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What is liberty?

| Monday, November 18, 2019

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

It is quite ironic that this historically momentous yet philosophically preposterous proclamation was made by an American Catholic, the now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision reaffirming a constitutional right to abortion. Kennedy grew up in a typical Irish Catholic family in Sacramento, California, and for all intents and purposes, has remained a consistent member of the Catholic Church to this day. Nevertheless, he clearly expresses in this statement a lack of faith not only in the Church’s understanding of natural law and its application to the abortion question, but also in the very anthropological underpinnings upon which the Catholic faith is rooted.

Of course, Kennedy is an immensely erudite jurist who is certainly well aware of definitive Church teachings on these matters. It is no small feat to attend Stanford University, the London School of Economics and Harvard Law School, achieve great success as an attorney in private practice, then marshal one’s resume and experience toward a long career as a federal judge and Supreme Court justice. Although I have no window into his personal moral formation, it is hard to doubt that such a brilliant mind would remain in complete ignorance of the core tenets of his lifelong Catholic faith. Nevertheless, Kennedy has been completely at peace throughout his Supreme Court career with making decisions and writing opinions which flatly contradict the natural law by which God alone is sovereign over life and death.

Our nation’s founding documents, which John Paul Ferguson keenly observed in a Letter to the Editor to have been influenced by a variety of sources both ancient and modern, was unquestionably written with basic natural law principles such as this one in mind. Although I am skeptical of Ferguson’s argument that the American Founding’s “much deeper ideas” were more profoundly rooted in ancient constitutionalism than in Enlightenment philosophy, I am sure we can agree on this much.

Kennedy’s definition of liberty reaches outside the bounds of even the lukewarm theism to which our Founding Fathers generally adhered, for his definition is attached to a philosophical anthropology invented by the Enlightenment, detached from centuries of classical and Christian reflection and wholly embraced by our contemporary liberal orthodoxy. Under this conception, “liberty” is an absolute standard of individual will which rules out any possibility of shared truth about human life that transcends our self-willed preferences. “Progress” is usually conceived by liberals entirely in these individualistic terms.

However, Kennedy is far from alone among American Catholics in affirming a definition of liberty antithetical to the Catholic faith to which he himself paradoxically adheres. It is no secret that public figures from Mario Cuomo to Joe Biden hold or have held similar views, justifying what little remains of their Catholic conscience as a mere “private” matter in tension with their supposed “public” duty to protect and defend individual choice as the defining feature of the American regime of liberty. Indeed, these views are commonly expressed, if sometimes only implicitly, in the pages of this publication, often by guest writers but sometimes by columnists who have a bone to pick with this or that Catholic teaching which does not comport with their personal preferences.

Simply put, the Catholic faith always has been and always will be a staunch opponent of crude Enlightenment liberal individualism. As Pope Francis recently stated in an address to the International Federation of Catholic Universities, “it is necessary to overcome the legacy of the Enlightenment” and recover “an accurate vision of the human person” conceived in teleological terms connecting our own existence to the supernatural, sacramental order to which we all belong by nature. To move closer toward this vision constitutes true progress.

The Church’s understanding of human nature has likewise been summarized by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who writes that “to be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for.” This dynamic interplay of love flows first from God (who simply “is love”) to ourselves, and then from ourselves to others in constant participation with that original source of all love. We belong first and foremost to God, not ourselves as autonomous agents. In other words, our very existence is itself a gift from God, totally undeserved, supremely beautiful and thus absolutely inviolable. Hence, every person, from the moment of conception until natural death, deserves to be loved by others with the dignity afforded to them as gifts from God. This is not “merely” Catholic doctrine, for it can be known universally through natural law and must be practiced among all peoples throughout the world.

Truths like these should dramatically reorient any Catholic to view liberty as a participation in God’s eternal love for humanity rather than a self-willed concept grounded in a bleak, lonely, liberal anthropology. Nevertheless, in recent times, prominent American Catholics like Justice Kennedy have led the charge to advance the latter view over the former, which has corrupted the faithful to misunderstand the universal nature of the human person as created by and for love at all stages of life. It is the task of faithful Catholics here at Notre Dame, throughout the country and throughout the world to redeem the former definition of liberty and thereby reassert the primacy of truth in our contemporary political discourse.

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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