"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17b).

Freedom, faith, family and friendship: four pillars to ground our vision as a Church in a time of change. Recently, I shared a reflection with a group of pastors and parish life directors on these foundational principles for our stability and growth in the Diocese of Albany. In the months ahead, I will return to these themes in the light of concerns I am hearing from folks around the Diocese.

Uncertainty exists in the lives of many over the duration of key relationships - with a loved one, a job, a parish or a local priest. "Bishop, please don't close my church or take my pastor away," I often hear. Even among those who do not attend regularly, the Church has always been like an anchor, a constant in a sea of change that everyone expects will be there for us when we are in need. Yet some factors in our lives today seem to be contributing to a breakdown in the vitality and even viability of our once-vibrant church communities.

In our world today, we are often confronted with such an array of decisions that it is hard to know which product, path, place or person to settle on. We like to keep our options open. Our freedom seems at once so promising and yet destabilizing. Does anything last? Will there always be a better option than the one we opted for? This endless array of choices affects the stability of our relationships, even within our own faith.

Ups and downs
Freedom has both assets and liabilities. I reflect here on some of the benefits, challenges and consequences of our freedom without which, I would submit, we cannot really understand our own faith in a mature, adult way. They are just my thoughts; you might have others. If so, please share them with me.

The idea that freedom might be the universal, natural state of every human being occurred to thinking humanity only recently in its history. Freedom, of course, is a loaded word and the subject of much philosophical discourse. But even in common usage, we make distinctions between external and internal freedom.

On the one hand, we speak of freedom in the sense of individual sovereignty, or the absence of force or constraints from state or society. On the other hand, we understand freedom as the realm of the will, unfettered by fear, ignorance, madness, mind control - or various substances, legal or not, which lead to the slavery of addiction.

In both senses, we would probably agree that few people are absolutely free. But even a little freedom goes a long way, as any prisoner on a yard break would attest.

The institution of slavery has been practiced from time immemorial. It existed to a greater or lesser degree in all the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe and pre-Columbian America. It had been accepted and even sanctioned by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as other religions of the world.

Thoughts on slavery
Ancient Greece and Rome originated and developed theories of freedom that still influence us today, yet, paradoxically, both were slave societies. The great philosophers Plato and Aristotle pondered freedom extensively, yet assumed slavery to be a natural condition of at least some individuals. Many of our revered founders held slaves, including Thomas Jefferson, whose stirring words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," launched the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Not till the mid-19th century was slavery officially abolished in the United States, and its vestiges have lingered well into our lifetime. And although the 20th century may have produced many eloquent manuscripts and manifestos in defense of all kinds of freedoms, it also spun a horrific host of genocides - and closed its eyes to the Holocaust.

Though hardly hailed as a desirable condition, slavery is nowhere explicitly condemned in the Bible. The Pax Romana did give Christianity a respite after a bloody spate of state persecution, but religion itself would often become for centuries a rallying cry for war in the name of God - ironically, oppression in the name of liberation.

Well into the modern era, the idea of universal religious freedom itself seemed indefensible - a logical contradiction - within the domain of a faith with a moral claim to the truth. Error had no rights, and if one had no right to be wrong, then only the virtuous were entitled to freedom of expression and even of mind.

The age of the conquistadores (a graphic illustration of the dire consequences of this ideological mindset) remains an ongoing subject of debate among historians, politicians and activists, as the subjugation and domination of indigenous peoples was justified in the name of spreading the faith. Though there is evidence of some resistance by clerics - notably among the Dominicans, who argued that the natives of the New World were, after all, rational beings - for some 500 years, the apparent contradiction in the notion that the sword could impose a faith that requires free consent of the will was not widely detected.

Religious freedom
Then, quite unexpectedly, a great boulder was suddenly rolled away. From, of all sources, an American theologian named John Courtney Murray, a document on religious freedom addressed not only to the Church but the whole world was issued, based on principles he had been articulating for years.

"Dignitatis Humanae," the "Declaration on Religious Freedom" of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965, announced that it was the position of the Church that "the human person has the right to religious freedom," based on the very dignity of the person as known through the revealed Word of God and by reason itself.

