Rorate Caeli

Freedom: Secular and Catholic. The Crisis and Where do we go from here?


To read and re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions is not only to confront the intensely personal story of a conversion to God and to the Catholic Church It is always as well a reminder of the messiness of human freedom.  No one else, at least for me, has portrayed with greater clarity and insight the war that goes on in the human heart, not only between the will and reason, but also the war that goes on in the will itself.  Few others have been able to show clearly the complexity of desire, will and reason that makes up the human mind, soul and heart.  If one follows Augustine all the way to the City of God, one sees him struggle mightily with the question of free will and human freedom.  Even at this point in his life, one is always aware that human freedom, whether defined in a secular or religious way is messy. If one looks at human history one sees  attempt after attempt to get rid of the messiness that is part of human freedom in a fallen world.  And all those attempts have failed, for they deny the reality that is man.

The United States from the very beginning defined human freedom in terms of natural law theory, asserting that all people are in a real sense equal and that they possess, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s well-known words from the Declaration of Independence certain unalienable rights that are endowed “by the Creator”.   This understanding of freedom means that no one should interfere with another’s life, liberty or possessions. The purpose of government, somewhat limited, was to protect these rights that are necessary for freedom.  

One can call this understanding of freedom “secular”, in the sense that it does not depend on adherence to any religious creed.  Although in this understanding of natural law, God as the “Creator” is assumed to be the source of these rights, this “God in the background” is hardly the God of Jesus Christ.  One can understand how this notion of freedom resonated from the beginnings of what became the United States of America, which freedom  is a freedom from tyranny of any kind. 

The people whom we Americans call the “Pilgrims” came to this country to escape what they saw as religious tyranny wielded by the Church of England, which for the Puritan dissenters was just one step below Papistry.  The irony is that the Puritans who came to Plymouth Rock and New England were intolerant of any other “brand” of Christianity other than their own, hardly endorsing what became known as “religious freedom”. And in the end, the dour moralism of the Puritan brand of Christianity was no match for the flowering in the “New World” of a romantic understanding of freedom that exulted in the Independent Man “to live free or die”, which freedom allowed oneself to flourish in this new country of unlimited possibilities.  This freedom, even when practiced by Christian believers of one sort or another, was essentially secular and was suspicious of religious dogma of any kind.  This was fertile ground for the emergence of many Protestant sects, a few imported, but most home spun, but all assuming a secular understanding of freedom of religion: the freedom to worship God in any way one chooses, and to understand and practice one’s religion in any way one chooses, and to understand one’s religion in any way one chooses, and to tolerate all religions, just as long as they do not interfere with one’s own life.

Now this climate was seen by some in the early Church hierarchy in the United States as ideal for the growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.  But that hope was founded on the American live and let live philosophy, which was denied often in practice.  It was not founded on the Catholic Church’s self-understanding as the Church that Jesus Christ founded and as the possessor of the truths that are necessary for salvation and eternal life. Eventually these two contrary suppositions had to clash. And they have clashed and continue to do so not always in a clear manner, but the clash has occurred in modern times and continues in post-modern times, often in a manner that is confusing to all, especially to Christians.

The latest clash and its continuing effects began in the decade following  the end of the Second World War.  The 1960s were the tumultuous beginnings of the collapse of the Judaeo-Christian culture that legitimized and gave meaning to the natural law basis of civil law.  That decade also saw the beginnings of the deepening centralization of national government and its increasing sense of a paternalistic mission.  Once the basis for the culture is destroyed—which destruction was part self-destruction within the period of rapid secularization--, and once the national government began to see itself as empowered to bring about changes in the mores and the perception of reality of the people according to a progressivism completely divorced from a religious grounding, then we have the situation that we face in this country in 2021.   

Abortion as a right, gay marriage as a right, the whole transgender phenomenon that is increasingly seen a right to determine who you want to be grounded in the denial of the objective nature of human sexuality:  all of this situated in terms of a secular understanding of freedom that has no roots in philosophy or religion or in anything else that would counter radical individualism.  What is enabling this singular understanding of human freedom is the determined push of a government that has bought into an understanding of freedom that denies both natural law and the beliefs of Christians and other religious groups.  In this view of freedom it is the government’s job to remove any limits on personal freedom at least in that of self-determination. The messiness of freedom must be removed by the Clorox wipe of the liberal media and the Lysol wipe of the left wing of the Democratic party.  There must be no ambiguity.  There is nothing to talk about.  This “Alice-in-Wonderland” version of freedom does not foster genuine fraternity among people; it demands an absolute adherence to a blind relativism that is destructive of culture, of humanity, and of religion. It is a denial of what human freedom is:  a gift from God that is to be used by those He created, while remembering that this freedom has been used in both good and bad ways.  In a way we can say that human freedom is part of the mess—we could say good mess—that is due to God’s grace in creating us with free will that when misused exposes the sinfulness and the orneriness and selfishness of mankind.  It is only with the virtues of honesty and humility that we can counter the misuse of human freedom, which in the end comes from a refusal to love each other.  Without genuine humility one cannot acknowledge human sinfulness that is grounded in a refusal to live according to the natural law and the law of God.

