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Deacon Kyle Eller: Are we losing our taste for freedom?

“The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.”

Pope St. John Paul II wrote these six words in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, but I’m sure I read them quoted somewhere else first, early on in my conversion. For me it was an idea so powerful and illuminating that it has embedded itself in the way I look at the world ever since.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

In context, the Holy Father was talking about evangelization. He has just finished asserting the right to religious freedom for all people and especially for the liberty of the church to carry out her mission to bring the Gospel to all peoples. But then he turns his gaze toward the way the church conducts herself in that missionary work, addressing people “with full respect for their freedom.”

We can and vigorously should propose those things God has revealed for the salvation of the world. We teach it, we defend it, we try to show its beauty and truth and invite people to partake of it. But we don’t impose it on them, attempting to coerce or force it on them, because to do so would violate the freedom God has endowed them with and the dignity of the human person.

Freedom has been on my mind a lot lately, I think mostly because of the crazy spectacle of folks practically lusting for the ability to tell other people what to do and raging at the very notion people should have certain freedoms even if it entails some of them possibly making bad choices.

I know, of course, that this is human nature. Jesus alludes to it when he tells the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.”

But these things are growing so aggressive and so widespread that I find myself wondering if people even believe in freedom anymore, or if the “land of the free” has in the end just lost its taste for freedom.

It’s no small matter. As the church’s teaching on religious liberty makes clear, it’s rooted in the very nature of the human person as God has created us. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, coming to God is “the end and purpose of life.” It is the most consequential decision anyone ever makes. In a real sense, eternity hangs in the balance.

And yet even (or perhaps especially) here, freedom is essential. We are rational creatures, endowed by God with the capacity to believe, to choose, and to love, and those capacities find their great glory in carrying out this high vocation of seeking the truth about God and personally adhering to it. The right to do so freely is connected with the duty to do it wisely and personally.

Total freedom doesn’t apply to every sphere of life, obviously. The New Testament unmistakably upholds the legitimacy and necessity of both church and civil authority with power to command those subject to them when it’s necessary for the common good. We couldn’t have a society worthy of the name if people could steal or murder or drive 100 mph through a residential neighborhood with impunity. And we could hardly be faithful to God if ministers were allowed stand in the pulpit and deny the creed.

But so often I find myself wishing more of a “propose, don’t impose” approach were our social norm. Wouldn’t life be better if our first instinct were to convince rather than to coerce? Wouldn’t that show more respect? Wouldn’t that be more in keeping with human dignity and with our own best traditions? Wouldn’t it turn the temperature down on things? Wouldn’t it be less likely to provoke?

I think so. And while we may not have much control over what others do, as followers of Christ, maybe our small contribution can be to model that spirit for our own part.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].