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By Andrew Greenwell, Esq.

12/2/2011 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Freedom is not boundless. It must be exercised responsibly which means according to rule.

Freedom is not boundless.  It must be exercised responsibly which means according to rule.  Who can advocate an irresponsible freedom?  As Solzhenitsyn pointed out in his famous 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, an "irresponsible freedom," a freedom granted "boundless space," leads society into "the abyss of human decadence."


By Andrew Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

12/2/2011 (3 years ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Andrew Greenwell, Esq., Catholic social teaching, freedom, natural law, conscience,

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The proper exercise of personal freedom must conform to the natural moral law, since "[b]y deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth.'" (Compendium, No. 137) (quoting CCC, § 1740)

The natural law is therefore behind all of man's economic, social, political, and cultural life, for these are also ordered to man's freedom and to the truth.  As John Paul II vividly taught us in his Encyclical Veritatis splendor, there is an intrinsic connection between freedom and living in the truth. 

Freedom is not boundless.  It must be exercised responsibly which means according to rule.  Who can advocate an irresponsible freedom?  As Solzhenitsyn pointed out in his famous 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, an "irresponsible freedom," a freedom granted "boundless space," leads society into "the abyss of human decadence."

To avoid this fall into the "abyss of human decadence," therefore, we must exercise freedom responsibly.  This means that freedom must conform itself to the judgment of conscience, which is freedom's natural restraint.  Indeed, to place freedom under the judgment of conscience "leads to the acceptance of responsibility for the good accomplished and the evil committed." (Compendium, No. 139)

Conscience is therefore the lode star of freedom, and it keeps society from falling into the "abyss of human decadence," as Solzhenitsyn warned.  But conscience serves a double purpose since it also keeps us out of the abyss of Hell.  "Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, aedificat ad gehennam," the Fourth Lateran Council taught.  That which goes against conscience, leads one to Gehenna, a place where--one might to one's edification recall--both body and soul are destroyed. (Matt. 10:28)

If for both society and soul's sake freedom must be exercised responsibly, and this means in accordance with conscience, then what is to inform the conscience?  Can conscience dispense with conscience?  Surely not.  Is conscience under no law?  Surely not, for to judge means there is some law by which to judge.  And if conscience is necessarily under some law, whose law, man's or God's?

If conscience is to be regarded as nothing more than vox hominis, the voice of man, then man is the measure of all things, and the law that governs conscience is nothing other than "self-law," a declaration of autonomy from external or objective rule.  Conscience would then be nothing but the application of arbitrary rule.  Conscience thought of in this way is, as Newman called it, in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, "counterfeit."  It is, in fact, rebellion.

Such a notion of conscience cannot support life in common.  "Those who proclaim themselves to be the sole measure of realities and of truth cannot live peacefully in society with their fellow men and cooperate with them." (Compendium, No. 142) 

Conscience is not the voice of man, it is vox Dei, the voice of God.  And this suggests that God, and not man, is the measure of all things.  There is then a measure or rule outside ourselves, and yet one which is intimately tied to our nature, to which we must conform.  And this outside measure or rule--which finds its source in God and his eternal law and as it applies to man--is known as the natural law.  In his Confessions, St. Augustine called it the internus aeternus, the internal eternal in man.

For this reason, the Compendium states that the "exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties."  The natural law is "nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God."  By the natural law we "know what must be done and what must be avoided."  "This light or this law has been given by God to [man in] creation."  The natural law consists in the participation of God's eternal law, "which is identified with God himself," for as the Anglo Saxons beautifully expressed it in their ancient legal code the Sachsenspiegel, Gott is selber recht, God himself is law.

The Compendium then gives a summary of the natural law.  The natural law is called natural "because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature."  It "is universal, it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason."  The natural law, in "its principal precepts," is presented "in the Decalogue," that is, the Ten Commandments, "and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life."  The natural law's "central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good."  The natural law's "central focus" also includes the "act of seeing others as equal to oneself."  The natural law "expresses the dignity of the person and laws the foundations of the person's fundamental duties" to both God, to himself, and to man."  (Compendium, No. 140)

The natural law is the law among all people, and it traverses all culture, all convention, all human law.  It is the law under all laws, over all laws, and within all laws.  It is "immutable," constant, even "under the flux of ideas and customs."  Yet this marvelous law is also flexible, and "its application may," where exceptionless or absolute norms are not at issue, "require adaptations to the many different conditions of life according to place, time, and circumstances." (Compendium, No. 141)

It is true that man can reject the natural law, and in the main our society seems to have rejected its guidance. But "[e]ven when it is rejected in its very principles," the Compendium states quoting the Catechism, "it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies." (Compendium, No. 141)  One author has called this phenomenon the eternal return of the natural law, die ewige Wiederkehr des Naturrechts.

Not only is it true that man can reject the natural law, it is also true that we can simply be ignorant of the natural law.  The voice of the natural law is sufficiently quiet that particular individuals or whole societies fail to hear it. "Be still and know that I am God," says the Psalmist. (Psalm 46:10 [45:11])   The "stillness" rule applies to the natural law: "Be still and know the natural law." 

Most of us are not still enough to hear the natural law.  Most of us listen to other, louder voices: selfish regard, the poisons and conventions of our culture, the stupid, trite, and shallow aphorism of the day, or the rule of expediency.  Additionally, our inner ear is muffled by the ease of torpid conscience, the inconvenience even sacrifice demanded by a life lived by principle, or by an all-too-frequent acedia-spiritual sloth-in moral life.

Since most of us are not still enough, listen to other voices, or have a sort of lint in our heart's inner ear, the natural law's "precepts . . . are not clearly and immediately perceived by everyone."  It is therefore the case that, as a matter of practical necessity in a world that has lapsed after the Fall, religious and moral truths can be known "with facility, with firm certainty, and without the admixture of error" only "with the help of Grace and Revelation."  As Matthew Arnold said in his poem, "Pis Aller:" "Man is blind because of sin, revelation makes him sure; without that, who looks within, looks in vain for all's obscure."

The natural law "lays the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community and for establishing the civil law that draws its consequences of a concrete and contingent nature from the principles of the natural law." (Compendium, No. 142)  Without the natural law, in vain do men build their societies, found their governments, and attempt constitutions devoted to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

"Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain." (Psalm 127 (126):1)  Build a society without reference to the natural law, build a society of relativism and moral pluralism without reference to God and his law, and you have built not on Mount Zion. Rather, you have built its ersatz, a fake substitute, a tower of Babel. And we all know what happened to that tower.  If we've forgotten, we may turn to the poet John Donne, who in his poem "The Second Anniversary," noted that those who built the tower of Babel entered into a fool's bargain: "And as by changing that whole precious Gold / To such small copper coins, they lost the old."

If we try to build our social life without reference to the natural law, we have traded precious Gold of that law for the small copper coin of relativism, and with the loss of capital and the loss of coin, we have sold ourselves to slavery.  And this Faustian bargain was not even for a mess of pottage, but for such moral enormities and false freedoms such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage, and pornography. 

All moral enormities and false freedoms are a very sad birthright our dissolute and morally spendthrift society has left to its children.


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law, called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at


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