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National Catholic Educational Association

Christian Freedom


Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J.
Woodstock College, Woodstock, Md.

 I shall speak only to one aspect of the convention's vast theme. And my point will be twofold. First, for a special reason the school must today teach the meaning of Christian freedom. Second, to this end the school must itself be an apprenticeship in Christian freedom.

It seems to be a tragic law of human history that every invention and institution that man devises as a means towards his own liberation tends in the end to become the means of his enslavement. The classic example, of course, is the machine. It was joyously greeted as the instrument that would free the spirit of man; it has in fact subjugated the spirit of man to freedom's worst enemy, fear--a particularly inhuman fear of the very thing man has himself created, which now seems to possess almost an autonomous power to destroy him.

However, the example that makes for my point is the thing we call democracy, as a political and social idea, and as a set of institutions for the conduct of human affairs. This was the Great Experiment, launched most successfully on our own shores. This was man's Best Hope of achieving his highest aspiration. In the name of this hope an old world was destroyed, or abandoned. And for a century and a half men have labored gigantically over this new creation, under a banner which bore the single heart-lifting device, "Freedom."

But today as we view the status of the Great Experiment, we may well wonder whether the tragic historical law which weighs upon human achievements is now beginning to operate upon this one. Is democracy, the depository of man's hopes for freedom, destined to become simply a new grave for the ancient aspiration, once more foiled, frustrated, slain?

There is one reason for answering yes to this question. Democracy was conceived to be man's servant; but now it is becoming his idol. And we know that it is the fate of those who worship idols that they should be enslaved to what they worship. Democracy, once a political and social idea, now pretends to be a religion, the one true religion, transcendent to all the warring "sects." And in this monstrous pretention there lie hidden, ripe for burgeoning, the, seeds of new servitudes for man. The basic servitude is obvious—the enclosure of the immortal spirit of man within the narrow confines of the temporal order, whose days, however long, are numbered. And when the days run out, the order of this world will perish; and so too will they who said: Here, and here only, is the Life of man.

If you make a divinity of a political and social system, you become its creature; you risk becoming a political and social slave. The illusion of freedom may perdure, but the substance has vanished; for the substance of freedom is not to be found in political and social systems. It is the endowment of the soul of man, which is caught in ignoble capitivity when it hails as its highest master any earthly majesty. By pretending to be a religion, democracy corrupts at its source the very idea of spiritual freedom which it was designed to preserve. In the political religion of democracy freedom becomes simply a political concept, and is left to the mercies of the political order, which, on the witness of history, has few mercies to dispense.

Let me put the matter another way. Democracy was designed to be the political and social organization of a great truth, whose source is in the Christian revelation. I mean the truth about man as a sacra res, a sacred thing, because he comes from God and goes to God; a creature whose basic dignity lies in his dutifulness towards God and who is endowed with rights in order that he may lead this life of dignity. This truth is embodied in the American Declaration of Independence. The Constitution and the whole fabric of political and social life that it inspired were to institutionalize this truth in multiple ways. The Great Experiment was a Great Hope precisely because it was an effort to set at the center of organized social life the idea of man in his sacredness, in his panoply of human rights, with his endowment of spiritual freedom, as a being created by God, who must make his own creations serve purposes defined by God.

But it would seem that today the Great Experiment is being given a new twist. Consciously and unconsciously democracy is being transformed into the political and social organization of a great error, whose source is in the pagan darkness that always lingers, never fully clarified, in the mind of man. I mean the ancient idolatrous error of the self-sufficient man, who regards himself as sole architect o his own freedom, single author of the values that govern his life, ultimate judge of right and wrong, true and false.

