Relativism or Relativity: Religious Freedom and the Family

William E. May
August 26, 2012
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

In Relativism or Relativity: Religious Freedom and the Family Professor Shivanandan illuminates the debate about religion and the public square by throwing a searching light on antithetical understandings of human freedom, particularly religious freedom. A popular understanding is that freedom is requisite to autonomy. Less popular is the understanding that freedom is requisite to relationality. Professor Shivanandan explains how contemporary public debates about the family, issues of birth, marriage and death, are corollary to a prior confusion between autonomy and relationality. In the autonomy model, others are an imposition on freedom. In the relational model, others are integral to freedom. These models are at the heart of debates about family, birth, marriage and death, and they are at the heart of what religious freedom means and the place of religion in the public square. Professor Shivanandan's masterful treatment of freedom is crucial to setting aright a Culture of Life in our public square.

Relativism or Relativity: Religious Freedom and the Family

Prof. Mary Shivanandan, S.T.D.John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family At the Catholic University of America, December 9, 2005

The fact that issues of birth, marriage and death figure so prominently in debates in the United States on the role of religion in public life should alert us to the possibility that the family holds a special place in the context of religious freedom. Here we are not talking about members within the family adhering to or converting to a faith according to their conscience, although that is indeed a serious problem in some societies. Rather it is a question of the very composition of the family and the dignity of its various members. Are interventions opposing abortion, assisted suicide, so-called homosexual "marriage" an unwarranted imposition of a religious belief on society or legitimate, indeed essential, perspectives to be brought to the public arena?

It is generally agreed that Dignitatis Humanae marks a major step forward in the Church's understanding and endorsement of religious freedom.[1] Yet right from the beginning arguments arose on the relationship of freedom to truth. In 1965, when the document was promulgated, the current contentious issues on birth, marriage and death had scarcely ruffled the surface of public concern. John Courtney Murray, one of the document's recognized architects, acknowledged that governments' "first and principle concern for the common good [is] the effective protection of the human person and its dignity."[2] But he did not feel it necessary to spell out in what that dignity consists beyond self-determination and an orientation to the good of society.

David Crawford, professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family, has argued that Murray's main understanding of religious freedom as a juridical not an ontological concept, comprising only immunity from state interference, leaves the way open for the separation of freedom from truth. Each self-determining individual is left free to decide for himself the nature of reality, even of good and evil. That is the definition of relativism, relating everything to myself, without taking into account the objective truth or reality of any thing or person outside myself. That relativism is now the recognized content of freedom can be seen from the work of Alan Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. In his book Moral Freedom[3] Wolfe describes the 19th century as the century of economic freedom, the 20th of political freedom and the 21st of moral freedom, when each individual will determine for himself his moral and ethical standards. It is not co-incidental that the first example Wolfe takes up is gay "marriage," which calls in question the very identity of the traditional family.

John Paul II himself says: Freedom negates and destroys itself and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others when it no longer recognizes its essential link with the truth. When freedom out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth... then the person ends up by no longer taking as his sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion, or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim.[4] Dignitatis Humanae reiterates that all men are impelled by their nature as free and reasonable beings to seek the truth, especially religious truth. [5] At the same time they are called to be lovers of "true freedom - men that is who will form their own judgments in the light of truth, direct their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive for what is true and just."[6]

In this brief paper I seek to show how in the thought of John Paul II (1) freedom is intrinsically related to the truth and dignity of the human person created in God's image; (2) freedom from its origin is relational and; (3) relations within the family cannot be detached from the truth of the human person as relational, who finds himself only through a "sincere gift of self." In other words relativity is at the heart of human nature, a relativity that recognizes the objective truth of the other as gift. In conclusion, I shall argue that the debate needs to move to this ontological level, which means that far from imposing a religious view, the Church, especially through the thought of John Paul II, is contributing a vital component to our understanding of religious freedom, the dignity of the human person and the welfare of society.

Inseparable Bond of Freedom, Truth and the Good

Jesuit scholar, Herminio Rico in his detailed analysis of John Paul II and Dignitatis Humanae ascribes to the separation of freedom from truth when he calls for the primacy of the individual's freedom. Freedom is to be joined to responsible promotion of truth but not in an intrinsic way. Like most commentators, who adhere to democratic liberalism Rico applauds John Paul II's commitment to human rights understood politically. What he and others criticize John Paul II for is, in Rico's words, his "uncompromising," dogmatic" and "extreme positions" on ethical questions.[7] He takes as an example the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life.

