Updated: Oct 13, 2020
This weekend our country once again celebrates July 4th, Independence Day, the day the early American colonies banded together and declared that they would no longer tolerate being the colony of another empire but would forge a new existence as an independent nation. We will rightly celebrate this historical event and take the opportunity to reflect on the blessing of the many freedoms we possess as Americans. “Freedom” is a very important aspect of our lives and our faith as Catholics. In the realm of morality, we believe that actions only have moral “weight” (merit on the positive side, or culpability on the negative) to the degree that those actions are truly free. The validity of certain sacraments (marriage, for example) are dependent upon the parties involved freely choosing to enter into that sacramental bond. The precious gifts God has given us in our creation of an intellect (that can understand) and a will (that can choose) are bestowed upon us, first and fore-most, so that we might knowingly and freely choose to believe in Him, follow Him, and love Him. However freedom is not the same as independence; and we who are both Catholic and American can easily fall into the trap of becoming overly enamored with the idea of independence. When applied to one nation being free from oppression from another, independence is a wonderful (and very Catholic) thing. But when applied to individuals, the analysis changes drastically. Within the seemingly benign (and even wonderfully positive) idea of “independence” lurks a dangerous and damaging misunderstanding of human existence. I think there is something buried deeply in each of us that loves the idea of being independent. There is an almost romantic notion that it is a great and beautiful thing to need no one, to rely on no one, and depend upon no one except myself. For those of us raised and educated in this country, this is partially due to the strongly interwoven threads of freedom and independence that permeate our American history, literature, and culture. Indeed one of the classic works of American literature, and mandatory reading for high school students across our country, is the famous essay “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. But this primal desire for independence has even deeper roots, that go back to the first man and woman: the legacy of original sin. There is something in each of us, in the fallen part of our nature, that desires not just some reasonable, moderate measure of independence but complete and total independence independence even from God. This was the false promise made by the serpent in the garden of Eden; that if they were to eat the forbidden fruit, “You will be like gods, knowing good from evil...” What the serpent was really saying to them was “you will no longer be dependent upon God to dictate to you what is right and wrong... eat this fruit, and you will be your own master, and will be able to determine right and wrong for yourselves.” As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, that false promise is one we still find incredibly tempting. Indeed, every time we commit a sin every time we choose something that is wrong, knowing (as we so often do) even in the moment that what we are choosing is wrong we are exerting our own will over and against God’s. Rather than be dependent upon His guidance, we strike out on own our own, imagining (through foolishness, or pride, or some combination of the two) that we know better than He does what is for our good at that moment. Even that isn’t the full story. Not only are we utterly dependent upon God, but by His will, we are dependent up-on each other. None of us was created to be alone; none of us is meant to live alone; none of us is destined to be saved alone. We are created to be in communion with each other, and that means all of us are dependent upon one another. This is the great beauty of the Church. We are a family of believers, each of us strong in some areas and weak in others, walking this journey of faith together. We are each “my brother’s keeper,” and we are each, in turn, dependent upon our brothers and sisters in the Church to help us navigate through this earthly life such that we might one day enjoy the eternal life of heaven. So as you watch those fireworks (appropriately socially distanced, of course), grill some hot dogs, or do whatever it is you do on July 4th, thank God for the gift of freedom and thank Him even more that your life is one marked by a wonderful, beautiful dependence upon Him and upon your brothers & sisters.
Fr. John Paul