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Overcoming America’s profound confusion about freedom

Our nation’s survival lies not in limitless libertarianism, but in laws and customs and habits that restrain selfish impulses.

(Image: Guilherme Bustamante/Unsplash.com)

The Left, Republicans warned in this year’s election, hate liberty. “They want to steal your liberty, your freedom,” declared prominent former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle during an August 24th speech at the Republican National Convention. Guilfoyle cited as an example liberal attempts to limit “what you see and think and believe.” Others, more articulately, pointed to oppressive and illogical restrictions on public worship in Democratic-controlled jurisdictions during the covid-19 crisis, or liberal media and academia’s aggressive narrowing of “allowable opinions.”

Yet, if you listen to the Left, it is Republicans who are the real freedom-haters. Democrats will cite pro-life attacks on “a woman’s right to choose.” They’ll accuse Republicans of trying to obstruct Americans from voting. They’ll point to the Right’s opposition to homosexual access to legal marriage and transgender access to the U.S military or the bathroom of their choice. They’ll warn, as the Washington Post and New York Times often have, that the Trump administration’s policies — especially during the year’s civil unrest — were nothing less than oppressive totalitarianism.

Who is correct? Trying to determine which political party and ideology represents freedom and which one represents authoritarianism is at the heart of contemporary political debates in America.

And, in truth, the debate obscures questions far more fundamental to American politics. These include: are all freedoms created equal? If not, which freedoms are more important, and why? And is freedom for anything?

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre diagnosed this problem — in which both parties think their ideological opponents are anti-liberty — almost forty years ago in his book After Virtue. “It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable,” he observes. Conservatives and liberals have fundamentally different paradigmatic assumptions about the nature of liberty. Thus debate reduces to “pure assertion and counter-assertion,” that persuades no one but one’s ideological allies.

Catholics — whose intellectual tradition has much to say about these questions — need to be at the forefront of helping America answer these questions. This is because Catholicism’s long relationship with natural law — which draws upon pre-Christian and non-Christian sources like Plato, Aristote, Cicero, and Confucious — allows it to speak with authority and persuasion in a pluralist society that does not presume Christianity. Indeed, the Catholic tradition can help inform a revitalized conservatism that answers the most pressing political questions of the day.

Consider the first question mentioned above: are all freedoms created equal? The answer cannot be yes. A simple examination of recent legal fights in the United States makes this abundantly obvious. Many individuals and organizations — cake bakers, photographers, and religious organizations such as schools, adoption agencies, and hospitals — assert that their freedom of religion protects them from government interference. Many others disagree, declaring that their sexual or gender identity, or reproductive health care needs, trumps religious freedom, and secures their right to purchase wedding cakes or photography services, to have access to any job, or receive whatever health-care services they desire.

The question ultimately comes down to what matters more — religious belief or something else, such as gender or sexual identity or “reproductive rights.” The Catholic Church has answered this question. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paull I wrote that “the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience on its journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person” (§31). Religious freedom is most fundamental because of what it communicates about the human person, namely, that he has an inherent dignity stemming from his transcendent origin and end. We can appreciate that in many ways, including, naturally, the fact that humans possess intellects and wills, qualities that differentiate them from the rest of creation.

If man has no transcendent origin or end, and nothing differentiates him from the rest of the natural order, then he has no real rights, and can be instrumentalized and exploited in the same way that we treat plants, animals, or any natural resource.

It’s not just that not all freedoms are created equally. Some “freedoms” are dehumanizing, dangerous, and deadly. The “freedom” to abort a child has eliminated 60 million American citizens since Roe v. Wade. The freedom to consume pornography propels human-trafficking and addiction. The freedom of no-fault divorce damages children and levies huge sociological and financial burdens on our nation. Those are pretty tangible social and economic results of false freedoms. Yet if humans have a transcendent end, then the consequences are even graver.

This is because freedom is not for freedom in-and-of-itself. “I hold it to be an impious and detestable maxim that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything,” argued Alexis de Tocqueville. Rather, our freedoms are oriented towards a greater transcendent good. To cite Veritatis Splendor once more, “the moral life has an essential “teleological” character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man” (§73). Legitimate political freedoms, then, are those that help man realize objective goods (e.g. health, virtue, worship) that help him achieve his supernatural end in God.

Our nation’s survival lies not in limitless libertarianism, but in laws and customs and habits that restrain selfish impulses. Catholics can help conservatives articulate and promote a vision of freedom that protects life and engenders human happiness — we can call it freedom to flourish. Of course this should include the protection of the unborn and infirm, and freedom to worship. It might also entail commonsense gun legislation or sustainable energy solutions that protect, respectively, citizens and our environment.

