Kant thought we could either give the law to ourselves, which he called autonomy, or accept a law imposed from outside, which he called heteronomy. In this view, autonomy is freedom, but heteronomy is bondage. What does the picture leave out?
John Paul II wrote inVeritatis Splendor that “obedience to God is not, as some would believe, a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, extraneous to man and intolerant of his freedom .... Others speak, and rightly so, of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man's free obedience to God's law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God's wisdom and providence .... Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation.”
Notice that John Paul speaks not simply of theonomy, which Kant would have regarded as just another heteronomy, but of “participated” theonomy. That is a very different thing. God’s law is not an imposition on us from outside, but an imprint on own rational nature. We are not jerked around by it, but made finite participants in His providential care for the universe. If we refuse to participate, if we decline to accept the privilege, we become not more ourselves and more free, but less ourselves and less free. To deny Him is to deny man as well.