The Secret About Morality

It’s been a while since I grappled with the idea that Catholicism is ‘too focused on rules, on taking away my freedom’, simply because I’d forgotten people still think that. (Seriously, you spend enough time absorbed in Catholicism and the phrase, “Catholics are too strict” starts to sound like an ironic joke told in subtle tones by a bucketful of hipsters.) No, it’s the Church who offers true freedom. The world is too damn strict. Like most things worth thinking, this takes a little more than your basic “The Church says I can’t masturbate - The Church is inhibiting my freedom” to get to the truth of the matter.

How shall I phrase it? It is not the business of the Catholic Church to provide freedom as a negative – in the lack of rules, the lack of inhibitions, the absence of law – freedom as what you don’t have. It is the business of the Catholic Church to make man free.

Having no rules and choosing evil is indeed an act of freedom. But it does not make man free. Choosing to watch porn and masturbate is an act of freedom, at first. But the evil leads to man being imprisoned in addiction. The choice to gossip is an act of freedom. But it does not make man free; it cages him in the desire to gossip. The whole “slave to sin” thing isn’t some vague, spiritual truth. It’s a daily experience. It’s the experience of the grave things; alcoholism, infidelity, masochism – it’s the experience of the small things; “Why can’t you stop cursing?”, “Why do you keep escaping into your romance novels?”, “Why can’t you be nice?”

That’s the strictness of the world. It gives us a freedom that is absence, and nothing else. So we sin oh-so-freely and thereby lose our freedom. That’s what the Catechism means, that “by deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom”. Of course he does! We are living in the age – not of the lack of freedom – but of man violating his own freedom, and then not understanding why he feels so miserable all the time. It’s because those are shackles on your wrists, buddy. Not pleasures.

I make the claim that The Church is the Second Abolitionist Movement. The Church will never, ever take away that freedom that is absence, the freedom of being able to do what you want. How could she?
It’s natural; it’s called Free Will. No, to that freedom the Church presents the moral law; or rather God presents the moral law and The Church is earth’s greatest conveyor of it. The Moral Law has not come to do away with freedom, but to fulfill it, to shape the absence and give purpose to the void. The Church says don’t masturbate, don’t kill, don’t sleep around, not as some exercise in authority, but because these things will enslave you, and man is made to be free. Not a slave. Free.

Again, this makes sense of what the Catechism means, that “progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.” Read that again, I know it had a bunch of big words in it. The Church is saying that freedom is having mastery – not just over your condition in life – but over yourself! That way you can do what you want. If you’re addicted to pornography you are – by definition – not doing what you want. Following the moral law makes men free.

And the main reason this doesn’t rub against my inner-math-core-anarchist-rebel-that-I-really-wish-I-was is Jesus Christ. See, that man did something important. He looked at the entire moral law, he looked at the very foundations of our behavior, he looked at every rule and code and commandment and summed it up in one word: Love. The entire law is epitomized in Love of neighbor, love of God, and love of self. Every rule has its basis in this, from the ‘do not kill’ to the Church’s teaching on contraception. So what is the Roman Catholic Church truly saying? That Love will make you free. It’s a beautiful paradox, because Love is not free; it binds and is bound. Only by enslaving ourselves to that-which-frees-us can we be free. Isn’t that incredible? For if we are not bound to Love – the moral law – then we are not free, we are simply enslaved to immorality. And immorality, whether it comes as porn or alcohol, is a demanding taskmaster.
All this gives me an extremely weak excuse to get you to listen to Paul Simon, and then go out and live the moral law like a man in love.

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  • Jackie T

    "The Moral Law has not come to do away with freedom, but to fulfill it, to shape the absence and give purpose to the void." Fantastic stuff. Thank you!

  • athanasius

    A mentor of mine likes to say, "The wide gate leads to a road that gets narrower and narrower. The narrow gate leads to a road that gets wider and wider."

  • Matthew

    Thanks for linking to this Paul Simon album – I'd heard "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" but had no idea the album was this rich!! Looking forward to doing a post on this on our blog.

  • CT

    Reminds me of “Freedom is something that only exists within the rules. It is only when you break the rules that you become bound by the consequences.” -G.K. Chesterton

  • Ball of String

    I like this post. I guess one could say that having rules helps us in the long run while having no rules, while leaving us unburdened at first, ends up being problematic later on.

    Unfortunately, I sometimes think that much of what the Church says comes off as being authoritarian anyways. I know that they are simply giving the “cold, hard (but nevertheless beneficial) truth,” but several people are still turned off by what aura of hardness, as though they are demanding people to follow what they say is right.

    What do I believe? I believe that the Church has the duty to protect these rules. What would happen if they became lost?

  • Mark Medrano

    I posted an except from this article on FB and I got the following message from one of my friends:

    “Why do we need the church to “give purpose to the void”? If the universe is truly chaos that does not mean it is meaningless. Nothing against you, but i do not agree with this quote because it proposes an answer outside normal human ability; that the answer’s can only be found through the church. All is well when teachings are presented as guidelines, but when referred to as “Law” people tend to find it imperitive to “save” others, but by doing so they truly do inhibit the thoughts and actions of those who would “oppose” them. True the church is not represented by radicals, and the actions taken in the name of “God” often do not have a complete understanding, but it is when teachings are presented as “Law” that these people see their actions as justified; and by that I can’t abide. And can one not be as much a slave to vices as one can be to the church? Speaking from a nihilist point of view, the meaning comes from action. The action is the person; so if youre masturbate, kill, and sleep around, that’s who you are. These are not inhibitions, but choices as to confirm one’s identity. And I’d rather a person craft his own identity than fill one proposed to him by someone else,because then there is no sense of true self. This is not just the church, but all religions. Is this world we have not beautiful enough or amazing enough for us to find purpose and identity within its confines? Why must we look outside the confines of physical reality to find meaning in it all? That is why I do not like this quote, it robs Actions of their consequence and Choice of its magnitude.”

    How do I respond to this?