There a lot of opinions, even conflicting ones, on what freedom is. However, “freedom” is best defined in its truest sense, theologically.
Freedom of Thought
We can experience freedom through the ability to think clearly. We tend to consider thinking solely in terms of mental or even neurological processes, but thinking is also spiritual power. Thinking can come intuitively, as well as analytically.
Spiritual freedom beings with freedom of thought. But it does not end there, for our thoughts can take us many places. It is the ability to grasp truth, and the will to follow that truth wherever it leads. Only in truth do we have freedom. This kind of freedom is more than mental, it is spiritual. Like St. Paul, we can be free even if physically imprisoned.
The Catechism says:
By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image.” (Catechism, 1705)
Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility…(Catechism, 1731)
What about young human beings (such as babies) who cannot think rationally, or human beings who have an impaired ability of rational thinking? Do they not have freedom? Yes. They enjoy a more basic freedom of life, in accordance with their capacity, and are not morally responsible for that which is beyond their abilities. Those us of who do have this ability, however, can experience this type of freedom and do have more responsibility for what we do with it.
“Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” (Catechism, 1730)
If free will is good, even God-like, isn’t whatever we choose then good?
As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. (Catechism, 1732)
We have the free will to choose among many things which are good, & many which are not. Though we are free to choose, it doesn’t follow that all free choices lead to freedom. Some choices will increase our freedom and lead us towards God, who offers us complete freedom. Some choices will decrease our freedom and ultimately enslave us. When our free choices are contrary to our humanity, they corrupt our nature & limit our freedom.
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (Catechism, 1733)
Free will an element of freedom, but not freedom in its entirety. Free Will can be used to increase our freedom and lead us to perfect freedom in God, or decrease our freedom and lead us towards “the slavery of sin.”
Nature & Purpose
Freedom is directly connected to a being’s nature & purpose. A being is free when he can fully express his nature and fulfill his purpose. To understand the nature of being free, we must understand a being’s nature.
Although other organisms on Earth are not capable of human reason and free will, they can be said to experience freedom to the degree they can express their nature and fulfill their purpose. For a tree, being able to take in water, sunlight & carbon dioxide & grow many branches and leaves, spawn new trees, etc. For a cat, being able to lie around, catch rodents, eat rodents & fish, mate, etc.
Animal nature is good & its expression is good. An animal is free to the extent that it can express its nature. A caged, diseased or hurt animal is not as free.
In addition to an animal nature, humans have a spiritual nature. This spiritual nature gives human beings the ability to freely choose & the responsibility to choose morally. Human nature, both biological and spiritual is objective, not subjective. When we ignore and neglect our spiritual nature, we become spiritually ill, just as we would become physically ill if we ignored and neglected our physical needs.
When God made the world, he said it was “good”, after he made human beings, he said it was “very good”. Our human nature is (very) good.
Human nature is physically good; the body is good, not a trap to escape from. Human nature is spiritually good; it is made in the image & likeness of God. Finally, our human nature is to be spiritually & morally good. To be fully good in fact, is to be fully free.
“The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes…”(Catechism, 1733)
To be fully good is to fully and faithfully express our human nature. We equate the term “humanity” with goodness and love. Human beings often hate and do evil things. Nevertheless, we recognize that our true human nature is not an evil one, but morally good and loving. The more evil a person does, the less humanity he expresses and the less free he becomes. Those who dehumanize others, dehumanize themselves.
…There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just… (Catechism, 1733)
What is our Purpose?
Animals seek what is good (food, shelter, etc.) but human beings are not satisfied merely with finite goods. Human beings desire and seek that goodness and truth which is infinite, transcendental and eternal.
Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude. He pursues his perfection in “seeking and loving what is true and good” (Catechism, 1711).
Our purpose is to seek, love and serve the source & essence of goodness, truth, beauty & love itself, God. And to seek, love and serve each other.
Within this purpose fits art, philosophy, science, technology and even regular work. As long as they are ordered towards God, and loving and serving one another. Anything which increases our capacity to love and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful benefits humanity and glorifies God.
Our desire to know the world (Science, Philosophy, etc.), be known (Art: Painting, movies, novels, computer games), extend our reach in the world (Technology: Communications, medicine, etc.) is not superfluous or sinful, as long as we observe moral limits & it is ordered towards the service and love of others and God. “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
God is our all-powerful, all-loving Creator, who wants us, his creation, made in his image and likeness, to flourish. God does not force us to choose to flourish or to follow him. God gives us the free will to choose for ourselves. God loves us for what we are and wants us to become more fully human.
Human beings are perfect ends in themselves. They should never be objectified nor seen merely as commodities nor resources. They should not be valued solely on how “useful” or “valuable” they are, but on their intrinsic value as human beings, regardless of “utility.” Unfortunately, we often objectify each other out of selfishness which blinds them to the objective value of others.