Freedom Redefined: A Christian Perspective on the Meaning of Freedom

Consider, for a moment, a child at a drug store. He eyes the candy bar his mother told him she would not buy. His mother and the store clerk are not looking right now, and his jacket has deep pockets. He is faced with a choice: steal the candy bar or leave the store empty-handed.

The boy’s ability to choose between stealing and not stealing constitutes, in the modern sense of the word, that which we call “freedom.” In his late-twentieth-century book, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Belgian theologian and Catholic priest, Servais Pinckaers, calls this concept “freedom of indifference.”[i] The boy is free to choose between doing what is good and doing what is bad. In other words, this concept of freedom is indifferent to the morality of the actions in question.

Christianity, however, offers a very different view on what it means to be truly free. Christian freedom, or “freedom for excellence,” as Pinckaers calls it, re­fers to “the power to act freely with excellence and perfection.”[ii] In other words, a person is only truly free if he or she chooses to act in the way that is upright and good. Therefore, if the boy in our example chooses to steal the candy bar, his choice to do what is wrong actually indicates a lack of freedom in the Christian sense.[iii]

Because we commonly think of freedom as the ability to do what we want, it may seem counterin­tuitive that freedom for excellence can be considered freedom at all. Later, however, we will examine how freedom for excellence harmonizes with our natural inclinations as human beings, leading to a unique in­ner liberation. For now, though, let us simply view freedom for excellence through the lens of the basic spirit of Christianity. Christian doctrine asserts that we are called to become more Christ-like every day, and the concept of freedom for excellence encourages exactly this. The concept of Christian freedom expects humanity to live to its full potential while at the same time advocating true internal liberation.

Freedom for Excellence

“…one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom.”[iv]

—Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pinckaers explains freedom for excellence by using the analogy of a student learning a foreign language.[v] Initially, the student must endure seemingly tedious grammar exercises if she ever aspires to be fluent in the new language. She may feel like these exercises place constraints on her time; there may be other activities she would rather be doing. Additionally, she must follow the constructs of the language itself, which at times may feel like a burden. If the student wants to become fluent, however, she must do her exercises and follow grammatical and syntactical rules. Eventually, after becoming fluent as a result of her hard work and perseverance, she possesses freedom for excellence in the language. She can speak freely, spontaneously expressing any thought that enters her mind while avoiding grammatical errors, all “without conscious effort.”[vi]

Analogously, Christians are supposed to do their best to follow the moral teachings of Christianity, even if they seem inconvenient or tedious at times. According to Pinckaers, the practice of proper actions gradually leads to the development of virtues in the individual, such as courage, humility, and patience.[vii] In time, the individual discovers “a joy very different from pleasure, because it is the result of…actions and character rather than of external events.”[viii] The indi­vidual begins to love virtue for its own sake. He or she does not practice virtue merely for the sake of avoid­ing punishment or meriting praise. The individual is moved to do what is morally right because of a pro­found love of God and neighbor that has developed in his or her heart. Just as the fluent language learner does not consciously have to work to avoid error, so too does the truly free individual not consciously have to work to avoid sin. He or she is free to be excellent and consequently experiences a profound sense of in­ternal liberation.

Deeper Look at Christian Freedom

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will.”[ix]

—St. Thomas Aquinas

In order to properly study human freedom, we must first examine human nature. What it means to be human will give us insight into what it means for humans to be free.

According to the thirteenth-century theologian and philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, human beings naturally seek truth and goodness.[x] The human sense that “good is desirable” and that “evil is detestable” is called synderesis in philosophy and theology.[xi] Codes of law throughout space and time reveal humanity’s natural affinity for goodness. Whether Christian or non-Christian, Eastern or Western, ancient or mod­ern, societies have condemned murder, stealing, and other fundamental wrongs. Humanity is linked by a common and inherent impulse to condone what is good and to condemn what is bad. (For more infor­mation on the commonality of laws in different societ­ies throughout time, including many comparative ex­amples, see the appendix of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.[xii])

Christian freedom, or the freedom to be morally excellent, requires goodness. At the same time, people have an innate desire for this goodness. Hence, free­dom for excellence is united with our natural incli­nations.[xiii] In a certain sense, this is why freedom for excellence makes us free; when we perform morally excellent actions, sin does not constrain us from doing what we naturally seek to do.[xiv] Ultimately, freedom for excellence means both that we joyfully serve others and that we find a sense of internal liberation in pursuing our natural inclination, which is goodness.

Despite this natural inclination toward goodness, we still sin due to the fallen nature of humankind. St. Paul demonstrates in his epistle to the Romans that the desire to do what is good is very different from actually doing what is good. He writes: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[xv] This “slavery under sin,” as St. Paul calls it, is a clear impediment to our freedom for excellence.[xvi] Christianity offers a solu­tion to this problem: Christians believe that the power of Christ conquering, which conquered sin and death, we can be freed from the slavery of sin by the grace, or divine help, of God.

The Paradox of Liberating Laws

“But strange as it may seem, everything that exists or ever did exist in this world, of freedom… could never have flourished with­out the tyranny of these ‘arbitrary laws.’ And I say this in all seriousness: as far as I can see it is restraint that is ‘nature,’ is ‘natu­ral’—not ‘freedom to do your own thing.’”[xvii]

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Let us recall the analogy of the language learner. The student who desires to be fluent in a new language must follow rules; she must tend to her studies and fol­low the conventions of the language if she ever wants to be free to speak the language with excellence. Likewise, the Christian must follow the moral law in order to be free to be morally excellent. While it is paradoxical that something so rigid-sounding as “law” results in freedom, Christianity asserts this bold claim.

