Liberty, equality and fraternity! These words rang from one end of the world to the other at the time of the French Revolution, and had a magical effect in kindling enthusiasm in the minds of men, and we still hear them employed by those who, professing to be friends of the masses, strive to win the people over to their ways of thought. I do not know why so much fuss is made about these ideas, as if they had never been heard of before. Christianity has been preaching these three things for 1900 years. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity owe their introduction into the world to Christianity, and having thriven under her protection, they have been the cause of countless blessings to the human race. This is a fact, but it is also true that in course of time these ideas have been lamentably distorted and misused by those who pretend to wish to promote the happiness of the people. I desire to put you on your guard against a wrong use of these precious gifts bestowed by Christianity, and to supply you with a true comprehension of them, whilst at the same time I hope to show you what blessings result from putting them to their proper use.
You must not expect me to discuss these matters from the political point of view; the pulpit is a place, not for political speeches, but for the exposition of Divine truth, and I propose to deal with my subject only from this standpoint. Today I mean to speak of liberty, and to show you
(1) in what it consists and
(2) where it is to be found.
Let us begin by invoking the aid of the Holy Ghost.
1. Reason and free will are the most precious possessions that we enjoy in this life, and nothing else distinguishes us so completely from the brutes as our having these gifts, which are tokens of our Divine origin, and enable us to enter into communion with God and gradually to grow more like Him, the most perfect of all beings. A beast must follow the prompting of its instinct, but man does only what he wills to do; by means of his reason he can determine to do or not to do an action, and no power on earth can violate his will. He may be tortured or even killed, but he cannot be forced to do anything that he wills not to do. In the first three centuries of the Christian era the pagans had recourse to every imaginable means of compelling the Christians to do sacrifice to false gods and deny their faith, but it was all in vain; they preferred to die rather than give up their liberty. In the same way you too may be oppressed and persecuted, or even imprisoned, but you cannot be compelled to tell lies, to steal, or to deny your faith.
Many people believe that true liberty consists in freedom to act as they like, and that they are as free to choose evil as to refrain from it and to choose good. A child supposes himself to be free, when he is out of his parents sight, and doing what he fancies. A young man supposes himself to be free, if he can follow his impulses without any let or hindrance. A socialist supposes himself to be free, if he can cast aside the laws of Church and State whenever it pleases him to do so, discard all morality and order, and gratify his sensual desires undisturbed. But is this real liberty? No; it is license, want of discipline and the enslavement of the spirit to the flesh. God gave us reason to guide us in our actions and to control and direct the lower impulses that we possess in common with the beasts. But if we allow ourselves to be directed and controlled by our sensual instincts and the desires of the flesh instead of by reason, we have ceased to be free, and have
become slaves to the flesh.
How shameful and dishonorable is this slavery! Which is more noble, the flesh or the spirit? You answer without hesitation: "The spirit, for it is the breath of God; it bears the impress of God's likeness; it is able to know and love God; it is immortal and destined for eternal life, whereas the body is nothing but dust, and must return to the dust of which it was formed." If such is the case, can anything be more shameful and lowering to human dignity than that a man should allow his immortal spirit to be enslaved and subjugated by his sinful body?
We certainly have the power to choose between good and evil, and if we decide in favor of evil, we cease to be free and become its slaves, for, as our Saviour said: "Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin" (John viii, 34). We are truly free only if we decide in favor of good, freely, and not under compulsion from within or from without, but following the voice of reason. The ability to choose between good and evil is innate in us, and we require to be trained in true liberty, which is, as I have said, freedom to decide for oneself to do what is right.
You know that Adam's fall into sin brought inward corruption upon the whole human race, and that in consequence our evil desires strongly oppose reason and conscience, the voice of God speaking within us, telling us what is good and what is evil, stimulating us to do right and warning us against sin. As a result of Adam's fall our reason is weakened and obscured, our hearts are filled with selfishness, pride, sensuality and avarice, and our will is enfeebled to such a degree as to do what it rejects, and not to do what it wills. "I know," says St. Paul, "that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will is present with me, but to accomplish that which is good, I find not. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me. For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man, but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members" (Rom. vii, 18-23).
