The story of Victor Frankl illustrates the connection between freedom and responsibility. A psychiatrist and a Jew, he was sent to a Nazi death camp. Except for his sister, his entire family perished. He suffered terrible beatings and the threat of the gas chamber. But in his solitude he discovered his inner freedom. The Nazis could brutalize his body. They could not touch his soul.
He realized he was free to decide how he would respond to the way he was treated. He had the "response-ability," the freedom and the power to choose his response. He used his imagination to create mental exercises to expand his sense of freedom. He visualized himself teaching a class about his experiences after he was liberated. He felt his freedom grow. He teaches us that the exercise of freedom is also an act of responsibility - a conscious response to what is happening to us.
The pontiff says exactly the same thing in Veritatis Splendor. God has left man in the power of his own counsel" (Sir 15:14). Genesis tells us God gave us freedom. Sirach teaches us that God gave us the power of responsibility for our own actions. Hence, human freedom and responsibility both come from God.
Actually, freedom makes no sense unless there is "response-ability." I can either let life push me around or respond lovingly and make my life and world a better place. The pope calls this truth about ourselves "autonomy." We call it independence. We feel it in our reasoning, thinking, and judging powers. We experience it when we take time to be aware of ourselves and get in touch with our minds.
Our culture gives us mixed signals on this matter. It tells us we are free and independent. But it also argues that we are not responsible for much of what happens to us. Our genes determine what we do inside our souls. Our environment determines what we do outside in the social order. Because this approach separates freedom from responsibility, we therefore actually are not free. Our culture regards religion as "heteronomy," which means that God is a dictator forcing us to obey and does not respect our freedom. If you feel confused by this, you should. But dont blame the Church. It is the culture that sends this muddied message: "Im sort of free - and never responsible." John Paul II rejects the cultures view of autonomy ("I am totally independent and create my own morality") and heteronomy ("God is forcing me to be moral"). "The autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values and moral norms. ... Obedience to God is not a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to something all powerful, absolute, extraneous to man and intolerant of his freedom" (Nos. 40-41).
The Holy Father insists we keep the two pictures he drew from the Bible always in mind. Adam and Eve had tremendous freedom to eat of every tree but one. This shows that God determines what is good and bad.
Sirach teaches us we have reason and responsibility, gifts from God. We have the ability to apply Gods moral truth and law to our lives. The culture blames religion for restricting freedom. Yet, its teaching about inner and outer determinism is the real villain in limiting reasons powers and human independence from genetic, political, and economic forces.
I am irresponsible if I blame my genes and the world for my troubles and never exercise my freedom to respond creatively to what is going on, have the freedom to take the gifts of Gods oral lawmeant for our truest human fulfillment and apply them to the problems and dilemmas we face each day. We will be morally responsible when "Human freedom and Gods oral law meet and are called to intersect" (No. 41)
Pope John Paul II argues that freedom works best when it is tied to (1) truth; (2) Gods moral laws; and (3) responsibility. Human dignity is the capacity to shape our character. Freedom gives us that ability. God loved us so much that he gave us freedom and the responsibility to act in reference of truth and law. That makes morality an act of love.
Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated ©1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission.