Msgr. Luigi Civardi
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1961
Published on the World Wide Web with Permission of the Publisher.



Physical Liberty

The word liberty is equivalent to absence of necessity and has various meanings.

First of all, one should distinguish between physical liberty and moral liberty:

1. Physical, or psychological liberty, is the power of man to decide for himself, to will or not to will, to will one thing or another: This self-determination presupposes an absence of necessity, not merely external, but also internal.

External necessity, or constraint, derives from a power that lies outside of man and compels him to do what he does not want to do. Such is the power that forces an individual to remain shut up in jail, or to ascend the scaffold.

Internal necessity comes instead from an impulse within man that forces him to act. Such is the case of a somnambulist, of an insane man, of those who act under the stimulus of an interior power which they cannot control.

From the above we can understand how two cases diametrically opposed to each other may be supposed in man: the case of the external, without any internal necessity [as in the case of the condemned man who walks toward the scaffold because he is obliged to do so against his will], and that of an internal, without any external necessity [as in the case of one who walks in his sleep under the impulse of nervous excitement, without being subject to any external force].

2. The absence of internal necessity is called free will, inasmuch as it makes man the arbiter of his own actions.

Free will is an effect of the spirituality of the soul, and is innate in every man. However, there are internal and external causes that may diminish or destroy free will. Some such internal causes are: passions, temperaments, habits, ignorance, sleep, insanity. Nervous diseases that produce mental disorders have a more or less pronounced influence upon the will which, as we know, follows the judgment of the mind.

Inasmuch as the extent of the influence of these internal causes is nearly always uncertain, in many cases it is almost impossible for man to determine the exact degree of responsibility that attaches to an action, since obviously the responsibility of an action is always in proportion to its freedom.

Formerly, in judging of the responsibility of human actions, little or no account was taken of the internal causes that take away or diminish the freedom of the will. Today, the tendency is to the other extreme, even to the point of denying freedom itself and thus of every responsibility. Mental diseases, hereditary psychoses, monomania and other morbid conditions have become the stock in trade of criminal lawyers.

3. The existence of free will has often been denied by philosophers and theologians. In ancient times, these persons were called fatalists because they held that the will of man was dominated by a higher and mysterious force that is called fate. Nowadays, they are called determinists, because they claim that every act of the human will is determined by an interior irresistible force like instinct in animals.

Modern determinism is very largely the result of materialism. If man is nothing but matter without a spiritual soul, it is evident that everything in him has to be subject to the inflexible laws of matter, and hence there is no room for freedom.

Fatalism and determinism deprive man of his highest dignity and debase him to the level of the brute, because, as Dante writes:

"The greatest gift God of His largesse made at the creation, and the most conformed to His own excellence, and which He most prizeth, was the will's liberty, wherewith creatures intelligent, both all and alone, were and are endowed." [Par: 5:19].

4. There are many arguments that prove the existence of free will. We will here mention the two principal ones:

(a) The testimony of conscience.

We feel inwardly that it is in our power to act or not to act, to act in one way or in another. We feel, for example, that we have the power to eat or not to eat, to eat much or little, this or that; whereas it does not depend upon us to make a good digestion. Therefore, our very conscience assures us that both free acts and necessary acts are attributable to us.

A modern philosopher, Antonio Franchi, in his book Ultimate Critique makes this shrewd observation: "They feel free and to be free is the same thing, as it is the same thing to feel happy and to be happy, to feel sad and to be sad, to feel in doubt and to be in doubt. And just as it is impossible to have a feeling of doubt, of sorrow, of joy, without the real state of doubt, or sorrow and of joy, so it is impossible to have a feeling of freedom without the real state of freedom."

(b) The testimony of mankind.

Mankind has always praised virtue and blamed vice, rewarded merit and punished guilt. But these words, praise and blame, reward and punishment would have no meaning if a man were not free and hence responsible for his own acts. Were there ever any rewards or punishments established for animals?

