Two Archbishops, Two Takes on Freedom

Michael Sean Winters has an interesting post praising Archbishop Chaput’s homily for the close of the Fortnight for Freedom. Archbishop Chaput’s homily gets to the heart of religious freedom, emphasizing that political freedom is never really an end in itself. Freedom, true freedom, is not freedom from. Rather, true freedom is always freedom for something. As Christians, we know that true freedom always leads to Christ, who is Truth, for the truth alone sets us free. When freedom serves some other master, it is not freedom at all, but slavish idolatry.

Here’s Winters quoting heavily from Chaput:

Finally, someone said, in as many words, the freedoms of the First Amendment, splendid though they be, have little in common with the freedom of the children of God which is the freedom that must most concern a believer. “And yet, the political and legal effort to defend religious liberty – as vital as it is – belongs to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts, and to live for God completely, without alibis or self-delusion,” Chaput said. “The only question that finally matters is this one: Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.” Chaput preached on the Gospels, not the Federalist Papers.

Winters attempts to show how the American understanding of freedom, in particular the idea of freedom of the Founders, is deeply insufficient when compared to the idea of freedom articulated by Archbishop Chaput.

Winters contrasts this fuller understanding of freedom to that offered by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in his homily at the opening of the Fortnight. Archbishop Lori, according to Winters, “failed to note that the negative conception of freedom, a freedom from, at the heart of the First Amendment is premised upon an anthropology and a politics that is quite at odds with Catholic anthropology and Catholic political ideas.”

Photo: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia

Winters finds the compatibility of these two ideas of freedom deeply problematic: “freedom from” is not “freedom for.” As he puts it, “Just because [the Founders] spoke of freedom and we [Catholics] speak of freedom does not mean that we are speaking the same language.” Here Winters may not realize it, but he has just outlined the foundation for a (small “c”) conservative understanding of politics in which these two concepts of freedom are not antagonistic. Rather, one serves the other.

Because the state is not God, it cannot be the means by which we acquire true freedom. The state is not the Truth, and the state cannot set us free, at least not in the fullest sense of freedom outlined by Archbishop Chaput. It is precisely because of this that the state must go to such great lengths to defend the narrower, less adequate freedom that Winters identifies with the Founders and Archbishop Lori.

It is precisely because the state is not God, precisely because the state is limited in its competence, that the state refrains from answering the question, “Freedom for what?” When the state refrains from answering that question, it is not denying that there is an answer, it is simply acknowledging that the answer is not to be found in the realm of politics. The state refuses to answer that question, not because it is unimportant, but precisely because the question is so important as to be unanswerable by the state.

So it is that the state defends freedom from coercion in religious matters in order that citizens may be free to answer for themselves the fundamental, far more important question, “Freedom for what?”

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote of the profound human importance of this question:

It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. Every individual must give this response, which constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it.

A state that attempts to answer that question for its citizens easily descends into theocracy. Likewise, a state that denies the importance of that question, or refuses to allow public space for the asking and answering of that question (and living out the answer), denies that there is any truth above itself to which it is bound. Such a state is well down the road to totalitarianism.

While the state cannot fulfill our higher understanding of freedom, it can do much to impede it. Thus it is precisely the state that defends citizens from coercion in religious matters that gives proper reverence and respect to the fuller purpose of human freedom.

Archbishop Lori alluded to just this connection in his homily, when he said, “Because we are created in love and for love, we are endowed by the Creator with inherent rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Where Winters sees conflict between Lori’s view and Chaput’s, there is, in fact, deep complementarity. Rather than having “little in common” with true freedom, as Winters suggests, the “freedom from” of which Archbishop Lori spoke, is an important good precisely because (and insofar as) it is in service to, and provides for, that freedom for Truth of which Archbishop Chaput spoke so eloquently.

One last point about the limits of politics. How we use our higher freedom, freedom for truth, depends greatly on culture. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II linked the foundation of higher freedom to culture, for, as he put it, “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God.” While we must defend our political freedom, freedom from, the primary means for guiding ourselves and our neighbors toward truth do not lie in the political realm. Thus, Archbishop Chaput’s point, “Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.”

It is commonplace to lament the state of our popular culture. It is a lament I share. But insofar as a culture that leads men to true freedom will also inform politics (not least by reminding Caesar that he is not God), those who would promote such a culture must always avoid reducing culture to politics. A culture that cares only for activism or political power – even power for good – is a culture that will soon find itself incapable of protecting or promoting true freedom. Such a culture will have become the very thing it ought to defend against: a slavish worshipper of idols.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.


