Cardinal Dolan on “True Freedom”

In his new ebook, published this morning, Cardinal Dolan makes a quick and bracing call for a return of natural law against the utilitarianism and moral relativism that currently define modern law and public policy. Adapted from his speech for the Law and the Gospel of Life Series given at Fordham Law School’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work, and padded by John Allen’s lengthy introduction to his book of conversations with the Cardinal, “True Freedom” is not what you might expect. Rather than a call to turn back the recent assaults on religious liberty, which Cardinal Dolan is already making with a clear and forceful voice, it is an effort to recast the entire discussion by understanding the roots of human rights in a free society.

Cardinal Dolan begins with the quote from Pope Leo XIII which gives his work its title: “True freedom  …   is that freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person. It is stronger than any violence or injustice. Such is the freedom which has always been desired by the Church, and which she holds most dear.”

The core of his argument is a lengthy meditation on Bl. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, which tried to restore an understanding of real freedom, as opposed to the illusory freedom offered by modern society. The late pope saw that there was a “a war of the powerful against the weak” and wrote the forces that threaten basic human freedom and dignity: “A person who, because of illness, handicap, or, more simply, just by existing, threatens the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed.”

Cardinal Dolan follows this quote with an observation:

Such a culture of death can only thrive, of course, in a world in which God has been excluded, and in which everyone can evade the responsibility of solidarity by claiming to define his or her own morality. Personal freedom— the ability to do what I want, when I want, because I want to do it— is seen as the only absolute value. Can sustained human rights, those unalienable rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator, girded by law, survive in such a culture?

The pragmatic, utilitarian worldview, so popular in some segments of government and society, is used to construct a system of laws protecting human rights, particularly that of life itself, that are like blowing leaves— everything is constantly being renegotiated, based on shifting winds of utility, convenience, privacy, and self-interest.

Dolan diagnoses the problem as the exaltation of the secular, morally relativist culture at the expense of the natural law and the voice of the faithful in the public square. Religion is excluded from the marketplace of ideas because it does not conform to a basic shared set of values that are defined by a cultural elite, and subject to ever-shifting winds of change. The Cardinal sees this as a false freedom because it is not grounded in the fundamental dignity of the human being. The Gospel of Life as articulated by Bl. John Paul, on the other hand “offers a way to exercise true freedom, not based on a utilitarian calculus of self-interest, but on the innate dignity of every human person from the moment of conception to the instant of natural death, as a gift from God.”

The law of the land has become disconnected from the natural law, finding instead its inspiration and justification in pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism, all of which undermine the essential dignity of the individual. Ethical norms, he observes, cannot be derive “from a purely pragmatic scientific approach. This system denies that mere observation of how things are cannot tell us how things should be and how people should behave from a moral perspective— in other words, it denies that one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.” Natural law is thus “based on the transition from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’ upon which our moral decisions and actions are grounded.” He calls this transition from “is” to “ought” a moral journey, and insists that it must be at the heart of justice.

It’s a short work, no more than the length of a good speech (which is what it is). It’s Dolan the teacher, speaking in that that clear and direct voice of his, which has become so essential in the life of the American church. John Allen’s long and perceptive essay on the Cardinal gives it some added context and makes for a nice bonus feature.

You can buy it at Amazon for a buck. Seriously: you probably pay that much for the foam on a cup of Starbuck’s wretched coffee, so go ahead and check it out.

UPDATE: Brandon Vogt also does a review.


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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.