Accordingly, the determinists, to be logical, should burn all codes, abolish the courts and close the jails. In fact, some followers of materialistic determinism consistently proposed to convert all jails into sanitariums, considering every criminal either a patient, an abnormal being, or a psychopathic case. But this proposal was never taken seriously.

Similarly, laws, prohibitions, commands, counsels, reproofs, and threats that mankind has always made use of would become practical absurdities if man is not master of his own acts, or acted after the manner of a machine or of an animal.

Moral Freedom

1. Moral freedom is entirely different from physical freedom, though having its roots in the latter. It consists in the power of doing everything that is not forbidden by a just law.

Moral freedom is therefore a right, the object of which is the good. No one has a right to do evil. Therefore, the power of doing evil is a defect and does not belong to the essence of freedom, just as tendency to sickness does not belong to the essence of health. Therefore, as Leo XIII teaches us in his Encyclical Libertas on Human Freedom: "Thus it is that the infinitely perfect God, although supremely free, because of the supremacy of His intellect and of His essential goodness, nevertheless cannot choose evil; neither can the angels and the saints who enjoy the beatific vision. St. Augustine and others urged most admirably against the Pelagians that if the possibility of deflection from good belonged to the essence or perfection of liberty, then God, Jesus Christ, and the angels and saints, who have not this power, would have no liberty at all, or would have less liberty than man has in his state of pilgrimage and imperfection."

Consequently, public authorities, while allowing full liberty to goodness, cannot equate liberty to evil and to error. That would not be true liberty, but license.

Social order and peace are based upon a proper balance between authority and liberty. It cannot be denied that this balance is difficult of achievement, for both authority and liberty are easily abused. Thus history bears witness that peoples frequently pass all of a sudden from an excess of authority [authoritarianism] to an excess of liberty [libertarianism].

2. There are different kinds of moral freedom, according to the objects upon which it is exercised. Thus we have religious, civil, economic, professional, scientific freedom, and so on.

The liberals, by posing as the champions of all liberties, have proclaimed the liberty of thought, of conscience and of religion in opposition to the Church that prescribes dogmas to be believed and religious acts to be performed. What are we to think of such liberties?

If, by these words, the liberals mean that religion cannot be imposed by force, they are stating the truth, but they are not stating anything that has not already been proclaimed by the Church. Religion is a free homage to God; and no one can be forced to believe or to profess that which he does not believe.

Alcuin in his famous letter to Emperor Charlemagne who, with unenlightened zeal, was seeking to convert the Saxons to Christianity with the sword rather than with the word, admonished him: "Remember that the faith, as St. Augustine defines it, is an act of the will and not of violence. Man may be drawn to faith, but he cannot be forced into it. You may drive people to baptism, but you cannot make them take one step forward toward religion. Therefore, those who evangelize the pagans must use words of peace with the people, because Our Lord knows the hearts that He wants, and enlightens them so that they may understand." Leo XIII referred to this teaching in his Encyclical Immortale Dei: "It is the absolute will of the Church that no one be forced to embrace the Catholic Faith because, as St. Augustine wisely observes, man cannot believe except by his own free will."

3. But the liberals by those words mean to affirm that "each one is free to profess the religion that pleases him and even profess none at all," as Leo XIII states in his Encyclical Libertas; they mean liberty to think and to do whatever one wishes concerning God; they mean, in a word, religious indifferentism.

Now this unlimited freedom in religious matters would be lawful only in the event that it were not possible to know the true God and the true religion. But such is not the case, because the existence of God and Christian revelation are truths that can be proved and have been proved by human reason.

Therefore, to these statements, so common in our days: "Man is free to think as he pleases . . . he is free to profess the religion that he likes best" ----- and other similar statements, we answer as follows: "He is free physically, but not morally." In the same way, a son is free to honor or to dishonor his father.

Christ and Freedom

1. The dogma of the physical freedom of man is clearly set forth in the Old Testament.

We read in Genesis that God, in creating man, uttered these significant words, which are not employed for any other creature: "Let us make man to our image and likeness." [Gen. 1: 26]. Now, this likeness [not equality] is derived from the fact that man has a spiritual and immortal soul and a free will. Spirituality, immortality, freedom, are attributes of God.

