We hear a lot about liberty in the world. You are free to choose whatever you like. Follow your heart…and other such nonsense as that.
This false concept of “liberty” has invaded the Church as well. Even in the Church, modern Christians have a false concept of what liberty actually is. In this post, I will be interacting with the encyclical “Libertas” which was promulgated by Pope Leo XIII on June 20, 1888.
It’s ironic how these “old dead guys” have so much to say to our world today. It’s also ironic that many people today talk about how the Church is “oppressive” when nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always called men to liberty. Pope Leo XIII opens his encyclical,
“Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity – that he is “in the hand of his counsel” and has power over his actions. But the manner in which such dignity is exercised is of the greatest moment, inasmuch as on the use that is made of liberty the highest good and the greatest evil alike. Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end. Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things; and in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen. The Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ, having restored and exalted the original dignity of nature, vouchsafed special assistance to the will of man; and by the gifts of His grace here, and the promise of heavenly bliss hereafter, He raised it to a nobler state. In like manner, this great gift of nature has ever been, and always will be, deservingly cherished by the Catholic Church, for to her alone has been committed the charge of handing down to all ages the benefits purchased for us by Jesus Christ. Yet there are many who imagine that the Church is hostile to human liberty. Having a false and absurd notion as to what liberty is, either they pervert the very idea of freedom, or they extend it at their pleasure to many things in respect of which man cannot rightly be regarded as free.”
The truth is that we really don’t know what real freedom is. Our world believes that freedom means I can do whatever I want, regardless of moral standards. Pope Leo goes on to say,
“No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will. The end, or object, both of the rational will and of its liberty is that good only which is in conformity with reason…Even the heathen philosophers clearly recognized this truth, especially they who held that the wise man alone is free; and by the term “wise man” was meant, as is well known, the man trained to live in accordance with his nature, that is, in justice and virtue. Such, then, being the condition of human liberty, it necessarily stands in need of light and strength to direct its actions to good and to restrain them from evil. Without this, the freedom of our will would be our ruin. First of all, there must be a law; that is, a fixed rule of teaching what is to be done and what is to be left undone.”
So, there is no true freedom where the natural law is attacked. Freedom is only freedom when it conforms to reason. And not reason of our choosing. Rather, reason has been given to us by God. Freedom must be birthed from justice and virtue. Otherwise, our so-called “freedom” is nothing more than real and true slavery to our passions. So then, true freedom consists in submission to the objective Truth of the law of God and comes from outside us, not from within us. We are incapable, in ourselves to do this. Thus, Pope Leo states,
“Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason; whereas the truth is that we are bound to submit to law precisely because we are free by our very nature. For, law is the guide of man’s actions; it turns him toward good by its rewards, and deters him from evil by its punishments…Laws come before men live together in society, and have their origin in the natural, and consequently in the eternal, law. The precepts, therefore, of the natural law, contained bodily in the laws of men, have not merely the force of human law, but they possess the higher and more august sanction which belongs to the law of nature and the eternal law…From this it is manifest that the eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man, but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united. Therefore, the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.”
And don’t we see this in society today? Our society believes that freedom means every man does what he pleases. But we can see from the natural law, which is an extension of the eternal law, that doing whatever you want is not freedom at all. Our society says that we must submit only to our own consciences, whatever is meant by that. But we can see that it is only submission to God’s law that brings true freedom. It is only in submitting to Him that we are free. Therefore, Pope Leo states,
“Therefore, the nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether in individuals or society, whether in those who command or in those who obey, supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God, command good and forbidding evil. And, so far from this most just authority of God over men diminishing, or even destroying their liberty, it protects and perfects it, for the real perfection of all creatures is found in the prosecution and attainment of their respective ends; but the supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.”
But we believe that we can decide for ourselves what is right and authoritative. Follow your own heart; I’m sure you’ve heard that. Your truth is another popular expression; find your own truth. But this rationalism and is destructive as the Pope reminds us,
“The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes the supreme principle and source and judge of truth. Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license.”
Boundless license. Sounds like America and the world today. But we see that the lack of submission to eternal authority, namely God, inevitably leads to the tyranny of individual whim. Again, the Pope says,
“For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion an judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption.”
Read that last part again. This is precisely where we are in our society today. Pleasure is the measure of what is lawful. Universal corruption is the reality in which we live. Pope Leo was prophetic.
What is the solution for us today then? What, then, is liberty? Thankfully, the Pope tells us,
“But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong – a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear.”
