Freedom is the ability to desire and choose the good. Freedom is there for the sake of love, and it is meant to bless us with beauty, goodness, and truth. This kind of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is part of our American Story, and yet, many can no longer see or understand this. This kind of happiness was what our founding fathers had in mind, and it wasn’t just focused on mere political freedom or property rights. If we study our nation’s founding documents, we will find the Gospel. It’s there if we allow God to give us the eyes to see it. The words of our Declaration can be reclaimed, untwisted, and renewed for the sake of our families and future generations. St. Joseph is our Patron of course, and it’s that kind of paternal fatherhood that we must imitate if we wish to pass on a renewed American ideal to our children. As John Quincy Adams, one of our founding fathers, once wrote: “Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”
When I’m in the classroom with young men, I challenge them to reconsider their understanding of freedom. It’s so easy to think of freedom in a one-sided way as if freedom is nothing but license. “Doing whatever you want.” But if we take that idea to its natural conclusion, what happens when we just do whatever we want? Think of a college student who does nothing but whatever he or she wants—going to parties, skipping class, drinking, having sex with whoever will agree in the moment.
Technically, they haven’t done anything illegal in terms of the government, so the question is–if they keep up this behavior of doing whatever they want–will they always be free? “No” is the general response I always get from students. Why? Because of addiction.
If we are enslaved to our desires and can’t say ‘no’ to something, what does our ‘yes’ even mean? Are we truly free? Of course not! Freedom isn’t just “doing whatever you want”. Freedom is the ability to desire and choose the good. It’s being able to do what we should. Better yet, it’s being able to do what we really want to do deep down and not just what we think we want to do in the moment. Have you ever chosen something you thought you wanted in the moment, and it did not have the result you expected?
Sure! In one way or another, we’ve all made bad choices. Think of being a kid and seeing a big tub of ice cream in the freezer. It’s tempting. It looks so good. It tastes good going down, but oh wait…you’re lactose intolerant and will spend the next couple of days in the bathroom! That’s what I mean. Sometimes we don’t always choose things that are in our best interest, and when a father tells his children not to play in the dark alley or not to eat sweets before dinner, it’s not because he doesn’t love his child. In fact, it’s precisely because he does love that he and his wife set healthy boundaries together for their children so they can truly flourish.
It’s the same with God. He doesn’t give us freedom for the sake of freedom by itself, of just making choices at random based on temporary feelings or experiences. He gives us freedom for the sake of making the right choice, the best choice, of wanting and choosing what’s best for us and others. In other words, God the Father gives us freedom for the sake of love. Boundaries are just the guardrails keeping us stable and safe, a necessary part of the experience!
Love is willing the good of another, of wanting the best for someone else. Sometimes that’s tough love by wanting and choosing something that doesn’t feel good or look good in the moment, but is actually the very best possible responsible choice for us in the long run. This extends to relationships between family, friends, dating, and marriage. It is what each of us should seek for all those we encounter, as best as we can encourage. After all, we are on the same planet, and we share a common humanity. Cultures, languages, ethnicities, oceans, and worldviews may separate us, but no human being can escape the reality of tangible, finite existence and the interdependence we have to one another for human flourishing.
No man is an island. St. Joseph knew this well. He knew that we are not made to live in collective isolation or “independence” from one another, and he relied on his wife Mary each day. Such holiness will show us the truth that any form of tyranny, dictatorships, and governmental evil is not a product of our original human nature, but rather of the forces of darkness which tempt individual human beings to unite in a fallen spirit of rebellion, manipulation, power, and pride. Immanuel Kant, the famous philosopher once spoke of fatherhood when it came to forms of government as “the greatest despotism imaginable.” In Michael Waldstein’s introduction to JPII’s Theology of the Body, he writes, “[Kant] insists emphatically that the purpose of government is not the happiness of its citizens, but only the protection of their rights.” (TOB, Introduction, 52)
Kant himself says as much. “If a government is built on the principles of benevolence similar to that of a father towards his children, that is, a paternal government…in which subjects are treated like children who have not yet come of age & who cannot distinguish what is truly beneficial from what is harmful for them, [a government] furthermore, in which subjects are forced to be passive, in order to await the judgment of the head of state, how they should be happy, & his sheer benevolence, whether he actually wills them to be so: this is the greatest despotism imaginable (that is, a constitution that annuls the entire freedom of subjects and leaves them without any rights.) Not a paternal, but a patriotic government…is the only government conceivable for human beings who are capable of rights.” (Kant, retrieved from Waldsteins Intro to TOB, 53)
Paternal refers to fatherhood certainly, but Kant is relating paternity to an abusive, unfaithful, belittling, neglectful, arrogant father. He says governments should be patriotic instead, giving citizens absolute autonomous independence, which is oddly where our American principles seem to derive. Jefferson writes:
“When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government.” (Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence)
He goes on to decry the many evils of King George III and his dictatorship which perfectly illustrates an abusive or overbearing “father-figure”. He says further, “A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” What Jefferson is describing seems to be what Kant is describing, and yet the terminology Kant uses is wrong.
This is not the definition of a paternal government. It is rather the definition of a slave state, and yet, by casting “paternity” in this negative light, it throws doubt on God the Father in the name of some autonomous, independent, lonely, infinite pursuit of “happiness”. Seeking such a lifestyle of independence as our American Story began is almost like the reaction of a child raised in an abusive household attempting to rebel and find oneself again. “A slave’s heart can be his own; a true son’s heart belongs to his father” Waldstein says (53), but if we experience only an abusive father, our ability to belong to or trust our founding fathers’ intentions for a freer and more abundant life will eventually crumble in upon itself as well, for we have clearly developed an unhealthy attachment to autonomy and pride. We have not yet found our home of happiness!
Praise God for Thomas Jefferson’s final words. “We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states…For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Our founding fathers truly (though imperfectly) intended what was best for us, for they “relied upon”—they were dependent upon—God’s Pat
ernal Love, “Divine Providence” to guide us through the historic American Revolution.
You see, the benevolence of a loving father who knows and intends the good of his citizens, of his sons and daughters, is the kind of government that only Heaven can be. Happiness IS Heaven, and the pursuit of heavenly-happiness, connected with life and liberty, is at the foundation of our American Story. On this 4th of July weekend, and every Independence Day henceforth, may we see beyond the radical attempts to abolish our American Story and founding principles of heavenly pursuits. May we reclaim and untwist them for posterity’s sake. Today’s Gospel though is ominous as Christ encounters his childhood home when he says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” (Mk 6:1-6).
Within our own house and amongst our own families, we perhaps struggle the most to reach them with the Gospel of this blessed and beautiful understanding of real “free love”. Yet perhaps we can imitate Christ in this “pursuit of happiness” as we depend upon God the Father for true liberty and freedom to reign in our hearts. After all, our families, our cities, our states, and our country are merely signs pointing us to our truest homeland, for Heaven is the end to which all of our pursuits for happiness are supposed to lead—provided we open our hearts to the fireworks of the Holy Family’s example. Beautiful and blessed fireworks of love, responsibility, integrity, commitment, and a brave endurance of liberty’s many temptations on the road to eternal life. Happy Independence Day everyone!
St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, pray for us!