In his book, Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles Chaput described a secularized United States as “a country without a soul; a nation with a hole in its chest” (1). Grounded in Judeo-Christian beliefs, America places great importance on rights and freedom. But as we move away from God and into the void of secularism, we lose our “soul”; we sense emptiness inside our “chest”. No other country claims as many rights and freedoms as America. In fact, they seem to be multiplying. Yet, something is lacking.
Increasingly, people fix their rights in an individual autonomy, exemplified in the trend on many college campuses to establish “safe spaces” and “triggering” policies. These policies protect the “right” of a student to be free from any ideas that he finds offensive. But according to Jane Clark Scharl, they stop discourse, heighten sensitivity, and isolate. Scharl identifies this trend with a change in how we define “the dignity of the individual human being” (2).
Created in the image of God
Prior generations understood man as created in the image of God with intellect and free will. As such, we are “capable of knowing and loving [our] Creator”, of knowing our position above “all earthly creatures” (3). Even more, Christ raised human nature “up to a divine dignity” (4) through His incarnation. So, as a race created in the image of God, mankind enjoys a relationship with each person and with God as reflected within the Trinity. And the Mystical Body of Christ allows the Christian “to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers” (5).
But today, the truth of man’s “divine dignity” is largely replaced by an autonomous individuality. Scharl describes this new measure of dignity as based upon experiences, self-expression, and a sense of self (6). One writer describes this autonomy as “self-definition” (7) “You must respect what I do because I do it…” (8).
If so, then man finds himself in a lonely, dead end. Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship describes man in a culture that ends its relationship with God: “[H]e has nothing left but to look at himself perpetually” (9). The title of Sarah’s book gives us a choice between God or Nothing. In terms of today’s “rights”, the choice is also between Truth or ME.
Which rights and freedoms are real?
Rights and freedoms created by the government or individuals lack the force of objective, permanent truth. And, “if the state gave us these rights, the state could take them away” (10). According to Chaput, “American belief in the sanctity of individual rights depends on a God who guarantees those rights” (11).
What is the “yardstick” to measure them?
Joseph Ratzinger—Pope Benedict XVI—measures rights and freedoms with the “yardstick of reality” linked “to truth” (12). Conversely, if measured by the private experiences of our self-contained world, they become “purely egotistical” and lead to the “destruction of truth” (13).
True rights and freedoms exist, according to Ratzinger, within the framework of law. If you see one without the other, beware. He points us to the Decalogue, those venerable Ten Commandments that reiterate natural law. He sees them as “the foundation of every just order of freedom and the true liberating power in human history” (14). They also establish three relationships, something the autonomous individual desperately needs: God and Man, man and neighbor, and freedom and responsibility.
It’s not about ME, it’s about Truth who is Love
Besides a return to the Decalogue, we might help repair the hole in America’s chest (and our own too) by emulating Christ—the Truth who is Love—and His example of kenosis (self-emptying): “[Jesus] emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). Reflect on George Weigel’s description of Christian love as “self-giving, not self-asserting” (15).
- Render Unto Caesar, Chaput, 30
- How “Safe Spaces” Kill Human Dignity, Jane Clark Scharl, 11/18/15
- Gaudium et Spec, #2
- Ibid, #22
- Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis, 37
- Modern and Human Dignity, Lawler, 26
- Ibid, 27
- God or Nothing, Sarah, 175
- Your Life is Worth Living, Sheen, 154
- Render, 30
- Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger, 248-9
- Ibid, 248
- Joseph Ratzinger In Communio, Vol. 2, 164
- The Truth of Catholicism, Weigel, 86