Thursday, July 4, 2013

An unfocused reflection on liberty and freedom

I have to admit that I find it difficult to wax poetic about Independence Day this year. While I don't consider myself an alarmist, I do not see the state of our union as being a good, healthy state. At a fundamental level I think this is due to the fact that we have collectively come to hold not only distorted, but destructive, views about liberty and freedom. It seems to me that we are collectively regressing to a kind of societal adolescence.

Liberty and freedom are not synonymous. Far from being an exercise in pedantry, this is an important distinction. One of the greatest problems in our society is the inability to make important distinctions. Liberty is the condition of being able to exercise one's freedom in peace without undue interference. It was precisely undue interference, which impeded freedom, that caused the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Our declaration was collective, not individual, which is important. One cause of destructive distortion is forgetting, or, more to the point, obstinately refusing to remember, seeking to situate ourselves always in an ahistorical moment. This is why tradition, what Chesterton dubbed the democracy of the dead, matters so much.

At the beginning of our second reading for Mass last Sunday we heard, "For freedom Christ set us free" (Gal. 5:1). Christ is our liberator, the One who makes us free by making possible the forgiveness of our sins so that we are not condemned on the basis of our own unrighteousness, that is, our inability to make ourselves righteous, but are justified by His. Nonetheless, St. Paul went on to note that we should not use freedom as an excuse to do evil and that living by the Spirit, as opposed to being subjected to the yoke of the law, does not mean doing whatever I want, whatever my flesh (not to be conflated with my body- though sins of the flesh are enacted with our bodies) bids me do. In another place Paul wrote,
"Everything is lawful for me," but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is lawful for me," but I will not let myself be dominated by anything. "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food," but God will do away with both the one and the other. The body, however, is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body; God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power (1 Cor. 6:12-14)
True freedom is freedom for, not freedom from. Freedom for fulfilling the end for which I exist. Fulfilling the end for which we are made presumes that there is an end for which we are made, this is what is meant when we discuss the need for a transcendent conception of the human person. Otherwise, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has chronicled, especially in his book After Virtue, things tend to devolve to what he termed "emotivism."

Take the word "equality" for example. As Cardinal Camillo Ruini, recently stated in an interview, "Equality understood as the negation of all difference is something that goes against reality."

Last Independence Day I re-posted something I wrote about the fact that our constitutional system is rooted in a transcendent view of the human person (see "Constitutionally transcendent redux"). This is evident at the very beginning of our nation's seminal document, which if the Constitution is the foundation, serves as the cornerstone, the Declaration of Independence: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

"Nature and Nature's God" as the source of human equality strikes me, indeed, as a very Biblical, that is, a uniquely Christian idea, derived from the teachings of Christ and of His apostle St. Paul. Take this passage from Paul's Letter to the Galatians: "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:27-28). What is the apostle getting at here? Is he really saying that human beings are not different from one another? No. He is saying we are equal in dignity and status, that the baptized are all children of God through Christ. How can I say this? Look at St. Paul's Letter to Philemon, in which he urges Philemon to welcome his escaped slave Onesimus, who was also a Christian and who had run away to join Paul, back and not punish him. While this does not constitute a ringing endorsement of slavery, it is a case where Paul certainly recognizes the distinction between slave and free in one sense, even while reminding Philemon that because he and Onesimus, along with Paul, were brothers in Christ and children of the Father.

Freedom, if it is true and good, is subject to nature, which is a way of being subject to God, even without explicitly professing faith. Cardinal Ruini was absolutely correct when he observed, "We are fooling ourselves if we think we can banish nature with a personal or collective decision of our own." It is one thing to be tolerant, respecting another's freedom demands this, as does charity. It is another thing entirely, the abdication of liberty that leads to a violation of freedom at a fundamental level, to be forced to approve a recognition that is contrary to reality, especially in the name of love. I will end by letting His Eminence field that one too:

Q: The battle for equality feeds on emotional reasons. There is an idea of love that goes beyond the differences of gender, of the distinction between man and woman. It is love that makes itself an institution and a perfectly equal right. Is this an irreversible decline?

A: Love is a beautiful word, but it can have many meanings. States cannot, evidently, command or prohibit that one person should to love another, and in this sense the laws cannot directly concern themselves with love.

They can and must, however, seek to regulate in the way most useful and most in keeping with reality the behaviors that are born from love but have a public significance.

1 comment:

  1. I share your feelings of sadness on this year's Independence Day. Thank you for a much needed reminder that one person's license can impinge on another person's liberty -- and this is the opposite of what the founding fathers wanted.