The Propers for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost talk to us about a topic seldom understood today: that of liberty. As an American, liberty is something that holds a hallowed place in the heart. We read stories of Patriots pronouncing “give me liberty or give me death” and seeing license plates with the phrase “live free or die.” Political movements spring up around the concept of liberty. Often, the Catholic Church is viewed as being opposed to liberty.
When having this discussion, it is important to define your terms. Pope Leo XIII wrote an entire encyclical devoted to the concepts of true and false liberty. At its core, liberty is a power to choose that humans have on account of being given the gift of reason. Animals are often slaves to their instincts. When a man acts as a slave to his instincts, it is frowned upon because that man has the ability to choose.
Yet like all things of man, we have to remember that sin has clouded our ability to choose. While man can choose good, he can also choose evil. Because of this, we must be not only purified but dignified by Christ. He needs to raise us up. This includes the choices we make. For the Christian, our liberty must be at the service of choosing well. One cannot choose sin and rationalize it by saying one had the freedom to choose. Certainly society should not bless that choice to do ill.
In addition to sin making it possible to choose evil, sin also makes it harder to choose well. This is what Sunday’s Mass is concerned with. The Collect talks about removing” everything that might hinder us: and thus freed in body and soul, may we with full liberty seek Thy will.” While we often talk about the importance of choosing Christ, I don’t think we spend enough time talking about sin as a barrier to properly exercising our freedom to choose Christ.
St. Paul talks about some of these barriers in his Epistle. Lying is dangerous because it requires effort to deliberately look at the world in a way you know isn’t real. If you can’t look at the world realistically, how can you look at your own soul? While we can often think of reasons why we lie, the catechism condemns any and all form of lying for this very reason. (CCC 2485) Instead of lying, he encourages people to speak the truth. Why? Because speech was originally given to man so they could speak the truth. When you live as you were intended to, it becomes easier to hear God’s call.
The same could be said with anger. While we were made for communion (to live in society with one another), anger often prevents us from that unity. Most importantly, when we are given over to anger, the devil likes to use that to his advantage. Since the impulse to anger is a natural reaction, St. Paul provides the remedy: never letting the sun set on your anger. Don’t let your anger dominate you. Resolve every night to go to bed without anger, and if something is stopping that from happening, resolve it.
A final thing barrier might seem simple, but it’s really quite important: the prohibition against stealing. Since we were called to communion, we are also called to help our brother. When we steal, we are sending a message that we are more important than our brother, rather than his equal or his servant. Whether it is robbing a bank, low-balling someone’s wages, or even something as simple as refusing to give someone credit for something they deserve, that selfishness prevents us from carrying out what we were called to do.
If we notice anything else about these sins, we should note that once they are committed, we go to pretty great lengths to justify them. We lie for a good cause, that person deserves it; I need to sustain my way of living at any cost. Notice anything in common? Our lives become less rooted in objective truth, and more in whatever we feel is best. When we are so focused on what we feel is best, why would we listen to someone telling us our life is not going in the right direction?
It is precisely for that reason we should show compassion to those struggling with these sins. They are tough to give up because they have infiltrated every aspect of their lives. If we aren’t careful, they can infiltrate every aspect of ours. Our response should be what the epistle tells us to do: to give to him that suffers in need. While that need might be spiritual instead of economic, it is no less a need. We’ve had Christ dignify our liberty, and because of that, it is easier for us to choose the good. We should be using that choice to help others also find God.
The easiest way to find God is to call on Him. Sometimes, that is all our liberty can have us do, reach up enough strength to call on God. We tried everything else, and it failed. We tried “not sinning”, and we sinned. We tried doing well, and we did evil instead. All we can do is acknowledge our sins, and call out for help. That might not seem like much, so people often don’t even bother. We need to tell people how important that call is. Far from a pious platitude, God says in the Introit He will not only hear it, but act on that plea. While we might be powerless to escape our sins, Christ is not. He can clear those barriers to the Father, if we let him.