In this modern era, all faithfully Christian people run up against a concept that is often hard to overcome and not always a conscious part of the conversation when talking with non-religious, ex-religious, or the confused person who claims to be religious but is really modern in his beliefs. This concept often goes unnoticed unless you have been aware of it, possibly by studying philosophy. You could be having a casual conversation or a heated argument, it doesn’t matter, there is a great divide, a Grand Canyon that separates you both and is not always recognized as a fundamental societal difference or as it is more commonly said, a different worldview. You both go on expressing your viewpoint, you may get an uncomfortable feeling that something basic is wrong here, but the understanding gap can become wider and wider as you both speak or write.
The difference that separates you both in today’s social environment is how you each view autonomy. As a Christian you have accepted the revelation of God and as a Catholic the authority of the Church in your life. You have rejected the idea that your opinion or desire is the end-of-the-line when it comes to behaviors or attitudes in life — most obviously about morality. As a modern person though, you would bare your chest and insist on your autonomy.
An Example From Real Life.
A very extreme example of how autonomy can be misunderstood, was illustrated recently during the disruption of the Texas legislature by pro-aborts that prevented a vote from occurring because of a time-out limit on passing the legislation that would prevent abortion after 20 weeks. The underlying principle that drove those people to this extreme was simply the belief that personal choice (autonomy) has precedence over any right (given by law) that an unborn may have. In other words, my autonomy trumps “it’s” (the unborn baby). A relatively intensified autonomous attitude in America also includes; and I can force my view of morality in all kinds of ways.
On another subject, a typical conversation, excerpted from an actual online conversation, goes like this:
She says: “Perhaps it is time for the church to update itself. Really there is no logical reason to stop women from becoming priests if they have the calling.”
You say: “There are reasons for all disciplines and doctrines in the church.”
She says: “So what are the reasons for the doctrine? When did Jesus say that women are not allowed to become priests? When did Jesus say that priests cannot marry? All these laws were MAN made by the church hierarchy that did not want to share the wealth or power.”
You say: “You know nothing until you listen to the word and read it for yourself.”
She says: “I suppose if you’d lived a hundred years ago, you’d say ‘women should just content themselves with staying home and taking care of the house and being barefoot and pregnant… and nobody said they could have opinions, they just can’t vote and can’t work in a lot of jobs’ Strange how people think just because a situation has always existed that it should always continue to exist.”
A non-religious person typically draws upon their opinions of the issue based on attitudes formulated over many years of secular institutional training and common societal understanding. This applies especially to those Americans in society who are leaders or the most visible, such as politicians and media personalities (I consider almost all news persons on the lens side of a camera a personality). Even if they claim to be Catholic, they don’t seem to be able to suppress their excessive love of democracy when commenting on a hierarchal organization like the Catholic Church, or try to understand a pope’s statements using as a model the secular relationship a C.E.O. has to his corporation. The Catholic will in vain try to explain that the Church, in an I.P.O. launched by Jesus Christ and supervised by The Holy Spirit, overrides personal desire or ambition.
And so it goes.
What Is Autonomy?
Autonomy is philosophically defined as “acting on motives, reasons, or values that are one’s own.” Philosophers have talked about autonomy for centuries, and unless you are an interested philosopher, physiologist, or social activist it has been discussed ad nausium. Personal autonomy is not intrinsically wrong. We Catholics call it free will, and when willed, we make the teachings of Jesus Christ our own. Values can come from natural law and those that we are taught. When we begin to understand the importance of these values is when we grow properly oriented. Some teachings are difficult to understand but we accept them anyway on faith; faith in Jesus Christ and his Church. Two examples come to mind here; the Trinity and Transubstantiation.
Secularists judge autonomous acts by trying to understand the innermost layer(s) of causes that has prompted a behavior or attitude. The example from a political feminist point of view, would be the case of a woman who voluntarily submits to a life of service to her husbands career, say a political career, knowing that her own must be subdued or put aside. It is an autonomous decision if it is freely taken, but, what are the underlying pressures that contribute to that decision. This can be more of a psychological question than a philosophical one, but examination of this act will typically ignore or discount any value that Theology can contribute.
