Rules do not Enslave: Catholic Morality in a Meaningless Culture

Elias Reiter

I do not wish to prove the particulars of Catholic morality, but rather, explain in a short and insufficient length, the fundamental structure of Catholic morality in contrast to the meaningless freedom offered by post-modern liberalism.  

Often, when conceptualizing freedom, we apply it only to choice. Freedom under this view is firstly, I should be free to make the choices I want to make, and secondly, there be a maximal number of options for any choice that I make.  

Granted, the line is usually drawn, although not so neatly, that one’s choice cannot oppress another person in various ways.  

However, this line is always negative, deeming what we cannot do, rather than rules on what we ought to do. Beyond this often flimsy line, there are no rules.  

Essentially, we should be free from anything and anyone that tells us what we ought to do. The view that freedom only pertains to choice is radically held by the politically far-left ideologies in America, and to a lesser, but still far too great degree, by conservative ideologies as well.  

Each party seems to grasp freedoms arbitrarily, depending on the topic, ranging from abortion rights to gun rights. This radical view of freedom arguably came into full expression through the sexual revolution of the 20th century, where the principle of freedom as “license to do what I want” manifested in the relativizing of all sexual endeavors.  

This leaves all matters of sexual ethics to a simple maxim of consent between two parties, rather than any discussion of the proper ends sex is guided toward. The manifestation of these ideas promoting the sexual revolution has seeped into any number of given freedoms in human activity. 

However, this univocal view of freedom is not congruent with Catholic thought; Nor is this view held by many of the Greek and Roman philosophers. Rather, freedom is two-fold and guided.  

We should be free from exterior oppressions which do not communicate the dignity of the human person and interior oppressions that keep us from being free for higher ends.  

In modern times, we emphasize oppressors as outside actors, such as the government. Communism and fascism, for instance, are perfect examples of governments stripping basic freedom and dignity from man.  

The experience of these two regimes has left modern man hyper-focused on external oppressors, where fear of limiting liberties has rooted our fundamental framework of political and cultural thought.  

However, this emphasis on external social turmoil is incompatible with the wisdom of Christ who says, “remove the pillar in your own eye before you pluck the speck of dust out of another’s.”  

Christ’s statement is not the “don’t judge others” statement that all freedom fighters like to retort. Rather, Christ is claiming that the greatest obstacle to your freedom is yourself.  

Societal injustice, while important to diminish, is only the thief of the lesser-ordered exterior liberties. The freedom Christ proposes is found in the interior life of the human person. 

This is a freedom for greatness, purpose and meaning. Under this vision, morality breathes life because it does not restrict and enslave, but rather, expands the human heart to a vast wealth of freedom that this modern Western culture has abhorrently derailed. 

How do moral rules grant freedom? Because to reach great and fulfilling heights, you must submit yourself to discipline and virtue, which is no easy task and a task for the most part independent from external oppressors.  

A very practical example of this structure of rules is an athlete that pummels his body in many practices for an Olympic medal. A still greater example of this is marriage.  

I have not met a single woman who desires to marry a man who acts like a teenage boy and has no discipline over his immediate pleasures and desires. No man can be a fruitful husband if they do not possess virtues of honesty, courage, discipline, prudence, temperance, fortitude, faithfulness (which includes chastity) and so on.  

These virtues are what allow a husband to make a self-sacrificial gift of himself in love for his family. The yes’s given toward obtaining virtues require no’s to certain choices.  

Therefore, the rules of morality are guides toward freedom for fulfillment rather than rules that oppress. Thus, the question of “Why be a good person?”, a question that is vastly avoided in our academic institutions, is in part answered by the fact that being good, or virtuous, is universally rewarding to the individual.  

Furthermore, not attaining goodness in character leaves an individual with a meaning crisis and brings an unwanted amount of suffering. The term “existential crisis” is very applicable here. 

