Freedom and Dignity: Reflections on Evangelium Vitae

Expressions of Freedom

“It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social, and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes [contraception, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia] as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights” (#18).

Why are “expressions of individual freedom” not the same as “actual rights”? Human freedom is not absolute or unlimited without conditions or limits. Free will, the greatest of God’s gifts according to Dante in The Divine Comedy, is the choice to do good and honor the moral law and to know and to love God. Like all of God’s gifts it has a natural end and good purpose intended for the fulfillment and happiness all human beings. Without the moral choices determined by the rightful use of free will, man cannot do justice, choose love, serve others, or bring joy to other human beings. All moral and immoral acts proceed from the will. To justify, rationalize, or excuse evil in the name of individual choice, autonomy, or self-expression perverts the meaning of human freedom that is designed for the gift of love in all its many expressions: the generosity of friendship, the care of children, fidelity in marriage, obedience to parents, the forgiveness of others, and kindness and respect for all people.

In The Confessions St. Augustine explains all the defects of misused freedom that produce the various problems that follow when freedom turns to license. The disobedient will refuses to honor the rightful authority and reasonable requests of parents. The stubborn will resorts to willful defiance to achieve its ends even if it demands cheating and lying. The slothful will shows apathy to the attraction of the good and remains lukewarm toward the wonder of miracles. The perverse will revels in forbidden pleasures that produce harm and cause tragedy. The undisciplined will submits to the uncontrollable desires that result in the deadly sins of avarice, lust, and gluttony. The will that is not ruled by reason, the natural law, or God’s commandments produces the disorder of the soul expressed in the unruly appetites that reduce human beings to creatures of animal instincts governed by their passions. Without tempered, disciplined wills ordered to love, freedom degenerates to the will to power and self-gratification.

No person has an absolute right to use his or her body in a manner never intended by Nature or God. To sterilize a fertile human being by means of tubal ligation or vasectomy, to threaten the health of the mother by cancer-causing contraceptive pills, or to use marital acts  exclusively for pleasure while preventing their life-giving, generative powers perverts the meaning of human rights and robs  a person’s acts of their moral content.  The phrase “freedom of choice” to defend the right to abortion disguises the intrinsic evil of killing innocent human life.

The appeal to “reproductive rights” as if they were inviolable personal freedoms tantamount to the right to life, liberty, and human happiness belies the injustice of the strong imposing their will upon the weak. To argue that same-sex marriage belongs in the category of civil rights and “equality under the law” also denies the self-evident truths written in the language of the body and known to the five senses. No absolute right to marriage exists any more than an absolute right to do harm or injury to another person. True freedom does not act contrary to reason, nature, truth, or purpose but always obeys and cooperates with unchanging eternal and natural laws that govern its proper use.

Eclipse of the Senses

“The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism.” (#22)

“Practical materialism” means that man’s nature is physical and bodily without moral significance. The Christian view of man as the image of God with an immortal soul destined for eternal happiness and the Beatific Vision of the feast of love carries no authority as an immutable truth. The body is not the temple of the Holy Spirit or the place of God’s indwelling presence. The child in the womb is not a person endowed with the gift of life by the will of God but an accident, a tissue, biological material, or a disposable inconvenience. This practical materialism, then, denies the personhood of children in the womb who experience pain. It classifies them as insensitive objects or things to be utilized in stem-cell research, experimented upon as cures for Parkinson’s disease or medical research, and dismembered by instruments that separate their limbs for the trafficking of bodily parts—as if children were animals or commodities.

“Individualism” breeds self-interest, a preoccupation with one person’s convenience, profit, and pleasure. The individualist thinks solely of his gain, career, comfort, and social advancement and makes decisions governed exclusively by his own opinion, not higher wisdom. He lives for himself. He is too independent, disconnected from family, God, and traditional values—one who always prizes the novel, the revolutionary, and the avant-garde. He feels indebted to no one, assumes no responsibilities for the sake of others, and relates to other people in detached, impersonal ways. Lacking the virtues of the heart, the individualist feels no special obligations to an aging parent. He does see his life as a vocation to serve others through his talents and gifts but as an opportunity for travel, adventure, wealth, and self-cultivation.

The commitments of marriage and children interfere with the individualist’s free spirit of independence, and he does not honor vows because they inhibit his freedom for exploration and experimentation. The new and fashionable are alluring to him, but the old, tried, and true offer no excitement. Rather than feeling as if they are a part of something greater than themselves such as a family, a society, a great cause, or a universal Church, individualists see themselves as autonomous and isolated persons with their own agenda. In the words of Montaigne, the epitome of the individualist, from his essay “On Repentance,” “. . . I rarely repent, and . . . my conscience is content with itself, not as the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man,” and he continues, “I have my own laws and my own court to judge me  . . . .” Individualists want to do anything they want, think anything they wish, and live under no authority than their own self-will.   Montaigne’s idea of radical individualism clashes with the Christian view of self presented by Blessed Cardinal Newman In Meditations and Devotions:

We are created to His glory—we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.

“Utilitarianism” views human beings as useful, functional, or productive and as having value or worth only by the contributions of their work and skills to society. If a child is unwanted, if the care of the elderly imposes a burden, if a Down’s syndrome child lacks a quality of life because of disabilities, and if a person suffers an incurable depression and loses the will to live, they become “useless” and therefore disposable and subject to the various forms of death to resolve the situation. Utilitarianism fails to grasp the distinction between means and ends. No human being is a means to an end, a tool to be discarded, a worker that only performs a function, or a creature of the state that exists only for the benefit of someone else. Just as all human life is sacred and good because God declared everything he created as good (“And it was good”), all human beings possess a natural dignity and an immaterial value that transcends worldly and economic standards of usefulness, cost, and benefit.

Dignity of Persons

“The criterion of personal dignity—which demands respect, generosity, and service—is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality, and usefulness: others are considered not for what they ‘are,’ but for what they ‘have, do and produce.’ This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak.” (#23)

Because man is created in the image of God and a little less than the angels as Sacred Scripture teaches, he possesses human dignity. He is not an animal, an object, a slave, a creature of the state, or some mere instrument of pleasure to be exploited for selfish enjoyment. The child in the womb is not mere “tissue,” “biological material,” or a cluster of cells to be experimented on in the name of medical research to cure Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. By virtue of his God-given dignity and humanity man is born with certain “inalienable” rights that no government or legislation can eradicate.

Man is not a means to an end—a tool, instrument, machine, or beast of burden to be used exclusively as a worker, soldier, taxpayer, voter, machine, or drudge to be the servant of tyrants and dictators governed by “the will to power” cited by Nietzsche. Man exists as an end in himself, not because he functions for some utilitarian reason but because he possesses inherent worth.  Man’s dignity does not consist in his productivity, skills, earning power, educational level, or social status. All people are to be loved because of the sacredness of human life and their inherent lovability that “demands respect, generosity, and service.” All persons deserve respect, justice, kindness, courtesy, charity, and happiness. All human beings possess immortal souls designed for eternal happiness and the blessedness of divine life in union with God in the Beatific Vision. God’s love extends to all people in all times in all places through His universal Church.

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Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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