Topic: Freedom

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

When Nature Goes Gaga

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Official Logo of Haus of Gaga,, Author-Haus of Gaga (available to public through Wikipedia Commons)

I don’t dip into popular culture too often, but one can hardly exist today without having some knowledge of the inimitably freakish Lady Gaga.  (I don’t call her so out of bad manners! This is how she self-identifies, considering herself a—direct quote—"champion of freaks."1)  I have only read the Wikipedia article on her popular song “Born This Way,” but find the title exquisitely and uproariously ironic. Given Gaga’s penchant for wearing all manner of outlandish, shock-and-awe attire, one could hardly think of starker examples of how a person is not born! To my knowledge, babies don’t often emerge from the nine-month seclusion of the womb—unless they’ve been remarkably industrious during their stay—with bodies clad in bubble-outfits, telephones, and meat-get-ups, or donning elaborate and expensive doll houses on their freshly-formed heads.

I bring up Stefani Germanotta (Gaga’s real name) since she seems to me the perfect embodiment of a philosophical point on which our whole culture is going increasingly mad. And that is the status of "nature," especially as applied to the human person.

Classically there are two senses in which the word "nature" can be taken. One is "what tends to happen." This is the sense contemporary culture has almost exclusively adopted. Look round the habitable world and you see all manner of phenomena: people grow up and grow old; flowers bloom and then wither; sunshine and rain may happen within a 24-hour period. And then there are worse things that happen: earthquakes destroy towns and villages; hurricanes put lives in danger; diseases cause terrible pain and affliction to individuals and families. It is legitimate to call all these things "natural" in the sense that "they happen in the world we live in"—though some be delightful and edifying, and others terrible, difficult, and even tragic.

The other sense of natural is not "what happens to happen," but "what ought to happen." This is the sense contemporary culture more often rejects. But even the rejection is inconsistent. In certain areas, for example, no one has a problem admitting that things "ought to grow and behave" in a certain way. We all know, for example, the difference between a sick dog and a healthy dog; we know the difference between a flower that is wilting before its time and one that has, in the way it ought, come into full bloom. We know, to take a ridiculous and rudimentary example, that when dandelion seeds scatter, they don't pop up as roses, or geraniums, or puppies, or crocodiles. We know that nature, or Nature, has certain laws which structure and guide and shape the way things are "supposed" to be. Daffodils don't scatter tulip seeds; hamsters don't emerge by breeding goldfish; and there is a desirable difference between healthy, vigorous, and mature plant and animal life, versus the same that becomes enfeebled or dies before its time.

The rub comes at the species homo sapiens. We're fine with plants and animals "needing to behave and grow" in certain ways. When it comes to us, we're not so clear-headed. Sexuality and gender are the clearest current examples. When Gaga says in the song mentioned above, "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby..." she is presuming the first definition of nature to the exclusion of the second; or rather taking the first definition and projecting it into the second. She is taking the fact that "this is what people do and how people act and how they are increasingly choosing to self-identify," as establishing without debate the moral rectitude of the claimed identities; as establishing beyond the possibility of challenge that same-sex attraction is unavoidable, inevitable, right, good, and fine, and all the bigots who think differently need to be shamed (and legally coerced) into thinking differently.

Pastorally, of course, these are very sensitive issues. Many are the noble and good souls who experience same-sex attraction and valiantly seek to live chaste lives. These souls know that chastity is ultimately freeing; and the fact that they experience SSA, though it can be a tremendous cross, has no bearing whatever on their intrinsic worth as a human being, or on their spiritual call to be holy, blameless, and happy saints in the kingdom of God.2 But this popular and widespread rebellion against the notion that women are made for men and men for women, or—from another but related area—little boys and little girls should use bathrooms and play on sports teams according to their biological makeup; all this popular confusion over gender is rooted, in one way, in a very simple philosophical mistake. And that is to equate human nature with whatever the current human beings walking around—especially those in large coastal California cities—happen to want and do.

Nave W window, William Wailes of Newcastle, 1866-detail; Uploaded to Twitter by Dave, Leicester, UK

But we live in a fallen world. "Nature" is therefore broken and there will always, within this mortal coil, be a gap between what "ought" to happen and what does happen. In one sense, Lady Gaga is perfectly right. Crazy, unpredictable, and disordered things happen all the time. Nature has been a bit Gaga ever since Adam. But Nature's Gaga-ness under the reign of sin does not justify baptizing, leaving as they are, and exalting these gaga-features. The "New Normal" promoted by television sitcoms and the new Queen of Pop, is really not new at all. It is quite old, as anyone familiar with ancient Rome in its decadence can attest.

