I have no wish to pile on the infamous Canadian couple who recently made headlines when they decided not to reveal the sex of their child in order not to prejudice the child’s choice of gender . For when you really get down to it, this couple is really just being consistent with the notion of freedom that has come to dominate the contemporary world.

Nearly all of my students come into my courses with a far-reaching philosophy that is almost identical to that of Oprah Winfrey (or Lady Gaga, if you wish). I don’t mean that some of my students aren’t “conservative” or “liberal” (in the recent, political sense of those words). What I mean is that almost all of my students believe in advanced Liberalism’s idea of truth (that it’s a private matter) and freedom (that it’s simply the maximization of choice and that it’s the highest good).

Since this Canadian couple grew up under the tutelage of the modern, Liberal state, they have thoroughly imbibed its notion of freedom: that is, that freedom means the lack of any kind of restraint. The modern notion of freedom is that freedom is a strictly negative thing: not being told what to do, not having one’s options limited, etc.

The older notion of freedom”the one that the Liberal notion supplanted”is that freedom is primarily a capacity or a capability , unique to human beings, to achieve the good, which is the human being’s natural end. While a lion, for instance, is compelled by instinct to attack a crippled antelope or to mate with an unwilling lioness, a human being has the ability to tell his instincts where to get off, so to speak, in the light of some higher good (e.g., by not picking on the handicapped or by not forcing sex on unwilling partners). If we were to subscribe to the modern notion of freedom, the lion would have more freedom than the human being because he has no moral and legal limitations on his physical capacities.

To anyone before the modern era, being born into a particular species, at a particular place, as a particular sex would not have seemed like a set of restrictions, but as the ordinary limits which make freedom possible in the first place. Because I am a man (I have an XY chromosomal make-up), I am not able to get pregnant, and because I am a human being I am not able to sprint as fast as a cheetah or flap my arms and fly, so the good to which I can freely direct my life does not include pregnancy, sprinting, or flying.

Our contemporaries would phrase things differently: as a human and a man, I am not free to get pregnant, sprint, or fly. But it would be strange for me to see the limits of my individual, physical nature as limits on my freedom. Before I can be free, I must first be and I must first be this or that sort of thing. In order to have the sort of freedom that human beings have, I must first be, well, a human being. And because no one can exist only in the abstract, I must be this specific human being, with this body and not that one, this sex and not the other, this hair color and no other.

But if freedom only means the lack of limitations, then any act that eliminates one limitation (even if it creates another) is free. There is a man in this country, to take a rather bizarre example, who thinks he is a cat trapped in a human body. He has therefore undergone a series of surgeries to make himself look more like a cat. Of course he will never be a cat, no matter how good we get at such procedures (and I suspect that we will get very good). He will always be a human who has used his freedom to pretend to be a cat.

Nor, by the way, can one really change his or her sex. This explains why there was a “pregnant man” in the news a couple of years back; he was a woman who had been changed into a man”but only from the waist up. But to go back to cat-man: the irony is that if he were really a cat, he wouldn’t have the freedom or even the desire to be, say, changed into a man. No cat has ever shown up for species reassignment surgery.

The poor child raised by this (probably well meaning) Canadian couple will now grow up to see all of his/her individual traits (sex, race, height, species, eye color, hair color, natural abilities, natural inabilities), things which ought to be seen as gifts and given thanks for, as just so many obstacles to what the true self (the un-embodied, un-natured, all-consuming self) really wants.

In most healthy societies in history this would have been seen for what it is: not freedom, but a deeply ungrateful bondage to an unreal abstraction. This child may even come to see his/her naturally given parents as a limitation on his/her freedom to choose parents. Wait a second, perhaps there’s hope for the kid yet.

Rodney Howsare is a Professor of Theology at DeSales University.

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