Free to obey

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa on the royal dignity that pertains to those who have this kind of dominion over themselves. “The soul shows its royal and exalted character . . . in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will. Of whom else can this be said, save a king?” According to the Pope, freedom does not attain this royal dignity until it rises to the level of making choices that perfect the dynamism of the human spirit toward the divine, following motives that solicit its free adherence. To this effect the Pope quotes from Vatican II:

God willed to leave them [human beings] “in the hands of their own counsel,” so that they would seek their Creator of their own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God. (Gaudium et Spes 17; Veritatis Splendor 38)

As I have said, we possess this freedom only when we go beyond individual and collective selfishness and reach out to that which reason perceives as objectively good and true. Our freedom is not diminished but expanded and fulfilled when we employ it to bring about a true good. This, again, is the teaching of Vatican II:

Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind impulse or merely external pressure. People achieve such dignity when they free themselves from all subservience to their feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursue their own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means. (GS 17; VS 21)

Because the moral law, as known by reason, does not constrain us, it leaves us physically and psychologically free either to obey or to violate it. But if we reject the true good, we inevitably yield to the passions and instincts of our lower nature and thereby undermine our authentic freedom. To act freely against the truth is to erode freedom itself.

Michael Polanyi, the great philosopher of science, speaks in much the same terms as John Paul II. He writes:

While compulsion by force or by neurotic obsession excludes responsibility, compulsion by universal intent establishes responsibility. . . . The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to act as he must.

Lord Acton declared that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” As this definition indicates, Acton is concerned not so much with the philosophical as with the political definition of freedom. Those who have a constitutional right to do as they ought are politically free, and if they are not physically or psychologically impeded from following the moral imperative, they are also free in the philosophical sense of the word.