This is the case with every human being, however freely he may be able to choose the good, he is hindered and thwarted by the evil concupiscence that dwelleth in him, and frequently obtains the mastery over his will and reason, so that he can no longer do what he wills, but is obliged to do what he wills not. A pagan poet says very truly: " I perceive the better course and assent to it, but I follow the worse." You need only read the history of the human race to see to what terrible errors and sins this enslavement of the will by selfishness and sensuality has led mankind. Idolatry in all its horrible forms, the innumerable vices by which men degraded themselves lower than beasts devoid of reason, the slavery and other kinds of bondage that prevailed in olden times and were an outrage upon all Christian sentiment these are the consequences of this subjugation of the will and intellect resulting from sin. All these evils would recur if men with one accord made use of the license offered them by those who wish to ensnare them in their toils. If you want to know how a free man can be enslaved by selfishness and sensuality, you have only to look around you. Here is one who is a slave to drunkenness; when sober he has reproached himself times without number: he has wept tears of repentance, and sworn to his wife that he will amend, and give no more scandal to his innocent children—but his oaths are vain; he goes out sober and comes back drunk; he is weighed down by the fetters of his evil habit, and can no longer do as he desires, but is constrained to satisfy his craving and do what he wishes not to do.
Another is so much entangled in the snares of debauchery that he cannot free himself, however much he tries. He makes fresh resolutions daily, prays, and imposes on himself various mortifications; but it is all in vain; tomorrow he will break the resolutions that he makes today! It would be an endless task to enumerate all the forms of captivity in which men lie bound. St. Antony, being once in a dreary desert, had a wonderful vision, in which he beheld the whole world covered with traps, snares and toils. These were anger, envy, greed, avarice, lust, falsehood, deception and the countless other sins in which men entangle themselves and lose their freedom of will. "His own iniquities catch the wicked, and he is fast bound with the rope of his own sins" (Prov. iv, 22).
2. (a) How can these fetters be broken, and the darkness of our understanding be scattered, so that we once more become able to recognize the truth? How can our will be strengthened so as to shake off the bonds of pride, ambition, avarice and lust, and be free to choose what is good? Who can restore our liberty, that we have lost through sin? Only our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, can do these things; He can deliver us from doubt and error, to which sin had subjected our understanding, and He can bring us the Divine light of truth, which enlightens every man that cometh into the world. Hence He said: " I am the way, and the truth and the life" (John xiv, 6). "He that followeth Me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John viii, 12, 32).
Christ is called our Saviour and Redeemer because He released us from the bondage of sin and death, and we ask Him daily to deliver us from evil. "Because the children (of men) are partakers of flesh and blood, Christ also Himself in like manner hath been partaker of the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and might deliver them who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude" (Heb. i i , 14, 5). "But now being made free from sin, they have become servants of God" (Rom. vi, 22).
True Christian liberty exists therefore for the man in whose heart Christ has destroyed the power of darkness and the reign of sin, so that, the tyranny of his passions being broken, he is free to take up his stand on the side of truth and goodness. In other words,
Christian liberty is childlike submission to the will of God as made known by Christ. This is why St. Paul says: "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" ( II Cor. iii, 17).
The more completely you are delivered from sin and sinful desires, and the better you serve God in the spirit of love, the greater is your liberty. Those pious souls who serve the Lord in simplicity of heart, who struggle to resist temptations, who crucify their flesh together with its vices and concupiscences, who with patience and submission bear the burden and heat of the day, who loyally and conscientiously fulfil in their home life the duties of their rank and calling, these are truly free, and these enjoy the glorious liberty of the sons of God.
But our Saviour did more than make known to us God's will, to guide us in all our actions; He merited for us God's grace, to sustain us in our weakness and strengthen our will, so that we might obey the dictates of conscience and God's Commandments, and be thus delivered from the bondage of concupiscence. "It is," says St. Paul, God who worketh in you both to will and to accomplish" (Phil, ii, 13), and although the same Apostle confesses that he saw in his members another law, fighting against the law of his mind and captivating him in the law of sin (Rom. vii, 23) he was none the less convinced that by God's grace it was possible for him to shake off the bonds of sin. "I can do all things in Him who strengthened me" (Phil, iv, 13).
You see therefore what is the source of liberty. It is a heavensent gift, bestowed upon us through the Son of God, who Himself took the form of a servant in order to deliver us from the bondage of sin. As He said: "If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John viii, 36).
Liberty was given to the world through Jesus Christ, and it is through Christianity, or rather through the Catholic Church, that it has obtained supremacy in the world, and it is in the Church that it has found the surest guarantee for its preservation.
