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(LifeSiteNews) — In the modern world, men and women demand freedom. 

Often these demands are just.   

We demand the freedom to speak to the truth without being censored, to assemble as citizens to pursue our lawful business, to maintain normal social relations with our family and friends, and so on.  

Many of these freedoms have been systematically violated by our governments, especially since 2020, and many of us have fiercely defended them.  

However, we also hear people defend freedoms that we are not willing to accept: the freedom to kill an unborn baby, the freedom to choose euthanasia, the freedom to mutilate one’s own body, the freedom to disseminate pornography, and many others.   

We are willing to defend, even at the risk of our life, one set of freedoms, but we are equally determined to oppose the other kind. 

This can leave us open to accusations of hypocrisy from our opponents, and sometimes we may find it difficult to explain why some acts must be defended, while others must be prohibited.  

And it is often the case that those who allied with us on crucial issues cannot see their way to support us on issues that we regard as equally vital.  

There are even people who regard the Catholic Church as an enemy of freedom because of her strong prohibition of certain acts.  

This arises, as Pope Leo XIII taught, because “having a false and absurd notion as to what liberty is, either they pervert the very idea of freedom, or they extend it at their pleasure to many things in respect of which man cannot rightly be regarded as free.”[1]

However, in order to understand our own positions, and to be able to convincingly defend them, we need to understand the true nature of human freedom.   

We can only distinguish genuine freedom from slavery that masquerades as liberty, when we understand what freedom really is.  

Intention of this series  

In this short series of articles, we will explore the true nature of human liberty, as presented in the encyclical letter “On the Nature of Human Liberty,” which was promulgated by Pope Leo XIII on June 20, 1888.  

Pope Leo XIII regarded liberty as “the highest of natural endowments” and as a “great gift of nature” that “has ever been, and always will be, deservingly cherished by the Catholic Church.”[2]  

The pope wrote his great encyclical in order to explain and defend the true nature of this liberty – psychological, moral, and social – from the modern errors that threatened it. These are the errors that still threaten it today, and to an even greater extent.   

The Supreme Pontiff explained that the Catholic Church, in treating of “the so-called modern liberties,” always “distinguished between their good and evil elements.”[3] He explained that “whatsoever is good in those liberties is as ancient as truth itself” and that “the Church has always most willingly approved and practiced that good.”[4]  

However, the Church rejected the distorted idea of liberty that was dominant in the Western world by the end of the nineteenth century, because “whatsoever has been added as new is, to tell the plain truth, of a vitiated kind, the fruit of the disorders of the age, and of an insatiate longing after novelties.”[5]   

Therefore, he felt it necessary “for the sake of common good” to write an encyclical which would explain the true nature of liberty.[6]  

What is liberty?  

“Liberty,” wrote the Vicar of Christ, “confers on man this dignity – that he is “in the hand of his counsel” [Eccl 15:14] and has power over his actions. But the manner in which such dignity is exercised is of the greatest moment, inasmuch as on the use that is made of liberty the highest good and the greatest evil alike depend.”[7]    

He continued: 

Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end. Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things; and, in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen.[8]

The Supreme Pontiff thus introduces a crucial problem concerning human freedom.   

On the one hand, man is free to do whatsoever he has the power do. Yet, on the other hand, our experience tells us that many human actions have negative consequences, both for the person committing the act, and for others in society.  

Man is free to do whatever he wishes, and yet the use of this power seems incompatible with the freedom of others, and, ultimately, of his own.   

To resolve this paradox, the Holy Father introduces us to the distinction between natural liberty and moral liberty.  

Natural liberty   

Natural liberty, says Leo XIII, is “the fountainhead from which liberty of whatsoever kind flows.”[9]  

This natural liberty is possessed by man alone, because only man has a rational nature.   

Animals are not free to choose their own actions. Whatever they do is determined by their instinctive responses to the data provided by their senses.  

A mouse will smell the presence of food, and instinctively move towards it, unless some other instinct, such as flight, is triggered by other sensory data, such as the smell of a cat or the sound of footsteps.   

The mouse’s instincts and sensory faculties are ordered towards attaining good and avoiding evil, but the mouse is not free to choose between the different means of attaining those ends. It cannot weigh up the pros and cons of advancing towards the food versus fleeing to safety. Its instincts will simply direct it to one or the other.  

Man on the other hand does have freedom of choice.  

Imagine a starving man who can see a table laden with food on the far bank of a fast-flowing river. This river can only be crossed by slippery stones, at some distance apart from each other, which are partly submerged by the rapidly moving water.    

