It is common knowledge in our secular culture that the Catholic Church is “anti-choice” and that the only hope for a truly liberated future is to trust to the forces of scientism, birth control, and rational materialism to crush the Dark Age superstition of a Church that shackles the minds and souls of free people everywhere. But an average Millennial American, climbing into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and setting the dial for 1903 London, might be in for a few surprises if he peeked in on one of the grand-daddies of this sort of secular utopian thinking, Robert Blatchford. To do so would provide many people with a startling revelation of how just how far worshippers of Progress have regressed in their arguments and just how little Catholic truth has altered as it points out the obvious.
Blatchford was a man deeply concerned about the oppression of the poor, who allied himself with Progressive thought. He was a man full of the scientific future who had little patience with Christian mumbo-jumbo. He felt it essential to get past unscientific dogmas like human sin and look to scientifically quantifiable factors as heredity and environment for social change. In his newspaper, The Clarion, he wrote, “Before we can propagate our religion of Determinism and Humanism, we must first clear the ground of Free Will [and] of Sin against God…”
Here our time traveler murmurs approvingly, “So far, so good. Here is a man unshackled from the religious dogmas of the past. A free thinking man of the future.”
But now enters into the fray a Christian named G.K. Chesterton who dares to label Blatchford’s opinion “heresy”. It is all very well, Chesterton observed, to say we are purely the products of heredity and environment and that free will is an illusion. But why then go about railing against social failure and saying (as Blatchford and millions of progressive thinkers rightly said) that “man can be unjust and cruel and base and mean towards his fellow man, and he often is. He can sin against his fellow man, and he often does.” If, as Blatchford maintained, the Christian belief in sin is ridiculous, so was Blatchford’s belief that a cruel sweat shop owner can blamed for his actions. For to blame the sweat shop owner assumes he has free will and could do otherwise if he chose.
Blatchford attempted to skirt this problem by saying he had misspoken. People, he maintained, actually do bad things as the results of environment and heredity and so cannot be “blamed” any more than sharks can be blamed for eating swimmers. But they can still be resisted as we would resist a shark. Likewise, said Blatchford, he could scold his clerk for educational purposes without blaming him for his actions.
Chesterton wrote back:
What is the use in this real and living world of people who will do nothing against public nuisances but knock them down or lock them up? What is the use of saying that society is a garden and the wicked are weeds? You cannot grub up selfish brothers with a spade. You cannot go about with a rake weeding out hypochondriac old gentlemen. You cannot scatter Keating’s powder and find the ground strewn with the corpses of interfering aunts. These are the real problems of society, and if they are to be resisted, they must be blamed.
…On your principles, you would say, “My blameless Ruggles, the anger of God against you has once more driven you, a helpless victim, to put your boots on my desk and upset the ink on the ledger. Let us weep together.” If that is the way clerks are scolded in the Clarion office, gaily will I now apply for the next vacancy in that philosophical establishment.
Now before our time traveler leaps out of the Wayback Machine to join in this intellectual fray, let us set our dial for a return to the present and reflect upon the remarkable content of this exchange.
Of course, if we have learned our secular catechism as we ought, we know perfectly well that Christians hate the very idea of open-mindedness and freedom of choice. They prefer being told what to think by Dogmatic Authority. Progressives resist slavery to religious dogma, celebrate liberty of mind, and prefer to think for themselves.
That’s what the secular catechism says. What the Progressive Blatchford says, however, is that liberty of mind is sheer illusion. It’s the dogmatic Christian who is staunchly “pro-choice”, who celebrates freedom, and who insists we are able to think.
This is big clue that the old Catholic view of choice is easier, harder and odder than we have been led to believe by our media guides. Let us then see this strange sight more closely that we might fathom the riddle.
The postmodern affirmation of Free Will typically styles itself under the political rubric “Pro-choice.” By this label its adherents claim to affirm the “individual’s right to choose”…. something. However, those who fly the “pro-choice” banner are curiously reticent to attach an object to that choice. The sense seems to be that the focus remain simply on the act of choosing per se as intrinsically meritorious, without regard for the thing chosen. This is especially striking in the schizophrenic language used to refer to the fate of the unborn human being (who is, in fact, the object of that choice). If slated for the suction machine, the unborn baby is referred to as a “fetus” or “tissue mass.” However, if that same child is the subject of a pre-natal care advertisement by the obstetrical wing of the hospital, it is referred to, rightly, as “your baby” and someone who “deserves the best care possible.”
Typically, however, it is preferable not to discuss the object of our choice at all. Advocates of abortion simply demand the “right to choose” while in fact demanding freedom from the consequences of choice. This is shown beyond question when the “pro-choice” advocate rails against “Right to Know” legislation (which would assure that women got the same information about the processes, dangers and results of abortion as they are required to have when submitting to surgery for a planter’s wart). Obviously, what is at stake for the opponent of such legislation is not the “right to choose” intelligently but the demand to not face what we have, in fact, chosen. Every choice is “right”.
Now the reality is that demanding everything be right and nothing wrong is, in Chesterton’s phrase, like demanding everything be right and nothing left. In other words, it is to demand that choice not matter. For to demand freedom from real consequences is to demand freedom from real power–that is, freedom from choice.
However, the “pro-choice” advocate, having immunized himself against thinking will seldom pause to remark on this. Instead, he will trot out rhetoric about “scientific progress” vs. “dogma” that has served him well ever since Blatchford’s day. But if we are paying attention today, we will find that many in the sciences, particularly those involved in brain studies, make similar arguments to Blatchford–arguments which in fact undercut the pro-choice position. Only instead of appealing to Blatchford’s now-unfashionable discussions of Adam, they simply engage in some good old-fashioned Nothing Buttery. This favorite tactic of materialist atheists is to point out that concepts like “soul” and “spirit” cannot be weighed or measured and are unscientific and therefore non-existent. Sounds like a promising support for Planned Parenthood’s attack on religious superstition, no?
