Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 9--Freedom as Idol

CONTEMPORANEOUSLY, THERE IS GREAT confusion about freedom: what it is, and what it is for. Human freedom and truth are inextricably related, though modernly man seems to have severed their intimate relationship. Freedom without regard to truth has no shortage of advocates. Freedom has become the right "to do it my way," not the Way.

In one way, the modern emphasis on freedom is a great good. Like all errors, the modern emphasis contains some truth or it would not attract us. "This heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience, certainly represents one of the positive achievements of modern culture." Individualism and the respect given to the dignity of judgment, of conscience, of personal responsibility is, within proper limits, a good thing. The Church has always stressed man's freedom, man's dignity, and man's need to be responsible and conscientious in his moral decisions.

But the heightened sense of personal dignity and personal freedom in modern thought is almost invariably coupled with something that is less benign. In another way, the modern notion on emphasis of the individual is fraught with error. Many theories of human freedom place man in a position of complete autonomy from any reality, any truth, even God. Some conceptions of freedom "diverge from the truth about man as a creature and the image of God, and thus need to be corrected and purified in the light of faith." VS, 31. In particular one might point to those conceptions of freedom that are immanent, materialistic (and reject anything transcendent or metaphysical), or are implicitly or explicitly atheistic. Non-transcendent or atheistic notions of freedom deify human freedom and "exalt [it] to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values." VS, 32. Couple individualism and personal dignity with a materialistic, atheistic worldview, and it spells a recipe for moral disaster.

Freedom was once thought to be something "under God," and not something apart from God or something not referable to God. But freedom apart from God or not referable to Him is no longer freedom: a deification of freedom simply means that she becomes the idol of Libertas, an idol built of human hands and human presumption and human hubris.

Libertas, the Goddess of Liberty atop the U.S. Capitol
Is she our modern idol?
For us, is it "freedom under God," or "freedom is God"?

But freedom is not well-fitted to act independent of truth and good. Freedom manumitted from truth and the good is no longer freedom. Freedom must be adapted to reality, to the objective moral order; otherwise, it gets captured by a vicious moral subjectivism or individualism, where the only criterion of truth is "sincerity, authenticity and 'being at peace with oneself,'" which, of course, are standards that are various, fickle, and arbitrary, and blow wherever they will (usually responding to the lesser angels of our nature). In such a view, conscience is accorded infallible rights of judgment, entirely disassociated from an objective moral law. Something is right for me because I decided it for me. Ipse dixit morality.

Such subjectivism in freedom has it source in the modern despair at the human intellect's ability to discover truth. As such, modern subjectivism has epistemological roots:

As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly.

VS, 32.

But the impetus behind modern moral subjectivism may also be attributed to overemphasized individualism, since moral subjectivism is "quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others." VS, 32. Such a view of morality rejects such a thing as human nature: we define ourselves and who we are. "Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature." VS, 32. We have become Sartrists, disciples of Sartre and his vision of human as "no thing." L'homme n'est pas un chose. Man is not a thing; he is néant, nothing.*

Oddly inconsistent with the deification of human freedom is the equally modern tendency toward denying human freedom, toward a scientific or moral determinism. We see this tendency in some of the behavioral sciences. Though these behavioral sciences can impart some valuable truths, the insights are often overemphasized to the detriment of human freedom. So, for example, we have the notion that some humans are genetically determined to be homosexual, and so are not free to reject this inclination. Since they are not free to reject this genetically-compelled inclination, we have no right to call it a disorder. This deterministic application of the behavioral sciences--psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.--is erroneous, since it denies the very reality of human freedom.

The materialistic, individualistic views cannot carve God out of the picture. Without God and without freedom, there is no morality, since morality presupposes both God and human freedom.
The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: "It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good". But what sort of freedom? The [Second Vatican] Council, considering our contemporaries who "highly regard" freedom and "assiduously pursue" it, but who "often cultivate it in wrong ways as a license to do anything they please, even evil", speaks of "genuine" freedom: "Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man "in the power of his own counsel" (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God".
VS, 34 (quoting GS, 11, 17).

Freedom and the human person'srelationship with God is, without question, deeply personal, deeply individual, and yet it is not for all that outside of, or unrelated to, moral obligation.

Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.** As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: "Conscience has rights because it has duties".***

VS, 34. Because of the modern tendency to divorce freedom and the moral law and freedom from God, John Paul II launches into an exploration of the interconnectedness of freedom of law. It is that analysis which we will tackle next.

*See Man is not a Pickle: The Sartrean Argument against the Natural Law.
**Citing Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom
Dignitatis Humanae, 2; cf. also Gregory XVI, Encyclical Epistle Mirari Vos Arbitramur (August 15, 1832): Acta Gregoree Papae XVI, I, 169-174; Pius IX, Encyclical Epistle Quanta Cura (December 8, 1864): Pii IX P.M. Acta, I, 3, 687-700; Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Libertas Praestantissimum (June 20,1888): Leonis XIII P.M. Acta, VIII, Romae 1889, 212-246.
***Quoting from
A Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk: Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching (Uniform Edition: Longman, Green and Company, London,1868-1881), vol. 2, p. 250.

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