This right, the declaration proclaimed, is to be recognized by constitutional law, thus becoming a civil right. In no way does religious freedom compromise the moral obligation to pursue the truth and to recognize it, in the words of the Council, "as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power."

But neither is it within the power of the state to force on the human conscience any religion or belief. Even the Church itself is to propose, not impose, the teachings of the faith it holds as authentic and true.

Religious freedom - or, as the document calls it, that freedom "which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God" - presupposes the free nature of every human person, even before he or she sets out on the path to seek and, hopefully, find the truth about God that everyone is invited to explore.

Not everyone, of course, accepts that the discovery of God is the ultimate consequence of the pursuit of truth. A devoted atheist or even a resigned agnostic might be annoyed or even take offense at the proposition of philosopher Edith Stein (now known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), that "who seeks the truth seeks God, whether he knows it or not."

Unrestrained, unconstrained
But the freedom of every human person to be free to seek the truth to which conscience impels him or her and to be free of both restraint and constraint in this pursuit, is itself a radical affirmation of the free nature of every human being.

To put it bluntly, no human being may be made a slave of the will or the manacles of another.

Any child of an Enlightenment that had inspired a wave of liberation movements for two centuries might retort, "What took you so long?" That's a slightly less polite way of saying, "What has religion to add to what we have already learned about human freedom 'on our own?'"

Though it well may be our natural state, it seems that freedom can and must be learned in the school of life experience. Yet for all our experience, has humanity learned so much since the Garden of Eden where we left Adam and Eve - perhaps not so removed from our contemporary selves as we might imagine?

Recall that both of them had just "discovered" their nakedness. How much more enlightened had they become, now that they knew they were naked - but were ashamed of it? God had put them in the garden and given them all that they needed, especially the gift of each other. There was no argument between the mind of man and the mind of God: "God saw everything he had made and, indeed, it was very good" (Gen. 2: 31). And they, too, experienced their otherness - most graphically characterized by their different sexuality - as fulfilling, delightful and good.

Adam and Eve At his general audience in Vatican City on Jan. 9, 1980, Pope John Paul II reflected: "That original nakedness, mutual and at the same time not weighed down by shame, expresses [the] interior freedom of man." He would go on to expound the gifts and consequences of human freedom in a remarkably creative way, proposing what he calls the "nuptial meaning of the human body" in all its sexually-charged revelation of the love of a God who is, in essence, a creative and giving Lover.

True freedom, then, lies in the giving of what has been given as a gift: who and what one really is - one's total self.

What did our dear parents, Adam and Eve, learn about their freedom after the Evil One had seduced them with the sole intent of making them slaves to his will? Rather than open their eyes to one another and all their wonderful human mystery, he uses - or, rather, abuses - them for his own purpose, debasing them even in their own and in one another's eyes.

Look at the consequences of this abuse of freedom: They are ashamed of themselves, of being seen as they are. They are restrained from being themselves. Their sexuality now becomes an obstacle, dividing instead of uniting them, in the procreative embrace of mutual love.

What does Adam do when God questions him about his peculiar behavior? (Note that Adam is trying to hide from God now with whom he had heretofore walked peacefully in the evening breeze.) He explains his reticence with an excuse, blaming his wife. She, in turn, blames the serpent ("The devil made me do it").

Freedom abused
We see not only the rift in the relationship of Adam and Eve with God, but its consequences on their own free love, which is no longer free. Of course, their children will suffer - and indeed the natural order itself will, as well. The ensuing chapters of Genesis document the inexorable human fall from grace in great detail: the banishment from the Garden, the murder of Abel, the devastating flood, the tower of Babel and all the other human and ecological catastrophes to which the abuse of freedom leads.

Yes, the abuse of freedom! For it is not enough for a human being just to be free. Freedom, Genesis teaches us, is a God-given gift, the unique possession of humans. But freedom must also be used and given as a gift, not as a means of acquiring power over others, including God or others in the name of God.

Earlier in the Genesis account, the Serpent had tempted Eve: "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of [the fruit of the tree] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5). The freedom to give is now twisted by the serpent into the "freedom" to get, in which humanity enters into a contest with God.

Freedom, the most distinctively human and humanizing of all gifts, becomes in human history a temptation to power and self-centeredness - just the opposite of what we need and are made for. The very gift that makes us most human and after which we most deeply yearn is the very cause of so much human pain and deterioration, for unless we use this freedom for our own good and the good of one another, we end up making one another slaves.