No. For by this reckoning, the mind therefore is “nothing but” a function of the atoms and molecules that compose the brain. And since atoms and molecules function according to strict physical laws, it follows that our so-called “choices” are nothing but a function of the pre-determined motion of the atoms and molecules in our brains. Both of these ideas are fatal, not to Catholic belief, but to the claim of “freedom of choice” as it is articulated by Planned Parenthood. Secular materialist “scientific” rhetoric tends to paint itself into the same corner Blatchford did.
In contrast, Catholic faith begins, as you might expect, with a God Who chooses things. I do not mean here merely the Chosen People. I mean that everything in Creation is chosen by Him according to the Catholic view. He chose that the sun be brilliant white, not blue; that the ocean be made of water, not champagne: that the little kid down the block have that charming cowlick, but not brown eyes. It could have been otherwise, but He chose this. Moreover, He chose it ex nihilo, somewhat as a tale-teller might pluck the elements of a story from thin air. There is in this view a way of seeing the world which the Catholic shares with the child, the ancient mythmaker and the modern Native American storyteller: a kind of vision alive to the mythic dimension behind reality. It is what Chesterton called “fairy tale philosophy”.
Now, the fairy tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality of choice.
In short, the Catholic view of the “chosenness” of Creation by the Choosing Creator makes the world, first and foremost, a story rather than a mere hardwired set of inevitable dominos of electromagnetism, hormones and class conflicts. To be sure, the world contains systems, just as stories contain elements like theme, setting, character, metaphor and whatnot. But to see only the systems without the dimension of choice and story animating them is like describing Hamlet as a series of black marks on white paper. The explanation explains everything, but leaves everything out. Hamlet is that, but it is a lot more than that too. Similarly, the systems which science observes have not only activity but purpose in the choosing mind of God.
Now the average anti-Catholic response to all this, of course, is “Did God choose Auschwitz?” And the Catholic must reply, maddeningly enough, “Yes and No.” “Yes” because Hitler did not somehow pop into being when God’s back was turned. Therefore, he was surely God’s creation as all things are. Nonetheless, the Catholic also answers “No” as well because part of the creation of Hitler involves the necessity which Blatchford denied and orthodoxy defends: the reality that Der Fuehrer really and truly get exactly what Planned Parenthood demands–the “right to choose”. And that must include, unless we want God tinkering with our brains every three seconds, the “right to choose” even Auschwitz.
Put in those terms the Catholic picture looks suddenly like a very scary proposition. That’s more freedom than we bargained for! It sounds as though the Catholic view is affirming choice as a good gift from God, yet is not saying “everything is permissible,” nor that all choices are good simply because we chose them.
Right. The fact is, the Church affirms choice more seriously than the most zealous member of Planned Parenthood. For the Planned Parenthood advocate wants to pretend that every choice is good simply because it was chosen while the Church insists more radically (and in line with obvious everyday experience) that while choice is a good gift from God, we can use that good gift to choose great evils. For the obvious fact is that we do not choose in a vacuum. Only One Being ever did that and He did it In The Beginning. That is Choice absolutely. We, on the other hand, do not choose absolutely. We choose this job or that one; tuna fish or bologna; Door #1, Door #2 or Door #3. Our choices are about things. We don’t just get up in the morning and decree a new primary color as God once did.
But though our choices are not absolute, they are nonetheless critical. For by our choices we act as real agents of Creation–or destruction. Leonardo did not create the Mona Lisa absolutely. His paint, his subject, indeed, his hands, brain and heart were all gifts of grace. Yet without his choice and skill given to every brush stroke the Mona Lisa would not be. We are, as Tolkien notes, sub-creators, not Creators.
Our choices then can have real merit. Not in the sense that they earn God’s favor, we already have that through Christ alone. Rather, by the old Catholic word “merit” is meant what Scripture calls “fruit.” That is, the reality that Christ really does make us co-laborers with him and that we may therefore, by his grace, both be good and do good–or not.
The crowning irony of this stark contrast between the Catholic view of the person (which really does take choice seriously) and the secular view which mouths pro-choice platitudes while denying human choice is that, as ever, ideas have consequences. Catholic culture was able to give birth to a western view of the human person that took seriously our capacity to choose. In contrast, a view of the human person which holds that people cannot be blamed for doing evil any more than sharks can be blamed for eating swimmers is ultimately a view which leads, not to freedom from punishment, but to treating humans like weeds. Chesterton ended up being prophetic (as was his custom) when the great despotisms of the 20th Century simply abandoned the problem of human responsibility and declared that, if you belonged to a particular statistical bloc (Jewish, bourgeois, etc.), odds were your environment and other determining factors made you Undesirable. No fuss with reasoning. No bother with trying to treat you as a person at all. Just shovel you into the oven and you were not a problem anymore. The 20th Century saw whole systems arise which really did scatter the ground, not with Keating’s powder, but with Zyklon-B, and which really did find the ground strewn with the corpses, not just of interfering aunts, but men, women, and children by the millions.
And this deep hostility to even having to deal with human choice exists today–among the allegedly “pro-choice” advocates of abortion. That’s why they so frequently achieve their ends, not by submitting their ideas to a vote, but by judicial decree. Democracy and human choice is, in fact, inimical to the alleged champions of “choice”. But then, this is what we would expect given the reality that their alleged championship of “choice” is simply a facade covering a view of the human person that is profoundly hostile, not only to revelation but even to common sense—a common sense Chesterton pointed to a century ago and which the Church has continued to champion since then.
So if it were between Blatchford and Chesterton, I would choose Chesterton–of my own free will.