The increasing lack of conversation about and attention paid to responsibility, gives us the current understanding of the American buzz-word “freedom”. How many times have you heard that translated into, That means, you can do what you want. If the word autonomy is used at all in casual conversation it is used interchangeably with “freedom”. Freedom is defined in a popular online dictionary as, “The condition or quality of being autonomous; independence… Self-government or the right of self-government; self-determination.” The ability to act is what is considered important, not the motivation. While a full understanding of autonomy actually deals with the motivations and intended actions of an individual it does overlap with the ability to act; or freedom to act.
Today the philosophy of “moral” autonomy has morphed into “personal” autonomy and a bewildering set of ideas and definitions put forth by many writers not all agreeing with each other. Scientists also seem to have jumped on the autonomy bandwagon. While correctly using the word “scientist”, there is still a desire to treat science as a thing that has a “right to self-governance”. This governance, of course, can only be pursued by persons. When one asks for more freedom without question to pursue ones own desires, the logical question becomes why? Why ask for a license to behave free of debate and restraint? If this can be granted to a specific institution because of expertise, then why not to all? Is it wise to give this kind of status to a group of people who predominantly reject God, and, through Evolutionary Biology and Theoretical Physics exhibit the goal of trying to eliminate God from human existence? Scientists need to deflate their swelling heads and recognize that they are first human persons prone to lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride; Then refrain from self-aggrandizement.
What the Church Says About Autonomy.
Since the grandiosely named period of history called the The Enlightenment, more attention has been paid by the Church to this increasingly popular attitude. The Bull Auctorem Fidei (here, here, and here) of the year 1794 by Pope Pius VI, begins to gives us a modern (relative to the history of mankind) look at how the Church reacted to the trend to derive authority for actions or thoughts from the individual or collective. The Pope declares regarding the synod of Pistoia:
2. The proposition which states “that power has been given by God to the Church, that it might be communicated to the pastors who are its ministers for the salvation of souls”; if thus understood that the power of ecclesiastical ministry and of rule is derived from the COMMUNITY of the faithful to the pastors,—heretical.
Saint Pius X in 1907 gives a more lengthy treatment of “Modernist” ideas in Pascendi Dominici Gregis where he summarizes:
28. It is thus, Venerable Brethren, that for the Modernists, whether as authors or propagandists, there is to be nothing stable, nothing immutable in the Church…….We find it condemned in the Syllabus of Pius IX, where it is enunciated in these terms: ”Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the progress of human reason”; and condemned still more solemnly in the Vatican Council [1st]: ”The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligences to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit entrusted to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted. Hence also that sense of the sacred dogmas is to be perpetually retained which our Holy Mother the Church has once declared, nor is this sense ever to be abandoned on plea or pretext of a more profound comprehension of the truth.”
He continues explaining that there is a place for human intelligence:
Nor is the development of our knowledge, even concerning the faith, barred by this pronouncement; on the contrary, it is supported and maintained. For the same Council continues: “Let intelligence and science and wisdom, therefore, increase and progress abundantly and vigorously in individuals, and in the mass, in the believer and in the whole Church, throughout the ages and the centuries — but only in its own kind, that is, according to the same dogma, the same sense, the same acceptation.”
But, as we slide into 201x from past decades we can easily judge the lack of success of this desire of Pius X:
48. All these prescriptions, both Our own and those of Our predecessor, are to be kept in view whenever there is question of choosing directors and professors for seminaries and Catholic Universities. Anyone who in any way is found to be tainted with Modernism is to be excluded without compunction from these offices, whether of government or of teaching, and those who already occupy them are to be removed.
And in our time, only a few weeks ago, Pope Francis (acknowledging the contribution Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in his first encyclical Lumen Fidei, wrote about idolatry in general terms which we can use to illuminate the current state of the secular view of autonomy. How better could I end an essay than with the words of our current pope, Francis?
13. The history of Israel also shows us the temptation of unbelief to which the people yielded more than once. Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry…….. Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.