What Does It Mean to Be Truly Free?

We are all born into captivity. And we don’t even know it. We are not nearly as “free” as we like to think we are. Each of us is born enslaved to ourselves and thus have become complicit in the rebellion of the fallen angels against their Creator and ours. It’s a subtle and insidious enslavement; none of us rolls out of bed in the morning consciously thinking, “I am the center of the universe,” and yet almost all of our desires, choices and actions are governed by this diabolical assertion. And the assertion, like all things diabolical, is a lie.

Far from being always so obvious to us, original sin is very much like a virus that affects our entire operating system, lurking behind the screen of our life and manifesting itself in our serial sins as well as greater offenses — it distorts the way we see ourselves, the world and God. As postmodern persons, we are remarkably self-conscious and yet bereft of genuine self-awareness. We don’t really see ourselves because we are, ourselves, “in the way.” The “ego,” what Thomas Merton called the “false self” — the “me” that is at the center of this lie — occludes our vision so that we don’t see even ourselves as we should. Our vision of others also is skewed, and so we end up looking at others either as objects in the way of the exercise of our will (competitors) or as instruments we can use to achieve our own ends. In some ways, the art of Christian living is learning to stay out of the way.

Far too often we imagine that God’s grace works something like this: our unruly desires and passions lead us into any number of sins, in thought, word, action and omission. God’s grace enters in and acts as a governor, limiting our choices — clamping down, as it were, on that freedom and thus keeping us on the “straight and narrow.” However, rather than imagining grace as a kind of power that limits us by external constraint, perhaps we might re-conceive divine grace more helpfully.

In baptism, we were plunged into the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus Christ and configured to Him. We share, by His gift, in His risen life, the life of the world to come, the new life made possible by His own paschal victory and now extended to us by the sacraments. Perhaps rather than seeing grace as an external constraint, we might rather view it as it really is: the fruit of the new life given to us in Christ. To be “in Christ” (one of St. Paul’s favorite expressions) is to share in His new life — His victory and triumph over sin. Grace, far from acting as a kind of inhibitor, actually liberates us and makes us free, genuinely free. When Gabriel greeted Our Lady with the strange Greek epithet kecharitomene, usually rendered “full of grace,” he was observing her unique status among all the daughters of Eve (as well as among all the sons of Adam): Mary is most graced. And yet we must not read that to mean that she was somehow less free. Mary is actually the freest human person who ever lived, and that is precisely because she is most graced. Grace does not inhibit or create curbs for freedom, it liberates it.

Filial Love

The saints are those who have entered into this genuine freedom in Christ. They are not constrained or cramped by grace. Quite the contrary, they are men and women who have moved from servile to filial love — their relationship with the Lord is not one dominated by rules and regulations, but rather is informed by the New Law, the law of love. It is this love that is the motivating factor of moral action in their lives. It would never dawn on them to think, “What’s the minimum I need to do not to be damned?” Rather, they are moved and drawn by love, a love for Christ that first comes from Him — a divine love, the agape of the Gospels — and this is what forms their life. The “operating system” in the life of the saints is no longer sin, but it is this love and the grace and freedom it brings.


Consider for a moment Jesus’ words about the new wine and the old wineskins (see Mt 9:17, Mk 2:22 or Lk 5:37). In order for us to understand, embrace and express in action the new teaching Jesus has come to impart, we must first be made new ourselves. The moral conversion in our lives is assisted and enabled by a deep, personal configuration to Christ, and this configuration is accomplished primarily (but not exclusively) through sacraments. We must be made new wineskins before the new wine of Jesus’ teaching, His law of love, can be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, if we are not being transformed by grace and configured to Jesus, His teaching will seem at best unrealistic and at worst impossible.

There is sound reason that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the moral section (“Part Three: Life in Christ”) is preceded by the sacramental/liturgical section (“Part Two: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery”): Before any real consideration can be given to the New Law, the grace of sacramental life must make us new men and women. Indeed, there is much that can be discerned by reason, even apart from grace, in what philosophers and theologians call “natural law.” But the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ cannot be understood, much less lived, apart from the grace of God in Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the sacramental life of the Church is but the extension in space and time of the very mystery of the Incarnation. And Part Three of the Catechism begins not with law, or a treatment of the Ten Commandments, but rather with human dignity and human freedom — the latter deeply impaired by the first Adam’s fall, but now subject to healing and restoration by the New and Last (by which the New Testament means definitive) Adam: Jesus Christ.

Jesus reveals not only who God is, but also makes known to us our true vocation, dignity and destiny as sons and daughters in the Son. Jesus shows us what it means to be truly human and truly free. And He communicates His freedom and His life to us by grace in the sacraments. The entire moral law of the Gospel is understood and made accessible to believers by the grace of the Church’s sacred liturgy and sacraments.

“For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). With these words, St. Paul warns the Galatians to avoid returning to the full observance of the Mosaic Law, whose dietary and ritual elements have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. But these words also speak to Christians of every age. As the people of Israel escaped the clutches of Pharaoh and — crossing the Red Sea and finally experiencing liberation — they as yet really had no idea how to be free. In fact, if we read Exodus, we see that their first instincts are to return to their place of captivity since they were so inured to their condition of captivity that genuine freedom was frightening. Their captivity was more comfortable than the demands of radical freedom. They would spend the next 40 years learning to become what they already were: free.

Christ in Us

The Christian moral life is about learning how to be genuinely free. To live “in Christ” is to allow Him to live in us, to love in us, to forgive in us, to resist temptation in us, to be strong in us and triumph in us. Moral progress — holiness of life — is never a personal achievement for a Christian: it is the work of grace, thus liberating believers from the clutches of self-love and disordered desire and enabling them freely to choose the good. Even our “merits” in a truly Catholic theology are themselves the work of God’s grace. The First Preface for Saints in the Roman Missal cribs a line from St. Augustine to make precisely this point: “In crowning their [saints’] merits, you crown your own gifts.”

Pope St. John Paul II on Truth and Freedom
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II recognizes that the relation of truth and freedom has been constant in the Church’s teaching: “Only the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth” (No. 86). This flows from Jesus’ own words: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

In a culture that exalts in independence and autonomy, and in which the uninhibited exercise of freedom is the golden ring for which all unreflectively strive, the Gospel invites us to discover freedom precisely in relationship: We are most free when we live in relation with God in Christ. The Christian faith holds that the Holy Trinity — God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is the fullness of what it means “to be,” and thus “to be” in the fullest sense is “to be” precisely “in relation.” For us who by grace are offered a created share in that Uncreated Life (what Tradition would call deification or divinization), true freedom is discovered only as life in Christ, the supreme grace, by whose Spirit we have been liberated from the grip of sin and death, and through whom we have a unique and privileged access to the Father — to live as truly free sons and daughters in the Eternal Son made man.

Msgr. Michael Heintz, Ph.D., a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is associate professor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and teaches patristics.