To most modern minds, freedom is a very detached concept; it is an abstraction of sorts, a free-floating power unmoored from any limits or defining standards. Freedom today is often viewed as personal and self-referential, with little consideration as to how one’s “freedom” might affect that of someone else. A healthy sense of the common good suffers mightily in a world of deeply conflicting personal freedoms.
I have written before on the paradoxes of freedom and will not repeat all of that here, but one point to reiterate is that for us (who are limited and contingent beings) the only true and healthy freedom is a limited one.
I was free to write this column and you are free to read it, but in order for shared communication to occur, we must each limit our respective personal freedom by following certain rules. I had to post the article in the expected place and you had to go there to read it. I had to follow many grammatical and linguistic rules in order to be intelligible, and you must apply similar norms in order to understand. As soon as either of us starts to cop an attitude and say, “I will not be told what to do; I will do whatever I please,” communication suffers. And thus each of us limits his freedom in order to communicate.
Another example can be found in the realm of sports. Rules, in a sense, make the game. The players and spectators limit their freedom by accepting that a given game has a specific goal. Further there are boundaries and rules of play. If some or all of these limits are removed, there is no framework. Players start moving aimlessly about the field and teams break apart. Spectators argue about everything and even forget why they are in the stadium at all. All order on the field and in the stands breaks down; even the distinction between the field and the stands starts to lose meaning. Chaos and conflict result.
To some degree this picture describes our modern age. Cultures, like the microcosm of a sports event, need agreed upon goals and rules of play in order to function properly. In the modern Western world, we are currently engaged in a misguided experiment as to whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus.
Obviously, the word cultus is at the heart of the word culture. In Latin, a cultus is something for which we care or are concerned, something of worth, something considered valuable. It describes the most central, fundamental values of a group. In later Latin, cultus came to describe the worth or value we attribute to God, who is our truest goal.
Remove the cultus from culture and you get the breakdown we have today. While pluralism and diversity have value, they must exist within a framework that is shared and agreed upon. Otherwise pluralism and diversity are unmoored and become like ships crashing about in a stormy bay.
In order for a culture to exist, there must be a shared cultus, a shared focus on what is good, true, beautiful, and sacred. Our modern experiment shows the failure of trying to have a culture without this.
Bishop Robert Barron, himself commenting on Pope Benedict’s analysis, writes the following:
The setting aside of God can take place both explicitly (as in the musings of the atheists) or implicitly (as in so much of the secular world where “practical” atheism holds sway). In either case the result is a shutting down of the natural human drive toward the transcendent and, even more dangerously, the elevation of self-determining freedom to a position of unchallenged primacy. [Pope Benedict elaborates] here a theme that was dear to his predecessor, namely, the breakdown of the connection between freedom and truth. On the typically modern reading, truth is construed as an enemy to freedom—which explains precisely why we find such a hostility to truth in the contemporary culture. Indeed, anyone who claims to have the truth—especially in regard to moral matters—is automatically accused of arrogance and intolerance. Society will be restored to balance and sanity, Benedict argued, only when the natural link between freedom and truth—especially the Truth which is God—is reestablished. … Behind all our arguments about particular moral and political issues is a fundamental argument about the centrality of God [Vibrant Paradoxes, pp. 217-218].
And thus freedom cannot be an abstraction. It cannot be unmoored; it is not an unlimited concept. It can only exist in a healthy and productive way when it is in reference to the truth—and truth is rooted in God and what He has revealed in creation, Sacred Scripture, and Tradition. This is the cultus necessary for every culture. True and healthy freedom is the capacity to obey God. Anything that departs from this necessary framework is a deformed freedom, on its way to chaos and slavery.
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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733).