Perhaps I should correct myself. We are witnessing the social organization of ignorance rather than of an error. Democratic society has not yet regressed to that literally awful situation that we see displayed in Soviet communism, which is the politically organized denial of God, the institutionalized rejection of the very idea of the sacredness of man, the systematic perversion of the human aspiration for freedom. Contemporary democratic ideology, on the contrary, is most vocal in its assertions of human rights and most sincere in its aspirations toward freedom. It does not deny God. But surely it ignores Him. Surely this ignorance is being installed at the center of the democratic idea, as a fatal corruption. Ignorance of God has acquired status in public law; it is woven into the national mores; it is socially accredited in institutions. The man ignorant of God has become a social type; and his ignorance is socially transmitted by a multitude of social mechanisms, not least perhaps by the central institution of public education. The democracy which owed its origins to spiritual insight now trusts its future to spiritual ignorance. And this trust is presumption indeed. How shall the freedom of the spirit be born of spiritual ignorance? How shall the Great Hope not turn into a great deception, if it is divorced from its dynamic inspiration? How shall man enter upon his birthright of human dignity when he has forgotten from whom he is born, and no longer knows that he is the issue of God, sprung from the seed of a divine creative act?

This seems to be the juncture at which we stand, the crisis in the Great Experiment. And at this juncture an historic responsibility descends upon us who claim for ourselves that ancient honorable name, "the Christian people." The name connotes a heritage of spiritual freedom. And the time has come for us to do the deed of liberation that will merit for us the name. Political and social democracy in their modern realizations owe much to the inspiration of Christian truth, but relatively little to the action of men and women of the Church. Nevertheless, now that these bold ventures of the human spirit hesitate before a path that will surely lead to a betrayal of their Christian inspiration, we, the people of the Church, who were not courageous and intelligent enough to launch these ventures, must have the intelligence and courage to come to their rescue, by restoring their inspiration.

How is this to be done? It is not for me here to suggest a program, but only to make a point—a point of special pertinence to the school. The problem is not directly that of our "free institutions." The method of freedom as embodied in our political institutions—has not the Church herself in these latter days affirmed its validity? The ideal of equality as the tendency of our social and economic institutions—does it not appeal to a good Christian principle, "the sacred principle of equality and of parity among men" (Discourse to the New Cardinals, Feb. 21, 1946)? And the method of constitutionalism, meaning the dispersal of power among political and social agencies and groups—is it not sufficiently a transcription of the principle of subsidiarity which in our own social thought is the cardinal principle of social organization? The problem, I say, is not so much one of free institutions. If the American Experiment in freedom ends one day on the rocks of tyranny, the reason will not be that our institutions are free, but that our people are not free. This unhappy day will come only if the Christian soul dies out of our people, and with it the idea of Christian freedom, and with it the inspiration of all freedom. The future of freedom lies with the faith, or the infidelity, of the people.

Here then we see the point of insertion for the saving effort of the Church and the Christian school.

"The Church," said Pius XII, with all the boldness of one who knows basic truth, "is the vital principle of human society." By the Church he means the Christian laity, who, he says, do not simply belong to the Church, but are the Church (a doctrinal statement which finds too little •institutional echo in our highly clericalized American Catholic society). The Church is the soul of human society, the living source of its freedom, through its laity, its "people," a people which is lay and Christian and free: lay in a Christian manner, Christian in a lay style, free with a lay Christian freedom. Such a people, and only such a people, can redeem the promise in the Great Hope, and carry the Great Experiment to new liberating achievements.

In this sense the Christian school can make a contribution. It will be a limited contribution, of course, because the school is only one of many educative institutions, and not the decisive one. In any event, however limited the efficacy of the school, it can do two things toward the formation of a free Christian people. It can teach the idea of Christian freedom; it can itself be an apprenticeship in Christian freedom.

The school can teach. It can open and lift and enlarge the growing mind so that it may ever more fully take in the splendid vision of the Gospel as being, in St. Irenaeus' profound and comprehensive phrase, "the word of freedom" (verbum libertatis: Adv. Haer., IV, 33, 1). Freedom is "the American word." The American problem is to give this American word a Christian meaning, the content that it should have according to the higher word of freedom, the Gospel.

"American Freedom and Catholic Power"—the phrase is current today as the statement of a problem, and also as the presentation of an indictment. Why do we not take it as a statement of the problem, and as the presentation of an opportunity? To effect the spiritual transformation of American freedom, to restore to it a Christian inspiration, to accomplish its inner purification by subjecting it to the discipline of the law of the Gospel—and to do this by "Catholic power," that is, by the power of truth, by the sole force of persuasion, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, energizing in a Christian lay people, truly free themselves, and the bearers of true freedom—is not this our task?

