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True liberty

In the modern context liberty has been understood as the ability of the individual to fulfill his own desires, declaring, “I want to do what I want, if I want, when I want, and how I want.” This is liberty construed as license. In this view, the very existence of others may be seen as an intolerable constraint on the freedom of the individual. Liberty expresses itself, indeed liberty exists in, the “transgressive” assertion of will against all limits, all prohibitions, all laws. Such is a dominant understanding of liberty in our time.

In the political sphere, the enemy of liberty is tyranny, and tyranny is as old as human history. The threat of tyranny, in the form of totalitarianism, is today greater than ever. It is a great mistake to think that the threat of totalitarianism has ended with the defeat of the overtly totalitarian regimes of our century. Technological power has gained unheard-of domination over human societies, brutally disrupting and often displacing traditional ways of life. The religions of secularism have taken the place of older beliefs, redefining social relations and giving political leaders the power to mobilize the energies and liberties of citizens who have become units of all-pervasive consumption. These dynamics we can see at work today, and it is more than possible that they will become ever more dominant in the century ahead. Against these forces are posited the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:17)

In establishing this sharp differentiation between what is religious and what is political, Christianity does not throw up a wall of separation between different dimensions of human life. On the contrary, it establishes, in the form of a hierarchy, a connection between them and thus suggests their necessary and organic unity. The key truth is that man receives his liberty from God, and is able to live in liberty only through his continuing relationship with God. In this way, the person has within him something that is radically inalienable, something that no other man can control. That something is his dignity as a free person created in the image of God. This liberty can be maintained and exercised only in dependence upon the creative source of human liberty, which is God. Permit me to suggest that, rightly understood, the 1776 American Declaration of Independence from political tyranny, with its reference to “Nature and Nature’s God,” presupposes this radical dependence on the source of liberty. — from “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” (1997)