St. Dominic is often quoted as having said, “A man who governs his passions is master of the world. We must either rule them or be ruled by them. It is better to be the hammer than the anvil.”
A corollary follows. To the extent that we can’t control ourselves, it will be necessary that we be controlled by an outside force, police, for example, or some other government entity. Either that or things become uncontrollable.
This isn’t an original thought, of course. It’s why our Founding Fathers believed that our constitutional republic could only survive and thrive, as envisioned, if its people were moral and religious. Religion, Christianity in particular, if taken seriously, engenders internal control, helps us to live in harmony with others, and limits the need for external constraints.
We see this truth played out in families, schools, and society at large. Good kids, good students, good citizens require fewer external constraints than unruly, undisciplined, misbehaving ones. It’s not rocket science, just common sense. It should be obvious. And it’s one reason, not the only one, that I’m a Catholic priest. I’m in the self-control business. I’m into promoting restraint and discipline as the path to individual, familial, and societal peace, freedom, and happiness.
Unfortunately, I and those of a similar mindset, including the official Church, have failed miserably in making our case, in consequence of which freedom has come to be understood largely as the right to do anything we please, so long as it doesn’t immediately injure anyone else.
The trouble is that the damage we do by espousing and living out this view isn’t always immediate or obvious. Think of drug or alcohol abuse, or any other addiction, and notice how what seems in such cases to begin as an exercise of freedom soon leads to a kind of slavery.
When enough people go down this path of unbridled freedom, there aren’t enough police in the world to control the criminals; there aren’t enough laws in the land to control the chaos; and there isn’t enough money pumped into our schools to make them safe and effective.
But we seem never to learn. We keep looking for the quick fix. Our politicians and media pundits forever speak in superficial sound bites and address symptoms rather than root causes. In fact, we’re not allowed to talk about root causes. That’s perceived as being judgmental and as suggesting the imposition of an outdated and presumptively debilitating moral code.
There may be darker motives in this fixation on avoiding underlying issues. I prefer simply to presume that people are naturally inclined to look for magic-wand solutions to the problems they face. As T.S. Eliot once noted, they can’t bear much reality.
Of course, we need to address serious problems as quickly and effectively as possible, but our proffered solutions will always remain ultimately fruitless unless the underlying causes are addressed, and this is seldom done. Indeed, we often wind up throwing gasoline on the fire.
At the same time that we engage in an ineffective war on drugs, we legalize the growing and sale of cannabis. Let’s say there is some merit to this policy. Is it a good idea to turn a blind eye to the practice of routinely getting stoned? Is getting high on a regular basis good for the individual? Good for society?
Would a society of individuals exercising self-control such that very few ever even wanted to get high be a worse or better society? In such a society, would there be a profitable market for illegal drugs? Would there be as many fatal car accidents as we currently have? On balance, would money be lost or saved, lives lost or saved?
We might ask the same kinds of questions with respect to the proliferation and acceptance of pornography. Is it good for anyone on any significant level? Does it contribute to the general welfare or to the degradation of society, possibly contributing to the nightmarish reality of human trafficking? Is not asking such questions responsible or thoughtful? Do only right-wing Christian fanatics ask them, and hypocritically at that?
I don’t want to impose anything on anyone, but I would like to propose that “If it is good, do it” is a better principle by which to live than “If it feels good, do it.” Bishop Robert Barron, in one of his talks at World Youth Day in Portugal, said: “Freedom is disciplining the desires so as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless.”
The effortless part may take some time and effort, but it’s worth it. I think I’m a better person for it, and a better neighbor too. You’d be safe living next door to me, even if I owned a gun.
There’s much to be said for learning to control our passions. It’s not suppression of desires; it’s freedom, and it’s possible for nearly everyone. As Frank Sheed once put it, “I’ll believe someone has an uncontrollable temper when I see him take a swing at [the champion boxer] Joe Lewis.”
What’s needed, then, is the proper motivation, and given the condition of our society, for those not too far gone down the road to slavery, that motivation should be visible for all to see.