In Ecclesiasticus we read these words: "God made man from the beginning and left him in the hand of his own counsel.  . . . Before man is life and death, good and evil; that which he shall choose shall be given to him." [Ecclus. 15: 14-18].

The New Testament takes for granted the freedom of the will. The whole preaching of Christ would be an absurd labor, all His precepts and counsels would be but empty words, if man were forced to act automatically or instinctively. The whole plan of the Gospel would have no reason for existence, because fallen man would not be capable of redemption, and the punishment of eternal fire, with which Jesus threatened the reprobates [Matt. 25: 41] would be an unheard-of cruelty. For whoever is not free is not responsible for what he does and deserves neither reward nor punishment.

2. Holy Writ also also proclaims and defends moral liberty.

Already in the Old Testament, God is pictured as the Deliverer from the many ills that man has brought upon man. The Psalmist hails Him thus: "My refuge, my support, and my deliverer." [Ps. 143: 2].

But the true Deliverer,; the Restorer of every legitimate freedom, is the God-man. Jesus championed the liberty of man, as such, even before the liberty of the citizen, the worker, etc., for as we have seen, slavery was the social condition of the great majority of men.

And this work of social redemption He accomplished not with violent means, not by demagogic expedients, but by the peaceful preaching of lofty moral principles which, like grains of yeast, penetrated into the great mass of humanity and gradually transformed it.

The first principle is that of the substantial equality of all men, made to the image and likeness of One only, that is of God, the Creator, and redeemed by the same Blood of Christ, who commanded that the message of redemption be brought to men of all races and of all nations: "Preach the gospel to every creature." [Mk. 16: 15].

Another principle is that of the brotherhood of man, which the Redeemer proclaimed in the plainest way when, before a group of men of different social classes, He said: "All you are brethren."
[Matt. 23: 8].

More sublime, still, and more decisive is the principle of adoption as sons of God, granted to all the baptized: "Who are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." [Jn. 1:13]. That means that the loftiest nobility has been granted even to those who occupy the lowest spheres in the social order.

From all these evangelical principles, there springs forth as a practical corollary: the moral freedom of every man. And, in truth, to equal subjects belong equal rights. Neither can a brother fetter a brother, nor a son of God become a slave of man.

Hence it appears that the famous and much abused threefold label of the French Revolution ----- equality, fraternity, liberty ----- in its genuine meaning is but a radiation of the teaching of the Gospel.

Ernest Renan himself, who wrote of the Gospels in a sacrilegious manner, was compelled to confess in his Marcus Aurelius that: "the abolition of slavery dates from the day in which the slave ----- that being whom the ancients conceived as devoid of moral stature ----- became the moral equal of his master." And it was the Gospel that proclaimed him such an equal.

The Church and Freedom

1. The Church, walking in the footsteps of Christ, was at all times the champion and the protector of every legitimate liberty and the enemy of every tyranny.

First of all, the Church championed the physical liberty of man and thus defended the crown of this king of creation.

She condemned the theories of those heretics ----- like Luther, Calvin and Jansen ----- who held that Original Sin had destroyed free will, and in our days it condemned the nefarious doctrines of determinism and materialism.

Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Libertas, says: "Like the simplicity, spirituality, and immortality of the soul, so likewise its liberty; no one has affirmed in stronger terms or championed them more consistently than the Church that teaches them at all times, and upholds them as a dogma."

2. The Church, moreover, in the same way that she defended rights of authority against anarchistic theories, so she upheld the rights of moral freedom against the claims and the violence of oppressors. The Church of Christ, from its inception, not the French Revolution of 1789, was the first to proclaim the rights of man.

St. Paul, writing to the Christians of Ephesus, exhorts them: "And you, masters, do the same things to them [the slaves], forbearing threatenings, knowing that the Lord both of them and you is in Heaven; and there is no respect of persons with him." [Eph. 6:9]. And to the Christians of Galatia he clearly states: "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." [Gal. 3: 28].