A colossal task, indeed, but not impossible. It would mean a great penitence, a profound change of heart, a conversion operated in the spiritual depths of our people. But is not the Gospel (which is the intimate secret of all "Catholic power") still what it was to St. Paul, "the power of God unto salvation," a spiritual power soliciting man's free consent, a divine power able to effect an inner transfiguration of human freedom unto new glories undreamed of in naturalist philosophy?

Once in history the Church encountered the great idea of libertas roman, Roman freedom, which had shaped a great civilization and formed a proud people, the populus Romanus. The idea was rational and good; but it had no great depths to it, no generosity, no dimensions of reverence, no disciplined elan, because it was rooted in a pagan concept of man and society. But the Church took hold of this pagan idea and redeemed it, baptized it, transformed it into the dynamic idea of libertas christiana, which informed a new civilization, built the Christian Commonwealth, and fashioned a new people with a prouder name, the populus christianus, whose heirs we are. If this Church did this once, why can she not do it again? Why cannot we, the Christian people, take the great historic concept of American freedom (whose roots were Christian) and redeem, enlarge, spiritualize and transform it, and make it the soul of a renewed people, the structural basis of a new City of Freedom?

The formula for doing the task must, of course, be different today; for we are dealing with a society come to maturity, conscious of its autonomy. The old vanished Christian Commonwealth and the people who were its citizens were fashioned to a considerable extent from the top down—by men of the Church who went out into the world, and often wielded the secular sword; they brought the people to the Gospel and the world of Europe into "the Church," into Christendom, the one society governed by the two authorities. The Christianization of the modern commonwealth must be effected from the bottom up—by men of the world who come out of the Church, and wield only the sword of the spirit; they must carry the Gospel to the people and the Church to the world, to bring the two societies, Church and State, into a harmony of order, under reciprocal respect for each other's freedom. This is the new way to a new freedom, both for the Church and for the people.

The school can make a beginning in the formation of this new people. It can take the central theme, that the Gospel is "the word of freedom," pick it out in single notes to make a melody for little children, and latex orchestrate it for children of a larger growth. It can teach, first, that man is free because he is the image of God. Here is the source of his freedom, its measure, and the first principle of its discipline. The man who is truly free freely imposes upon himself a discipline, out of reverence for himself and others, in order that he may be true in thought and action to the divine image stamped upon his nature. The school can teach, secondly, that man is free because, alone among creatures, he is the subject of a vocation—a summons and an invitation freely to transcend himself in the search fox God. Here is the high purpose of freedom—a purpose that is freedom's second principle of discipline. The man who is truly free imposes upon himself the costly discipline necessary in order that he may steadfastly pursue the supreme human purpose, apart from whose achievement man will lose his freedom in the loss of his very self.

Thirdly, the school can teach that the Christian is free because grace has been given to him. The grace of faith is a gift of freedom, a deliverance from the dark enemies of human freedom that lurk in man himself—his ignorance of God, the heavy inertia that handicaps his movement towards his final goal, the fatal tendency to refuse the very thing he is always looking for—the truth, which alone can set him free. Faith is a gift of freedom; it is also a call to the conquest of freedom. It begins in us a process of liberation; it demands that we freely and wholly engage ourselves in this process. It requires us to walk in the way of faith, whither faith leads. And faith leads to love—to the Cross, the mystery of Sacrificial love, which was also the mystery of freedom in its highest act, a total redemptive self-giving. The Cross is the third and highest principle of discipline for true Christian freedom; for it subjects freedom to the terrible exigencies of the law of love.

Finally, the school can teach that by faith man becomes, in St. Paul's phrase, "the son for the free woman," the Church, our Mother. He acquires a citizenship higher than that of the Earthly City; he is a citizen of "the spiritual Jerusalem, which is the city of freedom" (Gal. 4:26). Here is the Christian's highest title to freedom; he participates in the freedom of the Church. And her freedom is itself a participation in the freedom of the Incarnate Word of God. She is the Spouse of Christ, and she will not be bound over to become the servant-girl of any political and social order. She is the Body of Christ, and she will not accept the status of social group, submerged in a political body whose dignity is lower than her own.

