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The rootedness of freedom in the truth has been a constant and central theme in the writings of John Paul II. Already in 1964, as a young bishop at Vatican II, Karol Wojtyla criticized the draft of the declaration on religious freedom because it did not sufficiently emphasize the connection between freedom and truth. “For freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. Hence the words of our Lord, which speak so clearly to everyone: ‘The truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). There is no freedom without truth.”

Again in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis (1979) John Paul II quoted the words of Christ, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” He added: “These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.”

In his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, the Pope rejects a series of ethical systems that propose novel criteria for the moral evaluation of human action. Despite their variety, he declares, these systems are at one in minimizing or even denying the dependence of freedom upon truth. This dependence, he says, finds its clearest and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” In Evangelium Vitae (1995) the Pope reaffirms the unbreakable link between freedom and truth.

The Pope’s philosophy of freedom runs counter to the value-free concept so prevalent in contemporary culture, perhaps especially in the United States. Many people today would say that freedom and truth are wholly separable, since anyone is free to affirm the truth and abide by it, to ignore the truth, or even to deny it and act against it. If freedom were bound by the truth, they ask, how could it be freedom? In the course of his discussion of freedom and law in Veritatis Splendor, the Pope proposes his answer to questions such as these.


Before undertaking to answer these difficulties, we would do well, I believe, to take a close look at the meaning of the term “freedom,” which has different implications at the natural and the personal levels.

At the lower level, that of nature, freedom means the absence of physical constraint. A balloon rises freely when nothing obstructs it; a stone falls freely when nothing impedes it. A dog is free if it is let off the leash so that it can follow its impulses. To be free, in this sense, is to act according to an inner inclination. To be unfree is to have that inclination frustrated.

At the higher level, distinctive to persons, freedom demands, in addition, the absence of psychological compulsion. My freedom as a person is limited to the extent that instinct or passion compels me to act in certain ways, e.g., to flee from danger or flinch with pain.

If my motives could never transcend my individual self-interest or the collective self-interest of my group, I could never be truly free. I could always be manipulated and compelled to act in specific ways by fear of punishment or hope of reward. Just as animals can be drawn by dangling a carrot or banana in front of their noses, so a child can be induced to behave in certain ways by the prospect of gratification or the fear of pain. Unable to escape from the determinism of instinct or appetite, we could be forced to act by threats and promises.

One of the benefits of training and discipline is to enhance our zone of inner freedom. By education and exercise we develop the motivation and character that enable us to resist physical and especially psychological pressures. Some learn to go for long periods without sleep, to abstain from food, or to endure intense physical pain without abandoning their resolve. Such persons have greater freedom than others. They have a larger zone of inner self-determination.

In determining my own course of action, I cannot dispense with motives. If choices were completely arbitrary, freedom would be meaningless and in the last analysis impossible. In my free actions I follow what I apprehend as good and worthy of being chosen, but the choice is not forced upon me. I consent to the attraction because my reason approves of it. In acting freely I experience myself as the source of my own activity and as responsible for the results. My actions recoil to some degree on myself, and so make me to be what I am. Thus the freedom to determine one’s activity is at the same time self-determination. John Paul II explains this at some length in his major work, The Acting Person, and in various philosophical essays written before he became pope.

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa on the royal dignity that pertains to those who have this kind of dominion over themselves. “The soul shows its royal and exalted character . . . in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will. Of whom else can this be said, save a king?” According to the Pope, freedom does not attain this royal dignity until it rises to the level of making choices that perfect the dynamism of the human spirit toward the divine, following motives that solicit its free adherence. To this effect the Pope quotes from Vatican II:

God willed to leave them [human beings] “in the hands of their own counsel,” so that they would seek their Creator of their own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God. (Gaudium et Spes 17; Veritatis Splendor 38)

As I have said, we possess this freedom only when we go beyond individual and collective selfishness and reach out to that which reason perceives as objectively good and true. Our freedom is not diminished but expanded and fulfilled when we employ it to bring about a true good. This, again, is the teaching of Vatican II:

Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind impulse or merely external pressure. People achieve such dignity when they free themselves from all subservience to their feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursue their own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means. (GS 17; VS 21)

Because the moral law, as known by reason, does not constrain us, it leaves us physically and psychologically free either to obey or to violate it. But if we reject the true good, we inevitably yield to the passions and instincts of our lower nature and thereby undermine our authentic freedom. To act freely against the truth is to erode freedom itself.
Michael Polanyi, the great philosopher of science, speaks in much the same terms as John Paul II. He writes:

While compulsion by force or by neurotic obsession excludes responsibility, compulsion by universal intent establishes responsibility. . . . The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to act as he must.

