Lesson 2b: Freedom and Law (VS, nn.35-53)

Apart from the definitions and distinctions about freedom and responsibility (II:3 above), the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, presents a cogent analysis and prescription for a correct understanding of human freedom. Human freedom is a great and precious commodity, but if freedom is not grounded in the truth and geared toward the good -- it can be an unguided missile. When freedom is not connected and linked to the truth, then a false freedom becomes the fertile ground for false autonomy, a false autonomy that not only is incompatible with but contradicts the truth about the good. (This section of VS, nn.35-53, deserves very careful reading and study. Not only does it present a correct notion of natural moral law, but repudiates numerous false moral theories, especially moral relativism, the acid rain so destructive of personal and public standards.)

In the Book of Genesis we read that man was free to eat of every tree in the garden, ". . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die" (Gn.2:17) (VS, n.35). The Pope teaches that with this imagery, Revelation teaches us that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.

Certainly, the human person is free; but this freedom is not unlimited. "God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his own love proposes this good to man in the commandments." (VS, n.35) Thus, God's law does not reduce or lessen human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. This point is the direct opposite of modern, secular individualism. Radical autonomous individualism always fosters a conflict between human freedom and God's law. Secular autonomy demands that human freedom create "values" -- values that claim a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself is seen as the creation of freedom. This 'freedom' would be morally autonomous, an absolute sovereignty -- again the direct opposite of Genesis above.

The claims for human autonomy have had a dreadful influence in Catholic Moral Theology and our country too. It is a fundamental and prophetic theme of Pope John Paul II to insist on the link between freedom and truth [Cf. John Paul II at Logan Circle, Phila. PA, (10/3/79) "Christ himself linked freedom with knowledge of the truth. 'You will know the truth and the truth will make you free' (n.8:32) . . . freedom can never be constructed without relation to the truth;" again, at Columbia, SC (9/11/87) . . . America you cannot insist on the right to choose without insisting on the duty to choose well, to choose the truth.]

Some disregard the dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom, and the need, given the present state of fallen nature, for Divine Revelation as an effective means of knowing moral truths, even those of the natural order. They posit a complete sovereignty of human reason in the domain of moral norms (VS, n.36). Even before John Paul II, the Council warned against the false concept of unlimited human autonomy: "Without its Creator the creature simply disappears . . . If God is ignored the creature itself is impoverished" (GS, n.36) . (The same lethal mistake of twisted morals will be analyzed as rooted in "a perverse idea of freedom" and the "eclipse of the sense of God and of man" in Evangelium Vitae, 3/25/95, nn.18-28.)

One simply cannot underestimate the danger of separating freedom from the truth. In its most exaggerated pose, a single sentence from a Supreme Court decision (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 6/29/92) states the case for absolute autonomy:

"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life."

That statement is not only philosophically absurd but morally dangerous. It presumes that there is no truth; indeed, it presumes that truth is somehow the enemy of freedom, which is completely backwards.

"Patterned on God's freedom, man's freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity." (VS,n.42)

It may be helpful here to review some understanding of Christian Personalism because it is a central theme of the pontifical magisterium of John Paul II and also to the moral teaching of VS. (A convenient readable summary can be found in C. Burke's, "Personalism, Individualism and Communio" L'Osservatore Romano (Eng.ed.#17/1288) (April 28,1993) pp.7-8.)

The Church as 'communio', a communion of the People of God, was an important theme of Vatican Council II; it also sparked a trend of 'personalist thinking.' Thus, the teaching of the Council was not just community-centered but also person-centered and this is a well known component of the teaching of John Paul II.

A first reaction might be: Do these two really go together? community-centered and person-centered? Is there not some basic opposition here? How do they harmonize?

The 'personalist' view of man places great emphasis on the dignity of each as a son or child of God -- as one called to fulfillment especially through the free commitment to worthwhile goals and values (CCC, III, I, a.3). That Christian Personalism is strongly conscious of personal freedom -- our own and that of others. Thus, it is also strongly conscious of personal responsibility. This Christian Personalism is deeply convinced of personal dignity and personal rights and alert to their violation in self or in others. Being conscious of rights it is also conscious of duties for they are correlatives -- there is no genuine philosophy of rights without some kind of philosophy of duties.

This Christian Personalism sees no degradation in the fulfillment of duty: one is not less human when obedient to the truth, or to legitimate authority or to reality. Rather, the peculiar expression of man's dignity is his ability to discern and respond to values. An early K. Wojtyla could write: "The person realizes himself most adequately in the fulfillment of his obligations" (The Acting Person, p.179; repeated in his book Love and Responsibility; again, as Pope, in his "Letter To Families", 2/2/94, n.11; and in VS, nn.40,41).

Conscious of both personal dignity and rights (your own and others) Christian Personalism stresses duties toward others because it is the fulfillment of these duties that is the means of personal growth and self-fulfillment.

This 'gift of self' is the essence of Christian Personalism and a key text of Vatican Council II: "It is only in the sincere gift of self that man can find himself" (GS, n.24). This text, GS, n.24, is quoted more often by John Paul II than any other text of Vatican II (cf. VS, nn.86,87). The 'gift of self' is documented by the Council text by reference to Lk.17:33. Thus, this is not merely the insight of a Polish philosopher, nor just a Council text, it is a Gospel principle for clearly the complete 'gift of self' is an accurate description of the life of Jesus Christ.

This Christian Personalism can find worthwhile values everywhere and in everyone -- personalism and community end up on the same line if you find yourself in giving yourself. Not only does this harmonize with community but is the actual condition for a healthy community.

Clearly, this is light-years removed from the secular notion of modern autonomous individualism -- so prevalent in secular education since John Dewey and so prominent in secular legal jurisprudence since Oliver Wendell Holmes. The modern secular outlook sees individualism as the enemy of community, as I suppose it must be in those terms. But absolute individual autonomy is the enemy of many things: law, medicine and theology; it completely undermines personal and societal standards. Thus, because VS does not separate freedom from the truth, it presents moral principles (both personal and social) that are consistent.

Much of this lesson sounds like a basic review of fundamental points in a philosophy of realism (and it is) because apart from or against these truths no coherent moral principles are possible. To reject the truth about freedom is to embrace moral relativism.


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