John Paul II is indeed uncompromising in viewing the right to life as a fundamental right. "Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself was founded."[8] Far from seeing a dichotomy between what is understood as human rights and the right to life, he states in Gift and Mystery, that he came to see a profound connection between them from his encounter with Nazism and communism.[9] The former pope sees attacks against life as making it "increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights and duties."[10] In fact, he says, "they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights."[11]

The source of this threat, he charges, lies in secularism, which promotes a "perverse idea of freedom," the autonomy of the individual separated from any idea of God. In such an agnostic not to say atheistic environment, man loses the sense of his uniqueness among earthly creatures. Living "as if God does not exist," he loses sight also of "the mystery of his own being." And that leads to utilitarianism, individualism and hedonism.[12] This rejection of God and its deleterious effect on the human person runs like a refrain throughout Evangelium Vitae. He sums it up in no. 96 Where God is denied and people live as though he did not exist or his commandments are not taken into account, the dignity of the human person and the inviolability of human life also end up being rejected and compromised. Conversely where the word of life is proclaimed, life acquires its full meaning and value since eternal life is the end towards which our life on earth is directed.[13] The saving event of Jesus Christ is the guarantor of all human rights."By his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human being." (GS 22) This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God, who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son (Jn. 3:16) but also the incomparable dignity of every human person.[14]

In Veritatis splendor John Paul II is even more explicit concerning the "essential bond between truth, the good and freedom." [15] Here again in this encyclical on the Splendor of Truth he points to the fact that when the good of human life is rejected, truth suffers as a consequence. Man begins to doubt that there can be any true salvation. All that is left is a commitment to a detached freedom that decides for itself both good and evil. Such an attempt to separate freedom from truth results in a yet graver consequence, the separation of faith from its moral content. For faith is "a decision involving one's whole existence," and is deeply bound up with obeying God's commandments.[16] "Only God, the supreme good, constitutes the unshakeable foundation and essential condition of morality."[17] Man's freedom is constituent to his nature but it is given to him within the truth of his being as ordered to the good, ultimately the good of eternal life.[18]

The Relational Nature of Freedom

Man's life is intimately linked to God. "The dignity of this life," says John Paul II, "is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him." [19] As Crawford points out, my freedom does not pre-exist my relationship with God. It is that pre-existing relation that allows me to make the decision for or against God. Religious freedom can never be simply a juridical construct.

Freedom as part of the imago Dei, comes to me as a gift and finds its fulfillment in a reciprocal gift of self. This notion of freedom as prior gift to the person, whose freedom is fulfilled in becoming a gift to another opens up perspectives of religious freedom that mere immunity from state interference cannot encompass. First of all it places the understanding of religious freedom, indeed all freedom, in its proper theological context. Crawford draws from John Paul II's encyclicals what he calls "freedom's "architecture." It arises from "within the gift character of creaturehood."[20] Two passages from Gaudium et spes are central to the pope's understanding of man. GS 24 states, "man is the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake" and "man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself." In other words freedom is a gift from God, given for man to freely give himself as a gift. John Paul II in Veritatis splendor describes Christ's total gift of himself on the cross as the "authentic meaning of freedom." Freedom is "ultimately directed towards communion"[21].

Man cannot give himself as a gift without the freedom of self-determination and self-possession. Paradoxically this same freedom offers the possibility of making myself over to another as a gift and in that self-bestowal Christ tells us our true freedom and fulfillment lies.[22] For, as John Paul II, amply demonstrates in his Catechesis on Human Love, man is more fully the image of God as a Trinity of Persons in the moment of communion. [23]

John Paul II spells this out explicitly in Evangelium Vitae: God entrusts us to one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension. This is a great gift of the Creator, placed as it is at the service of the person and of his fulfillment through the gift of self and openness to others; but when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way, it is emptied of its original content, and its very meaning and dignity are contradicted.[24]

The Family

John Paul II in the first encyclical of his papacy, Redemptor Hominis writes: Man cannot live without love. He remains a being incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. [25] It is in the love revealed by Jesus Christ that "man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belongs to his humanity."[26] It is in the family above all that human love is experienced. In fact the mission of the family is to "guard, reveal and communicate love." Its role is "decisive and irreplaceable."[27] Emphatically John Paul II states that "there is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved; and there is no fullness of life except in freedom."[28] In other words freedom and love are inextricably linked. It is this link between freedom, life and love that compels the Church to speak out on so many issues that affect the essence of the family as a communion of life and love, such as divorce, gay "marriage" and reproductive technologies.

Let us set what the Church teaches about the family beside the message our culture gives implicitly through technological manipulation of sexuality and procreation. In "Letter to Families," John Paul II contrasts the "civilization of love," which has the family as its center with the anti-civilization of agnoticism and utilitarianism. Instead of being a gift, the child is seen as a "hindrance" to the woman's self-realization or else a product to be purchased from a fertility clinic. The woman, often with her own unwitting cooperation, becomes a mere object of sexual desire. With contraception and abortion readily available she absolves the man of making a true gift of himself. A pseudo freedom belongs to both, one that short circuits the total gift of self, which alone can fulfill their freedom.[29] In this section of the Letter, John Paul II speaks a great deal about the connection between freedom, truth and love.

