Too much freedom?

23 November 2012, 10:56 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew SOROKOWSKI

In a recent interview, the ever-interesting Myroslav Marynovych raised the question of how to educate people in “tserkovnist’” – that is, how to provide a proper Catholic formation (“Patriiarkhat,” no. 5, September-October 2012, pp. 7-9).  He criticized the notion, held by many priests, that people today have too much freedom. Typically coupled with criticism of the Western Church, this attitude is identical with the “aggressive dislike of the West” of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. True order, says Marynovych, does not come from authoritarianism, but from “right governance.” A properly formed human spirit has God’s law inscribed upon his heart (here he is perhaps thinking of Romans 2:15), so that there is no contradiction between human freedom and divine law.  Spiritual life gains nothing when it is confined. It is better when a person errs and then, of his own free will, rethinks his actions and changes his ways, without the necessity of limitations or prohibitions. In Marynovych’s view, a free Christian is a better Christian.

There is authority to support his anti-authoritarianism. The First Letter of Saint Peter instructs the pastors of the local churches to “Tend the flock of God that is your charge…not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3) Indeed, many people would say that even the choice to believe should be entirely free. In Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516) Raphael Hythlodaeus recounts that the founder of that imaginary country “was evidently quite certain that it was stupid and arrogant to bully everyone else into adopting one’s own particular creed. It seemed to him perfectly obvious that, even if there was only one true religion, and all the rest were nonsense, truth would eventually prevail of its own accord – as long as the matter was discussed calmly and reasonably.” (Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Paul Turner, London, 2003, Book II, pp. 100-101).   

Why, then, do some Greek-Catholic priests feel that people have “too much freedom,” and why do they join the Moscow Patriarchate in condemning the West? No doubt a prime reason is the decline of Western Christianity. In Protestant northern Europe, Christianity has been reduced to an obscure cult. A few years ago, for example, it was reported that only ten percent of the population of England was religiously active. (“Touchstone,” July-August 2008, p. 46.) With the decline of the cult comes the decline of Christian morals. As of 2007, a majority of newborns in Sweden, Norway, and Estonia (as well as traditionally Orthodox Bulgaria) were born out of wedlock. Even basic information about Christianity is disappearing. In that same year, it was found that only 12 percent of Scottish adults, and 7 percent of Scots aged 19 to 24, knew the story of Jesus’ birth. (“Touchstone,” March 2008, p. 41.)

Catholic countries, too, have become secularized. In formerly authoritarian Spain, where the Church once controlled marriage, six out of ten marriages today are civil (“Patriiarkhat,” no. 5, September-October 2012, p. 32).  About 46% of the population describe themselves as "non-practicing Catholics."  One can argue, of course, that it was precisely the authoritarian nature of Spanish Catholicism that weakened it within, so that at the first breath of freedom it collapsed. But the Church has also declined in France, where Church and State have been separate since the Revolution, and in politically liberal Belgium and the Netherlands. Secularization has also made strides in Catholic Austria and even Poland. And while the United States is often held up as a remarkable case of the persistence of religiosity in an advanced industrial society, the fate of Catholicism there is hardly better. It is not only a matter of Catholics outwardly abandoning the Church, but also of their inwardly  rejecting fundamental Catholic beliefs. In his “Index of Leading Catholic Indicators,” Kenneth Jones found that 70 percent of U.S. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 44 believe that the Eucharist is merely a symbolic reminder of Jesus. (Kenneth C. Jones, “Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church since Vatican II (2003),” cited in New Oxford Notes, New Oxford Review (May 2008), p. 25.) Close to 80 percent of regular Catholic Church attendees in the U.S. reject the Church’s teaching on birth control, while more than a third of those who reject its teaching on premarital sex (fornication) receive Holy Communion as often as they attend Mass. (Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), p. 298, note 140, citing Andrew Greeley.) All these phenomena are concurrent with the worldwide advance of freedom and democracy. To Russian Orthodox leaders as well as like-minded Catholics in Ukraine and elsewhere, the example of the West proves that “too much freedom” results in apostasy.

But it would be a sad commentary on religion to say that man only accepts it under compulsion, abandoning it at the first opportunity. In fact, concurrent trends need not be causally related. The growth of democracy is not necessarily a cause of the decline of religion – any more than the decline of religion must be seen as a cause of the growth of democracy. Both  phenomena might stem from a common factor. Or they may have independent causes. There is, in fact, no reason to think that there is some causal connection between freedom and godlessness. The free and democratic Athenians worshipped their gods; the builders of the Dutch republic were solidly Protestant. Malta, perhaps the most Catholic country in Europe, remains impeccably democratic. But the most oft-cited example is the United States, which in conditions of liberty and democracy remained a highly religious society at least until the 1960s, and even today exhibits a high level (however superficial) of religious affiliation and worship. Conversely, there is no correlation between authoritarianism and religiousness: not only did the two most notorious dictatorships of the twentieth century seek to replace religion with ideology, but even minor authoritarian regimes, like the military juntas of Brazil or Argentina, only managed to divide and alienate many of their own Catholics. And as we have remarked above, the solidity of the Spanish Church under Franco turned out to be rather illusory. It would appear, then, that the decline of religion in the West has little to do with freedom. Rather, the advent of freedom exposes the underlying condition of society and culture. And one aspect of that condition is secularization.

This is not the place to speculate on the causes of secularization. For the moment, it is enough to say that it is not the result of “too much freedom.” Hence, Marynovych’s free Christian is a worthy model to emulate.

One point, however, must be noted. Marynovych describes the uncoerced but properly penitent Christian as a “properly formed human spirit.” Were he not properly formed, we can infer, he might not have seen his error and changed his ways. But who gives the human spirit a proper formation? That is a topic we shall explore in our next column.

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