Spe Salvi 18: Reason and Freedom

We continue in the vein of the transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age (16-23) …

18. At the same time, two categories become increasingly central to the idea of progress: reason and freedom. Progress is primarily associated with the growing dominion of reason, and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good. Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency—it is progress towards perfect freedom. Likewise freedom is seen purely as a promise, in which (we) become more and more fully (ourselves).

I’ll trust the background of the secular worldviews on this to Pope Benedict XVI, but as a Christian, I’m hugely skeptical of any purely human endeavor being able to achieve perfection. The witness of any of our lives–our own initiatives as well as movements in and by a community are bound to have flaws.

Human beings make mistakes. Only the most egocentric among us can’t admit that. I’d say that when slaves are freed, for example, there is a founded hope their lives will be better. Reason can lead us to believe that every human being has worth and value and none are inferior to any other.

Maybe we can say that one person is more skilled in things like basketball or math or cooking. Such persons are notable for being an athlete, an accountant, or being able to host delicious dinner parties. The interaction of people with different abilities makes for a community with varied gifts and ways to contribute to the common good.

But in matters of basic justice, freedom to explore our gifts independently of slavers, predators, bosses, and other intruders brings with it a natural hope in being more fully ourselves.

Obviously, Christianity has something more to contribute to the matter.

In both concepts—freedom and reason—there is a political aspect. The kingdom of reason, in fact, is expected as the new condition of the human race once it has attained total freedom. The political conditions of such a kingdom of reason and freedom, however, appear at first sight somewhat ill defined. Reason and freedom seem to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community. The two key concepts of “reason” and “freedom”, however, were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church as well as those of the political structures of the period. Both concepts therefore contain a revolutionary potential of enormous explosive force.

Of course they do. And sadly, the association of the institutional Church with the powers of the culture: aristocracy, oligarchs, militaries, slaveowners, etc., has meant that often bishops and other church leaders have been on the wrong side of virtue, and have obstructed the aspiration to freedom. Sometimes the Church’s justification for aligning with secular power has lacked much semblance of reason. In light of the Gospel, it makes no sense to insist on power for a few and enslavement for the masses.

Sometimes, the criticism of the Church has extended to persons and groups who have truly been advocates for the downtrodden, the unfree. Sometimes the Church is unjustly vilified. And sometimes we have simply failed the mission not out of malice, but out of error and ignorance.

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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