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Culture at the “Heart of Liberty” Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 28 October 2013

To read, one after the other, the following two statements is a philosophical experience. The first passage is from Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 1992 Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, of the meaning of his life. . . .People have organized intimate relationships and choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that their contraception should fail.”

We once were told that contraception would eliminate the need for abortion. It usually increases it. The curious logic of this position has been frequently examined. What if, as in the case of abortion, my understanding of the meaning of life includes your destruction? How does the principle help those who are destroyed by my principle?

Next, we read the remarks of Pope Francis to Eugenio Scalfari: “Each of us has a vision of good and evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” But does such a principle, when in place, make the world a better place?

I am hard pressed to see any substantial difference between these two opinions as expressed. Both men are Catholics explaining what they hold. Both men seem to be looking at the subjective side of a person’s interior judgments. The whole objective world that is there and affected by the consequences of these positions is bypassed as irrelevant or immaterial. I cannot see why either Mao or Hitler, let alone Hobbes, would have any problem with these positions as stated. Each historical figure would maintain that he was trying to put his “understanding of existence and the good” into practice. So what’s the problem?

The problem is how the internal forum of one’s conscience is related to the objective order of the world, to what human beings actually are. Aquinas taught that an objectively erroneous conscience must also be followed. If this position were what Kennedy and Pope Francis were saying, it can be defended. The pope’s “Who am I to judge?” from the Rio return flight interview expressed our ignorance of how another person sees himself. The pope said that he was talking of someone who sincerely thought what he was doing was all right, but someone who had resolved to lead a “good” life. How many, if any, are these? We have no idea.


Justice Anthony Kennedy

Whether some, say, practicing abortionist is really “unaware” of disorder in his acts, we simply speculate about. God knows as does the person involved. But if anyone “sincerely believes” that the commandments are “wrong,” so that he may practice the wrong as if it were right, this fact still does not exempt political or religious officials from challenging this understanding, its logic, and especially its harm to others. To speak of abortion without speaking of what is aborted, to look on it as a purely subjective issue, violates the standards of reason that we are to uphold.

The basic problem here is whether modern culture is itself neutral. The move to bring the Church “up-to-date” was evidently based on the notion that nothing in the existing culture militated against any fundamental teaching or practice of reason or faith. Thus, to “adapt” to modern culture did not seem to be dangerous.

But if, within the culture, we find already an understanding of “rights, liberty, and equality” that, in their logic, undermines reason and law, then to conform to such a culture is to embrace, as good, beliefs and practices that are contradictory to reason and revelation. As a result, when we deal with modern culture in its own terms, we have to speak as if each of us has his own “understanding” of existence and good, no matter what it is. We establish governments to enable us to carry out what we want.

When we meet someone with such “modern” cultural ideas that justify making what is evil to be good, we can only respond, on these premises, by giving everyone the “right,” “liberty,” or even “duty,” to do or choose whatever he wants. The actual public order becomes wholly subjective. It gives everyone the “right” or “liberty” to do or think what he wants.

Once we arrive at this point, everything follows. With a subjective public order, we are unable to say anything about it because we have no tools but “modern ideas” of rights, liberty, and equality that, in their intrinsic philosophic definitions, allow no critique of them from an order said, in classical thought, to be “objective.

 
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
 
 
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 28, 2013
Aristotle says, "All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid; and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse." (Ethica Nicomachea Bk III. 1-2)
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written by Bangwell Putt, October 28, 2013
Is it possible that Pope Francis was expressing trust that a base level of natural law teaching will assert itself within a person who desires to be "good", a person who has this category in mind? This is not to say that it will follow that such a person will actually be good; only that this goal will tend to lead him away from wickedness and viciousness. This would also allow for repentance; provide a path forward, one on which he can begin again.

Is it possible, even likely, that men like Hitler and Stalin strove for power above all else; that "goodness" as a goal never entered their minds - or, at some point, departed from their minds? Also that their understanding of existence was one of a choice between dominance or servitude? I think that this is possible.

