The Speaker’s Fatal “Freedom”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives was interviewed the other day. Amidst the discussion of a variety of political issues, she was asked about her recent “brushes” with the Bishops on important issues. Sadly, her comments are not encouraging:

I have some concerns about the church’s position respecting a woman’s right to choose. I have some concerns about the church’s position on gay rights. I am a practicing Catholic, although they’re probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.

We can easily brush past the Speaker’s “concerns” about Church teaching on the evil of abortion and homosexuality. That’s just a Washington circumlocution, which should be read to mean, “I reject Church teaching on the dignity of human life and the nature of human sexuality as properly ordered solely for marriage between a man and woman”. Nothing new there — we’ve heard it all before.

Nor is it new that the Speaker, and so many others, view the teachings of the Church as mere “opinion”, to be given the same weight as the opinions of others — or my own. That’s just a convenient excuse we all use when the Church tells us that we can’t do what we want.

What’s of particular interest to me is the idea that that “free will” justifies disobedience of the Church’s authoritative teachings and even authorizes the sin of abortion.

That is a fatal error.

The Speaker’s understanding of “free will” stems from a false notion of conscience that is all too common. There is no doubt that I must be governed by my conscience, and make moral decisions in accord with it. But under the modern view exemplified by the Speaker’s comments, the primacy of conscience means “I can do whatever I want, without regard to objective truth”.

This is a hallmark of the “dictatorship of relativism” that has been consistently denounced by Pope Benedict. The Speaker, and many others, have fallen for the same error as Adam and Eve — the tempting idea that I can decide for myself what is good and evil, and thus that the teachings of the Church are merely opinions, of equal weight to the thoughts of anyone else or of my own.

True conscience is not my own voice, telling me that I’m always right. Instead, it is the voice of God, speaking the truth to our hearts, and calling us to conform our will to His. As the Second Vatican Council put it:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. (Gaudium et Spes 16-17)

The Speaker’s error has significant real-world consequences. It inevitably leads to the abortion clinic, the assisted suicide center, the torture chamber, the killing fields of murderous ideologies, and other horrors. It leads us to our current legal regime, to the horrendous injustice where the weakest among us can be killed with impunity, and their killers are rewarded with public funds.

But it also has a fatal consequence for our souls. The Speaker’s idea of untrammeled freedom that answers to no authority is ultimately a mirage, and actually enslaves us to our whims or to the prevailing fashions of the age. St. Peter saw this clearly, when he wrote about false prophets: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever corrupts a man, to that he is enslaved”. (2 Pet 2:19). In contrast, humbly submitting our will to God’s, is actually liberating, and allows me to be the man I was meant to be, and that God wants me to be. And the best way to do that is by listening to the teachings of His Church — even if it means I have to change my behavior.

In one respect, the Speaker is absolutely right. We all must accept responsibility for the use of our freedom, and we will be judged by Christ Himself for it. Knowing how I have abused my own freedom, I am uneasy about that judgment. We should pray for the conversion of the Speaker’s heart, that she will return to the truth of God’s will, just as we should ceaselessly pray for our own conversion.

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