Alternatively, we can call the pseudo-freedoms typically promoted by the Left — among them reproductive rights and the supposed right for even children to change their gender identity — as freedoms of failure. They fail not only because they are destructive, but because they undermine human dignity and obscure man’s natural and supernatural ends, and thus his happiness. As Augustine wrote: “The will is truly free when it is not the slave of vices and sins.”

America is profoundly confused about freedom, sometimes manifested in absurdly hyperbolic polemics. I think of conservative radio host Sebastian Gorka’s assertion at the 2019 CPAC that liberals “want to take away your hamburgers.” Or, alternatively, liberal claims that Trump’s supposedly bellicose, interventionist foreign policy would threaten international freedom (the president actually started no new wars).

Other times, the confusion is more serious and concerning. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in their recent dissents in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, St. James School v. Biel sought to limit the “ministerial exemption” of religious institutions. Incoming Democratic VP Kamala Harris attempted to impose a religious litmus test on a judicial nominee because of his association with the Knights of Columbus. If such political figures get their way, it would present an immediate, existential threat to the Catholic Church in America.

We require a robust, coherent political narrative to both rebut attacks on religious freedom and to clarify, rather than obscure what freedoms are authentic. The Catholic tradition can do this in a way that appeals to many outside it, because it appeals to truths that are not exclusive to the Catholic faith. It is a tradition aligned with Aristotle, Aquinas, Burke, and Kirk, all of whom understood freedom not in the language of radical autonomy but in that of final causality. Man’s transcendent origin and telos limits his autonomy, while illuminating what allows him to flourish. If we cannot persuade Americans of this, our nation will most certainly fail.


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About Casey Chalk 16 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

30 Comments

  1. The challenge is that our bishops, generally speaking, are not completely on board with the position of your insightful article, Casey. So, as usual, we all end up talking to ourselves (for rest assured, nobody with a differing viewpoint is likely subscribed to The Catholic World Report). We have, generally speaking, spineless bishops who fear the world and therefore bow to it, rather than represent Christ who came to FREE the world from bondage to sin and the god of this age (the devil). Until we have the leadership of the Church willing to take a stand, the godless God-haters ruling the institutions of society today, including government, will continue its march forward into destroying the freedom of religion…the freedom to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t believe me? Read Governor Northam’s recent statement about the fact we don’t need to gather in Church to worship and pray.

  2. My understanding was that much of the ‘freedom’ won in the American Revolution revolved around taxation without representation and the ability to own real estate, rather than the ruling class owning and deciding everything. Most people were farmers then, so not wanting to farm for the King, Earls and Lords etc… makes total sense.

    In many states today the ‘in charge’ is bypassing the representatives and indirectly taxing the citizens by unnecessarily forcing them out of business with mandated shutdowns and lockdowns.

    • Knowall,
      Taxation without representation was one of causes of the American Revolution. However, in crafting the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers were primarily concerned about tyranny and its historical prevalence in Europe.

  3. The founders of our country gave us a constitutional republic that gave unheard of latitude to individuals and imposed deep constraints on the central government. They were well aware that the success of this form of government relied upon the restraint which religion-based morality imposes on human nature. Without this restraint, society descends into the confusion of the 21st Century. It might be interesting for the Catholic Church itself to review seriously what might be the cause of its loss of influence over the last 50 or so years. The faith had over the centuries designed itself to best comport with and encourage the reform of the individual human soul by apoealing to the whole person. I would suggest that it no longer fulfills that function. Virtue is difficult and requires serious spiritual assistance, underpinned by an acknowledging of human physicality. Protestantism, by and large lacking seven sacraments, does not address this total need. When Catholicism devalues its sacraments–even tbe eucharist–it loses its true appeal.

  4. “The question ultimately comes down to what matters more — religious belief or something else, such as gender or sexual identity or ‘reproductive rights.'”

    Yes, this is the question. Today, “something else” matters more for more people than ever before. Why? Because most people in the post-modern West, including Christians of all stripes, think and act as if the following were true, even if they (we) profess otherwise:

    “If man has no transcendent origin or end, and nothing differentiates him from the rest of the natural order, then he has no real rights, and can be instrumentalized and exploited in the same way that we treat plants, animals, or any natural resource.”

    See, e.g., the Culture of Death in all its hideous manifestations.

    Absent a mass conversion – and I don’t know what would bring that about other than societal collapse – or Divine intervention, I don’t see how we get off this ride.

