What we choose determines who we become. Choosing what is good changes the chooser, empowering him or her to proceed along the pathways of virtue and develop the habitus – or habits- which promote Christian character. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses human choice, action and freedom: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin”. (Cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC#1733)
Keywords: splendor of truth, Gospel of Life, veritatis splendour, evangelium vitae, Blessed John Paul II, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, moral life, morality, Catholic moral teaching, happiness, freedom, Deacon Keith Fournier
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) – Many people are looking for the path to happiness and freedom. We live in an age which espouses a notion of freedom of choice as a power to do whatever one desires without reference to any evaluative or objective norm outside of a self constructed individualistic compass. This view is evident in every behavior that treats the human person as some-thing to be used rather than some-one, a gift to be received. It does not free us, fulfill us or make us happy.
Catholic Moral teaching offers a unique insight which has enormous potential to engage a culture enamored with such a pursuit of self fulfillment – but enslaved by making choices which lead to emptiness,division and despair. It affirms that the very act of choosing places the person in a relationship with the object, or the subject, chosen. That which is chosen not only changes the world around the chooser, but changes the person who makes the choice. In simple words, we become what we choose.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa provided an insight concerning our choices in an ancient homily quoted approvingly by Blessed John Paul II in his masterful encyclical letter on the Moral Life, Veritatis Splendor which means in English, The Splendor of Truth and is cited in the section on the Moral Life in the Catechism of the Catholic Church :
All things are subject to change and becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or for worse..Now human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings; it is the result of free choice. Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions”.
What we choose determines who we become. Choosing what is good changes the chooser, empowering him or her to proceed along the pathways of virtue and develop the habitus – or habits- which promote Christian character. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses human choice, action and freedom:
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin”. (Cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC#1733)
Saint John Paul’s beautiful Letter on the Moral Life, the Splendor of Truth, responded to the continuing call of the Second Vatican Council to re-root Catholic moral teaching within the Bible, which is the “soul of theology”. (Dei Verbum #24)
In its first chapter, it provides an exegesis of the scriptures based on the Lord’s encounter with the Rich young man within which it expounds a moral theology of choice. It was not the man’s possessions which made him choose to say no to the Lord’s invitation. It was his disordered relationship to them which impeded his freedom. They possessed him. He went away sad because he made the wrong choice.
From this encounter the letter develops its teaching on choice and authentic human freedom, explaining the proper development and formation of conscience in relationship to objective truth. It issues a strong reaffirmation of the Natural Moral Law.
Two years after The Splendor of Truth, John Paul released another Encyclical letter entitled Evangelium Vitae,The Gospel of Life, which continued his work of laying a firm foundation for a proper understanding of choice and the Moral Life.
In that letter he responded to the myriad of threats against the dignity of human life caused by the redefinition of the word freedom with a prophetic urgency. He warned of what he called a “counterfeit notion of freedom”. He positioned this counterfeit as the root cause of what he labeled the culture of death.
Under that phrase he coalesced all the current social evils; from abortion (which is always and everywhere intrinsically evil); to modern slaveries, (including pornography and drug addiction); to disdain for the poor and a cheapening of all life as well as the foreboding momentum toward a misguided use of new medical technologies; to active and passive euthanasia and the return of eugenics.
Finally, in considering the moral life and human choice we should note the clear moral character of the teaching compiled within the magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church released on the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1992.
Part Three of the Catechism, a section devoted specifically to a discussion of Moral theology is entitled Life in Christ. The Section treats the vocation of man to beatitude. It articulates a clear Moral theology of choice by considering the morality of human acts, the role of the passions, proper formation of the conscience, the cultivation of the virtues and the rejection of sin.
In its explanation of the morality of human acts, The Catechism offers a sobering insight concerning a wrong exercise of freedom: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.” It properly insists that authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against what is good because it is “patterned on God’s freedom.”
Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity. This is clearly stated by the Council: “Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshaling the appropriate means. (VS #42)
The New Testament is filled with examples of the connection between what we choose and who we become. Two will suffice. We become adulterers when we look at a woman with lust (Mt. 5:28); what comes out of our heart (The heart is the biblical center where freedom is exercised, human choices are made and character is formed through choice) is what makes us unclean (Mk 7:14-23).
Freedom has consequences. The capacity to make choices is constitutive of our being human persons and reflects an aspect of the Imago Dei, the Image of God, present within us. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their document on the Mission of the Church: Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man. (GS #17)
Thus, it can be said that freedom has a moral constitution. Socially, it must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, and our obligations in solidarity to one another and to the common good. That is why the fullness of authentic human freedom is ultimately found only in a relationship with the God who is its source and who alone can set us free. When we choose the truth which He reveals we find the fullness of freedom.
St. John 8:32 records these words of Jesus concerning this connection between freedom and truth, Jesus then said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
In The Splendor of Truth. The late pope warned of what he called the “death of true freedom”. (#40) This concern is also addressed repeatedly in The Gospel of Life where he writes of freedom’s “essential link with truth” and “inherently relational dimension.” (#19)
In his later encyclical letter on Faith and Reason, Fides et ratio, he wrote: It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God.
For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth. (#13)
All of this invites us to pause and reflect upon our own lives, and our own choices. What are we choosing and who are we becoming? Basil the Great was a monk, theologian, Bishop of the fourth century and friend of Gregory of Nyssa. He wrote a detailed Rule for Monks which contains another helpful insight into what we choose and who we become with which I will conclude:
Basil the Great: The ability to love is within each of us
Love of God is not something that can be taught. We did not learn from someone else how to rejoice in light or want to live, or to love our parents or guardians. It is the same – perhaps even more so – with our love for God: it does not come by another’s teaching. As soon as the living creature (that is, man) comes to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love. When the school of God’s law admits this power of reason, it cultivates it diligently, skilfully nurtures it, and with God’s help brings it to perfection.
For this reason, as by God’s gift, I find you with the zeal necessary to attain this end, and you on your part help me with your prayers. I will try to fan into flame the spark of divine love that is hidden within you, as far as I am able through the power of the Holy Spirit.
First, let me say that we have already received from God the ability to fulfil all his commands. We have then no reason to resent them, as if something beyond our capacity were being asked of us. We have no reason either to be angry, as if we had to pay back more than we had received. When we use this ability in a right and fitting way, we lead a life of virtue and holiness. But if we misuse it, we fall into sin.
This is the definition of sin: the misuse of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God’s commands. On the other hand, the virtue that God asks of us is the use of the same powers based on a good conscience in accordance with God’s command.
Since this is so, we can say the same about love. Since we received a command to love God, we possess from the first moment of our existence an innate power and ability to love. The proof of this is not to be sought outside ourselves, but each one can learn this from himself and in himself. It is natural for us to want things that are good and pleasing to the eye, even though at first different things seem beautiful and good to different people. In the same way, we love what is related to us or near to us, though we have not been taught to do so, and we spontaneously feel well disposed to our benefactors.
What, I ask, is more wonderful than the beauty of God? What thought is more pleasing and wonderful than God’s majesty? What desire is as urgent and overpowering as the desire implanted by God in a soul that is completely purified of sin and cries out in its love: I am wounded by love? The radiance of divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.