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The Question of Human Freedom in the Face of the Socio-Environmental Crisis

Among the fundamental questions about man that have haunted the human mind, there are those related to freedom. Depending on the school or current of thought, freedom is understood differently. Far from entering into these complex, centrifugal approaches, our aim is to reflect on the place of freedom as a gift that gives rise to human responsibility for the socio-environmental crisis that affects the whole of humanity today.

In number 31 of his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II writes: “the human problems that are most debated and variously resolved by contemporary moral contemporary moral reflection are all linked, albeit in different ways, to one crucial problem that of man’s freedom.”[1]  Modern man claims freedom of conscience of conscience, of speech, of action, of acting according to his own options and in full freedom and responsibility, not under the pressure of coercion, but guided by a sense of duty.[2] In this sense, it can be understood as the power to act within an organized society according to one’s own determination, within the limits of established rules.

Our contribution is thus oriented towards hermeneutic-descriptive thinking. We take two approaches to this theme: a conceptual approach that will enable us to briefly present the limits. The second will reconsider the concept of freedom as God’s gift to humanity, which places the principle of human dignity at the heart of human action.

  1. Conceptual approach to human freedom in the contemporary era

Unlike Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the contemporary era has seen a decisive turning point in the way we think. On the one hand, this turning point consisted in the autonomy of the subject at the center of philosophical discourse. On the other, it brought about a shift from theory to practice, or from the contemplation to the domination of nature. This is how modern people have become, according to the Cartesian project, “masters of nature.” This privilege granted to human reason has brought both positive and negative contributions. Positive, because it has led to many significant advances, making possible many achievements in various fields. Negative, insofar as, thanks to this techno-scientific progress, people have began to exploit nature excessively, with no regard for the harmful consequences. Hans Jonas expresses this loss of direction in the following terms: “the promise of modern technology has turned into a threat.”[3]   One of the consequences of this transformation of human action is the ecological crisis that weighs on all of humanity and is manifested in global warming, air pollution, the drying up of waters, deforestation, and so on.

In abusively exploiting nature to the full, mankind has forgotten that it is a complex network of connections and relationships that interlock and interact to such an extent that the neglect of a single factor has repercussions on other elements and, consequently, on the entire planet. In this sense Pope Francis notes that “by recklessly exploiting nature, human beings risk destroying it and in turn become the victim of this degradation.”[4]

  1. Limits of this modern approach to the concept of freedom in the socio-environmental crisis

The claim to master nature in its entirety clearly shows the limit of human reason, which is proving incapable of controlling its actions in relation to nature. When all is said and done, contemporary man’s conception of freedom is one that claims to remove God from human life. According to the false theories of this time, human freedom is proof of the non-existence of God. One of these theories, which absolutizes human freedom by postulating the negation of God is found in Jean Paul Sartre’s assertion that: “Either man is free and God does not exist, or God exists and man is not free.”[5]  These different theories have given man the illusion of thinking himself “master” of his destiny and his life. They have sought to place at the heart of their reflections an absolute sovereignty of man’s freedom, which would be creator, of values and of truth, leading to relativism.

Man has become his own legislator, so there are no values that transcend human freedom. In such a field, where everyone is left to his own devices, the truth of God’s Word is relegated to the private sphere of those who call themselves Christians. This is due to modernity’s emphasis on the goddess of human freedom, man can kill, man can exploit others, man can even dispose of the environment at will.

Assigning to individual freedom the prerogatives of a supreme instance of judgment that must autonomously determine right and wrong, and to act accordingly, has led to a subjectivism in all its social, cultural, intellectual, ethical and other forms, with its tendency to suppress the other. The ideology of modernism turns man into an island closed in on itself. It’s a self that has the task of establishing

its own identity through its own free choices. According to Marcus Ndongmo, it is an “individual sent back to himself, elevated to the rank of first and final reference, the center of decisions. He is a solitary individual, a being without guardian or support, asserting himself as totally free.”[6]  The individualism advocated by modern ideology does not embrace the essence of man. To be free, don’t we need otherness and community to exist? Hence, a new way of reconsidering the concept of freedom.

  1. Freedom as a gift offered to humanity

Freedom is a gift, a precious divine gift that God has offered to every human being. There is no life without freedom. Freedom is not just a property of human action, it is the very being of every human being. Man is, to quote Leonardo Boff, “essentially free by constitution. He is born to be free. He is called to realize himself freely. For each of us, freedom is the mother of our history.”[7] The Pastoral Constitution

Gaudium et Spes goes further, emphasizing that: “The human species is not only endowed with freedom as other varieties are endowed with fins or wings: I am my freedom. It is above all through his freedom that the human is the image of God.”[8]  Quoting Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Hans Küng emphasizes: “it was to freedom that you were called,” and goes on to say, “Only don’t use this freedom as an excuse to satisfy the flesh.”[9] The note in number 17 of Gaudium et Spes goes on to say: “Freedom is neither libertine nor liberal; it does not take liberties. It has nothing in common with fantasy, caprice, vagrancy, dilettantism. It is ultimately liberation of love.” This teaching of the Second Vatican Council clearly resituates the role and place of freedom in human action, and above all in the ethical approach to safeguarding the environment.

  1. Freedom as a reflection of the dignity of the human person

Among people, freedom is a very high sign of the divine image and, consequently, a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person.[10]  Every human person has the right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. The right to exercise freedom is a requirement inseparable from the dignity of the human person (Cf. Gen 1:27). We must not restrict the sense freedom by reducing it to an arbitrary and uncontrolled exercise of personal autonomy: it only really exists where reciprocal bonds, governed by truth and justice, uniting people. The value of freedom is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfill his or her personal vocation, to seek the truth and to profess his or her religious, cultural and political ideas. To express their opinions, to decide how to live and, as far as possible, how to work, to take economic, social and political initiatives. It must also manifest itself as the ability to reject anything morally negative, in any form whatsoever. It is at this level that man can reconsider all the debates that revolve around safeguarding the environment, with the aim of appreciating the gift of freedom as an asset to how to protect our common home amid today’s ecological issues. That’s why freedom is not just a right that we claim for ourselves, it’s a duty that we owe to others, and in particular towards the environment.


In short, we wanted to reiterate, in line with Church teaching, the value of freedom as a gift from God in the quest for solutions to the socio-environmental crisis. As God’s gift to man, freedom can only be fully realized in God alone. For freedom is meaningful only when it is humbled and surrendered to God’s will. Those who would have man believe that only his own will, autonomous, free of all constraints, would be freedom, confuse man from the truth, which is God, for God’s will, far from being a counter-will to ours, is the foundation and condition of our freedom. Consequently, and in view of the rapid progression the world’s rapidly expanding spheres of life, we all need to be made aware of the value of freedom as a divine gift to humanity.

[1] John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 1993, 31.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hans Jonas, Le principe responsabilité. Une éthique pour la civilisation technologique, translated from the German by J.Greisch (Paris: Cerf, 1992) p. 20.

[4] Francis, Encyclical Laudato Si’¸ 2015, 5.

[5] Charles Delhez. Ces questions sur la foi que tout le monde se pose (Paris: Cerf, 1997) 19.

[6] Marcus Ngongmo. À la quête d’une laïcité à l’africaine, (Yaoundé: Taf et Melson, 2012) 13.

[7] Leonardo Boff. Témoins de Dieu au cœur du monde. La vie religieuse, expérience actuelle, (Paris: Centurion) 184.

[8] Vatican II. Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 17.

[9] Hans Küng. Liberté du Chrétien, (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967) 84.

[10] Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 11.