    • You are right, Houston, we have a problem! To me, if the map one uses to navigate contains fundamental errors, arriving at one’s desired destination only happens by chance. In terms of our society, we might all agree that it is happiness we seek. Therefore, the challenge, or so it seems to me, is connecting the good work of philosophers like Casey Chalk or Alasdair McIntyre or John Paul II with the happiness people seek. We must help others be aware that their maps are not working the way they think they are. They are not going to arrive at some greater state of happiness! This type of conversation takes leadership. May it please Our Lord to send us these men and women as he did of old!

    • Houston, please allow me a second comment. In addition to the importance of good philosophy, many people seem no longer available to the truth. Perhaps sin has deadened their thinking, their perceiving, I don’t know. Therefore, there might be a great opportunity for artists and others who can render truth, beauty, and goodness in ways that bypass the intellect and directly penetrate the heart. Then, once we have their attention, perhaps we might talk. Yours in Christ.

  5. Christianity allows democracy to exist. Democracy does not allow Christianity to merely exercise itself. The Christian is already free through his Christ.

  6. Isn’t it strange that only in more modern times has ‘freedom’ become an issue. It is strange because ‘freedom’ in its most fundamental meaning cannot be taken away; it is non-removable property of humans. In previous times philosophers viewed freedom as the sine qua non of both holiness and sinfulness. In Aquinas’s terms: the will is informed by the intellect on which course to follow. The intellect is wholly free to decide based on the both information at hand and the ‘heart’ of the person. The ‘Heart’ of Christ is the model whereby virtuous decisions lead to human perfection both now and after death. But, modernity has adopted a meaning of ‘freedom’ that has no referent. It is just a battle cry. If one were to give it a meaning then the only possible one would be ‘my war is correct’. That is all that the word ‘freedom’ has come to mean. It entails an adoption of a total lack of freedom through extreme prejudice. There is no place for philosophers, or thinkers of any sort, here. In Marx’s own words: “the socialist man does not question; he just acts”. To be clear: Rousseau, and thereby Marx, have won the intellectual war so that serious discussions about ‘freedom’ have become a waste of time. We await a new messiah who can convincingly open the eyes of all intellectual idiots to realize that they are idiots.

  7. America, sir, has no confusion about civil liberty. America defined it for the entire world.

    Very tired of that faction in the Church that despises the individual and perhaps resents the dignity bestowed upon him by his Creator. But God Almighty calls each one by name, and it is only the United States Constitution that forces civil government to stand down in the face of that Divine Call.

  8. Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle is a disgrace having broken up Donald Trump Jr’s marriage and now defies Catholic tenets by living with him outside marriage.

    The Catholic Church has continually involved itself in political divisiveness. Their blatant vitriol extending Republican political hatred is placing the nation in mortal danger. We may lose not only our liberty, but our democracy.Trump is the devil incarnate failing to show the leadership needed in a time of a threat to the nation.

    How can we compare the loss of our cherished democracy and our liberty with any other issue. How can we support all human life when the lives of one quarter million poor souls infected with the coronavirus are lost to toxic Trump mismanagement and defiance of science? A paradox? No, a priority! Life is a blessing given by a loving God and misused by an arrogant society. America will save itself by having a president who shows leadership, humility, acceptance of other’s views, and being a uniter not a divider.

      • Athanasius. I am Catholic perhaps more than you are. I tell a true story and you seem to be an enabler to the president who commits one crime after another and suffers no consequence. I won’t take the time to list his immoral tenure, only to say he committed treason in Helsinki and with his coverup of the COVID 19 pandemic admitted in January, 2020 causing the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent unwitting souls.

        We pray for those dead citizens.

        • “Athanasius. I am Catholic perhaps more than you are.”

          Oh? You have previously stated that you are no longer Catholic. I’m guessing that “Faithful” isn’t your middle name.

          “the president who commits one crime after another and suffers no consequence.”

          If you are referring to President Trump: What crime? Name the ones you allege that he has committed. Provide evidence that he has done so (I hate him! I hate him! His tweets are meaaaaaaannnnn! doesn’t constitute proof).

          ” I won’t take the time to list his immoral tenure,”

          I, I see; you’ll just sling vague accusations and expect us to take your word for it. Your word really isn’t worth that much.

          “he committed treason in Helsinki”

          Specify in what way you consider that he committed treason.

          “with his coverup of the COVID 19 pandemic admitted in January, 2020 causing the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent unwitting souls.”