Lord Acton declared that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” As this definition indicates, Acton is concerned not so much with the philosophical as with the political definition of freedom. Those who have a constitutional right to do as they ought are politically free, and if they are not physically or psychologically impeded from following the moral imperative, they are also free in the philosophical sense of the word.


In a paper on “The Personal Structure of Self-Determination,” John Paul II makes a further inference, based on the relational character of the person. Every person, he maintains, is both a being willed by God for itself and at the same time a being turned toward others. To be isolated from others is a form of self-imprisonment. We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others. This “law of the gift,” as the Pope calls it, is inscribed deep in the dynamic structure of the person as fashioned in the image of the divine. He confirms this insight by quoting from Vatican II: “The human being, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself, cannot attain its full identity except through a disinterested gift of self” (GS 24). The citizen serves the common good out of a free commitment or devotion. Those who love God serve him freely, and if they refuse that service they undermine the freedom that love has given them. Those who obey the commandments out of fear are not fully free, but they fall into even deeper slavery if they disobey God in order to gratify their own impulses. The truly free person is one who does what is good out of love for goodness itself.

Thinkers who consider the law of God to be a hindrance to human freedom have been misled into regarding obedience as a form of heteronomy or self-alienation, as though God were a hostile power imposing terms on humanity as a defeated enemy. In fact, God’s law proceeds only from benevolence toward creatures whom God loves. The moral law is intended to safeguard human dignity. Human freedom and divine law conspire to the same end.

In this connection John Paul II speaks of “theonomy.” Rational knowledge enables us to participate in the light of eternal wisdom, which is expressed in the divine law. In obeying God’s law I incline myself before his divine majesty and at the same time follow my deepest vocation as a creature. In the Pope’s own words, “Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation. Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, who is present in all. But one must likewise acknowledge the majesty of the God of the universe and revere the holiness of the law of God, who is infinitely transcendent: Deus semper maior” (VS 41).

The supreme exemplars of freedom for John Paul II are the martyrs. They are the heroic persons who are so committed to the known good that they stand up under pressures that would overcome the willpower of most others. Given the choice between denying their principles and losing their lives, they freely lay down their lives and thereby give witness to the truth. Jesus, who freely laid down his life for our sakes, sets the pattern for martyrs.

The martyrs represent an achievement of freedom beyond the capacities of the great majority of men and women. They inspire us by their example to rise above the more limited measure of freedom that we can claim for ourselves. For the theology of freedom it is important to recognize that the freedom with which we are born is frail and limited. John Paul II compares it to a seed that must be cultivated. Some degree of freedom is an essential part of the reflection of God that is constitutive of human nature, but our freedom is incomplete. Wounded as we are by original sin, we often prefer limited and ephemeral goods to those that are pure and abiding. We are even tempted to assert our freedom against our Creator, as though freedom could exist without regard for truth. God’s redemptive action in Christ helps to liberate us from this illusion. As Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (VS 86). Since Christ himself is the truth (John 14:6), it is also correct to say that the truth sets us free (John 8:32).


It is partly in revealing the law that God liberates his people. Already in the Old Testament, God brought the tribes of Israel out of bondage and united them to himself through the Sinai Covenant, which contained the basic precepts of the moral law. That covenant was perfected by the new law of the gospel, which Scripture describes as an interior law “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3, quoted in VS 45).

As a new and interior law, the gospel teaches us both by enlightening our minds and by instilling a love and affection for the truth. The divinely given attraction toward the true goal of human existence, which is none other than God himself, does not impede our freedom of choice, since it inclines us toward the very thing that right reason would select. The inner instinct of grace heals our rebellious wills and inclines us to do as God wills. In so doing it removes an obstacle to freedom-our innate tendency to pursue the immediate and apparent good rather than the ultimate and true good. It brings us closer to the final condition of the blessed in heaven, who cannot do other than love God, but who do so freely because they see how lovable God is.


In speaking of the interior law of the gospel imprinted by God on the human heart, I am inevitably raising the question of conscience, which is a subject of considerable confusion in our day. John Paul II remarks that the idea of conscience has been deformed by modern thinkers who have lost the sense of the transcendent and are in some cases atheistic. These thinkers often depict conscience as a supreme and infallible tribunal that dispenses us from considerations of law and truth, putting in their place purely subjective and individualistic criteria such as sincerity, authenticity, and being at peace with oneself (VS 32). In opposition to this trend John Paul II shows in Veritatis Splendor that conscience is an act of intelligence that adheres to objective norms. The freedom of conscience is secured by its conformity to truth.

