Venerable Fulton Sheen: No freedom, No virtue

Catholic libertarianSome earlier posts explore the importance of liberty and free will in turning human beings into saints. In “God gives free will to make virtuous people,” there is the inevitability of evil in a universe where God wanted good men rather than robots.

In “Mind Your Own Business,” God’s oddly libertarian permissiveness regarding the evil in this world is not an invitation for men to fill the gap and to rule others lives in God’s place. Nobody likes a “busybody. “ The scriptures make it clear that the meddling of these bottom-feeders is not listed among the virtues.

fulton_sheenThe Venerable Fulton J. Sheen (died 1979) was an American Catholic archbishop, best known for his television preaching in the 1950’s (Life Is Worth Living). In 2012, he was officially recognized by the Vatican as having lived a life of “heroic virtue,” a major step towards being declared a saint.

He taught that human freedom is essential to the Divine purpose as is the possibility of evil. Men must have the freedom to do good or evil, otherwise true virtue not possible. As Archbishop Sheen wrote:

“Take the quality of freedom away from anyone, and it is no more possible for him to be virtuous than it is for the blade of grass which he treads beneath his feet to be virtuous. Take freedom away from life, and there would be no more reason to honor the fortitude of martyrs than there would be to honor the flames which kindle their faggots. Is it therefore any impeachment of God that he chose not to reign over an empire of chemicals?

Virtue in its concrete order is possible only in those spheres in which it is possible to be vicious. Man can be a saint only in a world in which it is possible to be a devil.

~Through the Year with Fulton Sheen, Servant Books, 1985 pp 110-111.

Not every vice is a crime

God gives free will to make virtuous people

In the beginning, man was created with free will. In paradise, Adam and Eve had complete freedom of action and only a single rule: Do not eat the fruit of one particular tree. They were free to obey or disobey. God warned them that eating the fruit of the tree would kill them, but God—having made them free—could not prevent their abuse of that freedom and so death came to our world.

We have heard the story so many times we do not stop to consider how odd this is. From a human point of view, this is very peculiar. When men wish to prevent something bad from happening, they take concrete steps to deter it. If it is in their power to stop something they do not want to happen, they stop it. If they cannot reliably stop someone from doing something, they declare it a crime and punish the offender afterwards.

From our point of view, God’s reaction to evil is shockingly different. Unlike man, God has the absolute power to stop evil from happening. He could have stopped evil at any stage. He need never have made men in the first place. He might have made us so that—like robots—we never acted wrongly, but He did not. He made man and woman in his own image, with the freedom to choose good or evil. He gave them dominion over the earth and then God declared that it was good.

Having made men who could choose evil, He might have chosen to punish evil instantly, whenever it occurred, but God did not do that either. While many wrong actions have natural consequences in this life, most of us are given a full lifespan before being called to account for our lives.

In God’s wisdom, free will is so important that He gives it to every man, not just our first parents. Why did God permit such freedom? The abuse of our free will brings death and sorrow to every generation, so why did an omnipotent and good Creator risk the evil that often results? It seems free will is necessary to make men who are capable of sharing in God’s life. Only free men can become good men. True virtue requires liberty.

St. Augustine, vices and the criminal law – Part 2

[Part I here]

In the last post, we saw that St. Augustine taught against the criminalization of all but the most egregious human conduct. Beyond keeping the peace, he wrote, government does more harm than good when it uses force to make men behave rightly. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, he essentially adopts the libertarian non-aggression principle as a limit on the use of force by government.

In his “Letter to Macedonius,” St. Augustine goes further, challenging the idea that government can make bad men good by force of law:

[The bad] are not to be described as good just because they do not sin, out of fear of such penalties. One is good not through fear of punishment, but through the love of justice. Punishment by the government is useful so that “the innocent can live in security among the unscrupulous.” 

Not only does he reject the notion that criminal punishment removes an interior disposition to evil, he goes on to assert the opposite. He writes that, “prohibition increases the desire of illicit action.” [City of God, XIII:5.] This cannot be denied, for the attractiveness of “forbidden fruit” goes back all the way to the garden of Eden and is especially enticing to less mature individuals. Teenage rebellion is a testament to this proposition.

Government welfare destroys charity

There is no virtue in having government take one man’s money by the threat of force and giving it to another. The taxpayer does nothing virtuous, except yield to overwhelming state power. As government welfare replaces charity, it becomes easy and natural to turn away from the poor and leave charity to the government. Government destroys our capacity for generosity. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol we may indignantly ask: “Are there no poorhouses?”

In the letter of James, we read, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” The modern state makes it even easier for us today to ignore the needy, for we can always dismiss them, saying: “Go to the government, be warmed and filled.”

Free is Beautiful