Each year our bishops ask us to spend a fortnight focusing on freedom--educating ourselves about it, promoting it, defending it, and praying for it. They also offer a new theme for each “Fortnight for Freedom.” The theme for 2016 is “Witnesses to Freedom.” Here at Catholic Witnesses, we find this to be a beautiful theme for reflection. We would like to stop to think: What is a witness? And what does it mean to witness to freedom?
Dictionary.com defines a witness as “an individual who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing” and as “a person who gives testimony, as in a court of law.” For us, both definitions are essential, for what good is a witness who sees or perceives something but does not testify to it? And what good is a testimony if the person has not seen or perceived the thing about which he is testifying? A witness is clearly most effective if he/she both knows the truth and testifies to that truth.
That brings us to the question of being a “witness to freedom.” In order to be a witness to freedom, we need to discover the truth about it and then give testimony to that truth. So, to ask a big question, What is freedom? (This question cannot be adequately answered in this blog, but we will take a stab at it.) The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines freedom as “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility...There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.” This definition is jam-packed with meaning. You may be wondering how the Catechism moves from the power “to act or not to act” (seemingly without reference to goodness) and then states that true freedom is only found “in the service of what is good and just.” The key is in the little phrase “rooted in reason and will.” These are the powers that make human freedom possible--so let’s discuss them briefly.
Human beings can be free because we have the powers of reason and will. The ability to reason is the ability to discover the truth through thought, logic, and analysis. The will is the power to choose what our reason presents as true.
This brings us to a crucial question: What happens when we abandon the powers of reason and will? Quite simply, we lose our freedom. Fr. Mitch Pacwa gave an excellent example of this in an interview with Catholic Witnesses. When people become high on drugs or intoxicated with alcohol, they lose their ability to reason. They cannot think clearly enough to actually make choices. Enslaved to the drugs and alcohol, they have traded their freedom in for a passing pleasure. This is just one example of the way in which we lose our freedom if we abandon our reason and will.
Every time we abandon what our reason shows us to be true, we lose our freedom in the same way. If we decide to live based on whatever feels good at the moment or based on a self-created meaning of the world (the world’s idea of freedom), we will be enslaved to our own passions/selfish desires. But if we live based on the truth we discover through reason, we will find true freedom. Now perhaps this places our Lord’s words in a new light: “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Every sin is a thought, word, or action contrary to the truth about God and about the human person. Sin enslaves us because it hinders us from doing what we are made to do—to live in the Truth! Jesus gives us the key when he says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
In order to protect human freedom, civil laws should be grounded in truth. Relativism cannot give freedom; if truth is disregarded, the will of the powerful will be imposed on all. If laws are based on truth, on the other hand, the freedom of each person will be protected.
Do not worry that supporting laws based on objective truth is “imposing your morality” on other people. Laws, whether good or bad, do impose moral standards on people. The question is, should those moral standards conform to the truth common to all people or to the whims of the powerful? The former will serve the good of all; the latter will serve the desires of some and (possibly) the good of none.
Having taken a quick look at the meaning of freedom, we see that in order to be “witnesses to freedom” it seems that we must be “witnesses to truth.” This is a difficult thing in our world today. Many people find truth quite inconvenient. When we speak the truths about marriage, human life, human dignity, and religious freedom, we can expect a bit of backlash from strangers, co-workers, and even family and friends. Take heart though--you are not the first ones to suffer from witnessing to freedom, and the suffering can never take your true freedom away from you.
Consider the martyrs. Although they lost all freedom according to the world’s standards, they were some of the most truly free people who ever lived. Free from fear, selfishness, and natural instinct, they chose to witness to the truth even unto death. On the USCCB’s 2016 Fortnight for Freedom webpage, you will find brief bios of more than 14 men and women who witnessed to freedom, many of whom died a martyr’s death. You may be encouraged by the fact that some of them were killed for simply defending marriage--an institution so in need of defense today. They are all a beautiful example for us.
As you may know, the word martyr originally simply meant “witness.” This is a high calling for us--to witness to freedom even if it brings us suffering and death. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of the saints, especially the courageous martyrs, may we become compelling witnesses to true freedom and experience in our own lives the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).