          He did not cover it up; he cut off flights from China, for example. He did downplay the OH MY GOSH WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! hysteria. And he did not cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, innocent or not. The US has a death rate per million from Wuhan coronavirus that is lower than that of many other countries, for example. In order for you to blame the President you will have to show me a country that had no deaths, and show how the President’s actions differ from those taken by the heads of government in that country.

          Perhaps rather than “Faithful” your middle name is “Calumny?”

          • Leslie, you seem alarmed. Looks like you have quit the reality game and taken the game ball to your enclave.

            God bless.

          • I’ve no idea what gives you the idea that I’m “alarmed.” And you’re going to have to explain what you mean by your second sentence, because your English is not like our Earth English.

            Meanwhile, by the way you reckon things, Joseph Biden is guilty of the deaths of over 124,000 Americans because they have died of Wuhan coronavirus in the 2 1/2 months since his inauguration and he hasn’t stopped it. When are you going to chastise him for that?

        • Please stop, morganB. You’re embarrassing yourself. Last time I checked, anger and self-righteousness were not listed as any of the church’s virtues. As I have noted before, address the profound corruption and blindness in your own heart instead of pointing fingers at others.

    • MorganB You make good points, unfortunately to the wrong audience. The article is focused on issues that are very divisive and I would like to ask Why Catholics are so obsessed about their sexuality gender ideologies and petty politics at a time of unprecedented turmoil caused by the Coronavirus? It baffles me that one could spend time contemplating on these less important issues instead of creating space for Christ and letting readers enjoy Holy Spirit inspired writing. In all this debate , I see aspiring academics trying to assert themselves in a Christian journal and yet, not a single word about Christ.Freedom is also about not living a sinful life. Not a single quotation from the Bible to support arguments. Think of Thomas Moore, St Augustine etc and start evangelising with your pen to spiritually uplift readers.Life in politics is short lived. Make Christ the focus of your writing.

      • Margareth, I appreciate your comments.
        Sometimes I fail to adhere to one of my favorite of Lincoln’s lasting parables: “Best to remain silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. You are right, I speak to the wrong audience if I don’t involve Christ and his mercy in the context of a cry for his intervention. I believe that our savior will guide us even if we don’t directly ask him to. My spiritual weakness revealed. However, my current audience is only part of a larger setting, my audience is America.

        America is at war. Spiritually, ideologically, legally and politically divided. I consider myself a patriot with hope for a united nation. Much of my overzealousness is grounded in fact that I nor my audience can ignore, our leader has abandoned us, spiritually, ideologically, legally and politically. Triviality is not a part of this discussion. I cannot ignore the most egregiously criminal act in our history by a politician… admitting to covering up the deadly coronavirus in January 2020 in an interview with Bob Woodward. An act by one man launched the pandemic in America.
        We must truly pray that we come together as a nation in our darkest of times.

      • Miss Keenan, you are saying, “There is a terrible illness on the loose and many people have died and many more may die. Therefore we should not talk to anybody about horrendous sins because it might be divisive.”

        Now is exactly when we should talk about them, so that people who are committing them will have time to repent.

        “The article is focused on issues that are very divisive”

        Indeed; they divide faithful Catholics from faithless ones.

        “It baffles me that one could spend time contemplating on these less important issues”

        Truth matters; it is not a “less important issue.” Calling abortion “reproductive freedom” is a lie; claiming that butchering babies is a right is a lie. Claiming that people can change their sex is a lie. Claiming that two persons of the same sex can enter into something that is actually a marriage is a lie.

        “instead of creating space for Christ”

        I remind you that Christ is Truth, and “creating a space” full of lies excludes Him.

        “and letting readers enjoy Holy Spirit inspired writing.”

        By “Holy Spirit inspired writing” you mean “anybody who agrees with me that important moral issues aare in fact trivial. Don’t blame that on the Holy Spirit.

        “I see aspiring academics trying to assert themselves in a Christian journal and yet, not a single word about Christ.”

        Then you haven’t been reading very many of the articles here. He is mentioned a lot.

        “Freedom is also about not living a sinful life.”

        Like the abomination that is is homosexuality; like the evil that is abortion; like the denial of the doominion of Nature and Nature’s God that is “transgenderism?” All of which, as the article points out, are false “freedoms.”

        “Not a single quotation from the Bible to support arguments.”

        It was not necessary to quote the Bible to support these arguments. The author mentioned Church teachings, and of course the Bible is only one of the sources of Church teachings.

        “Think of Thomas Moore, St Augustine etc and start evangelising with your pen to spiritually uplift readers.”

        I assume you mean Thomas More, the saint, as opposed to Thomas Moore, the poet. I am quite sure St. Thomas would agree that allowing the government to claim that the acceptance of evil is mandatory is wrong. After all, he died over that very matter.