The gift-character of the human person demands freedom. He must be free both to give himself and free to receive in a way that honors his or her dignity and humanity. Bodily sexual union is the sign of the total gift of self between a man and a woman. The fact that man is a body is intimately bound up with his dignity as a person and a gift. To treat the body as mere raw material that can be molded according to the desires of the individual is to deny the very nature of the person as a unity of body and soul. As the present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI says, "Although in modern culture, the concept of 'human nature' seems to have been lost, the fact remains that human rights cannot be understood without presupposing that man in his very being, is the bearer of values and norms that must be rediscovered and reaffirmed, not invented and imposed in a subjective and arbitrary manner."[30]

One might say that relativism has been enshrined in the United States Constitution as a result of Roe vs Wade.This applies both to values such as masculinity and femininity and their ordination to union and fruitfulness as well as to the nature of the human embryo. It is specious, for example, to claim:No one thinks that blastocysts (the microscopic balls of human cells from which embryonic stem cells are derived four or five days after fertilization) are actual people, and potentiality alone is not a sufficient basis for rights. We do not, for instance, think that a child of ten who has the potential to become medically qualified actually has the right to practise as a physician.[31]

To become medically qualified is to add an extrinsic quality to the human being. There is no inevitability that the ten-year-old child will become a doctor, whereas the human blastocyst, if allowed to develop normally, inevitably becomes a human person. It is this intrinsic humanness of the blastocyst that accords it rights. Otherwise at what stage do rights begin?

The Public Debate

The abortion issue, along with all the other life issues, is not likely to go away. Neither can these issues be separated from issue of religious freedom, which Herminio Rico intimates, because they deal with ultimates. As Pope Benedict XVI says, "Prior to any positive law emanated by states, such rights are universal, inviolable and inalienable, and must be recognized as such by everyone, especially by the civil authorities who are called to promote them and guarantee that they are respected."[32] Crawford concludes his discussion of John Courtney Murray on religious freedom by noting his emphasis on the need for a "public conversation and what he called 'consensus.' [33] Murray recognized that no society can survive if it cuts itself off from foundational truths, but the public debate cannot be fruitful if it is based on a concept of freedom severed from truth and the good.

There is increasing recognition in the United States that the discussion that should have taken place on abortion was short-circuited by the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion virtually through all nine months of pregnancy. [34] A University of Alabama Law professor in 1968 came up with the suggestion that, rather than legalize abortion through the democratic process in state legislatures, it would be quicker to secure it as a right through judicial fiat. A privacy right was conjured up from the 14th amendment. This privacy right now extends far beyond abortion. It has come to mean "personal autonomy - everyone's right to do whatever he or she pleases so long as others are not harmed."[35] By becoming a matter of constitutional law the opportunity for principled discussion of the ultimate values involved was cut short. As Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote, Roe v. Wade "destroyed the compromises of the past, [and] rendered compromise impossible in the future. '... To portray Roe as the statesmanlike settlement of a divisive nothing less than Orwellian. [36]. Confrontational politics took over, with the "religious" right on one (the losing) side and the secular liberals ostensibly on the other. Yet according to several opinion polls the majority of Americans declare that abortion should be illegal in the second (72%) and third (86%) trimesters of pregnancy. Because of Roe v. Wade, these views can find no expression in state legislatures or state laws.[37]

The very freedom of the majority of the people has been stifled. In such circumstances the Church has a duty to inform the public debate. There is recognition that John Paul II's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae has in fact significantly influenced public discussion. The November 2005 issue of Washingtonian, a magazine read widely by policy makers in the capital, lists a handful of titles in the last 40 years that "have moved the debate." Among them are such influential books as Alan Bloom's (1987) The Closing of the American Mind and Francis Fukuyama's (1992) The End of History and the Last Man." Evangelium Vitae merits the following evaluation:From its use of such phrases as "culture of life" and "culture of death" to its insistence that human life must be protected at every stage, Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical laid the foundation for today's evangelical conservatives. A book that reaches far beyond its Catholic roots.[38]

This brief paper will finish with one of John Paul II's many quotes on the relationship of democracy and the moral life. Your country prides itself on being a realized democracy, but democracy is itself a moral adventure, a continuing test of a people's capacity to govern themselves in ways that serve the common good and the good of individual citizens. The survival of a particular democracy depends not only on its institutions, but to an even great extent on the spirit which inspires and permeates its procedures for legislating, administering and judging.[39]