This is what our Church leaders should be spending their time talking about and calling the world to: submission to the will of God. Instead, our leaders waste their time and breath telling us we need to be worried about the environment and “fraternity” and making sure that gay couples have the same “rights” as everyone else and making sure they tell us to wear our masks and restricting attendance at Mass or any of the other silly and trifling things our bishops and curia feel they need to spout off about.
What we should be hearing is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only in Him that we have freedom. It is only in Him that we are indeed freed from the slavery of our passions. It is only in Him that we have fellowship with one another. It is only in Him.
Let us then, the lay faithful, call our bishops and priests to the proclamation of the gospel of our Lord! Let us stand on the Way, the Truth and the Life as has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition! Let us defend true freedom in Christ!
I’m a pretty independent type of chap. In that regard, I’m pretty typically American. And politically, I’m Libertarian so I really don’t want any type of governmental control over my life. The less the merrier as far as I’m concerned.
Americans used to all be that way. That’s kind of what drove us to independence from England. I’m oversimplifying it but we don’t like being told what to do. I mean, don’t tell that to the cancel culture of today though. It’s like everybody has to believe the same thing or be labeled as intolerant, racist, homophobic or whatever other name the main stream of society wants to call you…but I digress.
Suffice it to say that we don’t like being told what to do. We don’t like our government beating us over the head. It’s not like our government has actually had our best interests in mind ever.
But what if the ruler were good?
What if the king was benevolent? And what if that king turned our expectations upside down? What if the king, rather than being worried about extending and increasing his own power, extended power to his subjects? What if serving the king meant freedom?
We never see, in our modern world, a ruler who gives to those whom he rules. They all seem to be out for themselves. But not so our benevolent King. Consider our texts today:
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
In our Ezekiel text (one of my favorite prophets by the way), we are presented with an image of a shepherd. But this is not just any shepherd. This is a shepherd who takes tender care of his sheep. This is a shepherd who rescues his lost sheep. This is a shepherd who takes care of the weak. But this is also a shepherd who judges, who shepherds with justice those who are strong and fat of their own devices. This is a shepherd who turns things on their head. We would think, in our minds, that the sheep that most deserve the attention of the shepherd are the strong ones, the ones who can survive with minimal effort from the shepherd.
I mean, if we’re honest, that’s what we would do. We wouldn’t want to devote all our time to the weak and lost and broken. But this shepherd does.
He’s not like us.
In our Epistle text, St. Paul presents us with another image. This is a regal and royal image. This is an awesome and powerful image. Christ is the “firstfruits” who has “destroyed every sovereignty,” every power and every authority. St. Paul tells us that “he must reign.” This is a nonnegotiable ruler. His power is ultimate, even over death itself and all will be subjected to Him.
This has quite a different tone than our Ezekiel text. This is one of absolute power and might and strength and awe and glory. There is a finality to this ruler, an overarching completeness. St. Paul uses words like “all” and “every” and “last enemy” to show us that this ruler is absolute.
This universal imagery and rule is echoed in our Gospel text. Jesus, referring to Himself, says he will come “in his majesty” and “all nations shall be gathered together before him.” But, unlike our Ezekiel text and Epistle text, Jesus mixes his metaphors. He opens with this universal rule and authority and then says he will separate the sheep from the goats, hearkening us to both the other texts. And we are again told there will be judgment. Those on the right hand are “blessed of” the Father and will be given possession of “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” To those on the left, he says something starkly different: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Jesus is not just saying that they will be cast into damnation but says that their damnation equates them with the devil and his angels. This is harsh stuff. And why? Why are they cast out and equated with demons?
Because there is an ethic to the Kingdom of God which will be brought to its fullness when the King returns. This is not a kingdom like the world where the powerful take what they want at the expense of others. This is a kingdom that gives rather than takes.
Imagine a King who dies so that his people may live!
So now we ask:
What would it look like to live under the rule of benevolent King?
“The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing.
He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment:
He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the paths of justice, for his own name’s sake.
For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me.
Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly it is!
And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days.” (Douay-Rheims)
Behold your King!
Behold Him who ruleth over you and provides all your needs.
Behold the One who has set you in a place of lush peace and abundance, refreshing you with the water of His love.
Behold He who converts our soul and leads us to true justice.
Behold He who is with you constantly, comforting us in all our afflictions.
Behold He who provides us the feast of His love, even in the presence of the enemies of sin and death.
Behold His mercy.
Behold Christ the Lord.
Behold your King!
And He shall reign forever and ever.
Thanks be to God!