A couple of months ago I commented on how modern ways of thinking make it hard to understand human life. I didn’t say so specifically, but a big part of the problem has to do with the relation between law and freedom.
The problem comes up in the scientific approach to knowledge. Scientists pursuing their investigations view themselves as free and rational, but they want to explain all things, including man, by reference to blind natural necessity. That makes their overall view of human life incoherent, unless they reject science as an ultimate standard and treat it as a method of investigation that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t—which not many want to do consistently.
In spite of its limitations in human affairs, people want to apply the scientific approach to society. When they do, it gives us progressive social engineering: experts, who view themselves as free and rational, decide how the rest of us should act, relate to each other, and think about things, all for the sake of peace, prosperity, stability, and equality. The rest of us are viewed as raw material and pressured to do what we’re told. If we rebel we’re told we’re choosing ignorance, because we’re rejecting what experts say, and evil, because we’re rejecting the good things they promote.
But what happens to freedom and dignity when supposed experts define the goal of human life as mundane satisfactions, and tell us what attitudes and beliefs to adopt so everyone will attain them? Also, what reason is there to suppose the approach works, when unpredictability is basic to human life? Who are these experts whose omniscience makes them omnipotent?
Such concerns lead people to modify the technocratic view. Liberals try to combine social engineering with individual freedom, but it’s not clear how to do that unless freedom is deprived of consequences. So they tell us we’re free to do what we want—watch videos no one should watch or whatever—as long as it doesn’t affect others or injure our health. But how real is that kind of freedom? A slave who was allowed to do what he wanted as long as it didn’t affect his master’s interests would be no less a slave.
Genuine freedom and dignity go with genuine responsibilities. For that reason conservatives would like to reject social engineering in favor of a system in which individuals accept their duties and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. That’s a step forward, but the proposal loses popular appeal because it’s divorced from an understanding of man and society that makes duties and responsibilities more than necessary evils. Mainstream conservatives are moderns, and don’t want to talk about human nature, higher goods, ideals of life, or the basis of concrete social ties any more than their liberal counterparts do. They want to explain their views by reference to freedom, equality, and efficiency.
But do those things really explain—for example—the nature of marriage, or our obligations to friends, family, and neighbors? And how about honor, without which public life becomes sordid? People argue that traditional moral standards greatly reduce various disorders—violent crime, drug addiction, public corruption, short-sighted and self-destructive behavior—that detract from freedom, equality, and efficiency. But even if they’re right, and something like traditional morals are necessary for a workable liberal society, it’s not going to convince anyone to embrace them. No one stays chaste because of the general social benefits of chastity: to gain followers, a way of life has to be intrinsically appealing.
Catholics should be able to do better. After all, we believe our faith offers the best way of life and most complete understanding of human beings. So we should be able to show why it’s good to be good: why doing what’s right is something a sensible person would choose for the sake of his own happiness and well-being.
Even so, we often seem to have as much trouble reconciling law and aspiration as anyone else. Some reject fixed duties altogether in favor of openness, accompaniment, and discernment. They act as if praising those things and calling other people Pharisees makes them more like Jesus than Jesus was. At bottom though it puts them in the “spiritual but not religious“ camp, with arrogance and self-righteousness added in. Their argument depends on an appeal to the movements of the Holy Spirit and their own superior insight, but how can anyone take it seriously when the results line up so reliably with the preferences of the speaker?
On the other hand, there are Catholics who think of the Faith as a matter of obeying fixed rules so they get into heaven. There are arguments in their favor: fixed rules exist; Paul spoke favorably of discipline, running the race, and winning the prize; and Jesus warned against ignoring the law—in some respects, notably with regard to marriage, he increased its demands. But are rules that are felt as external to what we want the essence of the Faith? Where is the inspiration? The longing for the infinite? The love of God that absorbs heart, soul, strength, and mind? And in any event, it’s hard to see why someone would give himself to such a faith.
So it’s difficult for us today to reconcile law and freedom, prose and poetry, religion and spirituality, what is fixed and what is open-ended. How can we put it all together and make sense of it?
Many people solve the problem in practice. A musician without a theory of what he’s doing can play the right notes in the right order in such a way that they express a vision of order that goes beyond the marks on the page. He doesn’t view the sheet music as a limitation that’s been imposed on him. Saintly people do the same in religion: they follow every point of the moral law, and their actions show us what is above the law. Not all of us are saintly, though, and we are all affected by how we explain things to ourselves, so a better way of understanding the situation would help us.
And there we have to start with where we are. Moderns like to simplify things in hopes of making them absolutely clear. A scientist investigating a problem likes to think of himself as free and rational, and the object of his study as a mechanical system. The approach has been extremely productive in fields like physics and chemistry, but we’ve seen that it becomes incoherent when applied to human beings.
That’s partly because we’re too complicated: complexity makes living processes as unpredictable as next year’s weather. And some human things, such as reason and decision, involve principles like truth and justice that the natural sciences don’t study at all. So from the standpoint of the exact sciences our lives are inscrutable.
For that reason they must be understood in a way that goes beyond the mechanical, by reference to the form, function, and goal that characterize us as human beings—that is, by reference to our nature and good. To understand what we are is to understand ourselves by reference to those things.
Scientists also do that to some extent. An animal is something that grows, feeds itself, attempts to preserve life and well-being, and produce offspring. If it’s not understood that way it can’t be understood for what it is. Man is an animal that does all that, so that is true of us as well. But we are also rational and spiritual. So to make complete sense of our lives we must understand ourselves as creatures that participate in an order that transcends the material and includes intrinsic goods that are as natural for us as food. Otherwise we will not understand ourselves, any more that we will understand a horse if we think of it as a complicated sort of rock.
And that is what unifies the law to which we are subject and the freedom through which we naturally choose our good: both are directed toward the same thing. Any understanding that opposes law and freedom falsifies human nature and the human world: for us they are two sides of the same situation, the attempt to live a good life.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 9, 2017 at Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.