“Freedom indistinguishable from selfishness”

John Waters has again generated a small hurricane of hostility with his column in The Irish Times this week. “The greatest ‘sin’ committed by Irish Catholicism was its failure to explain itself properly to the people. I have in mind not any recent reluctance to comply with demands for accountability or penitence, but something deeper: the failure to explain that Catholicism is fundamentally an understanding of human nature as it engages with reality, and that the ‘point’ is not social control, but personal self-understanding.”  It is a good article.

Perhaps something more of the transcendental might have figured in his analysis – and thus lift the vision beyond the earth-bound realm of the majority of those who responded to him in online comments. However, it did give our spiritually impoverished little society something to think about. What was, however, very saddening about it all was the unpleasantness and abusiveness of the tone and language of so many of those who objected to him. Would I like to spend much time in their company? I don’t think so.

Collectively it constituted something of an atheist-fest, where every brick-bat to hand was thrown at the Catholic Church which was now, by their common consensus, a fatally injured Leviathan in its last agony. Waters used the Catholic teaching on contraception as an illustration of what he saw as its failure to meet the challenge of giving its Irish flock a proper understanding of human nature as it engages with reality.

One respondent complained that he took the soft option by illustrating his point with the Catholic position on contraception as opposed to that on homosexual practices. Do they not understand that the Catholic position on both is rooted in the same integral view of the nature and purpose of human sexuality?

I couldn’t help connecting the tone of these forces arrayed against Waters with Michael Gerson’s comments in The Washington Post (Thursday, April 21) on the movie Atlas Shrugged, adapted from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel by the same name. The movie, he said, perfectly reflects both the novel and the mind behind it.

Rand is a libertarian heroine. Her novels are described by Gerson as “vehicles for a system of thought known as Objectivism. Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible. ‘The Objectivist ethics, in essence,’ said Rand, ‘hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.’”

When we probe the thought behind practically the entire army of atheist and militant secularists now ranged against religion in the world today – all religion – we essentially find this philosophy. They offer us a very bleak and shallow landscape – where we fearfully suspect that the land ruled by such a philosophy should be, as history has already shown us at such terrible cost, one where life would truly be “nasty, brutish and short”.

That this philosophy is juvenile and full of inherent contradictions would seem to guarantee it a short life. Strangely this is not happening. That it is not may be the result of that other phenomenon of the modern world which attracted some attention recently. Mankind seems to be caught in a trap of permanent adolescence.

Gerson tells us : “If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others. Rand’s achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne.”

Rand was virulently anti-Christian. The Cross, she said, is “the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the nonideal. . . . It is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture.” But the Cross is much more than a simple way of correcting our tendency to excess or a way of enhancing our happiness in the moment when we lay it down for a while. Even the secularist can understand it on that level. Hence the anger at John Waters’ suggestion that this is something for which they should acknowledge a debt to Christ or the Church.

Gerson says that many libertarians trace their inspiration to Rand’s novels, while sometimes distancing themselves from Objectivism. “But both libertarians and Objectivists are moved by the mania of a single idea — a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness.” Selfishness is a menace which at all times and in all places lurks in the shadow of our consciousness. But without religion, without that vision which shows us the Other which is the source of meaning for everything, the self and selfishness is all there is. That is when we are really in trouble.

2 thoughts on ““Freedom indistinguishable from selfishness”

  1. john

    I did not read the original article, however, the viciousness and invective secularists have for Catholics who dare to express their points of view is too often extreme and regularly simply rude.

  2. IMHO John Waters is being too harsh on Irish Catholicism. He seems to subscribe to the fallacy that the Church was an imposition (or an embodiment of alien or oppressive mores) rather than simply a reflection of values that were highly popular at the time.

    Incidentally I just discovered this excellent blog and put it on my blogroll!

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