The man has acquired knowledge, through the use of his senses, both of the presence of the food, and of the danger posed by the river, and he is free to choose how he acts in response to this data.   

He is free to attempt to cross the stones, which he may do if judges the threat of starvation to be greater than the danger posed by the river. Alternatively, he may judge that continuing along the riverbank, in search of other sources of food, is more prudent than risking his life in the crossing.  

Whatever he chooses, he is free in a way that an animal is not.  

Hence Leo XIII can state:  

The unanimous consent and judgment of men… recognizes this natural liberty in those only who are endowed with intelligence or reason; and it is by his use of this that man is rightly regarded as responsible for his actions. For, while other animate creatures follow their senses, seeking good and avoiding evil only by instinct, man has reason to guide him in each and every act of his life.[10]

The good that man seeks is happiness, which is that which all men necessarily desire.[11] Perfect happiness is only found in the beatific vision of God, which is man’s final end. 

However, there are many created goods in this world which we are also to use and enjoy, in a way which is ordered towards our final end. As St. Ignatius of Loyola writes in the Spiritual Exercises:  

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.  

Hence, man is to make use of them in so far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in so far as they proved a hindrance to him.[12] 

None of these created goods are necessary, either in themselves or for us. We are free to choose from among these contingent goods as we judge best serves the attainment our final end.   

Hence Leo XIII writes: 

Reason sees that whatever things that are held to be good upon earth may exist or may not, and discerning that none of them are of necessity for us, it leaves the will free to choose what it pleases.[13]

Man is able, says the Supreme Pontiff, to “judge of this contingency” only because “he has a soul that is simple, spiritual, and intellectual.”[14]  

The rational soul “is not produced by matter, and does not depend on matter for its existence.”[15] Rather the human soul is:  

… created immediately by God, and, far surpassing the condition of things material, has a life and action of its own so that, knowing the unchangeable and necessary reasons of what is true and good, it sees that no particular kind of good is necessary to us.[16] 

It is because our souls are simple, spiritual, and intellectual, that we are not bound by instinct and sensation – as other animals are – but are free to choose which goods to pursue.  

This is why the pope concludes: 

When, therefore, it is established that man’s soul is immortal and endowed with reason and not bound up with things material, the foundation of natural liberty is at once most firmly laid.[17] 

The Catholic Church, in asserting the immortality and rationality of the human soul, becomes the greatest champion of the freedom of the human being, as Leo XIII makes clear: 

As the Catholic Church declares in the strongest terms the simplicity, spirituality, and immortality of the soul, so with unequalled constancy and publicity she ever also asserts its freedom.  

These truths she has always taught, and has sustained them as a dogma of faith, and whensoever heretics or innovators have attacked the liberty of man, the Church has defended it and protected this noble possession from destruction.   

History bears witness to the energy with which she met the fury of the Manichaeans and others like them; and the earnestness with which in later years she defended human liberty at the Council of Trent, and against the followers of Jansenius, is known to all.   

At no time, and in no place, has she held truce with fatalism.[18] 

Having established the liberty of the human soul, the Vicar of Christ continues:   

Liberty, then, as We have said, belongs only to those who have the gift of reason or intelligence. Considered as to its nature, it is the faculty of choosing means fitted for the end proposed, for he is master of his actions who can choose one thing out of many.  

Now, since everything chosen as a means is viewed as good or useful, and since good, as such, is the proper object of our desire, it follows that freedom of choice is a property of the will, or, rather, is identical with the will in so far as it has in its action the faculty of choice.[19]

Liberty is the power to choose the means by which we will attain our end. Everything we choose is either a good or a means of attaining a good. Something which is a means of attaining a good is called useful. 

To return to the example we used above, the food on the other side of the river is good. Jumping across the slippery stones will not be viewed as a good – it is dangerous. But it may be viewed as a useful means of attaining the good of nourishment by the food.   

The faculty with which we make this choice is the will. 

However, the will cannot choose, unless it first knows. That is, only after the intellect has knowledge of the good or useful can the will exercise its freedom of choice. 

For example, only after the intellect has knowledge of the food, or of the dangerous stones, can the will choose how to act. The range of choice open to the will is therefore limited by the knowledge possessed by the intellect.  

Hence the pope writes:  

But the will cannot proceed to act until it is enlightened by the knowledge possessed by the intellect. In other words, the good wished by the will is necessarily good in so far as it is known by the intellect; and this the more, because in all voluntary acts choice is subsequent to a judgment upon the truth of the good presented, declaring to which good preference should be given.[20]

In other words, it is only after the intellect has judged something to be good, that the will is able to choose it. The will always chooses between goods presented to it by the intellect.   

