All Main Campus Library facilities are open and operating at full capacity to Georgetown faculty, students, and staff. The Library will be closed to external community members and guests through December 2021, with limited exceptions. Find the most current information available on the Library's COVID-19 FAQ.

or browse databases: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

You are here



Freedom in the Age of Renewal 1

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

In this 1965 address, Murray begins to blend civil and theological notions of freedom (a task more fully outlined in the next article). He speaks more freely here of love in civil life than he had before the council. It was on this basis that he could work toward a redefinition of the church in the fourth article in this section, "Freedom, Authority, and Community"—Editor.

This occasion invites some brief discourse on the new age into which the Second Vatican Council is striving to lead the People of God. This period is commonly called the Age of Renewal. The direction of our new and common Christian effort has already been clarified by the Council. It is to give new form, new expression, new vitality to traditional Christian doctrines and truths, values and virtues, institutions and modes of apostolic action. The profile of the New Age has not yet come clear, but one significant thing can be said with some confidence. Within the Church, and therefore throughout the length and breadth of mankind, Saint Paul's resounding message will be heard with new clarity: "For freedom Christ has set you free...It was unto freedom, brethren, that you were called" (Galatians 5:1, 13). The significance of the message is heightened by the fact that it rings out at a particular juncture in history.

It is said today that the word "freedom" has lost much of the political magic that it had in the nineteenth century. This seems to be true. But the truth needs to be carefully defined. Freedom remains today what Lord Acton in the nineteenth century said it was—the highest political end. Freedom also remains today what the liberal tradition of the West has always recognized it to be—the primary method of politics. However, within the context of today's world, the ancient simplicities of the Political Century are no longer available to us. We have come to understand better the complexity of the conditions required for the successful pursuit of freedom as a political end and for the practical application of freedom as the method of politics.

We know that freedom recedes beyond realization in a society which fails to reckon with the full truth about man—that man is a person, an ultimate value in the created order, and that all men are equal in their dignity as human persons. We also know that freedom is illusory in a society in which the essential exigencies of the order of justice among men are not met with some measure of human adequacy. We know, finally, that the noble phrase, "the free society," can have no more than an emptily formalistic meaning if love be lacking among the citizenry, if the body politic is rent with hatreds, whether racial or ethnic or religious. We understand, in a word, that freedom as the highest political end can be realized only in so far as society is based on truth, directed toward justice, and animated by love.

Secular experience, moreover, has given us a better insight into the nature of freedom itself. Freedom is indeed man's natural endowment as a person and his rightful claim as a citizen. But, more importantly, freedom is an achievement. More exactly, it is the goal of a striving, an endless striving which forever falls short of the goal. There is no sudden leap into freedom, whether personal or social. In order to be free a man or a society must undergo a process of liberation. The process is never complete, and it is always precarious, subject to deflection or defeat. Man is never more than an apprentice in the uses of freedom. Their mastery eludes him. The possession of freedom, like the possession of truth, is the term, always only proximate, of an arduous education.

Secular experience has taught us all this, as the era of modernity has run its course. And if there be any who have not learned these lessons, it is because they have been absent from class, truants from the school of history. The point is that political discourse on freedom today must have more substance than the nineteenth century dreamed of, if it is to be taken seriously. The era of slogans is ended. The notion of human freedom as an absolute is today obsolete. Discourse on freedom must have some fullness of substance, if it is to be listened to. The practice of freedom must be disciplined by other values, if it is to be worthy of man.

It is at this historical juncture that the Council and the Church send forth again the Christian message of man's freedom. The message is as old as the Bible. The first thing that the Bible has to say about man is that he was made in the image of God. And Saint Thomas, following an exegesis that goes back to John Damascene and the Greek Fathers, interprets the phrase in the Prologue to his treatise on man and the moral life. Man, he says, "is made in the image of God; and by image here is meant that man is intelligent, free in his power of choice, and master of himself...the active source of what he does." The first biblical truth about man is that he is free. So too, in the New Testament, the first truth about Christ our Lord is that he is Liberator, the One who sets us free unto a higher freedom. Saint Paul says: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2).

The Council and the Church today therefore are uttering a traditional truth. Nonetheless the utterance is new and it is made with no accent of triumphalism, for a good reason.

I should agree with Piero Barbaini that "the story of thought in general and of religious reflection in particular is there to demonstrate clearly how the arch of culture and the development of civilization in the last four centuries have been substantially nothing other than a movement toward freedom" (La liberta religiosa, p. 42). Man as a person has been on pilgrimage towards his rightful freedom, religious and civil. Society too has been moving, since the close of the Middle Ages, towards its rightful autonomy, that is, its proper secularity. On the other hand, it is also true to say that the Church has not joined this human pilgrimage. On the contrary, it has opposed man's historical movement toward freedom. In this matter, however, historical judgment must be nice. It must reckon with the concrete historical forms in which the problem of freedom has arisen. Two forms stand out, among others.

Freedom and Authority

In the sixteenth century the problem of freedom arose within the Church, as the problem of the Church. The issue was the doctrinal authority of the Church and her right of pastoral guidance. Therefore the post-tridentine Church laid heavy accent not on the freedom of the Christian but on the authority of the Church. Again, in the nineteenth century the problem of freedom arose within society as the problem of God. The issue was whether the conscience of man and the power of the state were absolutely autonomous, subject to no higher law, emancipated from the dominion of God. It was the issue of the outlaw conscience and the totalitarian state. Therefore the ultramontane Church emphasized, not man's human and civil freedoms, but the due subjection of man and society to the ultimate Majesty, the Lord of creation and history, whose will sets limits to the freedom of man and to the reach of all human powers.

