RE ATAR Unit 4: the concept of freedom from a religious perspective

Catholic Perspective


Revelation enlightens human reason by filling in the gaps in our understanding of who God is, who we are, and what are we doing here on earth. 


What is the nature of God: Jesus revealed the nature of God as a Trinity or a communion of love. As St John the Evangelist proclaimed “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The nature of God is the relationship of self-giving Persons: the Father who gives/loves, the Son who receives/the beloved, and the Holy Spirit who is the gift that is given/love itself. Love, as defined by Pope John Paul II, is the gift of self or to will the good of another. Thus through revelation we are able to understand why we are made and for what purpose. "It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear" (GS, 22)  


What is the nature of humanity & what is the purpose of freedom: Humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). As spiritual beings, humans are geared to love. Just as a tree must grow, an animal must eat, we must learn to love, for it is the image of love that we are formed and yearns to be perfected. Love is the meaning of life; it is the only thing that makes life meaningful. A person ‘cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self’ (GS 24). And thus: ‘Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it’ (Redemptor hominis 10). We are called to love. Love is something that can only be given freely, it can never be forced or programmed into us. Freedom is the exercise of our free wills to achieve our fulfilment. Freedom exists for the sake of love, not the other way around, freedom is not an absolute. Being free, we have responsibilities. Because we exists in relation to others, we have obligations towards them, as they do us. This is the basis of human rights. Our obligation towards others flows from the love that constitutes our beings. 


What are we doing here: Being made in the image of the Trinity, humans exist in communion with others. The family best mirrors the nature of God with a father who loves, a wife who is the beloved and a child as the fruit of their love. The family is described as a school of love since it is where love is normally first revealed to us. Beyond the family, humans are called to love others or be a gift of themselves by serving and doing good to others. The nature of how we are made, to do good to others is the best way of doing good for ourselves. St John Paul II said that love is the ‘fundamental and innate vocation of every human being’ (Familiaris Consortio 11). In order to fulfil ourselves we must corporate and work together to create something good for all of us. This is the common good - a society that we all enjoy living in - defined as "the sum total of social conditions which enable individuals, families and organisations to achieve their own fulfilment more fully and easily." (GS 26, 74; CCC 1877-1948) 


Deep in our conscience, we recognise the universal experience of good and evil. We also discern the prevalence of evil as ‘there is something wrong/not right with the way we are and live'. Through revelation, the story of Original Sin - not only explains why human nature is out of harmony with God and why we are in constant conflict with ourselves, but reveals to humanity that at the root of all this suffering lays the misuse of free will. Revelation also tells us that we are not locked into a trap, but that God took on human nature, in the person of Jesus to heal the damage done by original sin - giving us a choice for our destiny - we have a choice to choose. Fallen humanity, have a tendency to be selfish and to accumulate power. But love, by contrast, is a process of setting free, of creating space for the other. To be made in the image of God is also to have freedom. We have been given freedom for a purpose, and that purpose is so that we may be capable of love.  


The culture of life, promoted by the Catholic Church, is a vision of the human person which integrates love and human happiness; the truths of scripture as well as the truths discovered empirically in human science. When God revelled himself and invited humanity into an ever deeper relationship with Him, God reveals to us the nature of God, truth and "reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling" (GS 22).  

Natural Law

Freedom is part of Natural Law because it is corresponds with our human experience; rooted deep in the human conscience, it is expressed throughout human history, literature and art as a fundamental right. According to the Natural Law tradition, everything has a function and purpose (the ultimate philosophical question is what is the end goal?). This tradition teaches that human beings have a purpose which is given to them by their nature, and that they can only fulfil themselves and become truly happy by attaining that goal. Freedom is a power to determine what kind of person we become. True human freedom is the freedom ‘for’ something; the ability to choose the best possible good. There is an emphasis on the moral virtues, which defines our character, and on the exercise of personal responsibility by each individual as the expression of a unique personality. Freedom according to the Natural Law tradition is the empowerment to be good, and thus to do the right thing. 

Thomas Aquinas

The short version  of Thomas Aquinas in just 5 easy points:

  1. God designed natural law so that humans participate in God’s eternal law. As rational creatures we can determine and seek that which is good and avoid that which is evil.
  2. According to Thomas Aquinas, the first precept of natural law is “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” Every subsequent moral precept is based on this “first precept of natural law.” (By the way, you should memorize the underlined quote and never forget it. It is very useful and it will strengthen your understanding of natural law).
  3. The #1 mistake people make about natural law is that they assume that natural law is secular and non-religious. Not true according to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Saint Thomas teaches that the virtue of religion, sacrifice, holidays, and even a natural priesthood pertains to the natural law. Moreover, avoiding idols and worshipping the Creator are derived precepts of the natural law.
  4. Natural law is common to all the nations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, animist…natural law applies to you. This means that the testimony of natural law leads one to have a true religion. Thomas Aquinas would say that natural law in the heart of man would argue against idolatry, polytheism, atheism, etc. Hence, the idolatry of, say, Hinduism is banned under natural law.
  5. Natural law is insufficient for human beatitude and salvation. Thomas Aquinas is really clear about this. He teaches that natural law is not enough. A human person can never erase natural law from his heart, but he can mitigate its force in his life. And even if a human person followed natural law perfectly, he would not attain to Heaven, because sanctifying grace is needed to enter the Beatific Vision (vision of God). So then, God gave “Divine Law” in the form of the Old Testament but perfectly in the New Testament. The New Law of the New Testament is really the Holy Spirit who communicates mercy, grace, and love to our souls and body. Hence, the human person after Adam and Eve needs Divine Law to perfect what natural law cannot do.

Religious Freedom

A Catholic understanding of freedom is the liberation from the slavery of sin. In order to be truly free from sin and vices, a Christian needs to submit to God’s laws, natural law, the beatitudes and to live a life of Charity (the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves, for the love of God (CCC1131)). This freedom from is achieved by participating in the Paschal Mystery (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) through the sacraments. By partaking in the sacraments of initiation and healing, the believer finds reconciliation/healing/strength to overcome temptations. Through this means, the Christian grow in freedom and begin to discover the true ideals of their vocation (their personal meaning and purpose in their lives) by following God’s Will. 

A Christian pursuit for freedom is often characterised by the desire to do God’s will and not their own, thus requiring a Christian discernment. Discernment is “the ability to recognise the actual will of the Lord in our lives” (Christifideles Laici 58) True freedom is expressed by imitating Christ, following God’s Law (natural & Divine). One acquires true freedom when they join their will to God’s Will for the purpose of which is intended for them on earth. 

A personal ideal is a person’s standard by which they strive to live by. A personal ideal is developed by their beliefs and values. A person’s ideals for freedom are often inspired by the influences of religion or media in which they strive to emulate and live out. While secular ideals are often expressed as individualistic, self-fulfilment and self-determination; Christian ideals are expressed in self-giving, sacrifice, service and something that is worth living or dying for. This ideal is expressed in Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Self-giving is synonymous with Christlike love or Christian charity. The Catholic Church encourages Christians to pray, experience God’s presence and especially to dedicate Sundays to God.