G. K. Chesterton, a twentieth-century Christian apologist, explains through analogy how moral law re­sults in freedom in his book Orthodoxy. He writes:

…doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground…We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries.[xviii]

Within the safe confines of moral law, we can be truly free. The protective walls do not prohibit fun on the cliff-island; instead, they are the precise reason why fun can be had at all on such a dangerous precipice. Likewise, moral law does not vanquish our joy; in­stead, it brings us the joy that accompanies freedom for excellence.

At face value, moral law can sometimes seem op­pressive. For example, while the young boy in our ear­lier example wants to steal the candy bar, moral law would prohibit him from doing this. Moral law would indeed inhibit his freedom to choose what is wrong (freedom of indifference). Moral law, however, would contribute immensely to the boy’s freedom for excel­lence. By following the moral law, the boy would act in unison with his natural inclination toward goodness, liberating him from the bondage of sin and allowing him to behave with moral excellence.

Moral law need not be viewed as a set of thou-shalt-nots. Instead, it can be viewed as one big “Thou shalt be all thou were meant to be.” Christian teachings comprise “a morality of attraction, not obligation,” ac­cording to Pinckaers.[xix] Moral law attracts us because it “resonates within us, revealing a hidden, vigorous har­mony with our intimate sense of truth and goodness at the root of our freedom.”[xx] Far from being oppressive, moral law is liberating in the deepest sense of the word.

The Role of Grace in Freedom

“…the more docile we are to the in­ner promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence dur­ing trials, such as those we face in the pres­sures and constraints of the outer world.”[xxi]

—Catechism of the Catholic Church

As discussed earlier, desiring to do what is good and actually doing it are two very different matters. In order to be free to be morally excellent, we must over­come our slavery to sin and do what is good by fol­lowing moral law. We know from experience, however, that doing what is good is not easy. Christians believe that the grace of God remedies this issue.

With God’s freely-given help, or grace, people are capable of more than they ever dreamed they could be. By the grace of God, the greatest sinner can be trans­formed into the greatest saint. Because of humanity’s sinful nature, true freedom for excellence, which re­quires goodness, is only completely possible through cooperation with the grace of God. Indeed, St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”[xxii]

The grace of God is not forceful. Aquinas writes that grace “causes us to act voluntarily…out of love, not slavishly out of fear.”[xxiii] Hence, our free choice is not limited by grace. Instead, our actions still ul­timately result from our own choices, and these deci­sions either aid us or hurt us in our pursuit of freedom for excellence. The grace of God simply inspires us to act on our desire for goodness.

Aquinas explains that freedom for excellence is feasible because the grace of God “removes both the servitude whereby man, infected by sin, follows his passion and acts contrary to the natural ordering of his will, and the slavery whereby he acts in accordance with the law but against his will, being the law’s slave, not its friend.”xxiv In other words, the grace of God contributes to our freedom for excellence in two general ways. First, grace prompts us to overcome sin and to seek the good. Second, grace helps us to love goodness, virtue, and the moral law, giving us the freedom to act in a morally excellent manner.

Conclusion: A Religion of Freedom

Far from being oppressive, Christianity offers a freedom of internal liberation and joy. By choosing to follow Christ, we do our best to act in accordance with the will of God as expressed through moral law, aided by His gift of grace. Christ leads us to the truth and goodness we naturally seek as human beings, bringing us closer to true liberation, or freedom for excellence.

This freedom is not indifferent to the morality of our choices. Instead, Christian freedom means being free to act with moral excellence by becoming increas­ingly resilient to sin. As we follow our natural, God-given inclination toward the good, we become all that we were meant to be. Freedom for excellence is part of the central message of Christianity. In the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not sub­mit again to a yoke of slavery.”[xxv]


i. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sister Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995) 375.
ii. Pinckaers, 375.
iii. So far, I have associated freedom of indifference with secularism and freedom for excellence with Christianity. This, however, is a simplified view. While freedom of indifference does accurately describe how moderns generally think of freedom, Pinckaers attributed this concept of freedom to William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century Christian philosopher and theologian. Pinckaers, however, viewed freedom for excellence as more applicable to Christian theology, calling it “richer and more adequate than freedom of indifference” (Sources, 329). Pinckaers attributed the idea of freedom for excellence to St. Thomas Aquinas, who is a more prominent voice in Christian philosophy and theology than Ockham. For these reasons, I have chosen to categorize freedom of indifference as a modern view and freedom for excellence as a Christian view for the purposes of this essay.
iv. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) 158.
v. Pinckaers, 355-356.
vi. Pinckaers, 356.
vii. Pinckaers, 363.
viii. Pinckaers, 363.
ix. Pinckaers, 369-370; See also Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles (4.22).
x. Pinckaers, 407.
xi. Pinckaers, 384.
xii. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1947) 95-121.
xiii. Pinckaers, 358.
xiv. Pinckaers, 369-370
xv. Romans 7:18-19 (NRSVCE).
xvi. Romans 7:14 (NRSVCE).
xvii. Pinckaers, 361; See also Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Chicago, 1955) 93.
xviii. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1936) 153.
xix. Pinckaers, 359.
xx. Pinckaers, 362.
xxi. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 1742.
xxii. 2 Corinthians 3:17 (NRSVCE).
xxiii. Pinckaers, 369; See also Aquinas (4.22).
xxiv. Pinckaers, 370; See also Aquinas (4.22).
xxv. Galatians 5:1 (NRSVCE).

Marissa Le Coz ’17 is from Essex Junction, VT. She is a Computer Science major with a minor in Philosophy.

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