God Wants Us to be Happy
A Catholic Primer on Freedom, Happiness, and God’s Laws
A common complaint against the Catholic Church is that it has too many rules. Some say that it seeks to restrict human freedom by presenting a list of dos and don’ts that ultimately “ruin our fun” and destroy happiness. Such a claim stems from a misunderstanding of freedom, happiness, and their relation to God’s laws.
Freedom is the ability to choose one thing or another. This definition hearkens to the concept of free will, which is defined by the Church as “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.” Yet, freedom and free will are not the same; to be free is not to merely exercise one’s will in whatever way one pleases. If that were the case, then any sort of law, whether associated with the Church or not, would be an impediment to freedom.
Here is the deviation from popular belief about freedom and the Church’s teaching on it: the Church proclaims that man’s will, rightly ordered, naturally desires something specific, and only in following that desire can he be truly free. The Church speaks here of man’s spiritual will, one of the two spiritual powers of his soul that make him most like God (will and intellect). The Church, through the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, teaches that man’s will by necessity desires happiness. Man exercises his free will in how he chooses to attain this end of happiness, but his will is naturally inclined toward happiness. Further, as good things are considered that which make one happy (has anyone truly thought things he perceived as evil could make him happy?), man’s will is always moved to desire the good in general. In sum, the Church teaches that man’s will naturally desires to possess good things in order to be happy.
This has significant ramifications for understanding free will and freedom. Man has free will in choosing the means to his end, but his end has already been determined by how he was created, how his will was formed in accord with his human nature: man was made to attain the good and so be happy. Thus, it follows that freedom comes in choosing the proper means to acquire happiness. To choose anything else distorts his nature and enslaves him.
Yet, if happiness is acquired by using free will to choose good things, the question is raised as to whether it matters what those good things are. May not someone choose whichever thing appears good to him? And that will make him happy? May not someone decide what it is that makes him happy?
The Church stands firmly against this potential landslide of relativism. She points toward man’s ultimate good—God. Only in possessing God is man fully achieving happiness, though other goods aside from God (such as food and friendships) bring man a measure of delight as well.
To know how to possess God as his ultimate good and source of happiness, and how to rightly enjoy other good things, the Church directs man to follow God’s laws. Aquinas says that “the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good.” God’s laws instruct man on how to choose what is good. In the end, obedience to them leads to heaven, where man is perfectly happy with God.
Therefore, it cannot it be said that such laws are restraining. For if man was made for and desires a specific end (happiness), and he must choose good things to acquire that end, he needs guidance on how to choose those good things. God comes to his aid through the teaching of His Church.
It is absurd to say that the laws of God’s Church are a threat to man’s happiness and freedom. Rather, in adhering to them, man embraces true freedom and is led to ultimate happiness.
 CCC, 1731.
 ST, I, q. 82, a. 1, respondeo.
 ST, I, q. 82, a. 1, respondeo.
 ST, I-II, q. 9, a. 1, respondeo.
 ST, I-II, q. 92, a. 1, respondeo.