The discussion thus far has centered around freedom and what allows us to attain higher ends. One may object desires and greatness are relative to each individual and these rules should not exist because they oppress individual liberty and expression.  

This objection is why there must be a link that is not often made with morality in modern philosophy. The question of ethics and morality which seeks to answer what we ought to do must rest in the anthropological question of who we are.  

The fundamental claim of Catholic morality is not a claim on rules and action, but rather, a claim on identity and the nature of man. The question of who we are defines our nature, and our nature, if defined and not entirely mutable, reveals what we ought to do.  

Essentially, human nature is where we find our most fundamental desires. Our culture and much of modernity rest on the proposition that our nature and identity are completely undefined and relative to the individual.  

However, psychological research is proving anything but that. Dr. Bob Schuchts, a clinical psychologist, found the diversity of negative human experiences can be broken down in the psyche into at least seven core wounds: abandonment, rejection, fear, shame, powerlessness, hopelessness and confusion.  

If all persons have these universal wounds manifesting after our particular negative experiences, then those wounds must be based on a universal nature.  

Furthermore, those wounds are based on the universal desires every person shares within their human nature. While we are individuals with diverse attractions toward jobs, places to live, types of friends and more, we also share fundamental desires that cannot be relativized at their core.  

An example: fear of abandonment would indicate that we desire relationship. We are communal or relational creatures—something Aristotle observed.  

Knowing there are universal wounds and desires comes from our immutable human nature. Our quest would be, first, to become aware of our fundamental desires, and second, to build a morality which leads to the obtaining of those desires.  

Thus, whatever actions block the individual from obtaining a desire is considered morally bad, and whatever helps attain it is morally good. 

The Catholic claim on morality is fairly simple. Every human heart has an unfathomable depth in which there is an infinite desire to be fully loved and fully known and to love as you are loved and know as you are known.  

This requires answering who can fully love and know the depths of the human heart. The answer is Jesus Christ who knows and loves you in totality.  

Therefore, Catholic morality is a restriction on one’s freedom; it is the guideline for how a person submits themselves to be in love and communion with the one who fully loves and fully knows and to lead others to the same.  

This is the fulfillment of what one already naturally desires whether he knows it or not. Only through the journey of self-discovery as the beloved by means of relationship with the unconditional lover, does one fully learn to become the lover of others, which manifests in using one’s freedom for responsibility and self-sacrifice.  

As stated above, marriage and family are some of the greatest and most rewarding responsibilities a person can undertake.  

Christ sets one interiorly free for love by offering interior peace and driving out any fear and anxiety. He is the meaning that the secular Western cultures cannot provide and the path to eudaimonia, or happiness. 

While I claim Christ offers the fulfillment of meaning in one’s life, the observable crisis in meaning is not strictly a Catholic observation.  

Many psychologists such as Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke have found the same problem. Their claim is coherent with Catholic teaching but stripped from theological conclusions.  

They have found responsibility gives meaning, and one needs to virtuously mature in order to take on those meaningful responsibilities.  

This often requires the loss of immediate materialistic pleasures, which will inevitably cause some physical displeasure. However, the hedonistic alternative results in a lack of meaning that will lead to unparalleled amounts of psychological suffering, and no amount of material goods and external liberties will fix it.  

As much as the political Left might espouse unlimited freedom of choice and hedonism as the end goals in life, these things are not what brings meaning. As long as hedonism and postmodern relativism run rampant throughout Western societies, the suicide rates and mental health crises will continue to soar above those of third-world countries in Africa, who, by virtue of their poverty, must undertake responsibilities beyond their own interests to the family and community in order to survive. 

 Unfortunately, conservatives are losing sight of what they are trying to conserve and becoming reactionaries for the same, although on different issues, meaningless chaotic freedom. 

If you are interested in thinkers who take a thorough deep dive into these topics, I would recommend YouTube videos of Sr. Miriam James Heidland and Jordan Peterson.