(b) For over nineteen hundred years the Church has toiled incessantly, by means of instructions, commands and Sacraments, to deliver men from sin and error, from disorderly desires, passions and habits, and to establish the Kingdom of God, which is the rule of truth and liberty. During the present season of Lent, when she calls upon us to deny ourselves and mortify our flesh, she has no other end in view than to release us from the bondage of sin and the flesh, under which all mankind is groaning, and to give us the liberty of the sons of God. "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin" (John viii, 34).*
The Church of Christ has always safeguarded external, personal and civil liberty as well as the internal or moral liberty of man. Let me quote a few instances in proof of this assertion: A father formerly possessed absolute rights of life and death over his children, and could dispose of them as he chose, giving them up to a life of shame or killing them; treating them in fact like cattle, that he could sell in the same way as a house or field. To what do children owe their liberty from this tyranny? To the Gospel, that has declared a child to belong to God, and his father to be responsible for the child's welfare and upbringing. Women at the present day cannot realize the harsh and degrading treatment suffered by their sex everywhere before our Saviour's birth, and still suffered in countries to which the light of His Gospel has not yet penetrated. Among non-Christian nations women are regarded as inferior creatures; a maiden is supposed to have no will of her own, so that she can be sold by her parents or bought by a suitor, as they think fit. A wife is merely a household drudge, to be ill treated or turned out, according to her husband's fancy. How different is the position held by women in Christian lands! Here a maiden is looked upon as a child of our heavenly Father, as one redeemed by our Lord, as consecrated by the Holy Ghost, and as an inheritor of eternal life, and ever since the most glorious of all virgins conceived and gave birth to the Saviour of the world, virginity has been highly esteemed, and a virgin is regarded as an ornament to the Church of God, and shares in all the grace and truth of the Gospel. As a result of Christianity the wife now occupies a place of honor beside her husband; they are two in one flesh, and their union is a type of the relation existing between Christ and His Church.
The socialists, however, set no value upon virginity, and reject marriage and family life. To them a woman is nothing but a prostitute, and when she has borne and suckled a child and taught it to eat and drink, they require her to hand it over to the State for education. Among people holding such opinions there can be no thought of love and duty between parents and children, for these things simply do not exist. Could any doctrines tend more to drag men down below the level of beasts?
Christianity has done much to alleviate, improve and sanctify the lot of the working classes. In the ancient world men were divided into masters and slaves. The slaves were the chattels of their masters, their property, to be dealt with as they chose, as slaves could have no liberty, no rights and no possessions. They were not looked upon as beings of the same kind as their masters, but as creatures of a lower order, destined by nature, like the domestic animals, for the service and use of their owners. A master could sell his slaves as he pleased, or ill-treat them according to the prompting of his bad temper, striking them as he would strike a dog or an ass; he might even blind or kill them, and no one had any right to find fault with him, far less to punish him. To five you some idea of the terrible lot of these unhappy people, It Is perhaps enough to tell you that slaves used to be sacrificed to the gods, fattened and thrown into ponds to feed the fish, and forced even to attack and slay one another for their master's amusement. One master often owned several thousand slaves, and one great Roman lady frequently required the services of two hundred female slaves. What did Christ do for these wretched creatures? He destroyed slavery altogether, by proclaiming that all men were equal, that all alike were children of God, who has no respect of persons. But He did more than this, for He laid down the law of brotherly love, to which there are no exceptions, and finally He died on the Cross for all men, including slaves, and opened the gates of eternal happiness to slaves as well as to their masters.
Has not civil liberty always been upheld and defended by the Church? and has it not often been assailed and destroyed by secular princes, who have aimed at increasing their own power and reputation, and, in order to accomplish this, have oppressed their subjects? For centuries the Catholic Church alone, with all the resources at her disposal, opposed the tyranny of princes and the oppression of the poor, and did her best to support the liberty of nations. It was under the influence of the Church that the constitutions securing most freedom came into being. England boasts of being the freest country in the world. From what period does her freedom date? From the age of the vaunted Reformation? No, certainly not; it dates from the time when every Englishman used to hear holy Mass daily.
You see, therefore, that the Catholic Church has always led the way in safeguarding civil liberty. She has never, however, encouraged rebellion and revolution, but she has invariably condemned them and admonished the nations to make for freedom by legal and constitutional methods. She has always insisted upon obedience to authority, and has taught that without law, discipline and order liberty cannot thrive or even exist. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'—this is the teaching of the Divine Founder of holy Church, and St. Paul says: "Let every soul be subject to higher powers, for there is no power but from God, and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation" (Rom. xiii, 1-2). It is impossible to dispense with civil authority, as the socialists desire, for authority and laws are needed to check the vagaries of men's minds and hearts, and to prevent free will from degenerating into license, violence, tyranny and outrages upon the person, property and honor of others. Although the socialists declare man to be free and subject to no authority, yet their leaders regard themselves as having a right to control their followers, and tolerate no arguments or expression of contrary opinions, so that bitter quarrels happen at their meetings. They refuse to acknowledge any authority in State, Church, community or family, and yet they usurp it themselves. They say to the powers that be: "Give place to us;" but, as matters stand, we are far better off under the existing government than we should be under that which the socialists wish to introduce.