        “Life in politics is short lived.”

        And the point of that statement? Ignoring right and wrong and especially wrong imposed by the government in the name of a false “liberty” has nothing to do with how long political life is.

        “Make Christ the focus of your writing.”

        Your version of Christ appears to be “Let people do whatever they want, it’s all good, and so you should let the government impose evil on you because hey, nothing’s evil!”

  9. Justice Scalia predicted that the case which provided for gay marriage was going to conflict with the First Amendment, and the baker’s case proved the point when the SC went out of its way to avoid confronting the issue and weaseled out on the partial fiction that creating a wedding cake was art, and one could not demand an artist to provide art. We still await the confrontation. Enumerated rights are superior to “penumbra” rights.

  10. Way back in 1955 in my freshman year in college I learned that liberty and freedom are two different entities. True liberty exists only under law. Freedom, left to its own devices eventually becomes license, recognizing no restraint, and requires a Hobbesian Leviathan to rein it in. From where I sit it looks like we’re already well on the way.

  11. Freedom is ultimately realized [defined] in Man meeting his ultimate end ordained by God. Natural Law is ordained by God toward due ends that cooperate in meeting Man’s ultimate end. Unless faith in God and knowledge [right reason] determines our exercise of freedom, the propensity is moderation of those ordained ends, in effect privation of direction toward discernible due ends. For example, unless that faith in God, and with it reasoned principles of behavior remain consistent with the original mind of the founding fathers when writing the Constitution, the propensity is toward modifying those freedoms until absent of reasoned principles. Literally an absence of truth. Chalk describes it as the language of radical autonomy versus that of final causality. Unprincipled autonomy rejects rules. “Eliminativism is often associated with Peter Unger [phi NYU], who defended the thesis of mereological nihilism. Nihilism is the view that there are no composite objects. The nihilist thus denies the existence of statues, ships, and humans” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). That is the madness occurring within cultural wars, particularly in one side although neither side has a firm grasp of truth. Catholics among others on one side poorly catechized poorly led by hierarchy and Nihilists who perceive freedom as purely subjective. Biden Trump epitomized this cleavage of the mind. How sore is the need for principled leadership, that for which the USCCB is equipped but lacks the heart.

  12. Freedom is the capacity to be responsible for one own actions with the understanding that one is obliged to do good and avoid evil. There is no freedom to be immoral. This is because immorality is irrational and humans are rational animals. Even Abraham Lincoln who was not very religious recognized the truth of the second sentence in this paragraph.

    What is most unfortunate is that morality is not obvious to everyone. Hence, the necessity of revelation and education. One very helpful truth is that it is parents’ duty to educate their children concerning morality and correct any misbehavior. The Catholic Church hierarchy is responsible for teaching Catholics (including parents) concerning faith and morals, and spreading the Gospel.

    In this light it is easier to understand exhortations in the epistles of Holy Scripture touching this matter. It is very important that the faith – which includes morality – is transmitted from generation to generation. This can only happen through the actions of humans.

    It seems the like main purpose of mandated secular education was to separate children from the possible influence and teaching of their parents and/or religious sect. After this was accomplished, it was only a matter of time before any kind of teaching concerning morality was eliminated. Catholics are not permitted to send their children to a public school without a dispensation from their bishop.

  13. Much needed and well written instruction. Thank you.

    “Religious freedom is most fundamental because of what it communicates about the human person, namely, that he has an inherent dignity stemming from his transcendent origin and end. We can appreciate that in many ways, including, naturally, the fact that humans possess intellects and wills, qualities that differentiate them from the rest of creation.”

    “If man has no transcendent origin or end, and nothing differentiates him from the rest of the natural order, then he has no real rights, and can be instrumentalized and exploited in the same way that we treat plants, animals, or any natural resource.”

    “If man has no transcendent origin or end, and nothing differentiates him from the rest of the natural order, then he has no real rights, and can be instrumentalized and exploited in the same way that we treat plants, animals, or any natural resource.”

    It would be beneficial and productive if our hierarchy would speak out so clearly and boldly, instead of consistently driving down the middle of the road. I cannot decide if our clergy CANNOT or WILL NOT take charge. Which is it?

    • People “can be instrumentalized and exploited in the same way that we treat plants, animals, or any natural resource.” This is what is so prevalent with abortion, human trafficking, child and adult slavery and organ harvesting as with Uyghur people of China. These horrors that occur worldwide are not being addressed loudly and condemned vehemently by either the civil or church authorities.

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