Philosopher Peter Kreeft tells this story about the moral common sense of children. He was driving some morally wise preschoolers and a morally bankrupt teacher to a museum.
The teacher was a bright, nice modern woman with all the right psychological moves. But she couldnt control one kid who was terrorizing all the others. She kept telling the little bully that his behavior was "inappropriate." Finally, another kid shouted, "Why dont you tell him?" "Tell him what?" said the teacher. "Tell him hes wrong." Kreeft felt like clapping.
When there are no standards for practicing freedom, people can do whatever they want. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, "If God does not exist, then all things are possible." Without a God or an absolute moral truth, freedom becomes anarchy. Jesus taught us this when he said, "The truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).
Having established the need to teach Christian morality, John Paul II lays down this rule: Teach a correct idea of freedom. To be human is to be free. Human dignity involves the freedom to shape our character and destiny.
Freedom is obviously very important, as all Americans believe and as those who have lived under tyrannical dictatorships can testify from experience. Freedom is a gift from God. It works only in reference to moral truth.
Our freedom allows us only two choices, to pick the good or to take the evil. Some claim we have a third choice - not choosing. But not to decide is to decide. Not deciding is itself a choice and most often is a sin of omission. It is indifference to the moral needs of the world. Wimps are non-deciders. They use their freedom to avoid the moral challenges of life.
Humans are pulled to moral action by God and the moral truths he has revealed both in Scripture and in the natural law implanted in our hearts. Truth and freedom go together.
The world of today instructs us that we are absolutely free. The courts tell us we have a right to privacy into which no one can intrude - including God and moral truths. Conscience becomes the command and control center for this type of freedom. "Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute.... The inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and being at peace with oneself " (No. 32).
Suppose the peddlers of child pornography think they are sincere, authentic, and at peace with their business. Does that make them right? Were sincere death-camp commanders justified? A person can be sincerely wrong or right. It depends on the truth of the matter. Certain acts are inherently right or wrong. We are free to do what we should, not just what we want.
A wrong idea of freedom has led to moral confusion because freedom has been disengaged from truth. In fact, the first step was to relativize truth, claiming there is no truth, only opinion. Having denied objective truth, we lose confidence in ever knowing the truth at all. So our choices are based on feelings and self-interest alone.
"Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable to human reason, is lost, the notion of conscience also changes.... There is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly" (No. 32).
This is the oldest of all moral problems. The very first story in the Bible has the serpent saying to Eve, tempting her to act without reference to the truth of God, "You will be like gods" (Gn 3:5). Pride and disobedience to the truth about what it means to be human has been around a long time. Adam and Eve determined their own criteria for good and evil. They enjoyed the idea of being gods and so dehumanized themselves. So a basic lesson in Christian moral living is: Remember that only the truth will make you free.
Fr. Alfred McBride, O. Praem. writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. ©1997 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission.
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