"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Freedom and Ecclesial Authority

Today in the United States we celebrate "Independence Day", and our freedom as a nation. But our conception of freedom has shifted, over time, from liberty to something closer to license. The contemporary American conception of freedom is roughly the right to do whatever one wants. The lyrics to The Rolling Stones' song "I'm Free" capture the contemporary concept quite well:

I’m free to do what I want any old time
I’m free to do what I want any old time
So love me, hold me, hold me, love me
I’m free to do what I want any old time

I’m free to sing my song though it gets out of time
I’m free to sing my song though it slips out of time
So love me, hold me, hold me, love me
And I’m free to do what I want any old time

Love me, hold me, hold me, love me
But I’m free to do what I want any old time

I’m free to choose what I please at any old time
I’m free to please who I choose any old time
So hold me, love me, love me, hold me
I’m free to do what I want any old time

So love me, hold me, hold me, love me
I'm free to what I want any old time.

This conception of freedom pervades our religious thought as well. Since we believe that freedom is a great good, and since Christ came to set us free (John 8:36; Galatians 5:1), and since freedom in the contemporary sense of the term seems to be at odds with hierarchy and institutional authority, therefore hierarchy and institutional authority are thought to be restrictive of true Christianity. True Christianity, according to this conception of freedom, eventually does away with institutions and hierarchies. In true Christianity everyone has equal access to God; everyone is a priest. We all have the Spirit, and we all have the truth, and the truth sets us all free (John 8:32). No one except Christ has the authoritative determination of doctrine or the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. In Christ we are free to worship God as we see fit.

But in the Christan tradition, freedom has not been understood as doing whatever one wants. To make my argument as briefly as I can, let me start by going back to Socrates. Socrates makes this same sort of argument to Callicles in Plato's Gorgias. Callicles, like Mick Jagger, thinks that freedom is being able to do whatever you want, where "whatever you want" is entirely disconnected [conceptually] from the ontological structure or nature of the human person. In the course of his dialogue with Callicles, Socrates shows that the person who lacks self-control, and is thereby enslaved to his appetites, is not free. So while "being able to do whatever you want" is a true description of freedom, it is very much incomplete and misleading, apart from a fuller account of what it is exactly to do what one truly wants, given the structure of our nature as human persons.

That is why in the classical and Christian philosophical tradition, it was understood that freedom is perfected as one becomes virtuous, and freedom is lost as one becomes vicious. The perfectly virtuous person is maximally free; he does whatever he wants, because whatever he wants (given his ordered disposition in his virtuous state) is truly good for him and perfecting of him – whatever he wants is what he truly and most deeply wants. The vicious person, by contrast, is in bondage to his disordered appetites, constantly doing what he does not truly want to do, and thereby is not free. The early pagan philosophers recognized this truth, particularly those (such as Socrates) who held that only the wise man is free -- and by "wise man" they meant the man trained to live in accordance with his human nature, that is, in justice and virtue. The early Church fathers recognized that here, the pagan philosophers were exactly right. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin." (cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC 1733)

St. Augustine, for example, argued against the Pelagians that if the possibility of deviating from the good belonged to the essence or perfection of freedom, then God, the angels, and the saints in heaven (who cannot deviate from the good) would either have no freedom or would have less freedom than humans in their present state on earth. St. Anselm argued, on the same grounds, that the ability to sin is not itself a part of freedom, but is actually a weakness, i.e. a privation of the power to avoid sin necessarily; in this way he argued that that power [i.e. the power to avoid sin necessarily] perfects freedom. St. Thomas Aquinas says something similar when commenting on Jesus' statement "Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin." (John 8:34).

My point is that in the Christian (and Greek) tradition, freedom has been understood to be dependent on its relation to goodness and virtue. In this tradition we have distinguished between liberty and license, not reducing the former to the latter. This is why, in this tradition, just law has not been treated as impinging on freedom, but as helping to perfect human freedom. In the Enlightenment tradition, by contrast, the awareness of the relation of freedom to virtue was largely lost. Hence the Enlightenment thinker J.S. Mill replaces virtue with the emptiness and open-endedness of "the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others".

For a Christian, willingly giving oneself over to God, in love and trust and obedience, is not a loss of freedom, but a perfection of freedom, for such union with God is our highest end and purpose; it is what we most deeply and truly want. To be perfectly united to God is thus to be perfectly free. In the Christian tradition, in heaven we will not be able to turn away from God, to rebel against Him. In that respect, we will be like the angels. Our dispositions toward the good will be so fixed and established that we can no longer ever desire evil. And yet we are there and then perfectly free. In freely loving God and binding ourselves to Him, we gladly and eagerly desire the ability never to turn away from Him, for all eternity. And in acquiring that ability, our freedom is perfected, and we ourselves are perfected.

When we understand what freedom truly is, then we can perceive that freedom and authority go together, because freedom and order go together. So contrast Mick Jagger's notion of freedom with Jesus' relation to the Father. Jesus is perfectly free, and yet Jesus does only what the Father tells Him.

"the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing" (John 5:19)

"I can do nothing on My own initiative" (John 5:30)

"I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me." (John 8:28)

"for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me." (John 8:42)

"For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak." (John 12:49)

The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. (John 14:10)

Similarly, St. Paul tells us that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17) So the Holy Spirit is likewise perfectly free. And yet the Holy Spirit also does not speak on His own initiative, but speaks only what He hears.

"But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. (John 16:13)

Read St. Therese's Story of a Soul, and you will see a nun who rejoices to find freedom under the authority of her Mother Superior. Why? Because she perceived that the authority was there for her good, and that freedom is perfected as we advance in virtue and goodness. When Christ founded His Church, He did not leave the sheep without shepherds. He appointed Apostles, and they appointed bishops, presbyters (from which we get our word priest), and deacons. The true shepherds are those who do not presume ecclesial authority to themselves, but who are chosen by the Church and sent out by her, just as Jesus and the Holy Spirit do nothing on their own initiative, but only what the Father tells them to say and do. Just as the authority of the Father is not a restriction on the freedom of the Son and the Holy Spirit, so likewise the hierarchy of the Church is not a restriction on the freedom of the sheep; on the contrary, it is precisely that by which we find true freedom. But Christ warned us that there would be those who do not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climb in by some other way. (John 10:1) These are those who make themselves out to be shepherds, but have not obtained ecclesial authority in the manner laid down by the Church from the beginning. They do not have apostolic succession. (See my "The Seduction of Presumed Authority".) From such men we should not be surprised to find bondage instead of true freedom, a message that allows us to remain comfortable in our sinfulness and vices.

If we wish to find true freedom, we must find the true (i.e. validly authorized) shepherds, and "obey" them and "submit" to them, for they keep watch over our souls, as those who will give an account. (Hebrews 13:17) Freedom according to Christ is not freedom according to Mick Jagger, nor is it the conception of freedom in the minds of most contemporary Americans. The way of license is the way of death, and many there be who go there. The way of virtue and obedience is the way of life, and few there be who find it.

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