shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32.
heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of
meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Planned
Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.
says freedom is a good thing. Christ promised it. America is based on it.
Libertarians and libertines want it. Even the Chinese call their armed forces
the People’s Liberation Army. But what is freedom?
differ, because people’s concerns differ. A libertarian wants freedom from
government regulation, a libertine freedom from moral restrictions, and an
old-line Chinese communist freedom from poverty, foreign domination, and other
social evils. The quotations above from St. John’s Gospel and the Supreme Court
suggest two different approaches to the question, both backed by eminent
authorities. Catholics and many others accept the first, based on the
sovereignty of truth, but influential and respectable people today increasingly
insist on the second, based on the sovereignty of human choice.
views human life as a whole, and accepts that man is naturally oriented toward
goods beyond himself. For that reason, it views freedom comprehensively:
prison, poverty, and physical handicap are restrictions on freedom, but so are
habitual drunkenness, obsessive greed, andas John’s Gospel suggestsignorance
of the Faith. The last point is important. The freedom that matters most, in
the Catholic view, is not freedom to get what we want but freedom to pursue
what is best. A Catholic society would see overcoming sin and moral ignorance
as part of human freedom, because those things get in the way of our goal as
human beings. When St. Peter was put in chains or St. Francis married Lady
Poverty they were freer, in a Catholic sense, than the careerist who is mainly
interested in professional success and high-end consumer goods.
live not in a Catholic society but one in which the view of freedom expressed
by the Planned Parenthood court is generally accepted by social
authorities. In that view, freedom is freedom to choose what to treat as real
and meaningful. The ideal is to let our choices determine what makes sense for
us, rather than let what makes sense determine our choices. Human will and not
truth is at the center. An example will illustrate what that principle means.
Freedom in a secular liberal sense now means that choice itself is good, and
the more people’s choices differ, the better. Religious and lifestyle diversity
should be celebrated, because they show the range of goods on offer and the creativity
of the human spirit. “Gay marriage,” for example, demonstrates that people make
their own decisions on their own grounds, and the desire for public validation
of those decisions has made marriage once again important in the eyes of
we are faced with two opposing understandings of freedom, one that views
freedom as the unfolding of individual creativity and one that views it as
reaching for something greater and better than we are. Which is right?
who line up behind the Supreme Court majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey
think their case is a slam-dunk. Why is following truth freedom when you can
invent your own truth and go for it? And anyway, if truth were the standard,
some particular idea of truth would have to be put in charge. Whose will that
be? So the Catholic view of freedom is not taken seriously. People say that it’s
really just freedom to be a Catholic and do what the Church tells you to do.
argument flows very smoothly, but it slides over important points. One key
point is that if something is going to be used as a supreme standardand that’s
what freedom is todayit has to deal adequately with everything that affects
our well-being. Otherwise, it will ride roughshod over what it slights in favor
of what it emphasizes. And the secular liberal view of freedom leaves out a
consideration that is absolutely basic: what choices are worth. It looks at
what individuals choose, which is certainly important, but downplays the
setting in which choices are made and the value of the choices that setting
point is recognized to some extent with regard to economic matters. What sense,
many people have asked, does economic freedom make if it’s freedom to starve?
Shouldn’t the freedom of the rich to make money be subject to the freedom of
other people to make a decent living and live in dignity? Most liberals
conceded that point when they abandoned classical liberalism in favor of the
welfare state. The question can be updated, though, and expanded to social
issues. One could ask whether sexual freedom should be limited by respect for
the freedom of ordinary people to form stable families that provide a favorable
environment for children to grow up in. If we’re concerned about the freedoms
that matter most to people, isn’t the latter the one we should emphasize?
answer given by secular liberal theory is “no.” Secular liberals favor
substantive economic freedoms, like access to employment, but not substantive
social freedoms, like access to normal family life, because money is neutral
and normal family life is not. You can use money for anything from prayer books
to pornography, so increasing and diffusing prosperity increases people’s
ability to define their own meanings and make whatever choices they want. The
same is not true of increasing and diffusing traditional sexual morality. It
might give people better choices, but it doesn’t give them more choices.
Secular liberals can’t accept that as a good thing without giving up neutrality
as to what life is all about. They would have to admit that some thingsfor
example, sexcome with their own meanings, and we cannot define whatever
meanings we want for them. And that would mean giving up what secular
liberalism has become.
problems arise when freedoms conflict. What happensas in the case of Catholic
employers and contraceptionwhen the freedom to engage in sexual relations with
no cost or inconvenience conflicts with the freedom to join others in living by
a common understanding of what makes for a good life? According to the Obama
administration, it’s a slam-dunk victory for sexual freedom. And from their
standpoint, they have a point. Sexual freedom has to do with the right of the
individual to define his own goods and meanings, while the right of the
employer to deny coverage is more the right of a group to promote some goods
and meanings but not others. The individual person is more real than the
groupa point that Catholics will agree withso if the question is simply the
freedom to do as one chooses the first should take precedence over the second.
Anything else would be the tyranny of the collective over the individual.
problem of substantive social freedoms nonetheless remains. It seems obvious
that the value of freedom comes from the goods to which it relates. What good
are 500 channels with nothing to watch? What good is sexual freedom that makes
it hard to get married and have kids in anything like the environment you’d
want? And, since man is social, what is the point of an understanding of
individual freedom that means common commitments carry no weight? Who wants to
live like that?
These problems are serious, and they are
becoming more so. Our society is progressive, and it’s loaded with lawyers,
bureaucrats, and accredited “experts” whose job it is to make sure its official
ideals are applied more and more comprehensively. The result is continual
destruction of substantive social freedoms that present us with choices worth
having in favor of the neutral and strictly individual freedoms represented by
the requirement that Catholic employers provide all forms of birth control to
their employees. There is no limit to that tendency in theory, and no center of
powerother than churches with a long history of defeat and compromisethat
sees any reason to resist it. So it’s likely to go very, very far. Regardless
of the immediate outcome of current disputes, Catholics had better prepare
themselves for a long struggle and bumpy ride in the years to come.
Editor's Note: In my May
2011 Catholic World Report review of James Kalb’s book, The
Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI, 2008), I praised the work for “describing and
analyzing the current situation in the West by adeptly using a wide range of
tools: historical research, political philosophy, moral theology, psychology, sociology,
Christian apologetics, common sense, andlast but certainly not leastCatholic
social doctrine.” I think very highly of the book and Kalb’s other work, so I
am pleased and grateful that he has accepted CWR’s invitation to write a
regular column, “Ecclesia et Civitas,” for CWR on the intersection (or
collision, as it may be) of Church and state, the relationship between faith
and citizenship, and the continuing tensions between the City of God and the
city of man.