Life, Liberty, and Happiness

By: Deacon Marques Silva

In the United States of America, July 4 celebrates Independence Day. We traditionally gather and grill with family and friends and then go watch a fireworks display. The phrase that sums up our celebrations can be found in the United States Declaration of Independence:

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the most famous phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence, and considered by some as part of one of the most well crafted, influential sentences in the history of the English language.[1]

For Catholics, this phrase is pregnant with meaning.

Life

Life is given to us by God the Father who not only creates us ex nihilo but also sustains our life through the continuous willing of our existence – before and after death.

Though our lives are contingent upon the Father, all other liberties and virtues flow forth from the fact that we are formed in His image and likeness. In particular, the Founding Fathers applied this phrase to all “persons” i.e., those with a rational soul.

Liberty

In theology, liberty and freedom, while related, have different meanings. Liberty is freedom, but with a stress on the person who enjoys or exercises freedom; it is the subjective power of self-determination. Freedom, strictly speaking, is the objective absence of constraint or coercion, notably with reference to civil society; internal or external. This power of the will is oriented to the good. We are made for the good and thus it is for this that the intellect is tasked with discerning what is “good.”

Declaration_independenceOur founding fathers also chose liberty over the word freedom. Perhaps that is because liberty resides in the will and is constituent to the definition of a person. Freedom is the extension of the person as he or she relates to society. To take it a step further in Catholic theology, St. Paul teaches us in Romans and his Epistle to Philemon that the Christian can experience liberty regardless of their state in life or their particular situation. Meaning, an oppressor can take away our freedom and subjugate a person but he or she cannot take away our liberty or ability to choose.

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Founding Fathers also seemed to be realists. They knew that happiness in this life was not guaranteed and could never be ensured. With a deeply Christian sentiment, they knew that we were destined for perfect beatitude in heaven. Even if we believe that happiness is guaranteed, experience teaches us differently.

Reviewing the Current Culture

It seems we find ourselves living during a time in which our culture is besieged with not only a misunderstanding of this phrase but also a rejection of our founding Christian values.

Life is being defined through a strictly utilitarian lens without a context. Since we have removed any notion of God out of our social consciousness, we have become the masters of all existence. The unborn are routinely aborted and Physician Aid in Dying (PAD) (technically euthanasia is illegal in the U.S.) is now legal in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont. (Your state not listed? No worries, soon it will be coming to a state near you.)

Liberty has been redefined as the right to make any choice. In fact, it has also been relegated to external liberties and not the internal liberty that we call virtue. The freedom of the will, as we have already suggested, is oriented to the good. True liberty frees not only the individual but society and the environment. Liberty cannot be judged on the basis of self-interest otherwise it withers, dies, and becomes the very prison (internal and external) that liberty was meant to avoid.

The pursuit of happiness has become an experiment in hedonism. Over the last five years, I have been amused by the Colonial Williamsburg advertising spot that ends with our above-mentioned phrase EXCEPT that it removes the phrase, “pursuit of” happiness. Colonial Williamsburg has turned happiness into an inalienable right. Sadly, many find themselves with everything that money can buy, experienced every pleasure the body can afford, and pursued every adventure their mind could dream of. And still, they are unhappy.

A Future and a Hope

Our Lord reminds us in Jeremiah 29:11:

“I know well the plans I have in store for you says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for woe. Plans to give you a future and a hope.”

Our Lord created us for the good, the true and the beautiful. When every effort has been exhausted our souls are designed for THE good. God Himself.

How do we recover our culture? By fostering the virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance; submitting ourselves to the Gospel; practicing good citizenship and letting our hearts experience the liberty that may only be found in Christ Jesus.


[1] Lucas, “Justifying America, ” 85.

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