That means that before God there is no difference, either of nationality or of social condition, or of sex, contrary to what was then held among pagan peoples and among the Jews themselves.

These words of the Apostle of the Gentiles ----- which have since been reiterated unceasingly by the rulers of the Church ----- are clear condemnation of slavery, which among Christians soon ceased to exist in their minds, if not in their outward practices. The Christian master was bound to see a brother in his slave.

3. But the most effective teachings of the Church were, as always, her actions. In the internal life of the Church, slavery was soon abolished by means of the equal treatment that was accorded to free men and slaves. All, without distinction, were admitted to the same Sacraments, to the same honors, to the same spiritual favors. The words of St. Paul, "There is no difference between a slave and a freeman," immediately became a reality in the liturgical life of the Church.

Some do not give credit to Christianity for this immense social benefit ----- to wit, the abolition of slavery ----- for the reason that there is no clear condemnation of this social plague in the Gospel, nor has the Church ever launched a campaign against it.

Now here we must make ourselves clear. It is true that the Church, like Christ, never preached a crusade against slavery and that neither has she ever urged the slaves to rebel. By so doing she would have put the world in turmoil. At that time slavery, as we have seen, was one of the props of social life. Therefore, the sudden suppression of slavery would not only have caused confusion, but also damage to everybody and to everything. The Church preferred, as always, evolution to revolution, by means of a slow, peaceful work of education, without violence and without upheavals.

The reform had to start in souls, in order to be translated little by little into actions and into laws. Experience, in fact, teaches that lasting and beneficial reforms spring from within man and cannot be imposed by force from without. Hence the proverb: "Whatever is forced does not last." The Church, therefore, following the example of Christ, achieved this great work of transformation, above all, by her teachings, proclaiming a sound doctrine of equality.

The reform had to start in souls, in order to be translated little by little into actions and into laws. Experience, in fact, teaches that lasting and beneficial reforms spring from within man and cannot be imposed by force from without. Hence the proverb: "Whatever is forced does not last." The Church, therefore, following the example of Christ, achieved this great work of transformation, above all, by her teachings, proclaiming a sound doctrine of equality.

   4. The Church has made the highest proclamation of the highest liberty ----- religious liberty ----- through the martyrdom of countless sons of hers. Martyrdom is the declaration of the most sacred rights of man, written in blood. The purple army of Christian Martyrs is an heroic defense of freedom.

Dante, in the Divine Comedy, puts in the mouth of Virgil the famous words: "He seeketh liberty, which is so dear, as knoweth he who life for her refuseth." [Purg. II: i 71- 72].

No one is better entitled to pronounce these words than the martyr of Christ, who has surrendered his life in order to save the dearest of all liberties, the liberty to serve the True God.

Thus Pius XII teaches us to distinguish between liberty and license, which is liberty without restraint and without limitations. "True liberty," he writes, "that which truly deserves this name and which constitutes the happiness of peoples, has nothing in common with license, with brazenness. True liberty is just the contrary of that. It is that which guarantees the profession and the practice of what is true and of what is just under the guidance of the divine commandments within the sphere of public welfare. It has therefore need of just limitations." [Message to the Swiss People: Sept. 21, 1946].

Thus, Leo XIII in his Encyclical Libertas condemns freedom of worship, of speech, of the press, of teaching and of conscience as understood by liberalism, which would grant the same rights to good and evil, to truth and error.

However, while freedom of evil is always unlawful, the toleration of evil may at times be advisable. On this point Leo XIII teaches: "Without granting any rights except to truth and honesty, the Church, in order to avoid a greater evil, or to achieve or preserve a greater good, does not forbid public authority to tolerate certain things that are at variance with truth and justice."

Pius XII in his Encyclical Summi Pontificatus condemns an opposite error, to wit: Statism, which accords unrestricted power to the State, to the prejudice of the liberty of the individual and of the family, pointing out "that man and the family are by nature prior to the State and that the Creator endowed both with certain powers and rights and assigned to each a mission answering to positive natural exigencies."


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