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The quest for freedom and its limits

Our contemporary definition of freedom has become a self-serving pursuit. Anthony Aduaka SJ argues that this definition has gone astray and needs to be re-evaluated to include responsibility and an understanding of the role we have – and the role “freedom” has – in the collective of humanity.

“Freedom” is a concept that is upheld by contemporary society. It is an ideology that is now at the forefront of human consciousness. However, this common ideology places the fundamental understanding of creation and humanity into the hands of individuals who believe that freedom is infinite.

However, the philosophical foundation of reason reminds us that we are limited beings. In that sense, Albert Camus once said, “freedom is nothing but a chance to be better”. This means that as human beings we make mistakes, but we have the capacity and freedom to learn to do much better. The same applies to our common humanity: Is our world getting better today given the experiences of our history in the past? Or is perhaps the idea of freedom as licence corroding the interpretation of our lived experiences?

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”

albert camus

Catholic Social Teaching places emphasis on the human person as the subject of any sociological or anthropological discussion. This emphasis has its foundation in the very fact that men and women are both created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). How then do individuals exercise their individual freedom in a world in which the unbridled freedom of some threatens the freedom of others?

The problem of too much freedom

In many societies, especially those in which individuals fail to recognise the communality of our human existence, this ideological licence plays deeply into the things that make a mockery of our limited freedom as humans. As such, the awareness of this limited freedom is seen as the incapacity that limits the fullness of our humanity.

Reading through papal encyclicals like Rerum Novarum, Mater et Magistra and Laborem Exercens, it became clear that the issues which the papal office tried to address during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century are still very much with us today. The rich are becoming richer, and the poor poorer. The strong nations continue to dominate the weak in the name of foreign policy, while imposing on them incompatible cultural realities.

The Church affirms that the dignity of a person ought to be at the centre of any human development/advancement. She believes that once this subject called “man/woman” loses sight of his or her fundamental characteristic, he or she becomes an object for manipulation by others. As this call continues to echo in individuals’ efforts to subdue and dominate the earth, has humanity ended up becoming a victim of its own objectified freedom? 

The dignity of a person ought to be at the centre of any human development and advancement.

This notion of freedom places individualism above the collective human existence. It also removes the individual’s moral obligation and responsibility and replaces it with license of will. Furthermore, the desire for unbounded freedom has left our world in a state of value-lessness, value-anarchy, and absence of will.

Boundaries of freedom to protect the common good

Human rights should be a fundamental value of every society, but such rights should also recognise that human beings cannot transcend space and matter. Thus, the Church, through her teachings, constantly calls for a re-evaluation of all human values to help individuals to recognize the ethical meaning of rights, freedom and choice without alienating the dignity of the person – themselves and others.

The many crises of humanity in our world today make the message of this re-evaluation urgent and necessary. As Christians, we need to formulate new interpretations of freedom that begins with an awareness of our collective humanity. The gospel values that are at the heart of the social teachings of the Catholic Church serve to guide the individual’s pursuit of freedom.

From this awareness a person becomes responsible not only to oneself but to the society and others within one’s existential reality. It is time for society to begin to challenge the indiscreet use of individual freedom without responsibility: Do I have the freedom to determine when to die (euthanasia or suicide)? Do I have the freedom to determine who is born and who is not (abortion)? Do I have the freedom to choose not to work but demand that my right to food should be respected (thefts in its various forms)?

“Borders are necessary part of life and not a denial of freedom.”

prof Alphonso groenewald

Furthermore, factors like human biology, physiology, and gender[1] can limit human freedom but not incapacitate it. A typical example is the story of creation where God puts man and woman in a beautiful garden with everything good but still instructs them not to touch the tree at the centre of the garden. This is a reminder that we are not God despite our transcendent capabilities.

Prof. Alphonso Groenewald, a theologian from the University of Pretoria, spoke about the importance of borders as part of our human experiences. He says, “borders are necessary part of life and not a denial of freedom”. Through these teachings, the Church tries to create borders, or boundaries for the faithful, just as parents create boundaries for children. As members of any society and as individuals, we have to live within certain borders for the functionality of the community, the well-being of others and for the integral unity of our individuality.

[1] Cf. Laborem Exercens, #19. On women in the work place “But it is fitting that they should be able to fulfil their tasks in accordance with their own nature, without being discriminated against and without being excluded from jobs for which they are capable, but also without lack of respect for their family aspirations and for their specific role in contributing, together with men, to the good of society.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.