Returning to the passages written by Justice Kennedy on abortion and thinking of his latest thinking on marriage: No other conclusion seems possible but that he is, at this time, "ignorant of what [he] ought to do" and that "such ignorance is worthy of blame".

Still, as Pope Francis teaches us, it is necessary to think of Justice Kennedy as capable of repentance and repudiation of his errors. It is necessary to pray that God will enlighten and correct him, that this will be accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit; today, if possible.
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written by Other Joe, October 28, 2013
Mr. Putt - power is never an end in itself. As such, it would remain merely potential. Power is a means to an end. Round up the usual totalitarian suspects and what may be generalized is that each of them has sought (seeks) to remake the world in his (or her) own image. An attempt is made to make society over to the template of the individual's personal likes and dislikes (goods?). It is the devil's own worldview and begins as the sin of pride. Let millions suffer for the grievances of an individual. It is the ultimate [removed]and danger) of subjective moral reasoning.
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written by ROB, October 28, 2013
But the actual public order is not wholly subjective. Prisons are full with persons whose acts are not licensed. Surely some of these formed the subjective belief that their acts tended to the good. I think two things are at play. An acceptance of the ideal of do your own thing an a resulting openness to a continual redefinement of what is permitted. Despite being legal for almost fifty years abortion has never been celebrated except by a lunatic fringe. Homosexual marriage on the other hand...well just ask the bakers and photographers at the whip end of the law suits.
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written by Dwight , October 28, 2013
"I am hard pressed to see any substantial difference between these two opinions as expressed."

But it's always harder to do this when the quotes are lifted out of their respective contexts.

"To speak of abortion without speaking of what is aborted, to look on it as a purely subjective issue, violates the standards of reason that we are to uphold."

Again, in context, his turn to the subjective side in this interview is not disturbing: he condemned abortion in traditional terms the next day. The objective truth about it notwithstanding, there is a subjective side that has to be dealt with in each individual case.
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written by Noah Vaile, October 28, 2013
As for abortion: The subjective side is "I think I'd be better off without this baby, now and in the future." It is an act based upon a prediction. A probability. And the act is taking the life of another person because one thinks they will be happier if they murder someone. In the case of abortion someone intimately linked to them.
If "idle hands are the devil's workshop" then, perhaps, it would be best to chop off one's hands should they become "idle." Same reasoning. Yes?

As for Pope Francis' suggestion that there is (may be) no absolute good and everyone needs to, in effect, 'follow their own star.' Is THAT what he meant? It certainly reads so. In which case it is frightening that our Shepherd, THE Pope, holds Church Teachings in such (dis)regard.

It is the "subjective side" that leads us to be damned. There ARE objective truths and suggesting that finding them 'inside yourself' is "good enough" is a dis-service both to The Church and the greater community of humankind. There are absolute truths that all men must live by or chaos and destruction, the devil's due, will result.
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written by Bangwell Putt, October 28, 2013
"Other Joe" rightly comments on my failure to define my terms before participating in any discussion. Message received.

For anyone who wishes to pursue this subject further: My imprecision is corrected by Dr. Robert Spaemann in the first chapter of his short introduction to ethical thinking: "Basic Moral Concepts". The chapter is entitled, "Moral Philosophy".

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written by Deacon james Stagg, October 28, 2013
Sometimes articles and comments like these seem well-justified. But in the case of Pope Francis, I was struck dumb by this from the Office of Readings today (1Cor):

As I see it, God has put us apostles at the end of the line, like men doomed to die in the arena. We have become a spectacle to the universe, to angels and men alike. We are fools on Christ’s account. Ah, but in Christ you are wise! We are the weak ones, you the strong! They honor you, while they sneer at us! Up to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, poorly clad, roughly treated, wandering about homeless. We work hard at manual labor. When we are insulted we respond with a blessing. Persecution comes our way; we bear it patiently. We are slandered, and we try conciliation. We have become the world’s refuse, the scum of all; that is the present state of affairs.
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written by Andrew Seeley, October 28, 2013
Father Schall did not accurately quote Justice Kennedy, dropping out "the right to define": "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

This reveals the fundamental difference between the two statements. Justice Kennedy claims at the heart of the political order the ultimate freedom to decide what is good and evil on our own, which is what seduced Eve in the Garden.

