Human bondage is proverbial. Men have always been the slaves of forces beyond their control. Whether it be the dark tyranny of deep-rooted repression, sending up its poison into the daylight streams of thought and life, or the vassalage of political subjection to caesar, caliph or commissar—there seems to be no escape for most worldlings from some form of servitude.
There is, however, one evident sanctuary of freedom, a city set upon a high hill for all to see, the Church built upon Peter’s infallibility, whose Divine Founder assured his adherents: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). This Church has valiantly defended human liberty against heretics from the Manichaeans to the Jansenists and the Protestants Reformers. Only by submitting to this qualified and reasonable authority will true liberty ever be found by those at present imprisoned in the cramped quarters of private opinion and narrow sectarianism.
The (One) Truth Shall Make You Free
Submitting to this authority, however, appears to many moderns as a loss of freedom. Censorship and prohibition of books, for example, offends them. Why should the mind not freely choose its own fare? The answer is that if the mind has submitted itself to an authority set up by God and responsible to him for guiding it along the road to heaven, then it will desire to follow that guidance in the interests of its own safety. No individual has the time or ability to analyze the contents of vast libraries that by his own unaided judgments he might know what to choose and what to reject as false, heretical or obscene. The humble and realistic know how easy it is to be led astray by their ignorance, pride and passion: they welcome the protection God supplies them through wiser and holier minds than their own. And they know also that permission to read condemned books can be obtained from the bishop whenever valid reasons for doing so exist. But the intellectual libertine will have none of this. He prefers to malign God’s Church by labelling it “dictatorial” or “tyrannical.”
The freedom of such rebellion is counterfeit: it will never buy peace of soul. Inward disquiet is the natural result of the sort of doctrinal license and moral relativism encouraged by many Protestant churches. Within their twilight worlds doubts spawn like mosquitoes in swampland. Is Jesus Christ God? Were his miracles genuine? Is he really present in Holy Communion? Is marriage dissoluble? Is birth control permissible? Is euthanasia enlightened? Is it necessary to go to church this morning? Doubts such as these lead men into religious apathy.
No one is completely free in this world. Men are unable to jump over the moon; they cannot breathe poisonous gasses and live; they are not allowed to repeal the laws of nature. The liberty which the Creator has given the creature is a liberty within laws. Men cannot break the natural or moral laws of God without in their turn being broken upon them. Neither can they reject God’s accredited messengers and the binding laws of Christ’s own Church without falling into error and ignorance. Those who lead men into such rebellion are the real reactionaries, reacting as they do against God’s own truth and authority. Such false prophets are the real perpetuators of human bondage. For man is never truly free except where he voluntarily obeys the will of God.
There is much more freedom of thought within the unity of Catholicism than there is within the disunity of Protestantism. Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits—these orders are in vital and fruitful competition. Not that they have been given license to believe what is false or teach what has been declared heretical. They all teach, for example, that man has been given free will by God, that in order to keep this freedom the beliefs of the Church in faith and morals must be followed. In areas where the fullness of truth has not been defined they vie in scholarship and creativity. In Catholic universities “academic freedom” is not a cloak for chaos, but a stimulus to ordered investigation along worthwhile channels. Saved from the pernicious byways of secular diffusion, continuous growth in knowledge is here possible. Infallibility protects the Catholic scholar, as Newman remarks in his Apologia.
Its object is, and its effect also, not to enfeeble the freedom or vigor of human thought, but to resist and control its extravagances.
Within this healthy limitation the Catholic mind is open not only to search after the truth, but to embrace it at all costs. The exercise of private judgment in legitimate areas of uncertainty is commended and encouraged by the Roman Church. As Arnold Lunn explains it:
It is only when the Catholic has established by reason the existence of an infallible Church that he surrenders his private judgment to the judgment of the Church, on those points, and on those points only, on which the Church speaks with the voice of God. In all other questions private judgment still remains supreme (Now I See, 132).
Truth, Freedom, and Society
In the inner world of man’s soul the “I” should exercise an absolute rulership in truth, refusing equal rights to wayward impulse and evil thought. But in the outer world of man’s society such political totalitarianism is disastrous, making an idol of the state and a slave of the individual. Throughout history the confusion of these two worlds, operating upon diametrically opposed systems of organization, has brought in its wake unhappy results. Projecting their “I” into the outer world
tyrants have tried persistently to capture all of humanity, and all of humanity at times has demonstrated a tendency to submit itself to dictatorship (Thomas Sugrue, A Catholic Speaks his Mind, 23).
This is most apt to happen in eras of unbelief, because then the inner chaos of uncertainty produces outer disorders and leads men to seek social stability through false external submission in the political sphere, instead of finding stability through internal submission to rational and revealed truth. Fulton Sheen develops this point as follows:
When reason cut itself loose from its Divine anchorage, denied absolute truth and reduced everything to a point of view, the field was wide open for propaganda. Minds that were once held together by a common faith or truth were now split into atomic “points of view,” waiting for organization and unification (“Bishop Sheen Writes,” Hartford Times; July 10, 1954; 5).
Such vacuums will always be filled by the Hitlers and the Stalins, whose false brands of unity are achieved by way of totalitarian slavery.
Here, as elsewhere, it is in the last analysis only religious truth that sets men free. The Papacy, as the infallible Voice of that truth, should never be a hindrance or a threat to democracy. It may not be able to declare as normative any one political system, but it can certainly fight its own theocratic temptations. That it has not always done so gives the Vatican grounds for repentance and caution. This, of course, is not a criticism of the Church’s authoritative teachings on the moral.aspects of political, economic and social problems. If followed during the past half century, these teachings would have saved our war-torn world considerable woe.
Confession: The Soul’s Release
The chief freedom necessary to human happiness is freedom from the guilt and destructive consequence of transgression. Our Lord specifically empowered his ambassadors to dispense God’s forgiveness and absolution.
Confessing personal sins under the seal of secrecy to another human being is the surest way of actually coming to grips with them. Avoidance and repression are so easy where a man is his own judge and jury. It is extremely difficult to be deeply and objectively truthful with one’s own failings. The penitent knows he is confessing to God through his agent, and he receives in return a valid assurance of God’s pardon. Only an absolving priesthood can grant such real remission of guilt, and for this there is a deep craving in the human heart.
The sacrament of penance is truly a great blessing, for unless a man is free from his sins, all other freedoms are but ornaments on the gown of slavery. From beyond the human frontier, then, through the instrumentality of the priest, when the requirements of contrition and confession have been met, and the penance or prayers have been assigned in satisfaction of the demands of divine justice, then come the emancipating words: “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus it is that absolution is received, the life of God restored to the soul, and innumerable aids of actual grace bestowed.
Such deep, dynamic freedom of forgiveness, which encourages and warms a man’s life like the light of the sun, comes only through captivity to God’s truth, which is found in its fullness only in that one Church which he himself founded, who said: “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).
This excerpt is taken from One Shepherd, One Flock, originally published by Sheed and Ward in 1956.