Relationship between moral law and freedom

At the general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 27 July, after the Liturgy of the
Word the Holy Father offered the following reflections based on the reading from St Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verses 11b to 14.

"The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light" (Rom 13:12). The Redemption, the mystery that we wish to meditate upon and live in an extraordinary way during this Holy Year, has placed man in a new state of life, has interiorly transformed him. He therefore must cast off the "deeds of darkness", that is, he must "live honourably", walking in the light.

What is the light in which he who has been redeemed must walk? It is the law of God: law which Jesus came not to abolish, but to bring to its definitive fulfilment (cf. Mt 5:17).

When man hears mention of the moral law, he almost instinctively thinks of something that opposes his freedom and debases it. On the other hand, however, each one of us is fully at ease with the words of the Apostle, who writes, "My inner self agrees with the law of God" (Rom 7:22). There is a profound harmony between the truest part of ourselves and what the law of God commands us, even if, to use the Apostle's words again, "I see in my body's members another law at war with the law of my mind" (ibid., 23). The fruit of the Redemption is man's liberation from this dramatic situation and his being enabled to live honourably, as is worthy of a child of the light.

Law of God is law of my mind

2. Note: the Apostle calls the law of God "the law of my mind. The moral law is at one and the same time the law of God and the law of man. In order to understand this truth, we must constantly return into the depths of our heart to the first truth of the Creed: "I believe in God the Father... creator". God creates man, and man, like every creature, is sustained by God's Providence, since the Lord does not abandon any of the works of his creating hands. This means that he takes care of his creature, leading it—with strength and gentleness—to its proper end, in which it achieves the fulness of its being. God, in fact, is not envious of the happiness of his creatures, but wants them to live in full measure. Man too, or rather, man above all, is the object of Divine Providence: he is led by Divine Providence to his ultimate end, to communion with God and with other human persons in eternal life. In this communion man achieves the fulness of his personal being.

It is one and the same rain that makes the earth fruitful; it is one and the same light of the sun that generates life in nature. Nevertheless, neither the one nor the other prevents the variety of living beings: each of them grows according to its own species, even if the rain and the sun are the same for all of them. This is a pale image of the provident Wisdom of God: he leads each creature according to the way that is in keeping with the nature that is proper to each one. Man is subject to the Providence of God as man, that is, as an intelligent and free subject. As such, he is in a position to participate in the providential plan, discovering its essential lines inscribed in his human being itself. This creative plan of God's, insofar as it is known and shared in by man, is what we call moral law. The moral law is therefore the expression of the requirements of the human person, who has been thought and willed by the creative Wisdom of God, as destined for communion with him.

Moral law guarantees freedom

3. This law is the law of man ("the law of my mind", the Apostle says), a law, that is, which is proper to man: only man is subject to the moral law, and herein lies his true dignity. Only man, in fact, insofar as he is a personal subject—intelligent and free—is a sharer in God's Providence, is a conscious associate with Creative Wisdom. The code of this alliance is not written primarily in books, but in the mind of man ("the law of my mind"), namely, in that part that makes him the "image and likeness of God".

"My brothers", says the Apostle Paul, "you have been called to live in freedom—but not a freedom that gives free rein to the flesh. Out of love, place yourselves at one another's service... If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces take care! You will end up in mutual destruction" (Gal 5:13 and 15).

Freedom, lived as a power released from the moral law, is revealed as a power destructive of man: of himself and of others. "Take care! You will end up in mutual destruction", the Apostle warns us. This is the final result of exercising freedom contrary to the moral law: mutual destruction. Rather than opposing freedom, therefore, the moral law is what guarantees freedom, what makes it true freedom and not a mask of freedom: the power to fulfil one's personal being according to truth.

This subordination of freedom to the truth of the moral law must not, however, be reduced only to the intentions of our actions. It is not enough to have the intention to act rightly for our action to be objectively right, that is, in conformity with the moral law. One can act with the intention of fulfilling himself and of having others grow in humanity: but the intention is not enough because in reality our person and that of others is recognized in action. The truth expressed by the moral law is the truth of being, as thought and willed not by us, but by God who created us. The moral law is the law of man because it is the law of God.

The Redemption, fully restoring man to his truth and to his freedom, gives him back his full dignity as a person. The Redemption thus rebuilds the covenant of the human person with creative Wisdom.

L'Osservatore Romano August 1, 1983
Reprinted with permission