly affirm that it’s because we are managing human freedom badly?

In fact, freedom is a precious divine gift which God is offering to all people. There is no life without freedom. Freedom is not only a property of human action, it is a property of each person. Citing St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Hans Kung states “it s the freedom to which you have been called” and he continues by saying: only don’t use this freedom as a pretext for satisfying the flesh.[6] Note 17 of Gaudium et Spes specifies: “freedom is neither libertine nor liberal, nor does it take liberties. It is ultimately the freedom to love.” That is why and how the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of authentic liberty are also: service, obedience, humility, hope, respect for the other, acceptance of otherness, listening, tolerance, etc. Therefore those who want to glorify humans with their own, autonomous will free from any other will, are misleading people from the truth which is God, because God’s will, far from opposing our own, is the foundation and condition of our freedom.

[1] John Paul II, Veritiatis Splendor, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) 31.

[2] Ibid., quoting Dignitatis Humanae 1.

[3] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 32.

[4] Charles Delhez, Ces Questions sur la Foi que Tout le Monde Se Pose (Paris: Le Cerf, 1997).

[5] Marcus Ndongmo, A la Quête d’une Laïcité à l’Africaine (Yaoundé: Tarf et Melson, 2012).

[6] Hans Kueng, Liberté du Chrétien, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967).