A couple of weeks ago, I had the singular pleasure of returning to Notre Dame’s campus for the Center for Ethics and Culture’s Fall Conference. The theme of this year’s conference was “For Freedom Set Free,” especially timely given contemporary debates over religious liberty, state constraint, and the significance of individual autonomy and consent. I imagine that many of the presentations were illuminating and edifying.
I say “I imagine” because I actually was not in attendance for more than a few talks. This is because I spent most of my time in South Bend that weekend not at the conference center, but on the basketball court, in the dining hall, and at local neighborhood houses. In other words, I spent most of my time at Notre Dame recreating, reuniting, and reminiscing with my friends.
Which, in a way, is highly fitting, as I can think of few things in my life that have contributed more to my freedom—properly understood, as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it, as freedom for excellence—than the human friendships that I have formed and that, in turn, have formed me.
That friendship aids in freedom is neither an original claim nor a claim that applies to just me; I would like to think that it is a universal truth applicable to all human persons.
Thus, it was a little surprising to find out that at a conference devoted to the theme of freedom, there was not a single paper focused on friendship’s role in cultivating it (at least according to the program; again, I might not be the most reliable reporter of the facts as they unfolded). I will attempt to fill that deficiency by briefly articulating friendship’s role in promoting freedom and sharing how it has done so in my own life.
As we have established, when Catholics speak of freedom, they speak (or should be speaking) of the freedom for excellence. Freedom is not simply the capacity to choose, but the capacity to choose and pursue what is good, true, and beautiful. Freedom, in this sense, is a means to human happiness and the fulfillment of human purpose, not, as libertarians and liberals alike would suggest, an abstract “right” found in the “state of nature,” an end in and of itself.
In fact, although man was created for freedom, living freely is a difficult feat to accomplish in practice. Because of the stain of original sin, man is not born free: he is a slave to his passions and appetites. And although Baptism removes the stain of original sin, the Catechism tells us that “the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”
Through divine gifts like the sacraments and Holy Scripture, and human innovations like education and the liberal arts, man has been equipped to take part in this battle. Collectively, these resources give us the ability to know the good, to desire it, and to pursue it. And although friendship itself requires some degree of freedom, it also undeniably plays a role in further freeing us from selfish attachments.
This is because true friendship is built on benevolence, the disinterested desire for the good of another. It is not self-serving, and it does not seek to use others. If this sounds somewhat like Saint Paul’s description of charity, this should be unsurprising, as St. Thomas Aquinas argues that friendship itself is love.
Man is made for relationship, as Genesis reveals to us (“It is not good that man be alone”) and the teachings of the Church have continually affirmed. We are most fully human—and most fully free—when we find ourselves forgetting our own selves and seeking the good of another, which is what friendship allows us to do. The vocation a man may have—whether marriage, the priesthood, or religious life—manifests this truth, as it involves a dying to oneself, not only for the sake of his wife, parish, or community, but also for his own fulfillment and freedom as a human person.
Friendship has certainly played a pivotal role in my own life by “freeing” me to recognize and pursue the good. The friendships I formed as an upperclassman at Notre Dame nurtured my then-infantile faith. These very friendships have helped to keep me on the straight and narrow, always serving as a steady but never overbearing reminder of the good I actually seek. And friendship with and among my housemates here in Minnesota has allowed me to die to self and grow in the habit of living for another. If I am freer today than I was yesterday, my friends have played no small part.
Of course, human friendship—and anything else on earth—can never make us fully free, a reality that underscores what we are ultimately made for: friendship with God.
Jonathan Liedl (Class of 2011) is a former managing editor of the Irish Rover and is currently a fellow in the Catholic Studies graduate program at the University of St. Thomas. He covered the papal visit for a national publication, worked in television-journalism in Washington, and blogs occasionally for the National Catholic Register, proving that even minor involvement with the Rover can lead to opportunities far beyond one’s merits.