Benedict XVI: Truth, Freedom and Abortion

In an essay written for Communio in 1996, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, examined the issue of liberty in post-Enlightenment, Western culture, particularly addressing its deracination from a common understanding of truth and the good. In a particularly insightful passage, he places the issue in a concrete context – the debate over abortion – and uses this example to shed light on the essential nature of the modern conflict between truth and freedom. Before I look at this passage though, I would like to quote from an earlier section of the essay, where Pope Benedict, after having examined the various roots of our modern concept of freedom, uses the example of Jean-Paul Sartre to state it in its most stark and radical form:

Sartre regards man as condemned to freedom. In contrast to the animal, man has no “nature.” The animal lives out its existence according to laws it is simply born with; it does not need to deliberate what to do with its life. But man’s essence is undetermined. It is an open question. I must decide myself what I understand by “humanity,” what I want to do with it, and how I want to fashion it. Man has no nature, but is sheer freedom…

…But this complete absence of truth, this complete absence of any moral and metaphysical bond, this absolutely anarchic freedom – which is understood as an essential quality of man – reveals itself to one who tries to live it not as the supreme enhancement of existence, but as the frustration of life, the absolute void, the definition of damnation.

Truth and Freedom in Communio: International Catholic Review, Spring 1996, pp.25-26.

            This vision, which, as Pope Benedict points out, was for Sartre a ‘lived experience’, shows what freedom divorced from truth, from any ‘moral and metaphysical bond’, can become when taken to its logical conclusions. When our concept of freedom is seen purely as the absolute right to self-determination, and the right to choose according to my particular proclivities at any given moment, life loses any shape or meaning, and becomes pointless and arbitrary, with one’s life directed by the winds of circumstance and/or the whims of the individual will.

Lest we conclude that Sartre’s vision is too radical for comparison to our own era, and therefore slightly irrelevant, I would like to refer back to the US court case of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey in 1992, where the judges decided that:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

This sounds remarkably similar to what Sartre was putting forward several decades earlier, where any notion that truth may have an objective character is rejected out of hand – it is up to the individual to decide and define their own concept of ‘existence, of meaning, of the universe’ – an extraordinary claim. Clearly we have reached a point where our concept of freedom is indeed tantamount to radical autonomy. This is particularly noticeable in our attitudes towards the rights of the unborn; which brings me to Pope Benedict’s treatment of the matter of abortion:

…it is this very example which brings out the basic figure of human freedom and makes clear what is typically human about it. For what is at stake here? The being of another person is so closely interwoven with the being of this person, the mother, that for the present it can survive only by physically being with the mother, in a physical unity with her. Such unity however does not eliminate the otherness of this being or authorize us to dispute its distinct selfhood. However, to be oneself in this way is to be radically from and through another. Conversely, this being-with compels the being of the other – that is, the mother-to become a being-for, which contradicts her own desire to be an independent self and is thus experienced as the antithesis of her own freedom.

Truth and Freedom, p.27.

            What Benedict is drawing attention to here is that the case of mother and child is a model of human existence in general. We all find authentic existence with, from and through the ‘other’ – we do not exist simply as autonomous cells cut off from the rest of our world, species or community. Existence divorced from this communal and participatory model of being becomes an abstraction, and can only lead to a denial of reality, in which, seeking to become our own lord and master, we frustrate our potential for genuine freedom and happiness. In the case of abortion, where the life of the child is seen as a competitor to the autonomous rights of the mother, the attempt to assert an absolute individual liberty actually leads to a dehumanisation, a rebellion against the very nature of our being, which is always corporate, subsidiary and rooted in greater truths that help to form the community.

Thus Pope Benedict finds the arena in which reconciliation between truth and freedom can take place to be through the idea of responsibility – something that, in theory at least, is attractive to most people. The core of responsibility is that we find our proper existential freedom by living with and for the other, not just for the self; as a community, we find genuine freedom in ordering ourselves towards the common good. This common idea of good – of justice, truth, liberty, etc – cannot just be national or regional though; it must transcend these barriers or risk becoming insular. Truth must be something which is correspondent to the needs, desires and dignity of humankind as a whole, and naked reason alone cannot establish this. Instead, Pope Benedict suggests a return to consideration of the resources available in the great religious traditions (particularly the Decalogue), which have preserved a wealth of moral and metaphysical wisdom, and also connect our moral wellbeing as a society with the recognition and reverence of the divine:

The Decalogue is at once the self-presentation and self-exhibition of God and the exposition of what man is, the luminous manifestation of his truth. This truth becomes visible in the mirror of God’s essence, because man can be rightly understood only in relation to God…

… Consequently, man’s listening to the message of faith is not the passive registering of otherwise unknown information, but the resuscitation of our choked memory and the opening of the powers of understanding which await the light of the truth in us. Hence, such understanding is a supremely active process, in which reason’s entire quest for the criteria of our responsibility truly comes into its own for the fist time. Reason’s quest is not stifled, but is freed from circling helplessly in impenetrable darkness and set on its way. If the Decalogue, unfolded in rational understanding, is the answer to the intrinsic requirements of our essence, then it is not the counter-pole of our freedom, but its real form. It is, in other words, the foundation of every just order of freedom and the true liberating power in human history.

ibid, p.32-33.

            Thus it is in the proper correlation of faith and reason that we may hope to restore truth to its proper place in our public life, and its reconciliation with freedom. Since the Enlightenment, when the seeds sown in the Reformation really started to germinate, faith and reason have been gradually separated further and further apart, until we reached the point we are at today, where reason operates in a vacuum, feeding back on itself in an unending scepticism that produces nothing and undermines our values. This climate has resulted in some great moral evils, of which abortion is a prime example. If we wish to turn the tide back and prevent further transgression, a rediscovery of the wisdom inherent in our religious heritage must be begun, so that reason can be freed from its helpless circling, and lead us into truth once again.


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