There are many reasons to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, not least the pleasure of encountering sheer imaginative genius. But in the end, the most important reason is one he identifies in a letter to a patron, Can Grande della Scala: “the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.”
This choice becomes stark in the fate of Lucifer. You can get tangled up trying to figure out how certain sinners warrant specific punishments in Dante’s Hell. But Satan in Dante represents one large choice.
He’s not Milton’s romantic rebel in Paradise Lost or some clever tempter like C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape. He’s the being who has – radically, purely, eternally – rejected God and the whole order of the universe He created. Satan thinks he’s struck out on the path to total freedom from all that, but he literally could not be more wrong.
Dante shows this in an unforgettable image. Satan is frozen in ice at the very bottom of the universe, the lowest reaches of Hell. He flaps bat-like wings seeking to free himself. But the wind they create only freezes him further. It’s like the old “Chinese handcuffs” that we used to play with as children. You stick your fingers into the ends of a kind of tube, and the harder you try to pull them out the tighter it gets.
For rebels against God, it can’t be any other way. Satan flees God and his cosmic order, but there’s nowhere to flee to. There’s only one God, one universe, one reality. Reject that and you reject everything, including the source of your own being – and freedom. You can frantically push harder and harder to be “free” on your own terms, but you’re asking for what is literally impossible – a perfect freedom without connection to anything real. And locking yourself, more and more, into yourself.
Thomas More put as an epigraph to his Utopia, “The Devil, proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.” Here is mockery, self-mockery, on a gigantic scale.
All this may seem far from our everyday lives. But for a Catholic in America today, freedom poses a crucial question. Freedom or – perhaps more precisely – liberty, comes very near the top of what most Americans would say the country is all about. The American Founders were concerned that liberty not degenerate into “license.” Like the great ancient and medieval thinkers, they knew freedom could self-destruct, absent virtue and truth.
The Congregation for Education just put out a document on “transgenderism” (“Male and Female He Created Them”), which recognizes how that ideological movement has slipped into a radical disconnect from not only biology, but of cosmic order, “In this understanding of things, the view of both sexual identity and the family become subject to the same ‘liquidity’ and ‘fluidity’ that characterize other aspects of post-modern culture, often founded on nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants, or momentary desires provoked by emotional impulses and the will of the individual, as opposed to anything based on the truths of existence.”
When I heard that it was also advocating “dialogue” – for some, a magic carpet that will whisk us away from the necessity of saying yes or no – I thought it might waffle on what’s essential. Surprisingly, it affirms that dialogue means acknowledging that some people are struggling with strong emotions, and that they need to be respected as human beings, but presented with basic truths about sexuality.
Much more could be said – and perhaps soon will be. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is preparing a more purely theological commentary on the same themes. But the existing document is a guide for educational institutions, and therefore deliberately more practical than theoretical.
Our friend Robbie George has also commented on the predictable reaction of figures like Fr. James Martin, S.J., who claim modern sociology and psychology explode traditional understandings of gender. Such claims recycle an old Gnostic heresy, wherein some inner reality, unconnected with the physical body, defines its own identity. This not only contradicts the Catholic faith – as well as Jewish, Islamic, and even good secular thought. It’s hardly scientific to obliterate the role of observable structures such as male and female genes, which exist in every cell of the human body, on the basis of what someone says he or she “is.”
Dr. Paul McHugh, former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, surveyed people who have undergone “transgendering” and found they’re typically no happier than they were before: “At the heart of the problem is confusion over the nature of the transgendered. ‘Sex change’ is biologically impossible.”
St. Augustine summed up the whole Biblical tradition thus:
Eternal God, who are the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you; grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Prayer to Know God)
Truth resides where the temporal and the eternal, freedom and order, and other seeming opposites, meet and mingle. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords is also the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for His sheep. The Most High is born a lowly human baby in a manger. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. And living in harmony with the true order of the world is the only possible freedom.
Few of us see that today. Our notions of freedom come from self-indulgent entertainers, self-interested politicos, self-absorbed academic eccentrics, self-referential media. Yet despite celebrations of identity, individuality, diversity, uniqueness, the result is not a rich and harmonious social fabric and freedom, but obvious chaos and conflict in private and in public, for those with eyes to see.
*Image: Canto XXXIV by Alberto Zardo (1876-1959) [location unknown]