St. Paul Against the Libertarians
Reflecting on Our Flawed Modern Notion of Freedom
Americans have a particular relationship with freedom. “Freedom” is an essential part of our national story; it cannot be understood without it. This is so much so the case that one popular U.S. History book by Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty: An American History (2004), holds that the story of America is the story of freedom, what it has meant over time, and its extension to different groups. “Freedom” is a continuous factor in modern debates as well and a contested one.
Modern society often justifies the worst vices in the name of personal freedom. We are told that legalizing marijuana is a matter of personal freedom. Likewise with commercial surrogacy, and prostitution. Most cruelly, many abortion advocates insist that a woman’s freedom requires that she be able to destroy her unborn child. Clearly, there is a sense of “freedom” that we must have nothing to do with. Yet, there are also freedoms that we, as Americans, and even more as Catholics, are to cherish. We have freedoms like speech, press, and religion. Government mandated covid Church closures were a cruel violation of a basic American and human freedom.
How then shall we make sense of freedom? There are a number of good options. Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen, of course, is excellent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 1781+) is very good. But we can also go further back than either of these and look at St. Paul, who almost seems to have been writing for our own times. In his letter to the Galatians, he tells the Galatians that they “have been called to liberty” (Galatians 5:13). But he quickly clarifies to the Galatians that that liberty is of a particular sort:
[M]ake not liberty an occasion to the flesh, but by charity of the spirit serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if you bite and devour one another; take heed you be not consumed one of another. I say then, walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another: so that you do not the things that you would… (Galatians 5:13-17)
It seems that St Paul knew perfectly well how much a temptation liberty could be to human beings. You are free, he tells them, but, not free for the flesh. Lest we complain of unclarity or ambiguity, Paul is very specific. Our freedom is not to be an excuse to indulge the flesh. What do we mean by the flesh? He writes:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, emulations, wraths, quarrels, dissensions, sects, envies, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. Of the which I foretell you, as I have foretold to you, that they who do such things shall not obtain the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
People sometimes complain (wrongly) that St. Paul was writing for his own time and so has nothing to say to ours. But Scripture is written for us as well. We are not so different from our ancestors as we often might like to think. Their temptations are ours as well, and one of the most basic temptations, going back to the garden of Eden, is the temptation to abuse our freedom. G.K. Chesterton once put it this way:
When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord…
Man was created free, and that was a freedom for good or ill even the freedom to betray his Lord. Like the Galatians of Paul’s day, freedom included the temptation to abuse that freedom. serves the lusts of the flesh, the same lusts to which we are so tempted today. We call practicing them exercising our freedom, but in truth, there is no freedom in them, only slavery, the worst slavery of all, the slavery of sin.
And such “freedom,” which is really mere license, cannot be without consequence, as Paul assures the Galatians, and us. For true freedom is not a freedom from consequence. It does not “free” us from the consequences of our actions nor to do anything that we, in our fallen natures, might wish. It frees us to do what we ought to live the life that God has made us to live. And that, according to Paul, is the life of the Spirit. We are to walk in the spirit, not according to the lusts of the flesh: “But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, Mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity” (Galatians 5: 22-23).
Modern Americans like to consider themselves the most free country in the world or in human history. This may or may not be so, but, if we are, we will not long remain so if our liberty descends into mere license. If freedom becomes only an excuse to indulge in the lusts of the flesh, then we will have found that we have been reduced to mere slavery.