The Dignity of the Person

This month and the days around it are full of moments where the concept of freedom is referenced and/or celebrated. Most cultures have their day to celebrate their freedom. Our July 4 is Italy’s June 2; Canada’s July 1 is Mexico’s September 16, and the list goes on and one. One country not listed is Great Britain, as many on the list were celebrating their Independence from Great Independence.

June is immediately preceded by Memorial Day (formerly Decoration Day), where we decorate the graves of those who served the country to protect our freedom. In the middle of June, on the fourteenth, is Flag Day, a time when Americans reflect on the foundations of the nation’s freedom. The flag of the United States represents freedom — as probably do all national flags. Citizens of countries see their flag and know that it waves proudly over them, declaring their freedom from another country.

Later on in this month, the Catholic Church in the USA has created a fortnight of days to focus on freedom and the importance it has for us and for everyone. The Fortnight for Freedom, from June 21 to July 4, is a time when our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power: St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. This fortnight ends on July 4, the day we all set aside to celebrate our nation’s freedom.

Freedom is important to us, and it seems that we cannot get enough of it. No one likes their freedoms taken away, and we always yearn for more, no matter how much we have already. The more we have, the more we want; it is addictive.

The Church devoted many articles to freedom in the Catechism:

1730 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. Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.

1731 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.

1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.

1733 The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin.

The Scriptures help root the value of freedom as we hear the many references to the passover as the Israelites passed over from slavery to freedom. Of course, the memorable line of Christ that “the truth will set you free.”

Though freedom is something we all cherish, each of us freely squander it. The prodigal son had a lot of freedom, and Saint Luke does not hold back in stating that he squandered it. How often have we ourselves squandered the freedom we have. Freedom is a delicate luxury that can slip away from us much easier than it is to obtain it. Think how many times we enslaved ourselves because of freedom. How often, when there is the opportunity to have a free day, we fill it up with things that box us in. We have the freedom to say yes or no, and how we respond to our free time may cause us to lose our freedom because we freely said yes when we should have said no or vice versa. The very system we create around ourselves can be such that our freedom is lost. God hoped that the free will he gave us, leaving us to our counsel, would keep us free. God has high expectations for us, and He believes we have the potential to live freely, yet we have squandered it.

Our calendars enslave, and we have become slaves to those things which are supposedly there to free us up. The cell phone is a prime example. Having that cell phone might free up time later for us to relax or do more work once back at the office. If you have ever lost your cell phone, you know how attached and not so free you are. The phone, though an instrument of freedom, can imprison us; maybe that is why they are called cell phones. They have locked us up into thinking we must always be reachable, because we freely (but falsely) have labeled ourselves as indispensable.

Our own personalities, which we cultivate, are often the very things that bind us. Do you ever feel trapped in your own personality? The Church purports that freedom gives us the power to reason and to choose by will who and how we wish to be, to act and to perform our own actions. We freely shape our own lives. Sometimes, as the years go by and we have been freely expressing ourselves in one way, it is hard to change that expression even if we want to do so. We get locked into our personality traits. The people around us have been trained by us to interact with us in a certain way; they engage us in the way we have taught them. Then, one insightful day, it finally dawns on us that there is a part of our behavior is not the best part of us. When we decide to change our behavior accordingly, it is nearly impossible due to the system that has been created around us. It is hard to shed the skin that entraps us, it is not so easy to sliver out of the skin that that has us entrapped.

Once the whole concept of civil freedom is put into the mix of freedom, much is misunderstood. Most people abhor being told that their free choice is not possible because it fringes on the freedom of others and one’s personal freedom does not trump the collective freedom of others. This is a hard concept for many, and our society seems to value personal freedom over societal freedom. The medical and moral issue of abortion is one such example. The personal choice of the mother seems to override the child’s right to be born free. The mother made a free choice to engage in an act whose consequences could result in pregnancy. If she freely choose to end the life of the child she freely created, her free choice conflicts with the right of that child to be born. The valuing of personal freedom over social freedom has become such a mantra in society (especially in election year) that most of our freedoms are being taken away by other freedoms. Since the Church believes and proclaims that freedom is best exercised when it is at the service of something good and just, all of our freedom is minimized when another’s action is not for the good of all and not just. Like the stock market when a particular value stock is overvalued, the market has to correct itself. Sometimes the personal freedom over social freedom is valued to the detriment of all to the point it needs to be corrected. By nature, individuals do not like to be corrected or to have what was once a freedom be no longer a freedom.

This year, as we memorialize those who died for our freedom and celebrate the freedom we have on July 4, we need to discern and decide how much freedom we would choose to surrender to allow others to live in greater freedom. What would I freely give up so that another may have more freedoms and more choices?

FATHER CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the Director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management. pcarrion@archbalt.org