Pope Francis is simply saying that, if all men followed their own conscience, the world would be a better place. He is not saying that if every one followed their own conscience, every one would always do the right thing. Nor is he saying that subjective conscience should define the political order. He is merely pointing out to the world that most of us are morally lazy bums even in terms of their own conscience.
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written by Howard Kainz, October 28, 2013
This explains the unpopularity of natural law as an ethical theory, which states "regardless of your personal vision of right and wrong, such-and-such is binding."
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written by Manfred Henne, October 28, 2013
With all respect Pope Francis needs to be more clear and circumspect in what he says for public consumption or else he is a very dangerous man. The comments here and their disputes bear this out.
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written by Manfred, October 28, 2013
"Are you more Catholic than the Pope?" Yes, I am. Bergoglio's remarks over the last six months, especially his comments to Scalfari which are quoted here, and Father Schall's brilliant exposure of these ideas of Kennedy and Bergoglio, prove that this man is a product of the last fifty years of the fraud which has been labeled the "New Catholicism". Thank you Father Schall for this brilliant essay which points out the MORAL RELATIVISM which Benedict warned would destroy mankind and the Church.
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written by Seanachie, October 28, 2013
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It would do Justice Kennedy and his colleague on the USSC (as well as Obama and fellow travelers)well to reflect upon and heed these declaratory and beautiful words from the Declaration of Independence. How one cannot recognize abortion as denial of the Creator's (not government's) endowed right to LIFE of an innocent, defenseless, unborn child, for me, defies simple reasoning. What is worse is requiring that fellow citizens accept and support this morally flawed irrationality. In light of the last two appointments to the USSC, it is highly unlikely that any change to the Court's line of "reasoning" re abortion will change.
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written by Louise, October 28, 2013
Andrew Seeley, agreed, thanks.
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written by Rich in MN, October 28, 2013
I certainly cannot read our Holy Father's mind, but may I take my own guess regarding what he was trying to accomplish in his remarks to an atheist. Our desires -- concupiscence understood broadly -- motivate us to twist reason and block out that which is literally right before our eyes -- for example, the natural complementarity of male and female, the innate desire we all feel as children (regardless of our age) to know, love and be loved by the people who brought us into existence, the consequences of physical intimacy and why it should not be entered into selfishly or cavalierly, the trajectory of human life from conception to death, etc. But our desires and our hungers block out the self evident. Instead, we search high and low to find everything we perceive as an exception and then we bend and twist each of them until they become the rationale and the paradigm for our new "rules." And pretty soon we have constructed for ourselves a marvelous house of mirrors where everything is distorted, inverted, upside down. And we have stuck ourselves square in the middle, so now we must search for a way out of our illusions in order to see the obvious.
I believe the Pope was trying to tap into what Paul affirms in Romans 1 -- i.e., that we are all capable of finding the true and the good and the beautiful by searching the created order with our reason. I don't think the Pope is under any delusions regarding what original sin has done to our moral eyesight or how eagerly and tirelessly the devil maneuvers to lead us away from the door out of the madhouse.
One of my favorite remarks regarding the gay marriage debate was that of Cardinal Francis George, who commented that gay marriage was not so much an offense against religion as it was an offense against common sense. Our desires blind us to the truth. And, in the process, our exegesis becomes a futile, impoverished, counter-productive exercise of self-delusion masquerading as self-affirmation. But Pope Francis has faith that God will touch those who reach out with their hearts girded by honesty and goodwill.
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written by Billy Bean, October 28, 2013
I believe, and certainly hope, that Pope Francis was speaking from within the natural law tradition, which posits that "we can't not know" (Jay Budziszewski) the most basic moral truths. The Pope seemed to me to say that if everyone were true to the natural law divinely inscribed on every human heart, the world would be a better place. I could wish that our dear Holy Father would be more careful to frame his remarks to suit his audience, for it is true that we all find ways to circumvent the natural law, and the unregenerate are particularly susceptible to this inclination. But the faithful should beware of an equally dangerous tendency to misinterpret the magisterium.
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written by Michael Baker, October 28, 2013
Dear Fr Schall, Like every other American commentator of recent time you have failed to make the essential distinction between absolute and moral liberty. Might I suggest you read Leo XIII's 'Libertas'.

