Culture at the “Heart of Liberty”

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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