|Cristo Redentor - Rio de Janeiro (Corcovado) [click to enlarge]|
This is another article on the writings of Pope Leo XIII. who lived from 1810 to 1903, and was Pope from 1878 until his death in 1903. In his writings he gives us a profound insight into the philosophical movements of the late 19th century. The ideas generated during that time have largely shaped our present day ideological struggles.
The Pope writes about communism, capitalism and even freemasons - all from a Christian perspective. And yes, from a distinctly Catholic point of view. He shares with the world his concerns about these competing ideologies and the impact that they could have on Christianity if left unchecked.
Today I want to focus on the encyclical "Libertas" written in 1888. "Libertas" means "liberty" or it could also be translated as "freedom". Either way we are well acquainted with this idea. From the Statue of Liberty to the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights - Americans love their freedom!
But the Pope's letter is actually a warning of the dangers inherent in too much freedom. It is the old story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were free to do whatever they wished in this original Paradise, but if they partook of the Tree of Good and Evil then there would be a price to pay. And as it turned out the temptation was too great to resist.
The Pope begins by saying that freedom (liberty) is "the highest of natural endowments". He says this gift from God can be used by Man for "the highest good and the greatest evil". And as such this gift is "cherished by the Catholic Church". He quickly refutes the idea that the Church is "hostile to human liberty" as some have claimed. He insists we must come to fully appreciate "the very idea of freedom".
The Pope reminds us that the Church teaches that we all have "freedom of choice" (free will); that our lives are not pre-determined. So in a real sense we have the power to choose our destinies - to choose between right and wrong. And this is because we are made in the image of God and as such we are able to determine "what is true and good".
But while God has given Man a soul and the ability to reason, Man is not God! God is "infinitely perfect" while Man is imperfect. As a result Man can be easily be tempted by "something which is not really good, but which has the appearance of good".
And now the Pope reminds us of a bit of ancient wisdom, "the wise man alone is free". This sounds like a saying from a fortune cookie. What does it mean? When we foolishly succumb to temptation and become slaves to our desires, we are no longer free! We have lost our self-control and have become possessed by our darkest passions. Jesus says, "Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin." (John 8:34)
So the Pope is telling us that it's really that simple. There is an intimate relationship between freedom and sin. If you want to be free, don't sin. When the Church teaches us not to sin, it is also teaching us how to be free. That's *real* freedom. Don't worry, you still have lots of other choices open to you that don't involve sin. You haven't given anything up, in fact you have opened up new possibilities now that you have freed yourself from sin.
Now, how do we know right from wrong? Well that's easy - just follow the law. But who's law? God's Law!
The Pope tells us that, "Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law." Oh, so you thought that being free meant that you could just ignore the law of God? Wr-o-ng! Try again.
And now comes a bit of papal humor, "Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason." Pretty funny, huh? Ok, I see you're not laughing, but instead are scratching your head. Alright, let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a 60s hippy high on LSD, dancing wildly, and shouting out, "I'm free! I'm free!" Yes, this is one of the messages that is often repeated like a mantra in today's society, "If you want to free yourself, you have to stop thinking and just let yourself go." In 1888, Pope Leo XIII rejected this notion and even ridiculed it.
Instead he says, "the truth is that we are bound to submit to law precisely because we are free by our very nature." We don't need to become free, we are already free. We were born free. Unlike other animals we have a soul, and we can know right from wrong, and we have the freedom to choose. The lesser animals are not "bound" by God's law. They simply follow their instincts. And in fact you could say that they are slaves to their instincts. They have no choice whether to kill or not to kill.
But we, who are children of God, have a special place in creation. We alone are "bound" by His law. And it's by submitting to His law that we become truly free.
The Pope closes this section by saying, "law is the guide of man's actions; it turns him toward good by its rewards, and deters him from evil by its punishments." Remember this is Divine Law that he is referring to here. Something tells me that our current system of laws has some major flaws, because sometimes it seems we are punished for doing good, and rewarded for doing evil. But I suppose this is to be expected in this earthly world in which we live.
Jesus did not become human to build a earthly paradise; His Kingdom is in Heaven. The Church warns us about those who promise a Utopia on Earth. The worker's paradise of the Soviet Union turned into a living hell for millions; as did also Mao's promise of earthly bliss. Likewise the French Revolution was heaven only for those who reveled in the sight of blood and heads rolling off the guillotine.
I could go on, but I think it is best to leave it here. I've covered only the opening parts of this encyclical. There is so much more in this document about the various freedoms that we take for granted like freedom of religion, speech and the press. In discussing this encyclical I hope I've given you an appreciation for the writings of Pope Leo XIII. (You can find all of his encyclicals here.)