It’s been a while since I grappled with the idea that Catholicism is ‘too focused on rules, on taking away my freedom’, simply because I’d forgotten people still think that. (Seriously, you spend enough time absorbed in Catholicism and the phrase, “Catholics are too strict” starts to sound like an ironic joke told in subtle tones by a bucketful of hipsters.) No, it’s the Church who offers true freedom. The world is too damn strict. Like most things worth thinking, this takes a little more than your basic “The Church says I can’t masturbate – The Church is inhibiting my freedom” to get to the truth of the matter.
How shall I phrase it? It is not the business of the Catholic Church to provide freedom as a negative – in the lack of rules, the lack of inhibitions, the absence of law – freedom as what you don’t have. It is the business of the Catholic Church to make man free.
Having no rules and choosing evil is indeed an act of freedom. But it does not make man free. Choosing to watch porn and masturbate is an act of freedom, at first. But the evil leads to man being imprisoned in addiction. The choice to gossip is an act of freedom. But it does not make man free; it cages him in the desire to gossip. The whole “slave to sin” thing isn’t some vague, spiritual truth. It’s a daily experience. It’s the experience of the grave things; alcoholism, infidelity, masochism – it’s the experience of the small things; “Why can’t you stop cursing?”, “Why do you keep escaping into your romance novels?”, “Why can’t you be nice?”
That’s the strictness of the world. It gives us a freedom that is absence, and nothing else. So we sin oh-so-freely and thereby lose our freedom. That’s what the Catechism means, that “by deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom”. Of course he does! We are living in the age – not of the lack of freedom – but of man violating his own freedom, and then not understanding why he feels so miserable all the time. It’s because those are shackles on your wrists, buddy. Not pleasures.
It’s natural; it’s called Free Will. No, to that freedom the Church presents the moral law; or rather God presents the moral law and The Church is earth’s greatest conveyor of it. The Moral Law has not come to do away with freedom, but to fulfill it, to shape the absence and give purpose to the void. The Church says don’t masturbate, don’t kill, don’t sleep around, not as some exercise in authority, but because these things will enslave you, and man is made to be free. Not a slave. Free.
Again, this makes sense of what the Catechism means, that “progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.” Read that again, I know it had a bunch of big words in it. The Church is saying that freedom is having mastery – not just over your condition in life – but over yourself! That way you can do what you want. If you’re addicted to pornography you are – by definition – not doing what you want. Following the moral law makes men free.