Only one who is radically capable of being free can also become a slave. One cannot lose something one does not have.

Here we go again
St. Paul picks up where Genesis leaves off, reminding us of what he calls "the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). Writing to the Romans, he affirms the struggles that our first parents and all of us face as stewards of, as he puts it, a creation that "was made subject to futility" (Rom. 8:20) through its "slavery to corruption" (Rom 8:21), which we indulge in whenever we repeat the bad example of Adam and Eve. "Adam" literally means "all men," and "Eve" is "all women" insofar as we ratify their detour from true freedom.

Is freedom really the ability to do whatever we want when we want it? That definition is as ancient as it is popular today, and is even assumed by many to describe what it is like to be king - or even God! The ability to do whatever I want when I want it - with no logic, no reason, no purpose or explanation, just a brute, even capricious act of the will.

The problem with this notion is that it reduces freedom only to a will to power, forgetting that it must also be virtue.

Pope Benedict XVI delivered an academic lecture at the University of Regensburg in 2006 that created quite a stir. He was raising certain questions about how we are to understand the transcendence of an all-powerful God without reducing His sovereignty to pure will.

Can and does God do anything He pleases when and where He wills, even if it be irrational and destructive or in contradiction to his very nature? Must God's sovereignty imply the freedom to do and command the unholy? Do genocide, rape, incest and plunder become virtues if God so wills? Does a war become holy if one is convinced God commands the annihilation of a race, a religious sect or an entire nation?

If God would will such carnage, regardless of the innocence or helplessness of the victims; if God can and does at will revoke the dignity with which He has endowed humanity because His utter transcendence must allow for His being irrational, violent and full of hatred if He so decides; then this "God," if it be God, is a God who can contradict Himself in the same way that Satan contradicts in the Garden of Eden everything God stands for.

A God of will?
Such a God could have willed that Satan destroy the creation He loves. Such a God who at once is and is not, who can be both good and evil, creative and destructive, is a God of pure will. And if freedom is understood as pure will, then human beings made free in the image and likeness of God would be free to kill and rape in God's name - and God be praised!

Some religious perspectives do indeed countenance such a God. But the God revealed by the Logos (the Incarnate Word) is clearly of a different nature and, taken as a whole, so is the image of God emerging from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Whatever formidable expressions of God's transcendent sovereignty may be tolerated by the teachings of other religions, there is no doubt that the text of the Gospel from St. Matthew, which introduces Christ's "Sermon on the Mount," is far removed from hatred, violence and vindictiveness.

The image of man, fashioned as it is on the image of a God of love and forgiveness, is the image of a humanity that is freed from its slavery to evil - and precisely because God is good, not evil. It is the pure in heart that will "see God" and the peacemakers who will be called "God's children."

Those who stayed for the whole sermon, after hearing a strong moral exhortation to rid the mind of even thoughts of murder, adultery and revenge and a challenge to love even their enemies, would then receive the summons to "[B]e perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48).

The nine "Beatitudes" in the Gospel have at times, perhaps tritely, been called the "BE-attitudes." In other words, "happy" or "blessed" ("beatitude" comes from the Latin "beati," which means "blessed") are those who live with the attitudes described in these verses.

Because they represent another list of exhortatory moral precepts, they have also been characterized as the "commandments" as Jesus taught and lived them. What they describe are the characteristics of those who live graced and love-filled lives. (Note that they are not necessarily qualities of a "charmed" or "temptation-free" life. But they are also the attributes of a person who will truly be "great in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:19)).

The Beatitudes speak of persons who mourn, who are persecuted, who are poor in spirit and so forth: people who endure and put up with hardships, humiliations and deprivations. All of them are, in essence, givers. The Beatitudes convey the attitudes of persons who live their lives as cups overflowing in loving service to others.

The good news, the message of hope to them, is that they will never be lonely or empty or in isolation from the fullness of God's abundant and fulfilling love. They are free - really free - because they are not enslaved by the vices of vindictiveness, mean-spiritedness, envy, hatred and selfishness.

