Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Freedom and Its Limits, 1891-2015: How Does Catholic Social Doctrine React to New Challenges?

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Freedom and Its Limits, 1891-2015: How Does Catholic Social Doctrine React to New Challenges?

Article excerpt

Limiting and Protecting Freedom

Freedom and its limits has been a theme of Catholic social doctrine since the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), on the question of workers. Looking at the development of this teaching in the past 125 years, one might at first glance get the impression that it places the emphasis more on limits to freedom than on protections of freedom. Didn't Rerum Novarum limit the contractual freedom between workers and employers (34)? (1) Forty years later, didn't Quadragesimo Anno declare that freedom of competition "clearly cannot direct economic life" (88)? And, another thirty years later, didn't Mater et Magistra limit the freedom of an entrepreneur by demanding the participation of workers (82, 92)? Didn't Pacem in Terris, John XXIII's encyclical on human rights and peace, qualify human rights with an all-encompassing list of duties (28-33)? In Gaudium et Spes, didn't the Second Vatican Council limit the freedom to private property with the universal purpose of goods (69, 71)? Didn't Paul VI, in Populorum Progressio, restrict the freedom of international trade with his demands for social justice? In their call for public bans on biomedical research that kills embryos, didn't John Paul II and Benedict XVI limit the freedom of science? And in his criticism of how resources are used in Laudato Si', didn't Francis restrict the freedom of consumption?

The emphases of the social encyclicals mentioned here do not so much present a false picture as an incomplete one. It is true that limits on freedom can be found in all social encyclicals since Rerum Novarum, but the converse observation is no less true: in all social encyclicals, protecting freedom matters a great deal. Rerum Novarum rejected the socialist response to the "social question" of the nineteenth century--the nationalization of property--because it would lead people into a dependence of "slavery" on the state (15). Quadragesimo Anno declared that the state should "furnish help to" but must "never destroy and absorb" people and their associations in civil society (79). Mater et Magistra stressed that when it comes to the economy, the sphere of private initiative has priority over the state (51, 55), and Pacem in Terris declared that a government's decrees are "wholly lacking in binding force" if they do not recognize human rights (61). According to Gaudium et Spes, the purpose of the state lies in advancing the common good--a common good that should enable "men, families and associations" to "attain their own perfection" (74)--and, for the sake of the common good, the Council placed an expiration date on every restriction on freedom because "freedom should be restored immediately" as soon as the conditions behind the restriction no longer obtain (75).

In all the social encyclicals we can find these emphases, which not only limit the state's power over freedom for the sake of human persons but also limit a person's freedom for the sake of the common good. To understand how this "on the one hand... on the other" of limiting freedom and protecting freedom works, we must direct our glance beyond the state and politics and onto the person who lives in various dimensions or spheres of tension: between individuality and living in society, between liberty and responsibility, and between being a bearer of the imago Dei and ambivalence. All spheres of tension have consequences for how society and the state should be ordered; however, when it comes to the dialectic between protecting freedom and limiting freedom what is critical above all is the last tension: that between being a bearer of the imago Dei and ambivalence. Bearing the imago Dei means that a person is a unity of body and mind, created by God and called to God, gifted with reason and free will, given the charge and able to subdue the world. Ambivalence about human nature means that one is able to use one's freedom to bring success as well as failure to one's life: we are able to act constructively--and also destructively. …

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