The classical biblical text on conscience, quoted by John Paul II, is Romans 2:14-16: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (cf. VS 57).

The meaning of this dense and complex passage is clarified by a paragraph from Vatican II that John Paul II also quotes:

In the depths of his own conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: “Do this, shun that.” For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (GS 16, quoted in VS 54).

According to these authoritative texts, conscience is not a purely subjective and autonomous principle: it is in no way opposed to the truth of God’s law, which is its ground. Its judgments always presuppose the first principle of practical reason, the obligation to do good and avoid evil.

Paul, as we have seen, describes conscience as an unwritten law inscribed by God on the human heart. St. Bonaventure spells out this relationship more explicitly. In a text quoted by John Paul II he writes: “Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of a king. This is why conscience has a binding force.”

In the history of Catholic theology, John Henry Newman is outstanding for having clarified the relationship between conscience and God. Conscience, he writes in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, is the voice of God in the nature and heart of man. In a justly famous paragraph he declares: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its information, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas.” In his Grammar of Assent Newman speaks of conscience as “our great internal teacher of religion.” It “teaches us not only that God is but what He is; it provides for the mind a real image of Him, as a medium of worship.” Newman then goes on to explain how it discloses God as lawgiver, judge, and rewarder.

Newman contrasts this true and traditional conception of conscience with what he calls its modern counterfeit. While some philosophers attack the very concept of conscience as a primitive and irrational force, the popular mind, in advocating so-called rights of conscience, really seeks to assert human self-will, without any thought of God at all. Conscience thus becomes “a license to take up any or no religion.” For Newman, on the contrary, conscience is a stern monitor and is essentially bound up with the acknowledgment of God. “Conscience has rights because it has duties.”

Building on passages such as these, John Paul II is able to show that, far from being a power to make one’s decisions autonomously and creatively, conscience binds us to the law of God, to Whom conscience is responsible. He then goes on to remark that conscience is neither adequate nor infallible as a source of moral guidance. Because it attests to a higher intelligence and will to which it is subject, it arouses a concern or anxiety to find out what course of action is here and now required of the individual to do good and avoid evil.

Conscience impels one to seek authoritative direction. Newman eloquently points out the providential role of the Church in supplying this need. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk he writes:

All sciences, except the science of Religion, have their certainty in themselves; as far as they are sciences, they consist of necessary conclusions from undeniable premises, or of phenomena manipulated into general truths by an irresistible deduction. But the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its flight, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.

Conscience, therefore, is in no way opposed to the use of external sources of traditional and revealed wisdom. It seeks help from authority in forming its judgments. Far from being an exception to the general rule that freedom is oriented toward objective truth, the experience of conscientious decision-making confirms the rule that, as the Pope expresses it, the freedom of conscience is never freedom from the truth but always and only freedom in the truth (VS 64).


I have tried thus far to establish that freedom is meaningless and self-destructive if it is not used in the service of what is truly good. A freedom that dispenses itself from concern with truth could only be a false and illusory freedom. But it does not follow that the whole course of our life is prescribed in advance by an objective order of truth that excludes any originality and creativity on our part. In most situations we are faced with a choice between several competing goods. Just as I am free to order peas or carrots at dinner, or to wear a plain or striped shirt, so, on a larger scale, I am at liberty to choose any occupation, profession, or walk of life that is honorable in itself and consonant with my abilities and temperament. It would be a mistake to imagine that there would be only one acceptable course of action. Without prescribing everything in advance, God invites us to make creative decisions, in consonance with the moral law.

In this connection one must consider the idea of vocation. God may invite us, without compelling us, to do more than duty requires. In his meditation on the call of the rich young man at the beginning of Veritatis Splendor John Paul II points out the distinction between obedience to the Commandments, which is required for salvation, and a particular vocation, which may enable an individual to attain more perfect freedom. Many spiritual writers hold that the rich young man, whom Jesus urged to give away his goods to the poor, was not strictly required to perform this generous act. He could presumably have saved his soul by continuing to observe the Commandments, as he had been doing for years. Ordinarily, at least, the vocation to the life of the evangelical counsels does not come as a command but as a gracious invitation. Although we cannot achieve perfect freedom without accepting the highest possibilities opened up to us by God’s grace, we are morally free to do all that God does not forbid.


Up to this point I have focused on the freedom of the individual. I should now like to turn to the free society. It is more difficult to see how a society can be directed by truth unless the convictions of many of the members are overridden, in which case the society can hardly be called free. John Paul II, acutely conscious of this problem, offers some important considerations that I shall attempt to summarize.