All this was right and necessary in the circumstances. The Church opposed the effort to lift man to the status of an idol, a divinity in his own right. She also opposed the effort to reduce man either to the nature (naturalism) or to the plane of matter (materialism) or to the plane of society and history (nineteenth-century socialism and Marxism). All this opposition was a service to the dignity of the man, as all historians today are willing to recognize.

Catholic historians, however, are now beginning to recognize that there was also a failure on the part of the Church, her magistery and her people, chiefly the intellectuals. There was a failure to recognize the signs of the times, to look beneath the surface of error and deviation and to discern the genuine human aspiration that was at work—man's perennial aspiration to possess his birthright of freedom. Condemnations in abundance fell on the errors to the right and to the left. But there was no effort to discern the truth that always lies at the heart of error. Not until Pope Leo XIII, and then only hesitantly, was the effort begun to fashion a doctrine of freedom, human and Christian, out of the Church's own treasury of reason and faith, that would at once speak to the intelligence of man and also solicit his heart.

Looking back now, we can see that the teaching of the Church in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was one-sided, centered on the dangers of freedom, on the perils that the human person risks when he claims for himself a freedom that fails to recognize the limits set by truth, justice, and love. The perils were real at the time; in our time they still are real. The theme of warning is, in fact, traditional. In the same text in which he states the Christian call to freedom Saint Paul adds: "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh," that is, for the part of man that is ignorant and weak, proud and perverse. And Saint Peter: "Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but live as servants of God" (1 Peter 2:16).

Nevertheless, for all its dangers freedom remains the first truth about man, a positive value, both personal and social, to be respected even when it involves man in error and evil. This, for long centuries, was the forgotten truth. The magistery of the Church hardly adverted to it, passed it over in silence, failed to impress it on the consciousness of the faithful.

Freedom and Human Dignity

The turning point came with Pius XII. It was his major merit to have placed at the very center of the Church's social teaching the human person, endowed with freedom, the subject of inalienable rights and duties. Then John XXIII in the Encyclical Pacem in terris at once summed up the development accomplished by his predecessors and laid the footing for further progress. "Freedom," he said, "is the highest attribute of the human person." Freedom is also a positive social value. Along with the traditional triad—truth, justice, and love—freedom takes its place as an indispensable social principle. More than that, [freedom is the principle that moves the2 person towards his proper human perfection, and the progress of society towards a higher level of humaneness and sociability. Finally, in its turn Vatican Council II has affirmed, in act even more than in word, the positive value of freedom within the People of God. It is the principle of doctrinal progress, of the growth of the Church toward more perfect inner unity, and of the widening and strengthening of relations between the Church and the world, both religious and secular.

All these successively more explicit affirmations of the value of freedom have been traditional; for freedom is traditional truth. None-the-less these affirmations have also been new; for freedom has been the forgotten truth. The new age which the Church is entering is to be—such is our hope—the Age of Renewal of this truth.

I come then to you, on this day of your commencement. You will be the citizens of the Age of Renewal. You are to be the bearers of the new age, the agents of the renewal. Upon your ears falls the Pauline message, uttered with a fresh accent: "It is unto freedom, brethren, that you are called." What matters above all else is that you should understand, not misunderstand, the meaning of your call, the meaning of the freedom to which you are called.

Freedom, Saint Thomas said, is the mark of human dignity. But one does not achieve the fullness of this dignity overnight. One grows towards it in gradual stages. This too is Saint Thomas' insight. "This," he says, "is the highest degree of dignity in man, that he should be led to what is good, not by others, but by himself. The second degree is reached by those who are led to what is good by others, but under no coercion. The third degree is found in those who need to be coerced into being good. The fourth degree is proper to those who cannot be directed to the good even by coercion."

Freedom therefore is inwardness, spontaneity, the capacity of a man to find within himself the reasons and the motives of his own right decisions and action, apart from external coercion. Freedom therefore is authenticity, truthfulness, fidelity to the pursuit of truth and to the truth when found. In further consequence, freedom is experienced as duty, as responsibility—as a response to the claims of justice, to the demands of rightful law, to the governance and guidance of legitimate authority. In its intimately Christian sense, however, freedom has a higher meaning than all this. Freedom, in the deepest experience of it, is love. To be free is to be-for-the-others. The Christian call to freedom is inherently a call to community, a summons out of isolation, an invitation to be-with-the-others, an impulse to service of the others.

Contemporary philosophers say that freedom is man's very existence; to exist is to be free. They are not wrong, within the limits of their philosophy. But Saint Paul stated the higher truth: "It was unto freedom that you were called; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another" (Galatians 5:13). Freedom is love; to be free is to serve the others. The experience of freedom is the experience of the new law of love whereby the children of God live. To this experience you are called in the Age of Renewal.

(1)Editor Note: Originally published as 1967d: "Freedom in the Age of Renewal" (American Benedictine Review 18 (September 1967) 319-24). An editorial note to the text reads:

This address is representative of the writing and countless speeches on freedom and secularity delivered by the late Father John Courtney Murray. The talk was originally presented at the commencement exercises of St. John's University, Collegevillle, Minn, June 3, 1965.

(2)Editor Note: At his point the original text is garbled. It reads:

...More than that, freedom have been traditional; for freedom is traditional truth. None- person toward his proper human perfection....

The middle line ("freedom...None-) is repeated in the next paragraph. I have here added a line to connect the first and third.