“Hail Mary and your world goes crazy/ Your life’s not yours and you’re just fifteen”, the song begins. And the chorus asks, “Was it fear, was it dread/ What was running through your head/ When you said what you said/ Yeah were you crying?” This takes us straight to the question of what it means to be free generally, and specifically how we can understand the freedom of St. Mary when she said, “May it be done according to your word”.
May it be done according to your word. – The Blessed Virgin
I often tell my seminary students that the fundamental challenge of Catholicism in the United States is that we Americans are all liberal protestants by default. “Protestant” and “liberal” are the respective religious and political adjectives for the moral anthropology that informs American public life and, thus, the moral lives of typical Americans. Of the several implications of this observation is our truncated and morally problematic practical definition of “freedom” as nothing beyond than the unfettered ability to choose among contrary options.
Of course, as moral agents, we must necessarily have the ability freely to choose among contrary alternatives. An action is only a moral action—that is, subject to moral judgment—if it is taken freely. A coerced action, even if it accomplishes some good, is not morally praiseworthy; nor is it morally blameworthy if it results in some evil. Put another way, for any action to be a moral action—for good or ill—the choice must be “voluntary”. It must be under the power of the will of the moral actor.
But that power of contrary choice is only the necessary condition for a free act. Unlike the modern liberal definition of freedom, Catholic theology maintains that this is not the sufficient condition for a fully free action. Liberalism defines freedom as nothing more than unfettered choice. And, in fact, any notion that there is a correct use of one’s freedom (other than the arbitrary assertion that the choice doesn’t infringe someone else’s freedom) is a retreat from authentic freedom.
The Blessed Virgin Mary teaches us otherwise. While she was full of grace, St. Mary still had the power of contrary choice. For her “Yes” to be a moral answer, she necessarily had the ability to say, “No”. And we know that she could have done such by looking to the only other woman who was full of grace, the type of whom St. Mary is anti-type. Created as wholly good by a wholly good God, prelapsarian Eve was not any less full of grace than St. Mary. And St. Mary was not any less free than Eve.
But the contrast between the two is that, while Eve asserted by her action that the end of freedom is contrary choice, St. Mary understood that the end of freedom is embracing the good choice. The ability to say yes or no is the necessary condition for authentic freedom. Saying yes to the good is the sufficient condition. Put another way, the power to choose between alternatives is not an end in itself. Rather, that power is for the purpose of embracing the truth that makes us truly free.
Created as wholly good by a wholly good God, prelapsarian Eve was not any less full of grace than St. Mary. And St. Mary was not any less free than Eve.
This is not just about being “obedient”. Rather, it is about using our freedom to participate in the whole truth about man and God. It is to use that power to order our lives toward the proper end of human action, and thus to live fully authentic moral lives. This is why the Blessed Virgin’s fiat reaches so far beyond her own moral and psychological life. She chose freely, yes; but she chose according to her own authentic good and the good of all humankind.
When McKenna sings, “your life’s not your own and you’re just fifteen”, she is only half-right. St. Mary’s life was entirely her own, to say yes or no. But she understood, in some mysterious way that we may not entirely comprehend, that only by giving herself was she truly herself. Only by surrendering her life to the truth could she be truly “her own”. Anything less than fiat would have been a false choice; and it would have been to perpetuate the false freedom that her full-of-grace predecessor introduced to the world.
And, as such, St. Mary’s fiat is the model of our own. Near the end of “Hail Mary,” McKenna sings to the Blessed Virgin, “Answers to every prayer, answers to every prayer/That’s what I see when you’re kneeling there.” In other words, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Ken Craycraft is a Chapter House columnist.
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