The challenge of liberty


The coincidence of the recently released Papal Encyclical Laudato Si and the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage prompts this reflection on the challenge of liberty.

The Court’s decision is indicative of our society’s tolerance for the disregard of natural law and  the abandonment of Truth. Truth and natural law can be ignored, and forgotten, but never nullified. Because these are realities outside of ourselves and beyond our control there are among us those who, wishing to manipulate the way we think (or don’t think)  attempt to relegate them to the dustbin of history. This is the totalitarian response Friedrich Hayek wrote about after the Second World War in a chapter titled  ‘The End of Truth’ in his iconic treatise ‘The Road to Serfdom’:

“The word ‘truth’ itself ceases to have its old meaning. It describes no longer something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief; it becomes something to be laid down by authority, something which has to be believed in the interest of the unity of the organized effort and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organized effort require it.”

One is reminded of Pilate’s question to our Lord: “What is Truth?”  It would seem inconceivable that two millennia later so many in society could ask this same question. Even more incredible and troubling is that so many never pose it.

Today, as the Supreme Court’s decision suggests, there is waning credence in objective Truth, a precarious trend to be sure.  If there is no Truth then what purpose does life have? And, a life without purpose is a life without dignity. Worse, a world without the dignity of Truth – however understood – is a world without a common ground for civilization, a world teetering on the brink of the slippery slide into chaos. One remembers the line from Yeats’ poem written after the First World War ravaged Europe: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

What has this to do with the Encyclical of Pope Francis?

It has often been stated that what stands between civilization and barbarism is the Church (no matter how narrowly or broadly defined). Because, as many persuasively claim, the Church in the so called developed world is weak the threat of this encroaching barbarism is more alarming. The antidote for weakness is purification. Consider the restorative role the Babylonian exile had on the Jews who had strayed from their divine Covenant and had reduced them to a purer remnant.  How can the Church today be purified? How can the leaking Barque of Peter – into which seep the poisonous waters of godless secularism – stay afloat on its voyage to the destined shore? What might this purification entail?

Certainly it will require a vigorous defense of that freedom of religion this Independence Day holiday celebrates, a defense which will demand of all of us a willingness to resist both subtle and blatant incursions on this liberty. But, Laudato Si invites us to consider an additional (not alternative) way as well, one which extends beyond the postures of defense and enters into the realms of generosity.

Much more than a warning about the abuse of the environment (pace media), the pope’s message is a summons to justice. It is the justice whose call echoes throughout Scripture, a justice between ourselves and future generations, between ourselves and poorer nations, and between ourselves and all of creation. It is a justice which not so much requires the sacrifice of ‘the good life’ as much as it does the embrace of those edifying  priorities which lead to ‘a life that is good.’

Perhaps this is the purification the Church should undertake in her clear and counter-cultural stand against the pervading threats of what is now ironically called ‘liberalism’. We, her members, should live more justly.

The challenge of true liberty is this: to flourish it must not only be defended it must be exercised. More than freedom ‘from’ it is critically freedom ‘to.’  At liberty  to do so we are called to advance the Kingdom.



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