We all have watched ceremonies that have marked the death of someone who has symbolically in some way caught the attention of the whole country.  And what we have seen over and over again are government officials making vague references to God and to prayer, all with somber faces that are meant to convey some sort of caring religiosity, always invoking faith in broad generalities, faith in general.  Even those who claim to be practicing Christians never mention the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as the basis of the “faith words” that they are repeating.  This is what American “religion” in the public sphere has been reduced to : platitudes, nice phrases, vague religiosity, and the terrible vacuous romanticism of “ our thoughts and prayers go out to you.”

The schizophrenic dichotomy that denies the reality of religious faith is so obvious not only in the vacuity of the nightly news broadcasts but also among Catholic politicians at all levels of government, who have bought into the American privatization of personal faith.  For Catholics, this is directly related to the secularization of the understanding of freedom even within the Catholic Church.

To understand this shift in understanding of freedom we need to look at recent Church history.   What we have seen in the past one hundred fifty years or so is an ever-encroaching centralization of power in Rome.  Now there is no doubt that Rome is the center of the Church.  There is no doubt that the Pope has immediate jurisdiction over the whole Church.  There is no doubt that those whom the Pope has delegated to watch over the various areas of Church life, such as doctrine and liturgy, have legitimate authority.  There is no doubt that the bishops of the Church share in the teaching charism of the Church that preserves the Church from doctrinal error.  But the negative result of the Roman centralization of power is that in the minds of many lay Catholics  Rome IS the Church.  Rome’s job is to speak and to legislate.  “Our” job is to submit and follow.

Now this attitude certainly removes some of the messiness of human freedom, for if there is nothing to think about, freedom becomes a moot point.   But it also, tragically, removes the possibility of creativity within freedom, a creativity that is not based on individual taste or on intellectual gifts but rather a creativity that is based on and comes out of the act of living one’s faith, of living the faith within the Catholic Tradition, that Tradition that has many rooms with different styles, with many different sound and colors, with many different faces of all colors and shapes, but all bonded deeply by the Tradition handed down from Christ and the Apostles.

It may be still too early for anyone to write in an objective way about the social revolution that occurred in this country and though much of the Western world in the !960s.  But it is obvious that something very important happened during that time of social upheaval and that what happened has had a deep and lasting effect on both the world and the Church.  The documents of the Second Vatican Council must be understood within that time of social revolution.  When one reads the Second Vatican Council document on the “Church in the Modern World,” Gaudium et Spes, one cannot help but seeing a reflection there of the “flower optimism” that marked the 1960s revolution, which optimism has little relevance to the world in which we live today.

And when one compares the Traditional Roman Liturgy with the Novus Ordo rite that was the product of the 1960s, again one sees the marks of that revolutionary era that in this case have had such a depressing effect on the liturgical life of the Catholic Church ever since.  The liturgy today is stuck in 1970 and has no way of getting out of this time warp, for it has no grounding in the organic growth of the liturgy that is a living part of Catholic Tradition. It is rather the “work of human hands” in committee.

The terrible failure of the Church hierarchy in this post-modern time in which we live, itself a product of the ‘60s revolution, to address in a cogent, intellectual and faithful way the increasingly strident attack on the Christian understanding of morality and freedom is prime evidence of that paralysis that is one of the lasting effects of deliberately forgetting what is the essence of the Catholic faith. This act of forgetting is a reflection of the cancel culture in which we live.  The Church that cancels its past and lives in the present only, trying to catch up to where the culture is heading, cannot continue to be the Church founded by Jesus Christ. It is in danger of becoming an irrelevant empty religious shell. But given all of this, we must never lose hope, we must never become bitter, we must do our best to live a Catholic life that is faithful and joyful in these times when it is difficult to do so.  And this is deeply and absolutely possible when we remember that 

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs--

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

                                                                                            (Gerard Manly Hopkins. SJ)

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla