This concerns Christianity and Liberty, according to the Catholic Church, which can be found in the chapter Christianity and Liberty in the book: How Christ Changed the World: The Social Teachings of the Catholic Church by Msgr. Luigi Civardi of Catholic Action, published in 1961 (edited here by A. J. MacDonald, Jr. (.pdf here; html here.)
The word liberty is equivalent to absence of necessity and has various meanings. First of all, one should distinguish betweenphysical liberty and moral liberty: Physical, or psychologicalliberty, is the individual’s power to decide for themselves to will or not to will; to will one thing or another. This self-determination presupposes an absence of necessity, not merelyexternal, but also internal.
External necessity, or constraint, derives from a power that liesoutside of the individual and compels us to do that which we do not want to do. Such is the power that forces an individual to be placed under arrest, or to be shut up in jail. Internal necessity comes instead from an impulse with us that forces us to act. Such is the case of the sleepwalker, of the insane person, of those who act under the stimulus of an interior power which they cannot control.
From the above we can understand how two cases diametrically opposed to each other may be supposed within us: the case of the external, without any internal necessity (as in the case of the jailed person, because he is obliged to do so against his will), and that of an internal, without any external necessity (as in the case of a person who is insane, without being subject to any external force).
The absence of internal necessity is called free will, inasmuch as it makes us the arbiter of our own actions. Free will is an effect of the spirituality of the soul, and is innate in us. However, there are internal and external causes that may diminish or destroy free will. Some such internal causes are: passions, temperaments, habits, ignorance, sleep, insanity. Mental illness and disorders have a more or less pronounced influence upon the will which, as we know, follows the judgment of the mind.
Inasmuch as the extent of the influence of these internal causes is nearly always uncertain, in many cases it is almost impossible for us to determine the exact degree of responsibility that attaches to an action, since obviously theresponsibility of an action is always in proportion to its freedom.
The existence of free will has often been denied by philosophers, nowadays called determinists, because they claim that every act of the human will is determined by an interior irresistible force like instinct in animals. But there are many arguments that prove the existence of free will and we will examine two of these here. The testimony of conscience being the first.
We feel inwardly that it is in our power to act or not to act, to act in one way rather than another. We feel, for example, that we have the power to eat or not to eat, to eat little or much, this or that; whereas it does not depend upon us to digest the food we eat. Therefore, our very conscience assures us that both free acts and necessary acts are attributable to us.
The testimony of humankind is the second. Humankind has always praised virtue and blamed vice, rewarded merit and punished guilt. But these words, praise and blame, reward and punishment would have no meaning if we were not free and hence responsible for our own actions. Were there ever any rewards or punishments established for animals? Similarly, laws, prohibitions, counsels, and reproofs that humankind has always made use of would become practical absurdities if we were not masters of our own actions.
Moral freedom is entirely different from physical freedom, though having its roots in the latter. It consists in the power of doing everything that is not forbidden by a just law. Moral freedom is therefore a right, the object of which is the good. No one has a right to do evil. Therefore, the power of doing evil is a defect and does not belong to the essence of freedom, just as tendency to sickness does not does not belong to the essence of health. Consequently, public authorities, while allowing full liberty to goodness, cannot equate liberty to evil. That would not be true liberty but license. Social order and peace are to be based upon a proper balance between authority and liberty.
There are different kinds of moral freedom, according to the objects upon which it is exercised. Thus we have religious, civil, economic, professional, scientific freedom, and so on. The liberals, by posing as the champions of all liberties, have proclaimed the liberty of thought, of conscience, and of religion in opposition to the Church that prescribes doctrines to be believed and religious acts to be performed. If the liberals mean that religion cannot be imposed by force, they are stating the truth, but they are not stating anything that has not already been proclaimed by the Church. Religion is a free homage to God; and no one can be forced to believe or to profess that which she does not believe.
What the liberals mean to affirm is that each person is free to profess the religion that pleases him and even profess none at all. They mean liberty to think and to do whatever one wishes concerning God, which is religious indifference. This unlimited freedom in religious matters would be lawful only in the event that it were not possible to know the true God and the true religion. But such is not the case, because the existence of God and Christian revelation are truths that can be proved and have been proved by human reason.
The doctrine of human physical freedom is clearly set forth in the Old Testament. We read in Genesis that God, in creating humankind, uttered these significant words, which are not employed for any other creature: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” (Gen. 1:26). Now this likeness (not equality) is derived from the fact that humankind has a spiritual and immortal soul and a free will. Spirituality, immortality, freedom, are attributes of God. In Ecclesiasticus we read these words: “God made man from the beginning and left him in the hand of his own counsel…Before man is set life and death, good and evil; that which he shall chose shall be given to him.” (Ecclus. 15:14-18).
The New Testament takes for granted the freedom of the will. The whole preaching of Christ would be an absurd labor, all his precepts and counsels would be but empty words, if man were forced to act automatically or instinctively. The whole plan of the Gospel would have no reason for existence, because fallen man would not be capable of redemption, and the punishment of eternal fire, which which Jesus threatened the reprobates (Matt. 25:51) would be an unheard of cruelty. For whoever is not free is not responsible for what he does and deserves neither reward nor punishment.
The Church, walking in the footsteps of Christ, was at all times the champion and the protector of every legitimate liberty and the enemy of every tyranny. First of all, the Church championed the physical liberty of humankind and thus defended the crown of this king of creation. She condemned the theories of the heresies of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen who held that original sin destroyed our free will, and in our days the Church has condemned the nefarious doctrines of determinism and materialism.
St. Paul, writing to the Christians of Ephesus, exhorts them: “And you, masters, do the same things to them [the slaves], forbearing threatenings, knowing that the Lord both of them and you is in heaven; and there is no respect of persons with him.” (Eph. 6:9). And to the Christians of Galatia he clearly states: “There is neither Jew nor Greek;there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
This means that before God there is no difference, either of nationality or of social condition, or of gender, contrary to what people, then, might have thought. These words of the apostle of the Gentiles, which have since been reiterated unceasingly by the Church, are a clear condemnation of slavery, which among Christians soon ceased to exist in their minds if not is outward practice. The Christian master was bound to see his brother in his slave and to treat him accordingly.
The Church has made the highest proclamation of the highest liberty – religious liberty – through the martyrdom of countless sons and daughters of hers. Martyrdom is the declaration of the most sacred rights of humankind, written in blood. The army of Christian martyrs is a heroic defense of freedom.
Pius XII teaches us to distinguish between liberty and license, which is liberty without restraint and without limitations. “True liberty”, he writes, “that which truly deserves this name and which constitutes the happiness of peoples, has nothing in common with license, with brazenness. True liberty is just the contrary of that. It is that which guarantees the professions and the practice of what is true and of what is just under the guidance of the divine commandments within the sphere of public welfare. It has therefore need of just limitations.”
Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Libertas, condemns freedom of speech, worship, of teaching, and of conscience as understood by liberalism, which would grant the same rights to good and evil, to truth and error. While freedom of evil is always unlawful, the toleration of evil may, at times, be advisable. On this point Leo XIII teaches: “Without granting any rights except to truth and honesty, the Church, in order to avoid a greater evil, or to achieve or preserve a greater good, does not forbid public authority to tolerate certain things that are at variance with truth and justice.” [Editor’s Note: An example of this for our day would be allowing for the State to legalize civil unions between homosexuals while not allowing for the State to legalize abortions on demand. The second being a far greater evil than the first, although both are contrary to natural law.] Pius XII in his Encyclical Summi Pontificus condemns the opposite error, to wit Statism, which accords unrestricted power to the State, to the prejudice of the liberty of the individual and of the family, pointing out “that man and the family are by nature prior to the State and that the Creator endowed both with certain powers and rights and assigned to each a mission answering to positive natural exigencies.”