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June 1, 2015

Anti-religious secularism would appear to have won the game in Western civilization. The highest value today, a value which cannot be questioned, is that of human freedom. The autonomous individual is king (or queen) in our culture, and any societal force which attempts to limit that autonomy is playing a reprehensible game.

The Church - the Catholic Church above all - is, not without reason, cast as the main opponent of the culture of individualism. It is the Church, so the theory goes, that "imposes" moral obligations and duties on its flock and would like to do so for the whole of society. This can be seen most clearly in its stands on abortion and sexual morality, but really the Church is seen as wanting to creep into all aspects of individuals' lives in order to repress our free spirits and natural inclinations.

As long as the Church is cast in this light and the question is framed in this manner, the Church will be in for dark times. Most people will steer clear of such a repressive entity, and the Church may even be persecuted for speaking against people's full exercise of autonomy.

Moreover, this portrayal of the Church does have some ground in reality. The Church fought tooth and nail against the modern world right until the Second Vatican Council; even now, an emphasis on obligation over freedom persists in some quarters.

Yet, it needs to be emphasized that human freedom is the Church's issue, not its greatest fear.

Historian Larry Siedentop's book Inventing the Individual published last year details the long story showing that the roots of secularism and personal freedom are Christian, not a reaction against Christianity. Secularism is Christianity's gift to the world, he argues.

That gift is one which distinguishes external conformity to social norms from an inner conviction that adheres to the true, the good and the beautiful. Properly understood, secularism is not indifference to or non-belief in religion and morality. Rather, it provides a space and a rational basis for critiquing stupefying conformity.

One problem is that not many self-proclaimed secularists would see secularism as having much in common with Christian faith.

A second issue is how to explain freedom in a way that is attractive to 21st century people. The late Dominican Servais Pinckaers made a good attempt in this direction in his book The Sources of Christian Ethics.

The person who learns to play the piano, Pinckaers argued, has acquired not just a new skill, but a new freedom. This freedom is of a higher level than the "savage freedom" of the person who sits down at the instrument and merely bangs out notes as his or her fancy dictates.

Likewise, a moral virtue such as courage "is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions." Yet these acts of self-conquest provide one with a courage that is liberating rather than stultifying.

Freedom, then, is not something one has by nature, but is rather the fruit of developing moral virtue. It grows out of one's natural inclinations, and organizes and develops those inclinations through time and practice. Our sense of justice, courage, truth, friendship and generosity are not nooses around our necks, but the foundation of freedom. That freedom develops through self-disciplined development of our natural attractions, attractions that have the potential to become addictions if they are not creatively self-disciplined.


Society would be well served if we understood freedom in this way rather than as the savage freedom Pinckaers deplored. How society can be moved in this direction is quite another matter. The forces of commercialism and omnipresent media would have us cast hither and yon with no order or focus to our lives.

The Church should play a major role in changing the moral culture. However, the Church today is not well equipped to do so. Its resources are extremely limited; moreover, it still has not made the shift in moral understanding itself.

However, if the new evangelization is ever going to be more than a nice idea, the Church will have to lead the way in teaching about freedom, rather than bringing up the rear or, even worse, continuing to battle against it. People will not be evangelized by a way of life they find repugnant.