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God's Gift of Freedom Must Be Used to Choose the Good

R&L: Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, noted that, “The individual today is often suffocated between the two poles represented by the state and the market.” You have noted that the way out of this modern dilemma is the strengthening of culture. Could you elaborate?

Dulles: The political and economic orders, important though they obviously are, do not exhaust the reality of human life and human society. They deal only with particular aspects of life in community. More fundamental than either is the order of culture, which deals with the meaning and goal of human existence in its full range. Culture shapes and expresses our ideas and attitudes regarding all the typical human experiences, and in so doing touches on the transcendent mystery that engulfs us and draws us to itself. In our century, the order of culture has often been subjugated either to political or to economic interests. The state sometimes seeks to use sports events, education, the arts, communications, or religion to support its ideology. Alternatively, business and industry strive to turn cultural activities into profit-making enterprises. This latter tendency is particularly manifest in “consumerist” societies such as ours in the United States. Culture should, however, be oriented toward the true, the beautiful, and the good. Whenever these transcendentals are instrumentalized by the search for power and wealth, civilization is degraded.

R&L: How do you envision the role of the church in culture?

Dulles: Religion, since it concerns itself with the relationship between human beings and God, lies close to the heart of culture. Christians believe that God has manifested his truth, beauty, and goodness unsurpassably in his incarnate Son. The church, by celebrating the memory and continued presence of Christ, attempts to form human beings in a spirit of gratitude, love, and generous service. It thereby contributes to the building of a civilization of peace and love. Without religion as an independent force, morality is turned into a tool for the forces of politics and the market; in this way, morality becomes denatured.

R&L: There is a great deal of confusion today about the meaning of human freedom. What misunderstandings lie at the heart of this confusion?

Dulles: In Western societies, freedom is often defined in political terms, as immunity from the coercive power of the state. In Marxist societies, the emphasis instead has been on economic freedom, or protection from manipulation by the forces of industry and capital. These concepts of freedom, though not invalid, are incomplete.

In current popular thinking, freedom is understood to mean the capacity to do whatever one pleases, without moral or physical restraints. This arbitrary view of freedom points the way to uninhibited individualism, social chaos, and defiance of moral standards. Many people imagine that entering into firm commitments, such as a vocation or a family relationship, will impair their freedom. They therefore go through life unattached, guided by passing whims rather than firm convictions. Such lives quickly become empty and meaningless, moving toward suicidal despair.

Lord Acton and other wise thinkers have taught us that true freedom is not the same as license. It is not the power to do whatever we like but to choose what is good. Morality is not a barrier to our freedom but a condition of authentic self-realization. To make responsible commitments is not to negate our freedom but to fulfill its purpose.

R&L: What, then, is an appropriate understanding of freedom?

Dulles: Freedom consists of self-possession and self-determination. It is given to us so that we may voluntarily embrace the true human good. Jean-Jacques Rousseau erred when he wrote, “Man was born free.” We are born in almost total dependence on others, but, by education and practice, we gradually expand our zone of freedom. In the deepest sense, freedom is a gift of God because we cannot liberate ourselves from our illusions and selfish desires without divine grace. Jesus can therefore say: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).

God does not force his truth and grace upon us, but he appeals to us to accept it. “Behold,” he says, “I stand at the door and knock” (Rv 3:20). God respects our freedom so much that he allows us to abuse it by turning away from him and acting against his will for us.

R&L: Allow me to quote from John Paul’s recent “Letter to Artists”: “…all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: In a certain sense they are to make it a work of art, a masterpiece.” Could you comment on how freedom and this task of crafting a life are related?

Dulles: God, in creating the world, acted with utter freedom and without self-interest. Totally blessed in himself, he made the world simply to give others a share in his infinite goodness. In our existence, bodily life, and spiritual gifts, we participate in God’s own perfection, though, of course, imperfectly. Our freedom to make new things brings us into a close relationship with God the Creator. We mirror God’s creative action most perfectly when we freely fashion objects of beauty, giving aesthetic form to the concepts of our own minds. Pope John Paul II, who was a poet, playwright, and actor before becoming a priest, keenly appreciates the calling of artists. His “Letter to Artists,” as I see it, summons all of us to deeper reflection on the importance of beauty as a transcendental property of being, inseparable from truth and goodness.

As a priest, John Paul II considers the analogies between art and holiness. The saints reflect the freedom and altruism of Christ as they follow him in original and distinctive ways. By freely giving ourselves to God, in imitation of the saints, all of us can through his grace remake ourselves in Christ’s likeness. Just as he was God’s masterpiece, mirroring the Father’s radiant glory, so every human life can be a free and splendid creation, a true work of art.

R&L: Further, what does it mean for people to be co-creators with God?

Dulles: To create in the strict sense means to produce from nothing. God created when he first produced the world, but when it left his hands, it remained in some respects incomplete. By giving human beings dominion over the rest of creation, God invites them to complete, in a certain sense, the work he has begun. Thanks to rapid advances in science and technology, we have witnessed an exponential increase in the production and distribution of goods. This progress is not a usurpation of God’s prerogatives, but a realization of God’s design that we should have dominion over the earth. Whatever we accomplish, of course, depends upon God’s prior gifts, without which we would be powerless.

R&L: How might this perspective be applied to life in the commercial sphere?

