John Paul II Was Right: There Is No Freedom Without Truth

Monika Jablonska

Monika Jablonska is a consultant with expertise in international business transactions and NGOs, lawyer, and philanthropist. Currently, Ms. Jablonska is working on her Ph.D. thesis in political science. She is the author of Wind from Heaven: John Paul II, The Poet Who Became Pope. Her second book about St. John Paul II will be released in 2021. She also writes for various magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe.

“There can be no rule of law … unless citizens and especially leaders are convinced that there is no freedom without truth.” —Pope St. John Paul II

President Ronald Reagan greets Pope St. John Paul II at Miami International Airport Sept. 10, 1987.
President Ronald Reagan greets Pope St. John Paul II at Miami International Airport Sept. 10, 1987. (Photo: National Archives/ White House Photographic Collection; Public domain / National Archives/ White House Photographic Collection; Public domain)

Man is called to freedom and truth. Truth is given to man as an unshakable foundation. “Only then he will be able to realize himself fully and even outgrow himself.” There is no freedom without truth. Both are integrated phenomena, fused into one.

The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). According to Karol Wojtyła, “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.” 

Only freedom stemming from truth begets good. Otherwise, freedom can be a force for evil as it degenerates into license. These are my answers to two fundamental questions: What is freedom? Can freedom exist without truth?

According to Aristotle, “freedom is a property of the will which is realized through truth. Freedom is given to man as a task to be accomplished.” The self-realization of human freedom in truth starts in “the experience of the moral subject.” St. Thomas Aquinas embraced the Aristotelian system of virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. “The good that is to be accomplished by human freedom is precisely the good of the virtues.” But St. Thomas moved a step further and add to Aristotle’s morality “light that is offered by Sacred Scripture. The greatest light comes from the commandment to love God and neighbor. In this commandment, human freedom finds its complete realization.”

The rootedness of freedom in the truth has been also a central theme in the writings of Pope St. John Paul II. At the heart of his magisterial documents lies the theme of human freedom. The Pope defined it this way:

“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” 

“Man is called to freedom,” he said. He meant freedom based on values and ethical attitudes. Freedom also rests on four main foundations: truth, solidarity, sacrifice, and love.

Truth: “Man’s free creative forces will only develop to the full if they are based on the truth, which is given to every man as an unshakable foundation. Only then will he be able to realize himself fully and even outgrow himself. There is no freedom without truth.”

Solidary: “Freedom experienced in solidarity is expressed in action for justice in the political and social fields, and directs the gaze towards the freedom of others. There is no freedom without solidarity.”

Sacrifice: “Freedom is an extremely precious value, for which a high price must be paid. It requires generosity and readiness for sacrifice; it requires vigilance and courage in the face of internal and external forces that threaten it. … There is no freedom without sacrifice.”

Love. “Leave the gate open by opening your hearts! There is no freedom without love.”

Karol Wojtyla knew the real price of freedom. He lived under the threat of death by the Nazis and saw his beloved Poland struggle under the Communists. Therefore, he was one of the most powerful ambassadors of freedom and truth in his own country and the entire world. In 1996, the Polish pope appealed to “those nations that are still denied the right to self-determination, those many nations, and there are indeed many of them in which fundamental freedoms of the individual, faith, and conscience as we as political freedom are not guaranteed.” Thus, the lack of truth translated into a lack of freedom. 

In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis John Paul II quoted the words of Christ about the liberating force of the truth. Then he added:

“These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.” 

Indeed, given contemporary pluralism, agnosticism, and skeptical relativism, John Paul II’s warning about the “crisis of freedom and truth” sounds like a prophecy. He cautioned us that any departure from the truth results in freedom losings its moorings and exposing man to the violence of passion and to manipulation. 

The contemporary crisis of freedom is at its root a crisis of truth. In Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and elsewhere in his official teachings, John Paul II claimed that denying the link between freedom and truth could lead to totalitarianism. And in Memory and Identity he explained:

“The abuse of freedom provokes a reaction which takes the form of one totalitarian system or another. This is the corruption of freedom which we have experienced in the 20th century and we are experiencing some of the forms today.”

Following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Paul II, we repeat that “there is no freedom without truth.” It is clear that the linkage of human freedom and truth is of paramount significance. Therefore, understanding our philosophers’ thoughts and John Paul II’s theology of truth and freedom within individual, social and political contexts helps us properly respond to the challenges of current times.