The real fallacy is in believing that this melting together of gender difference into an undifferentiated social vat, is exciting, bold, fresh, and joy-bringing. But Nature is more exciting than that. Man's authentically natural state is what is really new, is ever-ancient and ever-new, is full of life and joy and communion with the Creator. It is a paradisical garden with magical fruit, marvelous flowers, and a man and a woman who become one flesh. Within that natural primeval duality between man and woman lie drama, romance, and the mystery of sacrificial love: a mystery crafted by the handiwork of God and inscribed into the bodies and souls of men and women even today.

It is true that all of us here below are "born this or that way," full of desires and inclinations running hither and thither (sexual or otherwise). But only by respecting and honoring the Natural Design woven into our souls by the Creator will we be happy. Our truly natural desires, thoughts, and personality then emerge, and begin to partake of that harmony and beauty we are called to reflect before the Face of God forever. Our gaga-nature bows to the light of Nature within, which flows from the supernal creative wisdom of the Divine Artist. By harmonizing our thoughts and actions with this inward illumination, we are made glad by the Radiant Light at the back of all things, beckoning and shaping and transforming us to be glorious creatures of our God and King unto eternity.

1 The quote comes from an interview with Larry King in 2010, which is quite interesting. As is often the case with celebrities, her off-stage persona is much more unassuming, even fragile, than her onstage rip-roaring, shock-oriented bravura.


2 For the record, the Catholic Church takes no position on whether SSA may be genetic or not, admitting that its "psychological genesis remains largely unexplained" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2357). In this sense SSA may, especially from a subjective standpoint, be as close to something not chosen as one can get—which is why to merely experience the attraction (as with any lustful desire, homosexual or heterosexual) is not sinful, but only becomes so when consented to and acted upon.

Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture

Freedom for Witness

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We recently celebrated the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. On this day the readings focus on the freedom that we have been given in Christ. I examine this freedom as it is expressed in the second reading (Revelation 1:5-8), and what this freedom means for us today.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Fireworks, Freedom, and Frassati

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A month after his 21st birthday -- a time when most young people are trying to find themselves -- Pier Giorgio Frassati became a member of the Dominican family. Kneeling down in the gothic church of San Domenico, with the soft glow of candlelight reflecting off the vaulted ceilings, and the sweet aroma of incense filling the air, he received the white scapular of the Third Order of St. Dominic. Taking the name Gerolamo, after the Dominican friar whom he so admired for his religious zeal and fervor, Pier Giorgio had no doubts about his purpose in life. He was to be a man of the beatitudes: merciful, pure of heart, a peacemaker.

Like many Catholics in the modern age, Pier Giorgio was no stranger to political unrest. He understood, perfectly well, the struggle for peace and religious freedom. As a young man he participated in a number of religious processions that often led to his being “detained” by the police. They were afraid that he might be trying to stir up trouble as a member of the Popular-Socialist Party, who along with the Fascists, were vying for control of the Italian government in the early 1900s.

In spite of his distaste for the Fascist Party, the affairs of state were not Pier Giorgio’s chief concern. He simply believed that violence was never the answer and that “true peace is more a fruit of Christian neighborly love than of justice” (A Man of the Beatitudes, 99). So he used his brief periods in jail, not to promote some political agenda, but to encourage his fellow prisoners – to pray the rosary with them, to counsel them, and to ease their pain. For Pier Giorgio, this is what it meant to be a Christian, to be blessed. As a man with a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he had discovered that freedom is not merely something political. True liberty is spiritual – freedom from the power of Satan and slavery to sin.  

We find an example of this type of freedom in the Gospel of Matthew (8:28-34), when Jesus heals two men who have been possessed by evil spirits; men who had been held captive in Satan’s grasp for many years. By sending these demons into a herd of pigs, Jesus reveals that his miraculous work is not limited to feeding the hungry crowds. He also has the power to free us from the bonds of sin. Like the demoniacs who are freed from their spiritual imprisonment, we too can experience the power that frees us from spiritual death and raises us to new life in Christ. It is made available to us in the Sacraments, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we are absolved of our sins, when grace is poured upon us, and we are given the strength to resist future temptation.

These least two weeks, during the Fortnight for Freedom, have been a wonderful time to reflect on our belief as Americans that everyone has a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While I will gladly admit that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are essential aspects of our way of life, we must not forget that spiritual freedom – freedom from the power of sin – is just as important. For Christ’s reign extends over all creation and the proclamation of his kingdom includes a declaration of liberty to captives – those under the thumb of human oppressors, as well as those who find themselves oppressed by spiritual forces.

