I write as a Catholic amidst Catholic tensions. But I suspect my questions are not mine alone, nor in the least bit sectarian. If this 2012 election has challenged us in unique ways, one challenge stands out among all the others: critical thought is not for cowards, nor for those who think small.
Thinking big is a catholic matter, for the word suggests the radius of a laser beam, broad, wide, and sweeping, universally open, intelligent, and probing.
Vatican II shook the Catholic world fifty years ago. Historians tell us a major council of this 2000 year-old community of faith doesn’t hit the grassroots until fifty years go by. Do the numbers. Right, 2012 is fifty years since the council opened. The cleansing of the temple of the disease of pedophilia, corruption in the Vatican itself, tension with religious women, the call for more transparency and more collaborative structures: like a tsunami, the waves are crashing in, and right on schedule.
So what does this have to do with the coming election? A lot, I think. For one thing, whether in our faith or in our citizenship, we are being challenged to distinguish between genuine freedom and free choice. Freedom is a top US value. We fought for our freedom from tyranny. We have taken it for granted that free choice is the same as freedom, but is it? Is freedom merely being able to make choices among options offered to us? Are the boundaries of regulation or government a curtailing of free choice?
We are being challenged by this election to think deeper, to distinguish. Freedom is the state of being able to choose whatever makes human beings flourish. Freedom is the condition that makes it possible for me, for you, to freely choose between options that build up more and more true human freedom. So what happens when my choices might endanger that freedom? Right, law steps in and regulates my choices so I don’t destroy the freedom we all treasure. In other words, my free choice is not absolute; it cannot run wild. My free choice might actually destroy my freedom and threaten yours. This is why I end up in jail. I suggest our prisons are overpopulated because as a young nation we have not been distinguishing between freedom and free choice. We solve this tension with the quick fix of putting people behind bars, when what they need is education in making good choices. In life issues we assume pro-choice means pro-freedom, when in reality our free choice to abort may be slowly destroying the creative resources of our future as a free people.
The Vatican Council is calling for the genuine freedom that promotes human flourishing, and it challenges us all to evaluate our choices as they do or do not promote that flourishing. The controversy surrounding sexual activity, contraception, and abortion are not only Catholic issues, they are issues that involve choices that either enhance our human flourishing or provide quick fixes. This impacts all of us. How we engage our free choice pertains to all of us. This clarification is a cultural issue. It concerns politics, social issues that keep people poor, and choices that destroy peace. We are all challenged on every issue to ask, “Free choice for what?”
We are being challenged to responsibly critique rampant free choice, and name those choices that are degrading us into pure license. Unless we begin to distinguish choices that lead to true human flourishing we are putting our freedom in danger. It is this quality of wise discernment that distinguishes a great people. We need the courage to say that certain free choices are destroying the quality of our freedom. Only then can the role of government and law be weighed as it attempts to regulate our free choice from degenerating into what is destructive of the common good. True governing is about putting those safeguards in place that foster real freedom, not just short-sighted free choice. This deeper current is running beneath much of the campaign rhetoric.
Yes, the challenges are right on time. The future is drawing us forward into what we can be – a wisdom people. With this in mind, and with honesty and courage, maybe we can surf the tsunami.