Because I spend a lot of time trying explain my faith to teenagers, many of them have no problem turning around and asking me questions about this or that teaching of the Catholic Church. Bar none, the most popular questions I’m asked usually have something to do with morality – why is it that God expects us to live in a certain way? What’s generally behind these questions are two other assumptions:
1) Why can’t I just do what I want?
2) Doesn’t God know it’s hard (if not impossible) to do this?
While each of these questions – many surrounding issues of marriage and sexual morality – needs to be addressed on their own, what lies beneath the surface of all these questions is our understanding of freedom -what does it really mean to be created as free beiings?
Often we look at freedom as the ability to do what we want, or to be free from restrictions which prevent us from doing what we want. The trouble with this definition is that at some point my “freedom” will likely infringe on yours – if I don’t like the way you drive and take all the wheels off of your car, then I’ve done a free act which does harm to you, and in turn restricts your freedom… as your car isn’t going far with no wheels. It’s a flawed notion of freedom – and more often than not, has more to do avoiding responsibility than with being free at all. When I was six, I wished I had the ‘freedom’ my older brother had (who is seven years older than I am) to stay up late or to do other things with friends. When I was fourteen, I wished I could travel like he did. I often wondered what it would be like to have a place of my own, only to discover (as Peter Parker did in Spiderman) that with great power – the ability to drive, to own a home, to be married, to be a father – comes with great responsibility.
It would be very easy to lament the fact that although I am a 35-year-old man, I can’t actually do everything I want to do, as my God, my wife, my kids, and my work all come ahead of my own needs. To be free to do whatever I want would mean somehow limiting my relationship with each of them. I’d be free for other things – like backpacking through Europe – provided I was free from the responsibility that comes with being a husband and a father. I wouldn’t trade God, my wife, or my kids for any kind of freedom (even to do something good like that).
Here’s the thing when it comes to Catholic teaching on morality: yes, it is hard. Yes, it doesn’t change with popular opinion. And yes, it is what’s best for us. Think about it: God made us. God knows what He made us for. When HTC built my cell phone, they included an instruction not to submerge it in water, not because they’re trying to take away my ability to have fun with the phone, but because they want me to be able to use it properly. When God told us not to lust for others, not to steal, not to murder (and instead to LOVE, putting others needs ahead of ours), He did so as our designer, knowing what it takes to live life to the full (see John 10:10.)
Is this hard? Absolutely. But ask any athlete who competes in the Olympics, any musician who practices for hours each day, any artist who has honed their craft: anything worth doing IS hard. It’s a lie to think that just because something is hard we can’t do it. One of my favorite verses in all of scripture is St. Paul repeating God’s promise to never leave us hanging: “my grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NAB. Matt Maher also has a great song called Your Grace is Enough based on this verse.) It IS possible not to lust after women, not to be addicted to pornography, to save sex for marriage- loving yourself and others enough to guard your heart and theirs. It IS possible to resist temptation and peer pressure to do drugs, to drink too much, and to do other things you know are wrong. But it’s going to take a daily effort, just like the athlete, the musician, the artist.
When Augustine says “love, and do what you will,” he’s offering a heavy rule of life. The key to it is not the ‘do what you will,’ it’s ‘LOVE’ in the most true sense of the world – not as some fleeting infatuation, but a deep, genuine care for God and for neighbor. It means getting beyond what seems to feel good, what’s popular, and what’s easy… and embracing what’s going to take some work BUT will absolutely be worth it in the end. He’s simply repeating Jesus’ commandments to love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself… and then do what you want.