In our example, both the food, and avoiding the danger of the river crossing, are good. The will is free to choose between them. 

It follows from this that:  

No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will. The end, or object, both of the rational will and of its liberty is that good only which is in conformity with reason.[21] 

The claim that the will only chooses the good in conformity with reason might, on the face of it, seem to be at odds with our experience that in actual fact, human beings often make unreasonable, and even evil, choices. 

Leo XIII answers this objection as follows:  

Since, however, both these faculties are imperfect, it is possible, as is often seen, that the reason should propose something which is not really good, but which has the appearance of good, and that the will should choose accordingly.[22]

Thus, the possibility of the misuse of our natural liberty arises from the imperfection of our faculties. 

This is why the good angels, and the elect in heaven, are no longer capable of sin. They have the direct vision of God – the Supreme Good – and thus they could not possibly choose to reject Him .  

However, in the absence of the beatific vision of the Supreme Being, even angelic intellects can choose evil, under the appearance of good. Satan’s sin was pride; he refused to accept the place that God had allotted him in the supernatural order. He chose instead the good of his own natural being, rather than conforming to the higher good of God’s designs. 

All sin, whether human or angelic, is the choice by the will of something which is presented as a good, but in such a way as violates a higher good.  

For example, a man may desire to possess a particular object which the intellect presents as a good, but if he chooses to obtain the good by stealing it from someone else, he has violated the moral order and committed sin.   

The will was able to choose between different means of obtaining the good, and by choosing a means contrary to reason he has committed sin. The object, however, remains good.   

It should be obvious that by “good” here we do not mean “morally good.” For example, sensible pleasures are good in and of themselves, but they can be pursued in a way which is contrary to the moral order, and thus sinful. Even in the most heinous sins, the person acts in order to obtain something presented to their will under the appearance of a good.   

It is clear then that men have the natural liberty to choose things under the appearance of good, by means of actions which are not morally good.    

Does this mean that man can commit evil and still be truly free?  

The Church answers this question in the negative: 

For, as the possibility of error, and actual error, are defects of the mind and attest its imperfection, so the pursuit of what has a false appearance of good, though a proof of our freedom, just as a disease is a proof of our vitality, implies defect in human liberty.[23]

In other words, while our ability to sin is proof that our will is free, and that we possess natural liberty, it also implies a defect in liberty understood more broadly.  

The pope explains: 

The will also, simply because of its dependence on the reason, no sooner desires anything contrary thereto than it abuses its freedom of choice and corrupts its very essence.   

He means that, when the will chooses to act against the order of reason, it is violating its own nature. It has been led astray by the bad judgement of the intellect and has in that sense been “enslaved” or “captured” by falsehood. A rational being that was truly free would never violate its own nature in this way. Hence:  

[T]he infinitely perfect God, although supremely free, because of the supremacy of His intellect and of His essential goodness, nevertheless cannot choose evil; neither can the angels and saints, who enjoy the beatific vision.  

God is not less free because of his incapacity to choose evil. He cannot choose evil, because he cannot be deceived.  

The pope continued: 

St. Augustine and others urged most admirably against the Pelagians that, if the possibility of deflection from good belonged to the essence or perfection of liberty, then God, Jesus Christ, and the angels and saints, who have not this power, would have no liberty at all, or would have less liberty than man has in his state of pilgrimage and imperfection.   

The angels and the saints are truly free. They will, for all eternity, freely choose the good. However, during our earthly pilgrimage, we are in danger of being taken captive by sin, due to the imperfection of our intellect and will.

As Our Lord Jesus Christ stated clearly: “Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.” (Jn 8:34)  

And St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on these words, writes: 

[M]an is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason,[and] is moved by another… Therefore, “whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.”[24]

To summarize: 

  1. When man freely chooses to act in accordance with his own rational nature, he is truly free 
  2. When man chooses to act in a manner contrary to his own rational nature, something other than himself is moving him to act in this way, thus he is a slave to that thing which causes him to violate his own nature. 

Natural liberty is therefore compatible with moral slavery.    

How then is man to possess moral liberty?

We will examine that question in the next article. 


1 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 1.
2 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 1.
3 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 1.
4 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 2.
5, 6 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 2.
7, 8 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 1.
9 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 3.
10 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 3.
11 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.I q.5 a.8.
12 St. Ignatius LoyalaSpiritual Exercises, (St. Joseph de Clairval Abbey edition), p26.
13, 14, 15, 16, 17 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 3.
18 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 4.
19 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 5.
20 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 5.
21 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 5.
22 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 6.
23 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 6.
24 Leo XIII, Libertas, No. 6.