To live in the freedom of Christ is to live in hope, peace, and joy. Yet, during our earthly life, our Christian freedom is constantly in danger, through our own sinfulness, the temptations of the world, and our own human weaknesses. Some can have confidence, through various signs, that their lives are permeated with the grace of God, but all risk creating in themselves attitudes of self-assuredness through pride. We cannot claim to “possess” what is God’s to give; no one can presume they are living fully as God intends them to live. (cf. Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, “[R]ather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us.”)
This tension is a hallmark of the Christian life, which according to the scholastic philosophical tradition, is a middle way between various extremes. More recently, Pope Francis has described “two spirits,” the spirit of God and the spirit of the world, which are waging a battle for our hearts. He calls us to a supernatural awareness of this reality and to cling to the “Christus Victor” in light of our human weakness. We are saved, but we are not saved yet. We are holy, but remain tempted to sin. Despair assaults our Christian hope, and doubt our faith. The Christian is never standing still but always moving toward God, ever-reliant on his grace, and always on guard against the devil.
Discernment is key as we continue our progressive transformation. Discernment, which is a grace of God, empowers us to identify what is of God and what is merely of this world. Francis discusses this at length in Gaudete et Exsultate.
How can we know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil? The only way is through discernment, which calls for something more than intelligence or common sense. It is a gift which we must implore. If we ask with confidence that the Holy Spirit grant us this gift, and then seek to develop it through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel, then surely we will grow in this spiritual endowment.
These principles are in mind as I write this formal response to Paul Fahey’s latest piece regarding the conscience and an analogy of a garden. One facet of this analogy which, I believe, is false or misleading is the very concept of the garden itself. In one sense, it suggests a sort of static state, that once one is “inside,” one enjoys certain benefits and freedoms.
In one narrow sense, this is true. To live in the Church, to receive the sacraments, confers grace through which we can better know God’s plan for our lives and therefore live in greater moral freedom. In reality, however, the limits of the garden, even if they are known, are only a bare minimum of the Christian life. The way of God is not a lush garden where we are free to roam and enjoy its fruits, but rather it is the straight and narrow path, which is difficult and painful to follow.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Here, I want to make a distinction, between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Our consciences ought to be “free from” external coercion. This is often referred to as “religious freedom” (cf. Dignitatis Humanae). However, conscience’s “freedom” can also be infringed in less programmatic ways, precisely in ways that Paul refers to in his article. For example, Catholics can take their own interpretation of magisterial teaching and turn it into an absolute or matter of dogma, which is then used to falsely accuse others for their conscientious decisions. Pope Francis refers to this type of behavior as “indoctrinating” the message of the Gospel and turning it into dead stones we hurl at others.
Conscience must also be “free from” internal forces which can darken or deform it. The Catechism mentions selfishness, fear, complacency, and pride, which can all work against the freedom of conscience to choose the good. The solution is formation and education, empowered by a regular examination of conscience, the wisdom of others, and the teachings of the Church. In this regard, it is not only important to avoid falsely demeaning another’s conscience as per above, but also to avoid encouraging a weak or malformed conscience through falsehoods. In other words, to tell someone something is not a sin, though it is, also causes harm to the other.
In addition to “freedom from” there is also “freedom to.” As we take on the yoke of Christ and follow the straight and narrow path, we become more free, or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” And later, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.” Through growth in the grace of God, we become progressively more free, until at last we can perfectly worship God in heaven for eternity, which is the height of freedom.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Paul’s analogy, in various ways, confuses these two concepts of freedom. It also suggests that true freedom can be found in this earthly life. With the exception of a few saints whom God has blessed abundantly, most of us experience God’s path as a constant battle, as referred to above. The fact is that we can never know with absolute certainty whether we are living in Paul’s garden or not, though we can “know” indirectly through signs. As Aquinas says, if we are “delighting in God” and “despising worldly things” and are not conscious of any mortal sin, then we have a fairly reliable sign that we “have grace.” However, Aquinas says this knowledge is “imperfect.” Paul’s analogy does not capture this dynamic, of the constant state of growth and development that we must undergo, particularly if we wish to avoid any presumption that derives from pride.
Despite my criticism of his analogy, Paul and I both agree that one area that is not very well understood by the majority of Catholics today is the role of conscience in moving a person from a life of sin to a life of true freedom in Christ. We must confess that grace does not heal all at once, a view shared by both Pope Francis and St. Aquinas. Even with radical conversion and metanoia, the process of transformation remains gradual (cf. St. Paul’s conversion and experiences prior to preaching and as evident in his Epistles recorded in Scripture). We Catholics must honor the choices of those who are on the path to God, even if their choices are not yet made in full freedom.
God’s plan for each of us is unique, and accordingly doctrine alone cannot circumscribe God’s call to each of us to live a holy life. Moral doctrine provides a light, a way to mark the path we must walk with Christ, but true freedom is so much more than abiding by doctrine. In humility, all of us must strive to walk the straight and narrow path of God, always discerning, with the grace of God, always seeking wise counsel, because the path is hard and it is so easy to fall and stumble and lose our way.