This Sunday our country will celebrate July 4th, often called Independence Day, the day the early American colonies banded together and declared that they would no longer tolerate being the colony of another sovereignty but would be freed from such bondage and 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 not only an important concept for us as Americans, but is also a very important aspect of our lives 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) is dependent upon the parties involved freely choosing to enter into that sacramental bond. The precious gifts God has given us as human beings in having an intellect (that can understand) and a will (that can choose) are bestowed upon us, first and foremost, so that we might knowingly and freely choose to believe in Him, follow Him, and love Him. (And thus, by His grace, to be happy with Him forever in the next life.)
However, freedom is not the same as independence; and we who are both Americans and Catholics run the risk 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 situation changes drastically. Within the seemingly benign, or even laudable, idea of “independence” lurks a dangerous and damaging misunderstanding of the very nature 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 to need no one, to rely on no one, to trust in and depend upon no one (except myself) will bring me freedom, happiness, and fulfillment. 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, read by 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 tempting and incredibly attractive. 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 our own, imagining (through foolishness, or pride, or even carelessness) that we know better than He does what is for our true 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 upon each other. What was it God said early in Genesis after He created Adam? “The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.” (Gen 2:18). 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” (cf. Gen 4:9) 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, grill the 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 in Christ.
Fr. John Paul