The free society rests on the supposition that the members are endowed with inalienable rights. If the rights of individuals were conferred by the state or by the society, they could be removed by human power, and the way would be open to tyranny. As the authors of our Declaration of Independence recognized, the Creator Himself has given human beings an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, though of course the exercise of these rights has to be regulated with regard to the common good.

Alluding to the biblical and patristic doctrine that human beings are made in the image of God, the Pope contends that the human person, as the visible image of the invisible God, is by nature the subject of rights that no individual, group, class, nation, or state may violate. Where the transcendent source of human dignity is denied, the way lies open for totalitarianism and other forms of despotism, in which naked power takes over, so that the interests of a particular person or group are imposed on the rest of society.

As the Pope goes on to explain (Centesimus Annus 46), authentic democracy is possible only on the basis of a rule of law and a correct conception of the human person. “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. . . . In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.”

But an objection still arises. People are not free unless they can determine their own form of government and participate in the making of their own laws. Thus it would seem that if they are not at liberty to deny the transcendent truth, they are not really free. On a purely political definition of freedom, we may concede that a people is free to institute slavery or to adopt a totalitarian form of government, but in so doing they damage or destroy their own freedom. An abiding freedom requires a consensus based on transcendent truth. Just as individuals forfeit their own freedom when they try to liberate themselves from moral norms, so the society surrenders its freedom if it fails to respect the personal dignity of its members.

The concept of public consensus is not always rightly understood. According to a widely prevalent view, it is simply a majority opinion, which may be based on fashion or emotion, or an ideology, based on the self-interest of a class. John Courtney Murray, in his masterful work We Hold These Truths, explains that according to the classical tradition of political thought, consensus is a very different thing: it is a doctrine or judgment that commands public agreement because of the merits of the arguments in its favor.

Public consensus, according to Murray, transcends sheer experience and expediency; it is basically a moral conception. Those who articulate it are the ones whom Thomas Aquinas called the “wise” (sapientes) and whom George Washington called “the wise and honest.” The ability to discern what laws and policies best safeguard the dignity and rights of the citizens depends upon a careful inquiry in which intelligence is tutored by experience and reflection and guided by an instinct for the right and the good. The reason of the wise and the good is a responsible reason, concerned with fidelity to moral principle, and matured through familiarity with the complexities of the developing human situation.

The consensus, therefore, must be articulated by those who excel in practical wisdom, but in order to be a real consensus it must also be accepted by the people. At the basis of the American experiment in ordered liberty, Murray explains, there are truths. “We the People” hold these truths and, showing “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” declare them in public documents. The American consensus consists not only in the general principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence but also in the more specific provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These provisions likewise embody truths, formulated by the wise and accepted by the people at large.

In the atmosphere of contemporary pluralism, there is a tendency to overlook the inviolable connection between freedom and truth, as though freedom implied a right to construct one’s own moral universe without accountability to any higher agency. Vaclav Havel speaks in this connection of a deep moral crisis in the post-totalitarian society:

A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.

Pope John Paul II, from a similar perspective, speaks of a “crisis of truth” (VS 32). All around us, says the Pope, the saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide for itself what is good and what is evil (VS 84). As he writes in Centesimus Annus (46):

Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends.

Democracy, as Murray insisted, is more than a political experiment. It is a spiritual and moral enterprise, depending for its success upon the virtue of the citizens. Political freedom is endangered if the institutions no longer serve the ends of virtue and if the people fail to discipline themselves. The crisis of society, therefore, is simply that of the individual writ large. Just as the freedom of the individual cannot stand without personal adherence to truth, so the free society cannot flourish without a virtuous citizenry, disposed to live out their identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters in a common humanity. The general consensus must be nourished not by disordered passion but by an inner sense of responsibility to a higher law, interpreted by the wise and honest. Because so many of us live according to purely pragmatic standards of pleasure, wealth, and power, we are in danger of losing the moral and spiritual foundations on which our freedom rests.

The contemporary crisis of freedom, therefore, is at root a crisis of truth. Lord Acton perceived this more than a century ago. John Courtney Murray reached similar conclusions on the basis of his study of the American political tradition. In our own day, John Paul II has clearly demonstrated the inseparable connection between freedom and truth. In the course of his long career, he has eloquently and forcefully proclaimed the principles that must underlie every free society, including the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., is author, most recently, of The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (Oxford University Press). A fully annotated version of this essay will be available in early fall from the Acton Institute (161 Ottawa Ave., N.W., Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503).

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