Dulles: In making us in his image and likeness, God intended us to work as free and independent agents. With that mandate, to be sure, comes the awesome responsibility to preserve or enhance the beauty of nature and to make the world more pleasant and habitable for future generations.

Production and consumption, trade and profits are not ends in themselves but must be governed by higher norms such as truth, beauty, goodness, and communion among peoples. The institutions of culture can educate people to direct their energies, investments, and purchases according to these norms. The state should protect freedom of initiative in business and commerce rather than seek to regulate everything. But it must sometimes use its authority to see to it that industry and commerce genuinely enhance the lives of all.

R&L: We’ve been touching on areas of Christian social teaching, and, specifically, Roman Catholic social teaching. To outside observers, the Catholic Church seems to be more open to the free society now than it was one hundred years ago. Can you comment on this development?

Dulles: In the nineteenth century the Catholic Church was rightly critical of the liberalism that spread across continental Europe after the French Revolution. “Freedom” was a slogan used to destroy established authority, including that of the church. In their anxiety about liberal democratic movements, the popes leaned toward supporting confessional states, in which throne and altar were allied. But as early as Leo XIII, the popes began to warn against totalitarian systems in which the state claimed supreme control over the economy, education, and religion. With the massive evils of Soviet Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism, the Catholic Church began to speak more favorably of societies in which the church, though separated from the state, enjoyed constitutional freedom to pursue its mission. The Second Vatican Council and the popes since Pius XII have favored free, self-governing societies, provided that the criteria of morality and justice, and the rights and dignity of human persons, are respected as inviolable.

R&L: How do you perceive Catholic social teaching influencing debate in the public square?

Dulles: For the past century and more, the Catholic Church has been building up a body of official social teaching based on the thought of Augustine, Aquinas, and the tradition stemming from these great Christian thinkers. Pope John Paul II has written three social encyclicals dealing respectively with labor, social concerns, and the centenary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Catholic social teaching is not an exercise in economics, politics, or sociology. It seeks to set forth the principles required by fidelity to the moral law and to the gospel. It emphasizes human solidarity, concern for peace, care for the poor, and personal freedom.

R&L: What does Catholic social teaching have to say about the role and limits of the state? Why?

Dulles: Catholic social teaching recognizes the importance of the state for safeguarding the public order, which must be grounded in truth, justice, charity, and freedom. But the state has limited competence. It exists for the sake of serving its citizens, not for dominating over them. Subject to the eternal law of God, the state has no right to set itself up as judge over matters of truth, morality, or revealed religion. It must respect the prior rights of individuals and families, including the private ownership of property and the right of parents to choose the form of education for their children. According to the principle of subsidiarity, the state may not arrogate to itself functions that can be adequately performed by lesser bodies, including private agencies.

R&L: As we approach the end of the millennium, many have identified Saint Thomas Aquinas as the most influential person of the past thousand years. Aquinas seems to have had a deep influence on your theology, as well. How do you understand his legacy?

Dulles: I would like to think that Thomas Aquinas has been the most influential thinker of the second millennium. He certainly has had great influence in the Catholic Church, especially since the middle of the nineteenth century, when his philosophy was rescued from neglect. I am not a specialist on Saint Thomas, but there is no theologian for whom I have greater esteem. In all my theological work I try to consult his teaching on the point I am studying; he almost always has something wise and important to contribute.

As a philosopher and theologian, Saint Thomas is exemplary for his respectful attention to the opinions of other thinkers, his modesty and patience, his fidelity to Scripture and tradition, and his capacity to synthesize principles taken from a great variety of disciplines. To understand the religious vision that animates Aquinas’s thought, we should look at his devotional writings as well as his technical works. It would be a serious oversight to ignore his prayers and hymns.

R&L: What are the most pressing challenges for the church and for Christian social teaching as we enter the next millennium?

Dulles: On the verge of the third millennium Christians have two major tasks. One is to assimilate the finest fruits of their own heritage, so that they know what to believe and say. The other is to communicate their vision and their values to the complex and turbulent world of our day. God has given us in Christ a revelation of truth and holiness that is valid for all times, places, and cultures, but we have failed to share this gift with others who are spiritually starving for lack of it. Without Christ, people will never find the true meaning and purpose of life, nor will they achieve the unity and peace that God intends for the whole human family.

Our first task is to believe, to rise to the challenge of faith. If our faith were strong and sound, we would be good witnesses to Christ and the gospel. Our failure to evangelize is due in great part to the weakness of our faith.

R&L: In closing, I would like to quote from a recent New York Times article about you: “An agnostic when he entered Harvard in 1936, the future theologian was drawn to Saint Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic medieval philosophers. He became a Catholic in 1940 while at Harvard Law School….” Would you speak briefly about your conversion to Christianity?

Dulles: I began to discover Thomas Aquinas by reading Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism even before entering college. In college I learned much more about Aquinas, chiefly through the books of Étienne Gilson. My conversion to Catholicism was assisted by some study of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Bernard, Dante, and others. My senior thesis, which turned into a book, was on a Renaissance Platonist, Pico della Mirandola. Through these and many other channels, including the great art and architecture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I was powerfully drawn to Catholicism.

I became convinced that Western civilization could not advance without being regenerated from its religious roots, which had been preserved without disruptive change in the Catholic Church. Joining the church, I found in it the living presence of Christ, who gave himself for the life of the world.