She is indeed the soul of human society; but she will not lose her soul to human society or in it. She asserts her own dignity, which is innate, of divine origin. She asserts her own freedom, which is likewise innate, not owed to any gift of man, not to be taken away by any human power. These serene unshakable assertions made by the Church are the footing of bedrock on which the Christian stands when he asserts his own dignity and freedom. And when these assertions are echoed in a great chorus of conviction by a people, a living soul has been quickened within human society, and there is hope for man of a dignified and free social life.

My second point must be briefly made. The school can teach the idea of Christian freedom. By its instruction it can put its pupils in the way of catching the vision of the Gospel as "the word of freedom." And it can help them understand that, unless the meaning of the Gospel word is made the inspiration, the measure, the higher purpose, and the principle of discipline for the meaning of the American word, the American word will utter meaningless ambiguities, and in the end will die away on the winds of history, and send back only a thin echo to mock those who once shouted it so bravely.

But it is not enough to teach the idea of Christian freedom. A school which undertakes to form a Christian people and send them out to be the vital principle of a free human society must itself be an apprenticeship in Christian freedom. The idea of Christian freedom must be lived, as well as taught, within the school.

The school is not the family and it is not the Church, it is a social unit in its own right. The relation between teacher and pupil is not that which obtains between the parent and the child or between the Church and its children; in its own way it partakes of the political relationship between governor and governed in the earthly City. So too the relationship of equality, under an impartial authority, among the students is analogous to the relationship of equality among citizens. The school in its own way is a sort of City. And in it youth serves an apprenticeship before it goes forth into the great City.

Consequently, the school itself must be a City of Freedom. In the personal and social life that is lived within its walls freedom must be respected, and find scope for exercise. In the school as in the City there must be order, discipline, obedience; but there must also be enterprise, initiative, responsibility. If the school is singly a place of submission and conformity and restriction, it will be a singularly bad apprenticeship for the great City, wherein the Christian men and women are called upon to do a work of creation, and liberation, and at times even rebellion. One cannot otherwise learn to be free than by being schooled in the use of freedom. And this means being thrust back upon one's freedom, one's power to choose—a power whose right use depends upon the developed capacity for personal deliberation, and, what is more important, upon one's disciplined impulses toward generosity, toward love, toward the genuinely creative act of freedom which is self-giving. Is not this the high dignity, and the tragic fate, of man, that in all life's most intimate decisions, of far-reaching consequence, he is in the end committed to his own freedom? At such moments, freedom is felt to be a great burden indeed. And blessed is he who from his youth has been trained to bear this burden.

Concretely, two practical conclusions follow. The first is that in the school, as in the City, there should be established as a law of life the prime principle of Christian politic* "As much government as necessary, as much freedom as possible." The prudential judgment here is difficult; the preservation in practice of a delicate balance is still more difficult. But is not this the first challenge put to the educator, when he dares take into his hands that vital bit of malleability which is the free human person?

Secondly, the administrator and teacher have themselves a serious choice to make. Paul Claudel says somewhere: "It is for lack of a skeleton that certain animals live in shells." The saying points up the choice. The school can seek to encase its charges in protective shells, in the hope that these will be resistant to the rude impact of the world. Or it can seek to develop vertebrate human beings, Christians with solidly articulated spiritual and moral skeletons, who will not only resist the impact of the world but themselves make an impact on the world, shattering its structure of ignorance and inertia and enslavement, and giving it a new structure modelled on their own.

To choose the first alternative would be disastrous. The world today has jaws powerful enough to crush any protective shell. Moreover, the Christian vocation is surely not to crawl into a shell, or to crawl through the world in a shell. Surely only the second choice is worthy of a school linked to a Church which is the world's strong salvation precisely because it is vertebrate, and vertebrate because it is structured on the word of freedom, the Gospel, which is likewise a word of inner discipline.