As a teenager, I rebelled against a lot of things -- parents, political and religious structures, and, above all, my high school. My rebellion found many outlets, but it really had only one root -- a strong sense of personal autonomy. Nobody was going to tell me what to do. I wanted to be free.
I saw the rules and expectations in society as social conventions designed to impose conformity on society's unquestioning sheep. An authentic person, in my view, would be a non-conformist who refused to be ruled by what society expected of him.
Although some of my views and antics from those years are embarrassing in retrospect, I don't see teenage rebellion as a totally bad thing. Some level of rebellion may be necessary if one is going to move beyond a slavish adherence to social conventions to moral maturity. Part of being morally mature is seeing convention as convention and deciding, in the light of one's commitments and responsibilities, which conventions one will jettison and which one will make one's own.
One point where I began to change my views was when I was confronted with the abortion issue. Many of my friends saw laws against abortion as just another social convention which oppressed people by preventing them from doing as they pleased. To me, it was obvious that a doctor killing a baby in the womb was doing the same thing as U.S. soldiers killing peasants in South Vietnam. It is a moral truth, not an arbitrary social convention, that killing people is wrong.
This realization that there are moral truths which transcend social norms had a profound effect on me. It gave me a framework so that eventually I could begin to understand what St. Paul was talking about when he wrote, "You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another" (Galatians 5:13).
If freedom only means freedom from external constraints then it is masochistic to talk, as St. Paul does, about using your freedom to become a slave. Paul sounds like someone who wants to escape from freedom.
In an earlier article, I argued that people have the ability to make moral choices. Heredity and environment affect us deeply, but they do not cause our moral decisions. We do. We can use our freedom to make choices that are good or bad. Our bad choices are the result of our being what Paul calls "slaves to sin" (Romans 6:17). Good choices stem from a different sort of "slavery" -- a fidelity to God and to the needs of others.
The second slavery is really "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). While the assertion of personal autonomy is often in opposition to moral law, the freedom of the children of God is never contrary to morality. By acting in a morally responsible manner, we are freed from our own base desires and live in the light of truth.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The more one does good, the freer one becomes. . . . The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to 'the slavery of sin'" (no. 1733). "The more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials" (no. 1742).
The more we love God, the less we are controlled by sin. We nurture this love which gives freedom through prayer, a virtuous life, self-sacrifice and learning about God. We are not freed from external constraint. Sometimes it's just the opposite -- loving God spurs us to take on new responsibilities which inhibit our ability to do our own thing.
Psalm 1 says, "Happy are those . . . (whose) delight is in the law of the Lord. . . . They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season. . . . The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away."
By one way of looking at it, the chaff is free while the trees are tied down. But there is no blessing in being blown to and fro by the ever-changing winds of fashion and desire. Happiness comes from being planted next to the waters of truth. These waters give their own freedom, a freedom which enables the person to flourish and bear fruit.
Thirty years after my youthful rebelliousness, I am still stubborn, willful and unhappy when someone tries to lead me where I would rather not go. The difference is that I now see my willfulness as something to struggle against rather than a superior human achievement. Real life comes not from putting oneself above morality but from the freedom which comes from being a child ever-dependent on the guidance given by his loving Father.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.