As a catechist I have always felt a little queasy about introducing the word “freedom” into any learning setting, because the theological term “freedom” is not quite the same as the American or Western meaning of the term. The religious sense goes back to St. Paul, who speaks of “freedom from the Law.” The American sense speaks of freedom to do, as in freedom of speech, bearing arms, voting, and drinking (but don’t do them all at once). Consequently, when religion classes or sermons announce that as creatures of God we are free, what we hear is that we are free to do a lot of things, and a teacher or a preacher must quickly back track with the old “but you are only free to do good things.” If we are endowed with freedom, it sometimes feels like Ralphie’s Christmas gift from an elderly relative—the homemade rabbit pajamas with the feet.
St. Paul’s discussion of freedom has as its context the emergence of Christianity from Jewish practice, a major theme in Paul’s letters. In Paul’s view of things, the gifts bestowed by God included a freedom of the conscience brought about by the power of Christ’s cross to conquer sin. Paul understood the revolutionary nature of God’s intervention as a renewal of humanity, and the power of God’s grace as without equal. His argument with Jewish Law and practice was its underlying claim to save by observance, and its clean division of observant from outsider.
The prophetic insight that salvation was universal in nature was apparently not a staple of Jewish thought and practice at the time of Jesus, who himself was severely criticized for his excess of mercy beyond religious, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. Nor did the Apostles first grasp the implications of this universalism, either. It was Paul, the Church’s true first theologian, who came to understand that the saving grace of God through Jesus was a cosmic event that required no ritual preconditioning, specifically in his context, Jewish initiation. The pastoral circumstance was the requirement of male circumcision as understood by the Apostles. Paul challenged the need for circumcision as a precondition for Christian baptism, and he successfully made his case at the “Council of Jerusalem” in 49 A.D.
For Paul, freedom was the essential opting for Christ. He referred to Jewish law as a burden, a pedestrian distraction at best and an unnecessary burdening of the conscience at worst, since the grace of God was a “remaking” or “rebirth” of the Christian convert. Matters of religious law such as issues of cleanliness and trifling Sabbath regulations had no standing in the court of the Son of Man, whose death and resurrection had delivered humanity once and for all.
It should be obvious to anyone who has ever tackled an Epistle of Paul’s that his use of the word “freedom” is neither a get-out-of-jail-free-card nor carte blanche to “do as you will.” The Apostle to the Gentiles railed frequently against behaviors unbecoming of those who have been remade through baptism into the image and likeness of Christ. Sinful acts, in his theology, are ultimately betrayal of the most significant choice, freely given, to be born again in Christ.
We might turn here to a leading moral figure of our own time, one who has appeared here in our posts before, Father Bernard Haring, author of the Law of Christ (1956). Haring, whose World War II experiences inspired him to a rethinking of Christian morality, turned to a more Pauline base of morality, a “fundamental option” or psycho/spiritual reordering of life to the centrality of the redemption brought by Christ. Haring and the Vatican II school of moralists who followed came to understand that morality is the outcome of spiritual conversion, a change that every person is free to accept or decline.
Thus, the better understanding of freedom in the Christian-Biblical sense would be the assertion that true freedom is exercised once—at baptism—and reasserted in the multiple choices that life and circumstances bring. Haring and future generations would assert that the manualist school of morality in which they were trained placed too much emphasis upon defined individual acts—many of which, of and by themselves—had the power to damn the soul independently. This is a forest for the trees arrangement that Pope Francis has addressed in our time—that individual acts and their definition must be addressed and assessed in the broader parameters of a Christ-centered conscience, in the Sacrament of Penance.
The moral pastoral practice of my upbringing placed an almost neurotic preoccupation upon the deed, isolated from any broader considerations of theology and at times, common sense. When I received my First Communion in 1956, the “locker room instructions” included warnings about the teeth touching the host (despite the Biblical command, “Take and Eat”), breaking the communion fast by swallowing toothpaste or sneaking a taste of one’s first communion cake frosting before Mass. This degradation of liturgical law is the result of a peculiar heresy in the Church known as Jansenism, originating in the sixteenth century, which has never actually disappeared in toto. This labored mentality pervaded human growth—if seven-year-olds were burdened under such specificity of law, imagine puberty, married life, and aging.
St. Paul understood that preoccupation with law for its own sake was an unnecessary burden in the economy of salvation; he instructed the Church through his letters and preaching that the cross of Christ had freed the believer from the burden of excessive and extraneous legal burdens, thus identifying the term “freedom” as release from legalism and scrupulosity. The Gospels, written after the Pauline letters, would depict Jesus breaking Jewish law in the performance of acts of healing, charity, forgiveness, and outreach. The Gospels would round out the term “freedom” as a release from restraint to do the good works associated with the coming Reign of God.
There is no hint in Scripture of a freedom to sin. As noted earlier, the ultimate freedom is the opportunity to behold the risen Jesus, fall to one’s knees, and repeat the words of the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”