Human Autonomy Rightly Understood

From an essay by Philip Tartaglia, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley, Scotland, comes this summary of human autonomy rightly understood. His essay is adapted from a keynote address he delivered on April 11, 2012, at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, to a conference sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. You can read the rest of his talk here.

Religious freedom is more than freedom to worship, but is also the freedom to express and teach religious truth. It must include the freedom to evangelize, catechize, and serve the needy according to a religious community’s own precepts. Religious freedom is thus intertwined with freedom of expression, thought, and conscience. Believers should not be treated by the government and the courts as a tolerated and divisive minority whose rights must always yield to the secular agenda. As we have seen in the genesis of the threat to religious freedom in the UK, the great question that exercises modern culture is the meaning of human autonomy and especially sexual freedom. Cardinal Pell wisely remarks that this struggle is fundamentally over a religious question that revolves around the reality of a transcendent order. One way of putting it is: “Did God create us or did we create God?” The limited scope that secularism is prepared to concede to religious beliefs is based on the assumption that we created God. As long as the supremacy remains with man, then faith is understood as a private therapeutic pursuit and is permitted. But when people insist that faith is more than this, and that the supremacy is not ours, religion must be resisted, increasingly through the law. The question of autonomy, of freedom and supremacy, plays itself out, among other places, in the contest between religious and sexual freedom. Absolute sexual freedom lies at the heart of the modern autonomy project. Beyond preferences about sexual practices or forms of relationship, it extends now to preferences about the method and manner of procreation, family formation, and the uses of human reproduction in medical research. Cardinal Pell hit the nail on the head when he observed that the message from the earliest days of the sexual revolution, always barely concealed behind the talk of “free love,” “live and let live,” and creating space for “different forms of loving,” was that limits on sexual autonomy will not be tolerated. This is generating the pressures against religion in public life. It is difficult for Christians to know how to respond in this situation. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution that can be uncompromising and brutal. Christians have the more promising vision and more convincing arguments than secularists about the nature of human beings in their need of God, about the nature of the family, about the place of faith in public life, and about the relationship of faith to science and progress. However, the cultural mood is to dismiss these arguments and insights in summary fashion. Christians today are riding the tiger, and, if the present cultural trajectory goes unchecked, I fully expect to be prosecuted in the courts in the coming years. But Christians need to be patient and steadfast and always ready to engage. Evil may well have its time but eventually it consumes itself, and it will not have the last word. We may need to pick up the pieces of a shattered civilization, broken and exhausted by its extreme adventure with radical godlessness.

The bishop’s finally paragraph is applicable as well to the Orthodox Church: “Whatever happens in the next few years, the Catholic Church has only one choice: to be herself by being true to Jesus Christ, whatever the cost. What kind of nation and what kind of democracy will we be? That is another question.” In Christ, +Fr Gregory

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