As a squadron commander, I find myself sometimes in the position of coaching young adults on the difference between freedom and license. It is not a distinction the world teaches them; in fact, some would argue that society works very hard to blur the distinction.
Freedom is the ability to choose what is good for us; license is defined as excessive freedom which prevents us from choosing what is good for us. Some even call that condition enslavement. It is no coincidence that licentiousness (immorality, especially in sexual immorality) shares the same root word with license.
As Christians, we have often heard the familiar quote from St John's Gospel, "And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32), but do we really understand what that means? The Catechism of the Catholic Church reveals that Man's freedom is rooted in his being made in the image and likeness of God:
God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. "God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him" (#1730).
Note that this definition emphasizes that freedom means that Man is able to make the choice for good, rather than the enslavement to choose only those things that hurts us. True freedom means being able to seek God and not be hindered in our relationship with him.
As a military officer, I am often called upon to remind my airmen that the Air Force doesn't set standards of behavior to hinder their freedom. Rather, we set standards of behavior to keep them safe and healthy, ready to accomplish our mission…and to have the defense of our countrymen in our hands is a serious responsibility indeed. When airmen violate those standards, leaders must do their duty and hold them accountable; that is justice. The repercussions for violating military standards range from minor to severe, depending on the offense, and always entail some sort of consequences to the offender like a fine, extra duty, or loss of a stripe.
The same is true for God's Law. As a Good Father, He loves us and wants the best for us. In His Word He told us to "choose life" (Duet 30:19), that in following His way we can receive the abundant life (Jn 10:10) He offers us. By following Jesus Christ, we have the freedom to turn away from sin and can break the enslavement that sinfulness places on us. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and through His sacrifice on the Cross we are freed from the darkness that sin covers us in. By violating God's Law, we receive the just rewards for our disobedience: unhappiness and ill health (both spiritual and sometimes even physical). As St Paul famously said, "The wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23).
This is not the voice of the world however, as I am consistently reminded when I look out into "popular culture." From the music on the airways, to the magazine rack at the grocers, to the television programs that are offered daily, the world seeks to tell us, "go ahead, you'll be free if you do these things, it won't hurt a thing." It's the same lie that the serpent told Eve in the Garden, "You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad" (Gen 3:4-5).
I'm reminded of this lie every time I see an ad for artificial contraceptives on television — they always show a beautiful young woman "liberated" by the drugs she's taken to suppress her fertility. What the ad doesn't show is the broken spirit from being used to satisfy men's needs at her own expense, and the toll on her psyche from denying the part of her that makes her uniquely a woman, her ability to carry new life within her body. Her freedom has been suppressed in order to make her chemically sterile. By accepting the world's view of "freedom", she has been enslaved to the sorrow that follows.
The Catechism continues:
Freedom is 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. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude (#1731).
When we exercise our true freedom, rather than the license of the world, we are able to choose life as God offers. In the process we grow in holiness, and become more fully human as our Father in Heaven had in mind. To be human is to be free, and to be free is to be closer to God.
And that's the whole point.