The Beatitudes are an invitation to the human spirit that is capable of being free even under the yoke of any oppression that comes from outside and from within the human soul. In effect, freedom is not just or even primarily the absence of external, physical force or oppression - but a goodly, godly attitude, a beatified soul. The Beatitudes point the way toward making of human freedom not just a power to be wielded, but a virtue to be cultivated.

Religion and freedom
We come back to the somewhat irreverent question posed earlier: What does religion have to offer to what we already know about freedom?

That only begs the question: What do we really know about freedom unless we ponder the deepest mysteries of the human person whose heart is never content with just an absence of restraints? Freedom is certainly not just doing what we want whenever we want it. Were that the case, then Adam and Eve would never have been ashamed of their own nakedness or been "driven" to hide or afraid to own up to their own choice. Nor is freedom just the absence of external force, which is, more or less, about as far as legal definitions go.

Freedom is, our best religious traditions tell us, the air in which the soul breathes and from which it draws its most noble impulses, to do and live the good for oneself and one's neighbor as a God of infinite love and forgiveness does at every moment. To learn freedom, to cultivate it as virtue, is to enjoy what we are really made for: to be sons and daughters of a loving God, fashioned in His image and likeness.

Freedom is a way of living as if we were already in heaven.

A brief, more sober consideration might bring these theological and philosophical reflections into the more secular arena of the administration of justice - not that these disciplines have no contribution to offer here, either.

We have heard of a God of love and forgiveness and mercy. But what about God's justice? What about the need to right the world's wrongs - or, at least, to contain, if not penalize them? What might theological reflection have to say about those who abuse their own freedom and the freedom of others: people who break good things and mess up other people?

Unjust justice
Most religions - and Christianity is no exception - teach that God's justice demands some form of response to deliberate evil. In our legal systems, we speak of crime and punishment, of judgments and sentences, of fines and incarceration. In religion, we speak of hell - and we used to hear much more about it.

In fact, I would submit that one of the things that has complicated and increased the burdens on our legal systems is the failure of the fourth "R" today to reign in potential lawbreakers and civilize them with a decent moral education before they begin to do their offensive deeds. Very few of our contemporaries seem to harbor much fear of hell. Do we still believe in it? Does anyone go there?

The answer to the first question is, most probably, yes. We do believe there is a hell and we know of at least one occupant who was already there when Adam and Eve appeared on the scene.

Does anyone else go there? I came across a story recently involving child discipline. It may help us understand how God can be good and just while still allowing for the possibility of a soul's damnation, precisely because of that radical freedom which is so distinctive and defining of the dignity of each and every human person.

One way of affirming the defining character of human freedom is to recognize the necessity of hell! In a comforting passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I will not reject anyone who comes to me" (John 6:37). At first, this would seem to rule hell out - or so a young sixth-grader supposed. As his teacher explained, he concluded from this verse that everyone, then, must by God's design be going to heaven.

By God's design, yes - but not necessarily by man's, the teacher cautioned him. Every person has a free say in his or her own destiny. If you read the text carefully, it says that God will not reject anyone who comes to Him: in other words, you need to take the step of walking toward God. You have to make a free choice!

In "The Religious Sense," author Luigi Giussani writes, "If I were forced to reach my destiny, I would not be able to be happy....Human fulfillment would not be human, would not be fulfillment, if it were not free."

A child's view
To illustrate the point about human freedom, the teacher asked the student if and how his parents punished him when he did something bad. He replied that he would usually be sent to his room until further notice. "But," the child added, "sometimes when my father tells me I can come out, I stay in the room longer, just to show how angry I am."

The teacher asked him if he liked sitting alone in his room and the boy responded no, that he'd rather be out playing. "So," said the teacher, "you choose to go against your own happiness in order to show how angry you are!"

This is the image of hell - and a perfect illustration of freedom that is not freedom. I betray the happiness of my heart in order to affirm my anger - or pride, or jealousy, or my own ideas about how things should be, or to affirm anything other than the reality that springs not from me, but from God.

In the end, it is not God who puts me in heaven or in hell; it is my freedom that chooses. Heaven is an invitation that I am free to accept or reject. The way I use my freedom in this life will prepare me for the ultimate moment, when I will accept or reject salvation. I will decide whether to go to God and ask for salvation or instead to affirm myself.