Pier Giorgio knew this well. He believed that “faith enables us to bear the thorns with which our life is woven,” whether they be political or spiritual. This is why he went to Mass daily and once told a group of young people, “Feed on this Bread of Angels and from it you will gain the strength to fight your inner battle, the battle against passion and all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed on the Holy Eucharist eternal life and the graces necessary to obtain it…you will enjoy the peace that those who are happy in accordance with this world have never experienced, because true happiness does not consist in the pleasures of the world or in earthly things, but in peace of conscience, which we only have if we are pure in heart and mind” (A Man of the Beatitudes, 97-8).

Pure in heart; these words were often used to describe Pier Giorgio, by those who knew him best. When he died of polio on the 4th of July, 1925, it seemed as if the entire city of Turin turned up to pay their respects: Ester, the housekeeper whom he had brought to the faith; Signora Converso, the poor woman to whom he had sent medication while on his own deathbed. These and many others poured into the house, lined the streets during the procession, and crowded into the Church during the funeral. In Pier Giorgio they had been witness to a life touched by grace, a man of blessedness, who had experienced spiritual freedom in Christ and wanted to share it with the world.


Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, and is a patron of World Youth Day. 

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Conscience, Freedom, and Law

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Perhaps you have noticed—it has been hard not to, with many articles and op-ed pieces in the news lately—the latest controversy between the U.S. Catholic bishops and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The debate is centered around the HHS mandate that employers provide contraceptive and sterilization coverage for employees—a requirement which, at least in the initial form of the mandate, even Catholic hospitals and universities would need to comply with by 2013.1 The responses from the U.S. Bishops have been remarkably unanimous, and firm; in fact, no controversy in recent memory has drawn such a swift and universal response. Their opposition, while softening only slightly with an apparent modification to the ruling, remains. And it has not been only Catholic leaders who are upset; nor only Catholics. Some who have no particular objection to the use of contraception in general are also upset: the rule has clearly struck a nerve, and raised alarm; and rightly so, in my opinion. But what is this all about really?

Religion, Freedom, and Conscience

It may seem at first that this is simply a religious matter: Catholicism, somewhat uniquely in our culture, officially opposes artificial contraception, and to force Catholic institutions and employers to provide contraceptive or sterilization services is akin to forcing others to abdicate their religious beliefs; it would be like forcing Jewish restaurant owners to sell pork, because of some supposed universal right-to-eat-pork. And in a very real way, this would be, and is, a violation of religious freedom. But several have pointed out, including Cardinal Roger Mahoney, that this is more than simply an issue of religious freedom; it is also that of a more general freedom of conscience. But what is "conscience" anyway, and what does it mean to say that it is free?

Synderesis and Conscience

St. Thomas AquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas, from whom I draw insights as a Dominican, identifies several aspects of the moral activity of a human being, including conscience. Moral reasoning begins with the recognition of fundamental moral principles, by a natural habit that Thomas and the medieval scholastics called "synderesis", and which Josef Pieper, a 20th-century Thomistic philosopher, calls "natural conscience."2  Synderesis (or synteresis) is implanted in every human being, and this natural habit first discovers the most basic principle of all: "do good and avoid evil." Practical reason—our capacity for thinking through issues of morality—can analyze such first principles of our "natural conscience", along with other knowledge that we acquire, and then draw out further moral principles. Lastly comes "conscience" proper: this is the act of applying knowledge of universal moral principles to particular actions and circumstances. Applying to past actions, the act of conscience evaluates what we have already done: "screaming at the grocer yesterday was wrong", or "it was good when I helped that homeless man with food." In the present or impending future it results in commands or prohibitions: "don't do this," and "do that". The experience of this, indeed, is quite familiar to us all. Thomas was just placing a particular vocabulary and conceptual framework around it.

In any case, conscience comes in at this last phase of moral reasoning, in which principles are applied to a situation, and leads to a command or prohibition; and notice that this is a command or prohibition which our own intellect arrives at. It is not simply imposed from without; it flows immediately from within. In this regard, Bl. Pope John Paul II called conscience a "dialog of man with himself", which is also a dialog with God, a "sanctuary" within which a man or woman discerns the good action to take "here and now," or the evil to be avoided. Conscience, he wrote, is the "proximate norm of personal morality," the inner "witness" of the divine law, a witness whose voice is "only known to the person himself," hidden "from the eyes of everyone outside."3 

But precisely as a witness, it is first receptive: it testifies to what it has already heard and come to know in general about the good to be done, or the evil to be avoided. As the "proximate" norm, it is the nearest to us in every human act; but it derives it binding force, its personal witness in our inner sanctuary, from the truth about the good—about man, the world, and God. It brings home to us, and makes practical, the things we know to be true about human life, about how we should live. It is they way by which our moral ideals are invited to become incarnate.