Michael Baker
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written by Matt, October 28, 2013
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."
- Benjamin Franklin

A general dissolution of the principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy.... While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.... If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security."
- Samuel Adams
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written by Dan Grimm, October 28, 2013
I have difficulty believing that Fr. Schall doesn't see the obvious difference between the two remarks. Justice Kennedy concludes from the autonomy of each human will that society must allow abortion. Pope Francis (as reported by Scalfari) agrees that human wills have God-given autonomy which everyone must respect, even as they endeavor to persuade others of revealed truths, but he doesn't draw Kennedy's ridiculous conclusion.
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written by Manfred, October 29, 2013
The North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) continually presses to have the age of consent lowered, i.e., they may have sexual activity with younger boys LEGALLY. They consider this a Good both for them and the boys. Do you think their consciences are disturbed a whit by this? Of course not! That is why Father Schall placed Francis' remarks on the same plane as Kennedy's and why he said that Mao, Hitler or Hobbes would have no problem with both statements. This pope was in seminary and ordained after Vat. II and he reflects many of the heresies in the air since then. So do most of the cardinals in the Church as they VOTED FOR HIM. Get used to it!
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written by DS, October 29, 2013
Reading Kennedy and Francis sequentially might have been a philosophical experience for the author. However, this was a conversational interview, not a scholarly philosophical reflection in the tradition of Benedict's Regensburg Lecture. Deconstructing Francis through a Benedictine lens will produce more frustration than anything else.

This is not to be critical of Benedict. Rather, these two popes have unique gifts and charisms to offer in their service to the Church. Francis complements Benedict's astounding intellect. I believe the Holy Spirit inspired the election of each of them at a particular time for a reason (lest we forget, Bergoglio was runner-up to Ratzinger in 2005.)

Francis is setting the stage not for a philosophical discussion about objective moral truths, but for practical engagement with a culture that is in desperate need of evangelization. He invites us to engage with, not to conform to, to the culture: "We have to encourage people..." Further, his statement "That would be enough to make the world a better place" is a starting point, not an ultimate goal or a moral framework that paints everything as relative.

I think he invites us to follow the example of Christ by meeting sinners where they are.
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written by Peter O'Reilly, M.D., October 29, 2013
I pray we have a good and holy pope in Pope Francis. I think we have. I think,too, that we have a good, holy thinker and theologian in Father Schall. Thank God for both.
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written by Dan Grimm, October 30, 2013
"Both men seem to be looking at the subjective side of a person’s interior judgments." That is wholly appropriate when considering how to persuade them. It is of course not sufficient for deciding standards of morality. Pope Francis has given many proofs of his adherence to objective standards of morality. Is it old-fashioned of me to expect Jesuits to support and defend the Holy Father rather than find spurious occasions to challenge him?
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written by Chris in Maryland, November 01, 2013
Dan G:

Since so many prominent Jesuit establishments (magazines, colleges, etc) openly oppose and undermine Catholic moral theology, and openly opposed JP2 and B16, it would seem more than a mere double standard to expect an orthodox Jesuit to refrain from challenging the rhetoric of Pope Francis (his rhetoric).

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