National Catholic Register

Daily News

Cultivating Freedom

July 29 issue column

BY DONALD DEMARCO

| Posted 8/5/12 at 11:04 AM

Shutterstock
 

As any horticulturalist knows, you cannot cultivate roses merely by plucking weeds and killing aphids.

One must plant rose seeds. No matter how hospitable the garden is for the cultivation of roses, if there are no seeds, there will be no roses. Negative horticulture is, in itself, unproductive.

This simple, incontrovertible notion has direct applicability to human beings and their desire for freedom.

No amount of negative freedom — removing barriers that would inhibit the cultivation of freedom — will ensure the cultivation of positive human freedom.

This latter freedom must grow from an interior seed, which is the human will.

The modern world has expended considerable effort in its attempt to clear away various barriers that appear to be obstacles to freedom.

The Enlightenment sought to free reason from faith, believing that faith is an obstacle to freedom.

The Marxists were committed to liberating man from the oppression of the ruling class.

Freud wanted to free man from his restricting inhibitions; Darwin from the illusion that man was unique among animals.

Friedrich Nietzsche was passionately dedicated to ridding the world of a non-existent God whose specter prevented man from becoming truly himself.

None of these attempts to enlarge human freedom, however — all being negative — contributed one iota to the cultivation of positive freedom, which is indispensable for the proper fulfillment and flourishing of the human person.

The distinguished theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has made the observation that "human beings only become truly human when they have chosen and actuated themselves in freedom; when the ‘nature’ in them has been totally and freely appropriated and responsibly worked through."

No one can choose freedom for us. Freedom must be willed from the inside in order for the seed of freedom to germinate.

Yet the modern apostles of negative freedom continue to have their appeal, since they promise to deliver an automatic freedom, one that can be attained without personal effort.

The notion of "Freedom 55," therefore, has become very popular, inasmuch as it represents the anticipated enjoyment of freedom simply because one has been emancipated from the workforce.

Modern emancipatory movements will continue to have more influence than is justified as long as people neglect the more important freedom that requires effort and discipline, along with a realistic sense of one’s self and one’s place in the world.

The issue of freedom is being hotly contested at present in American society. In order to shed some valuable light on the issue, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, has produced an e-Book entitled True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty.

There can be no freedom without recognition of the positive value of human dignity. The cardinal refers to a number of examples that indicate a "rampant disregard" for human dignity: the approval of embryonic research, the torture of prisoners, abortion, the dismissal of the meaning of marriage and the federal contraception mandate.

"We can see," writes the cardinal, "that there is a loss of a sense of truth and objective moral norms — rules of conduct that apply always, to everyone."
Instead of grounding morality in the natural law, which is valid and liberating for all people, society has substituted "pragmatism, utilitarianism and consumerism," all of which have no higher goal than the satisfaction of individual preferences.

Human dignity is an essential value. It cannot be disregarded. Indeed, justice demands that it be accorded its appropriate freedom. Human dignity is a moral value. Laws are not just that violate human dignity.

Citing Pope Benedict XVI, the archbishop of New York pointed out that the separation of law from morality "fails to recognize the full breadth of human nature and, in fact, both diminishes man and threatens humanity."

Cardinal Dolan is indicating that laws that violate human dignity — no matter how much they appear to make people free (the freedom to be relieved of an unwanted pregnancy through abortion, for example) — contribute to the culture of death.

If negative freedom continues unchecked, there comes a point when there is nothing left to remove. Removing every factor that appears to be a restriction on freedom — the natural law, faith, inconvenience, any reference to God and unwanted human life — does not allow the person to flourish; it suffocates him.

Roses will not grow, as we mentioned at the outset, by plucking weeds and killing aphids. But here, the negative horticulture is at least opposing the enemies of roses. We are not talking about their benefactors: water, soil and sunlight.

In our present situation in the United States, what is at risk is actually beneficial to the flourishing of the human being: the positive freedom that is concomitant with human dignity.

People would be gravely mistaken if they viewed the cardinal’s book as exclusively Catholic. The archbishop of New York is addressing all human beings and underscoring the essential importance of their human dignity. He is appealing to the interior core of the human person, that capacity to choose the positive freedom that allows him to flourish precisely as a person.

It is a journey worth undertaking. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?"


Donald DeMarco, Ph.D.,
is a senior fellow of
HLI America, an initiative of Human Life International.