The Paradox of Liberty

There is a paradox at the heart of liberty, a tension between our desiring what is good and our willingness to sacrifice true happiness for fleeting satisfaction. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” abolitionist Wendell Phillips said. Lord Acton echoed the idea, calling liberty, “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.”

The delicacy of freedom cannot be explained without recourse to the realities of good and evil. Freedom is both universally sought and everywhere in jeopardy because of the imperfection of human nature. We are beings who seek what is good, but are tempted by what is evil. Freedom–the capacity to know and choose what is good–is the path to fulfillment, but reason is clouded and the will is compromised by our inclination to pursue what is base.

This is why liberty blooms only in a mature civilization, a culture in which the discipline to act virtuously is widespread. It requires a political order in which the proclivity to acquire power is checked by constitutional limits and, more critically, by the moral formation of electorates and officials alike.

Yet the temptation to trade liberty for other apparent goods is ever-present. Radical equality appears as a desirable goal; lurking behind the veil is power for a few and lowered status for the rest. Financial security without personal cost similarly appeals; but it too will be revealed in time to be illusory, material prosperity finally failing along with the freedom of self-direction.

Such deceptive allures permeate our policy debates. The promises of government-run social security, having undermined the duty-in-freedom to provide for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, are perched on an increasingly unstable base of a shrinking proportion of workers. Abdicating our responsibility to provide for and direct the education of our children, a government system has raced to a lowest-common-denominator approach devoid of moral or religious content–and often enough not very effective in conveying skills or knowledge either. Faced with the daunting prospect of taking charge of the cost of medical care for ourselves and our families, many are willing to cede control over value-laden health care decisions to government agencies.

Pope Benedict XVI understands the paradox of freedom. “Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world,” he wrote in Spe Salvi. Yet we are called to battle, nonetheless: “Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good.”

The link between freedom and goodness is unbreakable, but it is always in danger of being forgotten. The notions that free means “carefree” and that liberty entails no limits are now deeply rooted in our politics and in our culture. But while we may deny who we are as human beings made in the likeness of God, we cannot overturn nature. There is no true happiness in reaping the rewards of someone else’s labor, in wielding power over the decisions of others, or in following every urge and impulse regardless of the consequences for ourselves or for those around us.

The vigilance demanded to protect freedom is watchfulness over the potential abuses of powerful institutions: political, commercial, and even religious. But it is first and foremost a conscientious scrutiny of our own motives and actions. For it is only when large numbers of individuals become complacent and indolent that those who seek power are able to attain it. July Fourth is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to acting toward the genuine good of ourselves and others–in other words, to remind ourselves always to conform our freedom to what is true. This fundamental connection was articulated long before Phillips, Acton, or Benedict drew breath: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

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  • Seperation of church and state should be based on this principle, for one can not say that the state is about the truth of our faith, nor should we force it to be. Therefore the state should not do the works of the church, these are the works of the Body of Christ.

    The Body of Christ should be resposible for Universal Health Care, not the state. We should be taking care of the elderly, the sick, and the poor; and we should organize and finance these activites, not the state.

  • I have been saying very much the same thing for very many years:

  • noelfitz

    I note this article qas written by Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D.. What is the policy of CE in giving the adacemic qualifications, such as Ph.D or Dr to authors?

    I also see that it is a product of the Acton Institute, presumably called after Lord Acton (1834-1902).

    “Acton was one of a group of Catholics labeled, “Liberal Catholics.” They were critical of the church in respect to its authoritarian organization (specifically, the Infallibility of the Pope), and critical too of its past history (as for example: the Index, the Inquisition and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew). Much of Lord Acton’s writings dealt with these matters. His positions were to get him into difficulty with Rome and he came very close to being excommunicated, indeed, his mentor, Dr. Dollinger, did get excommunicated (”

    Can I again ask for more participants here? After all, it is Catholic Exchange. Recently there are very few views being exchanged, few debates are being undertaken.

    May I remind you again that the last four posts in the Roundtable “Faith and Life” were by me (June 26, 21, 14, 13). Also recent comments of mine to TOB have elicited no replies.

    Does anyone else have any views, comments, opinions?

  • Mary Kochan

    We don’t give the academic qualifications to anyone — we simply attribute author’s names as the authors themselves wish to be attributed. That is common courtesy.

    The Acton institute was created by Fr. Robert Sirico and is to study and promote principles of the free market in the light of Catholic social teaching. See here for info about him:

  • noelfitz


    many thanks for your reply.

    It is always great to hear from you.

    Catholic Social teaching is not based on the free market, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as pointed out in the three great social encyclicals – “Rerum Novarum” (1891), Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Centesimus Annus (1991).

    In the latter Pope JP II reminds us that
    “Pope Leo’s Encyclical on the “condition of the workers” is thus an Encyclical on the poor and on the terrible conditions to which the new and often violent process of industrialization had reduced great multitudes of people. Today, in many parts of the world, similar processes of economic, social and political transformation are creating the same evils.
    If Pope Leo XIII calls upon the State to remedy the condition of the poor in accordance with justice, he does so because of his timely awareness that the State has the duty of watching over the common good and of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving that good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector”.

  • Mary Kochan

    Surely your not suggesting that there is no way to bring the light of the gospel to bear upon the free market.

    I didn’t say that the free market was the basis of Catholic social teaching as you are suggesting I said. I am saying that that system as with any other, can be looked at in the light of Catholic social justice teaching. That is what Sirico does.

  • noelfitz

    Sorry, Mary, for giving the wrong impression.

    Extreme capitalism like extreme socialism cause problems.

    We have seen how the lack of regulations and ethics as well as the presence of greed and dishonesty have caused such huge poverty for so many on both sides of the Atlantic.

    There is a need for a return to Gospel values.

    However, like in so many things, we are both on the same side.

    That is why I am here and admire and support the work of you and your colleagues in CE.

    I just wish we had more discussions and debates.

    So at times I am a little provocative to get a discussion going, but I have little success, since (as I have written before) the last four contributions to the Roundtable “Faith and Life” (from June 13 to 15) have been by me and no one has even bothered to disagree with me there.