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Graceful Freedom


The topic of freedom and grace remains one of the most difficult discussions in Christian theology. When John Paul II writes about it, at the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart: what is the heart made for, how can it love, what model does it take? In the post Christian west, we are told that salvation is liberation, and liberation is at the service of the individual. But if freedom and grace are only ordered to the self, then it becomes clear that human dignity means nothing more than autonomy, and salvation is reduced to selfishness. If, however, human freedom exists to be at the service of others, then human beings ‘become like God’ when they empty themselves for the sake of everybody else. In light of this truth, JP II knew that it was counter-productive to present a God of triumph when, in fact, the mystery of the Christian God is that He Himself is a God of surrender. “In his intimate life, God ‘is love,’ the essential love shared by the three divine Persons: personal love is the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Therefore he ‘searches even the depths of God,’ as uncreated Love-Gift. It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally gift, an exchange of mutual love between the divine Persons and that through the Holy Spirit God exists in the mode of gift.” (Dominum et Vivificatem, 10.)


In the Holy Spirit, God exists in the mode of gift. God exists in the mode of gift. God exists in the mode of gift! While all the power and progress of this world promises to move mankind toward some infinite pleasure or individual indulgences, Christianity, alone of all the world’s religions and philosophies, presents a man’s end as the God Who IS Gift. Who IS selflessness. And when choosing to make this fundamental reality of His existence known to men, He became a man and died, thus fully inaugurating a new law of Gift (or, in Latin, gratia, grace). JP II phrases it this way: “Christ is the centre of the economy of salvation, the recapitulation of the Old and New Testaments, of the promises of the Law and of their fulfillment in the Gospel; he is the living and eternal link between the Old and the New Covenants…Jesus himself is the living “fulfillment” of the Law.” (Veritatis Splendor, 16.) This new law of gift is the great revolution of our religion. Its not just about helping people or ‘making the world a better place’: it’s about making heaven a better place, or rather, making both heaven and earth a place where the King of Gift can actually be given something Himself. For grace (gift) is, after all, how Christians have access to the God who exists in the mode of Gift (grace).

Anyone familiar with Pauline theology or the evangelical applications thereof will know that this is no new theme in Christianity. In her most recent century, fundamentalists and street preachers commonly talked about it within the context of conversion. JP II’s himself approaches the topic of grace from the same angle; “The Apostle Paul invites us to consider in the perspective of the history of salvation, which reaches its fulfillment in Christ, the relationship between the (Old) Law and grace (the New Law). He recognizes the pedagogic function of the Law, which, by enabling sinful man to take stock of his own powerlessness and by stripping him of the presumption of his self-sufficiency, leads him to ask for and to receive ‘life in the Spirit.'” (Veritatis Splendor, 23) Once we ‘take stock’ of our own powerlessness, however, we are invited into a new freedom where we extend ourselves beyond the limits of our own person by giving of ourselves for the sake of the Other (‘the Other’=Christ and other humans). Therefore, JP II points out that “Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called….Human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other. The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom.” (Veritatis Splendor, 17.) No longer are we slaves to the things of this world, to sex, to food, to cloths, to the news, to politics, to even culture itself. All of these things are created good, culture included, but JP II knows that it is important that “man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being.” And the truth of man’s being is the truth of gift (grace).
Man’s graceful freedom can only come through the gospel of Christianity. This gospel is itself Christ’s gift: it is not an imposition or a burden. As JP II puts it; “On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” (Redemptoris Missio, 39) To accept Christ’s word in freedom is to become free to live for others and the Other, for a destiny far greater than the autonomous self could ever provide. “Hence, human activity cannot be judged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or another of its goals, or simply because the subject’s intention is good. Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason.” (Veritatis Splendor, 72.)

GKC was fond of saying that you cannot argue with a man unless you can sympathize with his perspective. It’s not simply a matter of understanding his view, but truly feeling the pain he feels. In our day and time, there are many who feel that ‘the Church’ (it matters little whether they mean Roman Catholicism or merely the body of Christians) stands as an institution in contrast with individual freedom. The fact of the matter is that Christianity does, in a very real way, stand in contrast with (if not opposition to) our contemporary conception of freedom. If by ‘freedom’ we mean ‘privacy,’ than Christianity accepts it as only a condition of worldly existence, and a rather negative one at that. In heaven, there will be no privacy for there will be no ability to hold back a part of yourself from anyone else. It would be foolishness to stand before the pearly gates and say to God and the angelic court, the Saints and the Martyrs: “I will share anything with you except this small part. I need it for myself and would feel insecure were I forced to give it away.” Heaven knows nothing of such privacy. The Church admits of the right to privacy as she admits to the right to property: as a temporal affair. That is to say, she concedes to it as temporary, something that will disappear with the coming of the Kingdom. And she prays earnestly, each day, that the Kingdom come sooner rather than later.

In his writing, John Paul II certainly sympathizes with this situation in which Christianity and the world’s opposing ideas of freedom war for men’s hearts. However, he never let this sympathy (which is an emotion) interfere with his love (which is an action). He was willing to admit that complex modern realities, tied into the perennial scandals of humanity-this-side-of-heaven, leave Christianity an easy target of ridicule and suspicion. The question is whether or not we can separate the teachings of Christ from the communion of love he personally established, a communion called the Church. As he says in Veritatis Splendor, “At times, in the discussions about new and complex moral problems, it can seem that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practice. This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church.” (119) In this self-abandonment, the human person breaths again, living not just for herself, but gracefully for the Other.

About Daniel Lacourrege

Daniel Lacourrege is a 20-something year old theologian living in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is the best place in the world to be a 20-something. It is the third best place in the world to be a Catholic (Rome & Jerusalem claiming first & second).
His life has become one adventure right after another. Most of them start in a classroom or library, but very few of them finish there. He likes most things, but usually must be in the mood for them. The only thing he is never in the mood for is traffic.
If you feel so moved, you may email him at lacourrege4@archbishopshaw.us.

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