Freedom to What End?

The other day, I was having lunch with a friend at a hidden-away Italian restaurant tucked comfortably into one of Rome’s many twisting cobblestone streets. The restaurant is a popular spot among local Romans and is a favorite of ours because, for the most part, it evades the radar of most tourists.

One of the more mundane observations that may strike many visitors to Rome is the close proximity of the tables in nearly all the restaurants. Space is an expensive and rare commodity here, so most of the tables, even in the more pricy restaurants, are within mere inches of each other. As my friend and I made our way through the pasta, wine and good conversation, I noticed that the man sitting next to us by himself seemed to be listening in on our conversation.

It became even more obvious to me as he finished his meal and remained seated at the table, taking in the last drops of his wine at an unusually slow pace, even by Italian standards. Eventually, my instincts were proven correct and the gentleman politely began asking us general questions, in near perfect English. We learned that he was actually a retired professor from Holland leading a tour of the city with a small group of pilgrims from home. After some small talk about the beauty of Rome, my friend asked him about the state of the Catholic Church in Holland.

It is well known that Holland is a country that has a reputation for being in the throes of an extreme secularism, tinctured generously with a strong anti-Catholic prejudice dating back to the earliest days of the Reformation. While Italy too may be struggling with the same rotten fruits of secularism, at the very least one can see, just by walking down any given street, how deeply engrained Catholicism is in the culture of Italy.

Unfortunately, our impromptu companion for lunch lamented that the Church in Holland has “a long way to go.” According to him, the media there seems incapable of discussing the Church outside the context of its “controversial” stance on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Such routine treatment by the media, he told us, has so far been successful at presenting the Church as a rigid, rule-obsessed institution of antiquity, stubbornly refusing to adapt to modern sensibilities of progress, reform, and freedom. It seems absolutely ludicrous to the majority of Dutch that the Church might have a thing or two to say about how to live a “good” life. Modern society has witnessed “freedom to choose” become an end in itself, to the extent that discussion over the morality or even prudence of precisely what has been freely chosen is conveniently silenced. What is chosen is unimportant, even irrelevant. All that matters is that someone chose it freely — discussion closed. Making a moral judgment on specific acts taken or choices made by others is seen as the only mortal sin for a society bewitched by moral relativism. So it comes as no surprise that in societies that are as secular as Holland, not to mention a host of other European countries, the Catholic Church is enemy number one.

Traditionally, freedom has been valued as a good, for certain, but always understood as a means toward something greater, not an end in itself. The most authentically human display of freedom is when the person chooses the good. That is to say, the human person is most truly human when he uses his freedom to align his choices in accordance with his nature. Yes, freedom is a good, but it can be abused. The “rules” of the Church are not chains intended to confine or stifle but rather guides intended to direct man along the often complex and bumpy road of human experience. It is well worth repeating that, behind every “no” of the Church’s moral teaching is to be found an even greater “yes”; a “yes” which affirms the incomparable dignity of the human person and seeks to defend it; a “yes” that reveals the authentic meaning behind the mystery of human freedom, distinguishing it from license to do anything one wishes to do, regardless of the consequences.

The authentic use of human freedom to choose the good is not easy. Like the acquisition of any skill, it requires time, patience, practice and most importantly, prayer. George Weigel uses the helpful example of learning to play the piano. Sure, anyone can hammer away at the keys and make some kind of noise. However, only through choosing to dedicate oneself to regular practice, which can often seem tedious, can one learn to play beautiful music.

The unplanned conversation between two American students living in Rome and a retired Dutch professor underscored the great need that exists to have a serious discussion in society about the meaning and purpose of freedom. Everyone will recognize that there are some limits as to what a person can and can’t do. However, where does one draw the line? Freedom must be rescued from the narrow prism of utilitarianism, which argues that man should be free to do whatever he wants, so long as no one else is hurt in the process. When a person abuses his freedom, even if there is no one else around, he does serious harm to himself. Freedom is a great gift but it cannot be bifurcated from responsibility. True happiness can only come through the responsible use of freedom.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Maldonado-Berry is currently studying Social Communication at the University of Santa Croce in Rome. He also works for Vatican Information Service (VIS) and Rome Reports, a news agency in Rome that covers Church events.

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