(c) We have seen that Christianity gave liberty to the world, and it cannot thrive or even continue to exist apart from Christianity, which is its surest guarantee, for where Christianity does not prevail, men are dominated by their passions and are under the bondage of sin. What must we not therefore expect from those who talk much about liberty, but discard all the principles of Christianity? We know by sad experience that what they desire is not liberty for all men, but only for themselves and their comrades; they wish to be free, in order to rule over others more absolutely; they do not want liberty for truth and goodness, but liberty to spread abroad their false and pernicious doctrines; they want to be free, unfettered and unrestrained, in the gratification of all their passions. If another claims the right to have his own opinions and convictions, and reproaches them with their injustice, cunning and double dealing, they are infuriated against him, and employ all possible means of silencing him.
Beware, therefore, of these false prophets, and do not assent to their arguments, which are un-Christian and consequently evil and destructive; such men are aiming at enslaving you, not at setting you free. We too wish to enjoy liberty of conscience, of faith and of speech; we too desire to have liberty in civil life, but we want no license, no wanton violence and no rebellion; we have no wish to see one man tyrannize over another and reduce him to slavery; we insist upon freedom for all, for we desire the liberty of the children of God, for "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
We have now seen in what true Christian liberty consists, to whom we owe it and how we should use it. Let me conclude with St. Peter's words: "So is the will of God, that by doing well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men; as free, and not as making liberty a cloak for malice, but as the servants of God" (I . Peter ii, 15-16). If we remember that we are all God's servants and children, we shall not encroach upon our neighbor's rights and liberty; for the sake of God and conscience we shall respect authority, and peace and order will reign in our midst.
Above all let us strive to cast off the fetters of pride, avarice, envy, selfishness and lust. As long as we are bound by them, we are not free men, but slaves of sin; for whosoever commits sin, is the servant of sin. How many of us are still in bondage! Let us arise, and obey the call of the prophet who exclaims: "Shake thyself from the dust, arise, sit up; loose the bonds from off thy neck, O captive daughter of Sioni" (Is. lii, 2). O captive soul shake off the dust of earth which obscures thy beauty; arise and loose the bonds of sin, death and Satan by the threefold force of contrition, confession and satisfaction, for what is loosed on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. Hasten, before the snares of death and the terrible bonds of hell, from which there is no escape, entangle thee. Easter is at hand, the holy season when our Lord and Saviour invites us all to cleanse ourselves from sin, and to come and keep the Pasch with Him. Come, therefore, all ye who are weighed down with sin and misery, groaning under the load of your disorderly inclinations, passions and habits, the Lord will set you free. He calls you, saying: "Come to Me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you."
But when you are released from sin and made children of God, be careful to walk thenceforth as free men, guided by the Spirit of God, and not dominated by impure passions; be no longer slaves of sin, but servants of God. "Brethren," says St. Paul, "you have been called unto liberty; only make not liberty an occasion to the flesh, but by charity of the spirit serve one another" (Gal. v, 13). To serve the flesh is slavery, to serve Christ is to rule. "O, let us," exclaims St. Bernard, "remain bound by God's holy Commandments! The bonds of love constrained Him to come down to earth and submit to suffering; we on the other hand, who desire to be raised from earth to heaven, must first submit to the bonds of suffering, patience and obedience, that we may be one with Him, as He and the Father are one." Let us remain free from sin and sinful desires, let us be ever guided by the Spirit of the Lord, and subject only to His Commandments, and then we shall be free indeed, and at last for us, too, the golden gates of heavenly liberty will be opened, and we shall enter in and enjoy perfect freedom forever and ever. Amen.
*By proclaiming the truths of faith and inviting us to frequent the Sacraments, the Church is in no respect interfering with our liberty. She says: "You must believe this if you wish to be saved: but it rests with you to be saved or to perish; you can choose which you like." It depends, therefore, altogether upon a man's own will whether he obeys or rejects the call of grace; he is perfectly free to accept or to deny the truth. Faith is in any case a gift of God, but man's free will has to cooperate in it, for the simple reason that no one receives a gift which he is unwilling to accept.