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  • Vincent

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. The problem with the position you’ve outlined is that it assumes that by acting humbly and not weighing in on a matter that state is somehow acting in a neutral manner. Unfortunately on some questions there is no middle ground; by not taking a side the state is taking a side. I think this is precisely what is going on with the HHS mandate. The mandate has been proposed by people who believe that contraception is an integral part of health care and pertains to the human good. Therefore, they believe, it is just for the government to require all employers to provide for contraceptive services (and unjust for the government to fail to ensure that all people can receive them). Catholics see contraception as something that is at odds with the good of the human person and therefore strenuously object to being forced to have to provide for these services. What is at the root of this issue (and something that has been woefully absent in Catholic discussions of the mandate) is that this debate is really about how to define the good of the human person. In such a debate there is no neutral ground on which the state can stand. One conception of the human good says that not ensuring the provision of contraception is injurious to welfare of the citizenry; the other conception says that mandating the provision of contraception is injurious to the welfare of the citizenry and an infringement on religious liberty. Imagine if instead of contraception we were debating a policy that would require all health plans to cover life sustaining care for patients in a persistent vegetative state. In such a scenario the sides of the debate could be exactly flipped. Catholics would be arguing that the provision of such care is a requirement of justice, and there would be some on the other side who would see this as an infringement on their rights. (They don’t want to be forced to have to pay to keep, what seems to them, a lifeless body alive. They may even have a religious objection, seeing this as a desecration of the body after the soul is gone, or alternatively as a cruel prolongation of physical life that keeps the person in a spiritual limbo. They would argue that being required to pay for such services is a violation of their religious liberty.) There is no neutral territory for the state to inhabit here. Both ensuring that people can receive such care and failing to ensure such care embody a particular view of the human person. (Probably the most “neutral” thing a government can do in such an instance is to make sure that everyone has access to such care if they desire it – and that would include financial access – and then leaving it up to citizens to chose whether or not to take advantage of that access. But that is of course precisely what the HHS contraception mandate does, and that is precisely what the bishops have rejected.) So I think Winters is right in saying that a carte blanche endorsement of the concept of religious liberty in the negative sense is problematic.

    • Paul

      Thanks for your response. Not sure if you’ll be following the thread still.
      I’m not saying the state can be neutral. In fact, I completely agree with you that it cannot be, and furthermore suggest that often times it shouldn’t even try to be.
      I took youa to be making a case for conservatism/negative liberty/freedom from, since promoting freedom leads to an enslavement of sorts. But this can’t be if you think we’re required by justice (I take it, even political justice) to care for others.

  • Paul

    Nice article. I hear Isaiah Berlin in the background, but I think you make the same error he does. Yes, we must be wary of those who would overzealously promote our ‘freedom for’ as they thereby often threaten our treasured negative liberties (conscience, speech etc.) But let’s not paint with too broad strokes. The state can and does do many things to facilitate ‘good sorts of living’, and I don’t think this is always problematic. We encourage charity (tax deductions), honour courage (holidays, medals, etc), stable family life (marriage).

  • Mik

    It is unfortunate that Winters was so close to grasping, but missed, an important distinction between political freedom and religious freedom. Clearly, he did not understand what Arbshp Chaput meant when he said (in a part of his homily quoted by Winters himself): “…. the political and legal effort to defend religious liberty – as vital as it is – BELONGS [emphasis mine] to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts, and to live for God completely…”.

    Kudos on elucidating Winters’ error so clearly.

    The piece above also points out well why Christians should avoid religious based political parties. Typically membership in them requires professing basic elements of Christian Faith. Members, however well intentioned, place their adherence to the Gospel in service of the party’s political platform. I dare say that it was in an effort to overcome this error that JPII made it abundantly clear that the Social Doctrine is, properly understood, moral theology, and not the political platforrm of the Church.

    Again, kudos on this post. It’s what makes the Catholic blogosphere worth reading.

  • fRaNkLiN

    It’s funny how someone could use an excuse like “political freedom” isn’t an end to itself, to explain why they would support laws to limit other people’s freedom, then complain when they are denied “political freedom” because someone else used the same reasoning. Here’s a thought. Start leading your life as an example. Allow other people the “political freedom” to live their lives based on their beliefs, and that includes the right for them to marry the person they love. Then, perhaps, they will return the favor. That is what Jesus came to teach us, it’s a shame so many people have forgotten.



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