The Fourth of July in Nebraska is an extraordinary celebration. In every town and city, families and neighborhoods join together to barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs, to spend time in recreation together, and to light off hundreds of fireworks and sparklers.
In Nebraska, fireworks ring out throughout the night, to help us commemorate the independence of our nation, declared by our Founding Fathers now 240 years ago, on July 4, 1776.
We celebrate what Abraham Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” which was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The story of America’s independence is a story of freedom for all. Our annual celebration is a reminder of the great freedoms that God has given us. And as we thank God for the liberty he has given us, it seems to me that there are two important things that Catholics should remember about the deepest meaning of our freedom.
The first is that our freedom is a natural right; given to us by God, and not given to us by an entity of government or society. America’s founding recognized that God created man to be a free creature; a reality that must always be respected by governments. Today, it seems, government is often in danger of forgetting that our freedom comes from God.
When the government redefines the natural right of marriage and family, or seeks to eradicate our right to religious freedom and the freedom of our conscience, it redefines human rights; it acts as if the government is the source of our rights, and is therefore free to redefine them according to its own judgment. Pope Leo XIII taught that our natural rights “cannot… be prohibited by the state.” In fact, he taught that “the state is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them.” When the state undermines the rights of its citizens, he taught, “it contradicts the very principle of its own existence.”
Each of us must be zealous to remind our leaders that freedom does not come from the government, and that legislators, judges, governors, and presidents, must always respect and promote the freedom God has given us.
The second thing to remember is that our freedoms exist for a reason. Freedom is not the same as license. Freedom does not mean that we can do whatever we want; that we can live however we prefer, or make money in every possible way, or ignore the obligations we have to one another, and to God. Freedom is the opportunity, and obligation, to live as God calls us, and as he made us; for the well-being of others and for ourselves, and as His servants, in unity with one another, and in unity with the Most Holy Trinity. The truest use of our freedom, its truest expression, comes in loving God, and in respecting, promoting, and supporting the beauty and dignity of others.
God is a communion of freedom: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit love one another in true and authentic personal freedom. We are given freedom because we are made in the image of God. The purpose of that freedom, of our human and natural rights, is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love the Lord our God, “with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.”
As citizens, God calls us to build a society that supports the common good: the needs, opportunities, and rights of all people. We are called to build a society that respects the human right to life, religious liberty, to economic opportunity, to justice, and peace, and discipleship. Pope St. John Paul II taught that citizens are called to build a society committed to “building up a more decent life” for each person, and to “concretely enhancing every individual’s dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God’s call.” The aim of a just society, Pope St. John Paul II taught, “is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge.”
Our freedom is the obligation to support, develop, and enhance our societies and communities for true pursuit of the common good. Our freedom is the duty to build just and loving societies, which help each person to live in the image of God, by knowing, serving, and following Him.
The Church is called to teach the truth about human dignity, human rights, and true freedom. And every single one of us is called to use our freedom, in every area of our life, to promote the common good. Pope St. John Paul II taught that “The Kingdom of God, being in the world without being of the world, throws light on the order of human society, while the power of grace penetrates that order and gives it life. In this way, the requirements of a society worthy of man are better perceived, deviations are corrected, the courage to work for what is good is reinforced. In union with all people of good will, Christians, especially the laity, are called to this task of imbuing human realities with the Gospel.”
Freedom is a grace, as well as an obligation. In the United States, we have the opportunity to exercise our freedom, for the sake of the common good, in accord with the truth of the Gospel. As we continue to celebrate our freedom, let us each commit to protecting our natural rights, and to exercising them for the sake of our fellow men and women, each created free, in the image of the Most Holy Trinity.