On the weekend of November 19-21, Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture hosted its annual Fall Conference. This year’s theme was “For Freedom Set Free.” As I took the plane to South Bend, I wondered how exactly “freedom” would be spoken of. Would the conference focus on the difference between the Christian conception of freedom and the secular conception of freedom, or would it be more of an internal argument, an enumeration of Catholic arguments against the classical liberal project? I found discussion of both questions there, with an emphasis on the particular meaning of Christian freedom.
Keynote lectures, which can be found online here, were given by Rémi Brague, Alasdair MacIntyre, Thomas Pink, and Rev. Julian Carrón. Brague focused on the freshness of Christian freedom, the “radical new beginning” that it engenders in a more primitive stage of being than the political sphere (more on this below). MacIntyre asked how we know whether coercion is justified. Is coercion acceptable if it is for the common good? His argument led him to speak of education—when a society fails to educate its citizens well, he argued, that society produces “bad citizens,” citizens who are defective practical reasoners and for whom the common good is not a worthwhile goal. It is unjustifiable, he said in the end, not to educate the youth so that we would need to coerce the rule-breakers. And so we need to “enlarge our understanding of what makes coercion necessary.” It is only justified if accompanied by a genuine attempt to educate our youth.
In a colloquy between Fr. Martin Rhonheimer and Thomas Pink on the question of religious liberty in the documents of Vatican II, both examined the “serious problem of discontinuity” between the teaching of the 19th century Popes (who called for the state to coerce in support of religious truths) and that of Dignitatis Humanae (which states that the Church has a a radical right to religious liberty against the state). Rhonheimer and Pink agreed that the conflict existed; Pink claimed, though, that the conflict is only apparent.
Father Carrón, president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, gave the closing talk, in which he (disagreeing with Pink) doubled down on religious freedom, speaking of a it as a fundamental human right, and attempted to synthesize how this freedom connected to traditional Christian freedom.
Rémi Brague’s talk, the first of the conference, was particularly rich and sweeping, employing a refreshing amount of imagery along the way. “Dear friends, dear lovers of the truth, of what is beautiful, of what is right,” he addressed his listeners at the start. He began with acknowledging the many conceptions of freedom that are prevalent today: to be available to the whims of external forces (to be “taken over and hired by anyone who can pay,” as with a cab), or to be free to give vent to one’s passions (as with the sexual revolution), to give two examples.
To be truly free then must be something different. There must be something particular about man’s ability to be free, and it must be something that is dynamic and creative, a “becoming”. But it must also be tied to choice, and so it must be an individual thing at its core — it must take place in the “I” as well as in the “we.”
This led Brague to the Biblical roots of the Western idea of freedom, where we can find something completely fresh—a basic, radical new idea that comes before all other talk of what it means to be free in our society. There are three “borromean rings,” he said, where this freedom takes place, and which are all inexorably intertwined: Creation, Exodus, and Forgiveness. Brague devoted quite a bit of time to elucidating the way in which these three are connected, and this was probably the most fascinating part of the lecture. Here’s an example, linked to the connection between creation and forgiveness: the claim of the Bible is that God created a world that is very good. Thus, the phrase “Shit happens” is actually good news—it means that shit is not essential but accidental. By this token, we understand that we are not totally free when we can’t do the good that we want. Our freedom enables us to require and receive forgiveness.
Within this “fresh,” “radical” Biblical notion of freedom, there is also the element of work, of unfolding. Thus freedom has nothing to do with yielding to external duress but rather has everything to do with the process of a butterfly getting rid of its cocoon in order to soar upwards. Freedom is the unfolding of what we essentially are in the core of our being; it is what enables us to reach the good.
Brague is calling us to a kind of Biblical memory. Before we speak of freedom in the political sphere, we must understand these links between creation, exodus, and forgiveness as the most fundamental key to understanding our freedom as persons.
Bianca Czaderna is assistant editor at First Things.