The Editor’s View: Catholicism, Freedom, and 20-Foot Puppets

Several years ago, a group of pro-abortion demonstrators showed up at the March for Life here in Washington. While that itself is not uncommon, the display they brought was. In one corner of the Capitol Mall, they had erected a set of enormous, 20-foot-tall puppets. I can’t remember offhand what they had on display, though I believe one of the figures was a witch or a skeleton. While a couple of demonstrators worked the puppets, a woman with a bullhorn provided the “voices.”

As expected, a crowd of pro- life marchers soon gathered around. The Catholics argued with the pro- abortionists and the pro-abortionists with the Catholics (the Fundamentalists argued with the puppets). The main point of contention was the supposed conflict between religion—Catholicism, really—and personal freedom.

It’s a tired charge, one frequently repeated by secularists: Catholicism is a religion of rules and regulations—an endless list of prohibited activities, most of which are fun. If Catholics threw off the shackles of that medieval faith, well, then they’d know true freedom.

To the secular eye, religion in general—and Catholicism in particular—is an unfortunate holdover from more primitive times. Earlier peoples, muddling through without the benefit of the Enlightenment, tended to invoke God whenever they encountered a natural phenomenon they couldn’t explain. Why did it storm last night? God was angry. Why was the planting season so fruitful this year? God was pleased. And so on.

While this mythology served our simpler ancestors, the secularist says, there’s no place for it today. Indeed, with all our modern advances in science and technology, such a worldview is positively detrimental to human progress. Catholicism, then, is little more than superstitious bondage, its adherents slaves to the village shaman in Rome. People should be free to do what they want, so long as it doesn’t endanger another non-fetal, non-elderly, non- handicapped person.

The secularist fails to understand that the Church’s rules exist so that we can exercise true freedom. Contrary to the materialist view, freedom is not merely the lack of constraint, as though we could shake ourselves free from all our masters. In this life, we have two choices: We can serve God or we can serve our own desires. There is no third option (the noble impulse of “serving others” is still an extension of our own desires). We all serve, it’s just a question of what or whom. Secularists have made their choice, and they mistake it for freedom.

The Catholic, on the other hand, knows that real freedom is the ability to do what we were created to do. The Church’s moral and spiritual norms point us in that direction; they serve as a kind of map leading us to happiness—for only by doing what we were created to do will we be fully and finally happy.

This is a useful metaphor. Imagine you set off to visit a friend in a faraway town. He sent you a map and detailed directions to lead you there, but feeling constrained by the instructions, you throw them away.

Are you now free? Hardly. You’re now lost.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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