Conscience and the Will

And once our conscience places before us a command, we are presented with a choice: do we obey it, or not? Do we will to "do this, shun that," or do we not will it? Of course, there are times when we are uncertain about what to do, since we do not yet see how our moral principles can be consistently applied to a particular situation ("should I stop, be kind and listen this person? Or should I move along and fulfill my promise to so-and-so on-time?"); but we all have also experienced times when our conscience's verdict is quite clear, and yet we remain conflicted for other reasons: "If I am honest about my mistake and publicly take the blame for this, I will be disgraced and looked down upon." In such cases, what we ought to do is clear; but we must give consent to the verdict of our conscience with our will, and we have the freedom not to do so; we can easily be dissuaded by self-serving rationalization and our passions or emotions. We can also be compelled by external forces, such as laws.

Conscience and Law

So what happens when some external law, which comes from a legitimate authority, orders us to do something which our conscience forbids? What is our "duty": to our conscience, or to the external law? Vatican II's document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, has this to say:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.4

Any attempt, then, to force another to violate their own conscience is an offense against their human dignity. And it presents its own moral challenge: will I be steadfast in doing what is right, and in avoiding what is wrong, or will I do what I am convinced is wrong in order to live comfortably, to "make peace"? This is the position that the current mandate puts many people in, including the Catholic bishops themselves. Those who, in following principles of natural law or of the Catholic tradition, are convinced that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil, are being asked to financially support such things, in spite of the fact that their own conscience will tell them to avoid such participation, or to even speak out against it. The U.S. bishops' own consciences, foreseeing this moral problem, have compelled them to speak out so that such a situation may be avoided. If these objections are not heeded, many will be in the position such that the right thing to do, the command of their own personal conscience, will be to disobey the law.

Thus, what is being threatened is the "freedom" which one ought to have from external coercion to go against one's own conscience. As Bl. John Henry Newman put it, conscience possesses its own rights, precisely because it possesses its own duties:5 its job is to allow the truth to speak in the depths of our hearts about how we should be, about who we should be. And this right is being violated by the current mandate; there is no allowance for "conscientious objectors."

May this political controversy, then, not merely lead to a peaceful political resolution—as important as that may be—, but to a renewed appreciation for the rights, and duties, of the human conscience—the sanctuary within which we are invited to encounter the truth: the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God.


  1. Below are various articles and webpages about this recent controversy:
    USCCB page on the issue. This includes a video-statement by the President of the USCCB, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and a list of individual statements issued by over 110 U.S. Bishops.
    USCCB Statement of objections to the mandate and its recently modified form.
    USCCB Blog: "6 Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate"
    Here's a page showing that apparently every USCCB Bishop has issued a statement against the mandate. This page has links to another page with bishops' statements, and another page with a list of institutions, Catholic and non-Catholic, that have done likewise. [Back to reading]
    The Catholic Health Association's statement about the modified mandate, and a note about reviewing its implications.
    Article on Carol Keehan (head of CHA) and the Bishops' response to the Administration's modification (National Catholic Register). [Back to reading]
    Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia's statement.
    Editorial in America Magazine by Spokane's Bishop Blase Cupich, and the America Magazine Editors' op-ed piece.
    National Catholic Reporter editorial: "Obama administration went too far with contraception ruling."
    Wall Street Journal Article: "Immaculate Contraception" — "An 'accommodation' that makes the birth-control mandate worse."
    "Bishops Oppose Compromise" (WSJ)
    NY Times: "Bishops Criticize Proposal on Birth Control"
  2. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame Press, 1966; reprint: 2003), 11. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Question 79, articles 12-13. [Back to reading]
  3. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, §§ 54-61. Quotations are from §§ 58, 54, 59, 60, 57, respectively. Cf. Dignitatis Humanae, 1-3; Gaudium et Spes, 16. [Back to reading]
  4. Dignitatis Humanae, 3. [Back to reading]
  5. John Henry Newman, "A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," Difficulties Felt by Anglicans, Vol. 2, chapter 5. [Back to reading]

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