Teaching Our Faith — Free to be responsible

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

This is the first in a series of editorials, designed to correspond with the Why Catholic? process, now taking place in our parishes, about Catholic moral and social teaching.

In confirmation homilies, I often speak of the gift of true freedom. For the teen about to be confirmed and for many in our nation, freedom means being able to do whatever I want, thus creating my truth about what is important in life. I call this definition of freedom pure self-expression.

As tempting as pure self-expression might be, this understanding of freedom destines us to remain shallow, usually harming ourselves and others in the process.

The two-year-old child freely banging on the piano keys expresses himself to the pain of his listeners. How different is the young artist who, through practice, uncovers God’s gift of music and delights herself and her audience at her first performance.

The former is a “freedom from” and the latter, a “freedom for.” The deeper “freedom for” reflects a union of freedom and truth, opening us to the greatness of the gift of freedom. By doing what we ought and not just what we want, we uncover God’s plan for us.

The view of freedom as pure self-expression often conflicts with a sense of responsibility, which can be seen as something imposed from the outside to restrict

The word “responsibility” contains the word “respond,” which is no accident. We act responsibly with others as a way of responding to a loving God who has first loved us. I am capable, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, of responding to an enemy with love precisely because the first act comes from God whose love is revealed in Jesus. The way I treat others is my way of returning thanks for God’s love for me.

This understanding emerges naturally. Children raised in a loving family, with the faithful and committed love of parents, grow to show a mature love in dealing with others, even when they are confronted with less than loving individuals. Many stories of love and conversion center on a person experiencing the unconditional love of another and being won over — becoming loving in his life.

Then who is truly free: The child who bangs with abandon on a piano or the accomplished pianist who delights the listeners? The adult who acts irresponsibly, seeking only his own good, or the one who lovingly seeks the good of another? Most would agree that it is the responsible person who is the truly free one.

A Dominican moral theologian, Father Michael Sherwin, discusses how freedom as pure self-expression is really license rather than freedom. License creates an irresponsible blindness when it comes to virtue, responsible behavior and happiness.

According to Father Sherwin, we may be surprised by the “expression” of people who seem spontaneous and successful, and he uses the example of jazz
improvisation. In New Orleans, musicians seemingly “do their own thing” and create new music. Father Sherwin highlights what jazz musician David Brubeck called “freedom within tremendous discipline.” Study and long hours of practice make carefree and lively jazz! Many great artists consistently transcend self-expression to find some inspiration beyond them.

There are very practical implications to this understanding of freedom and responsibility. When we engage in “license” by acting on instinct or desire without much thought or discipline, we are led to a spontaneity that is deprived of substance and depth. Virtue that leads to good habits, on the other hand, results from thinking about our behavior and its consequences and then acting responsibly.

“License” is too often at work when people live together without public commitment, give up on the promises of marriage, or enter into a sexual relationship as a first step in getting to know someone. “License” occurs when money and possessions become paramount, and greed becomes rampant. Knee-jerk decisions rob us of the depth that good decision-making provides.

In many ways, we are the most free and yet the most unsatisfied generation. The culprit is our skewed understanding of freedom. Freedom does not result when we act without consideration of the effects on others and the consequences in our lives. When there are no standards, we are at sea without an anchor.

Once it was suggested that America, with its Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, would do well to have a Statue of Responsibility along the Pacific. One would complete the other. True and lasting freedom comes about best in the cultivation of responsible decisions.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.

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