Sometimes I hear people talking about the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes they say good things, but more often, especially if non-Catholics are speaking, I hear criticisms, One of the more prevalent criticisms involves the Church’s insistence on keeping a moral code that, it is argued, is arbitrary and out of touch with the requirements of today’s world. Especially criticized are the positions of the Church on abortion and homosexual behavior. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I’m sure that all of you have heard about supposed product of the code, which is Catholic guilt, which ranks just below Jewish guilt in comedian one-liners.
At this point, I want to emphasize that in the view of the Church, there is not a plurality of moral codes. Rather, there is one code. It is universal. It applies to all of us, to you and to me. Many people say that they are against the moral code. Instead of rules, they say that they want freedom, an answer that always interests me. Recently, I was talking with a good friend who is also a client. He mentioned freedom for some reason, and when I asked what he meant by freedom, he said that for him, freedom was doing what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it and in the way that he wanted to do it. It was to live without restraints. His answer struck me, not because I agreed with it, but because it mimicked so closely the definition of freedom that I hear from the popular culture, especially from advertisements.
The Church rejects this definition of freedom as radical, which is not to say that it rejects freedom. It does not. In the view of the Church, true morality cannot exist without freedom. How can this be, especially since so many people see true freedom as the absence of rules? In part, it is due to the recognition that God is, that He is reasonable and that He created a reasonable universe, i.e., a universe that operates according to rules discoverable by the use of reason.
In the entire physical universe, so far as we know, man is the only creature capable of recognizing the reasonableness of the universe. He is the only one who can figure out its rules. Furthermore, he is the only one who, by taking thought, can change his behavior. However, with this ability comes a price. Because a man can take thought and change his behavior, he can choose to do things that will benefit himself, his family, and the larger society. In addition, he can choose to do things that will harm himself and others. In general, the beneficial things that a man does are in keeping with the moral code. The negative, harmful things that he chooses to do are against the code. It should be noted that it is by freedom that man keeps the code. It is also by freedom that he breaks the code.
To illustrate what I mean, let us consider something that grows in nature. A rose, say. Let’s make it a climbing rose. All of you know what a climbing rose is. Unlike a typical rose, it is not a compact bush. Rather, a climbing rose produces long stems that must be supported by a trellis. Remove the trellis, and what happens? The plant falls to the ground. It no longer stands. Assume for a moment that the rose fell because it actively rejected the trellis, thereby exercising its freedom. Is this exercise of freedom a good thing for the rose? Clearly not. By its radical use of freedom, it is no longer free to be a climbing rose. It has lost its support. Paradoxically, by wrongly using its freedom, it has lost its freedom. In the Church’s view, man is like this rose. Whereas the climbing rose needs a trellis to stand, man requires the support of moral law.
To further explore the requirement for moral law, permit me to change metaphors. Look now, if you would, at the handout that I passed around before the meeting. On it is a poem titled Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room. The poem is in the form of a sonnet. Sonnets generally have 14 lines with a set rhyme scheme and a certain number of syllables per line. In this case, the rhyme scheme of the sonnet is a bb aa bb a c dd cc d. It is deca-syllabic, which means that there are 10 syllables per line. Except for these restrictions, the poet wrote with complete artistic freedom.
In many ways, the human condition is like the sonnet. As the sonnet has a beginning and an ending, so does a man. He is born and he dies. A sonnet has a certain number of lines and syllables per line. So is a man bound by natural limits to his life. Just as a sonnet is spoiled by the wrong use of freedom, i.e., by violations of its rhyme scheme, etc., so is a man harmed by transgressions against moral law, in which are found his natural limits. Absolute freedom destroys a sonnet. It takes away its beauty. It makes it formless. It is rhetorical to ask this, but I will. Is not man the same? To take away all restraints is not to make a better man. It is to create a monster. For is that not what a sociopath is, one who operates outside of social constraints? In its wisdom, the Church recognizes our need for freedom within reasonable restraints. Its insistence on a moral code is for our good. It is to make us good. It is for our salvation.
|Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells;
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there as I have found.
--By William Wordsworth