It is often not your announced allegiance to a cause, belief, or policy that reveals what you really believe, but rather, how you conceptualize the reasons why the rest of us should take that allegiance seriously. It is one thing to say, “I prefer freedom over tyranny because it is good,” but it is quite another to say, “Freedom over tyranny is good because I prefer it.” The former justifies the speaker’s preference in a reality he did not create; while the latter locates the justification in the speaker himself. Freedom, in this case, is not intrinsically good. It is just a condition of existence that advances the speaker’s subjective interests.
This is precisely the sort of thinking that C.S. Lewis assessed critically in The Abolition of Man. He mentions a pseudonymous English textbook, The Green Book, that addresses a comment made by Samuel Coleridge about descriptions of a waterfall that Coleridge had heard uttered by two tourists. One tourist said the waterfall was “sublime,” while the other said it was “pretty.” Although, as Lewis notes, “Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgment and rejected the second,” Lewis was concerned with how the authors of The Green Book explained the waterfall’s sublimity to their young English readers. They write: “When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. . . . Actually. . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word `Sublime,’ or shortly, I have sublime feelings.”
As Lewis points out, there is a fundamental difference between attributing a predicate of value to the thing itself – e.g., “The Pietá is beautiful” – and attributing that predicate entirely to the subjective reaction in the observer’s mind – e.g., “I have beautiful feelings when I see the Pietá.” It is the difference between saying: “I prefer freedom over tyranny because it is good,” and saying “Freedom over tyranny is good because I prefer it.” Although two different speakers may announce to the world that each supports “freedom over tyranny,” they may not, at a more fundamental level, be talking about the same thing.
Yesterday, the Holy Father and President Obama each spoke on the lawn of the White House to an adoring crowd. It was a lovely morning, with both the pontiff and the president offering brief, though compelling, greetings to each other and the nation. What initially stood out was how, on one level, there seemed to be much agreement between the two. This is not surprising. After all, even though the president parts ways with the Church on its understanding of the nature of nature – and hence his rejection of the Church’s stance on the sanctity of human life and the normativity of conjugal marriage – on other matters, such as immigration reform and care of creation, the president and the pope can at least find common cause on the level of policy.
But even at the points where Pope Francis and President Obama seemed to agree, how each conceptualized their concerns revealed disagreement on a more fundamental level. Take, for example, the Holy Father’s comments on religious liberty: “With countless other people of good will, [American Catholics] are concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.” In another place, he referred to his upcoming address to Congress, where he hopes “to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles.”
Here, the pope is presenting religious liberty as a basic good, articulated in America’s “founding principles,” “one of America’s most precious possessions,” and necessary for any society that hopes to call itself “just and wisely ordered.” It is therefore a right that we possess by nature.
However President Obama, in his speech, presents religious liberty as a kind of modus vivendi, a belief we “cherish” because it is in the interests of the survival of differing religious communities to cherish it: “Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. It was the basis for so much of what brought us together. . . .But around the world, at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and killed because of their faith. . . .So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation.”
There is much to like in what the president said, and I applaud him for saying it. However, it seems to me that, although the president and the pope agree on religious liberty, the pope believes, as the Church holds, that religious liberty is an intrinsic good required by the dignity of the human person, while the President believes that religious liberty is an instrumental good that we ought to cherish for the sake of avoiding interfaith conflict.
Although the difference between the president and the pope on religious liberty may seem small and insignificant – and in terms of current events, virtually irrelevant – the long term consequences are another matter. For a right that is grounded in an instrumental good is only as good as conditions require. But once those conditions have vanished, then there is no justification for the right. As Lewis said of the lesson in The Green Book, “It is not a theory they put into [the student’s] mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”