'Theocrats' for freedom

Posted: Apr 05, 2005 12:00 AM

The word "theocrat" is a rapidly emerging swearword in American politics. If someone opposes gay marriage, or supports giving sustenance to Terri Schiavo, or has any strong moral convictions that inform his policy positions, he is a "theocrat" who secretly wishes to begin burning people at the stake. How odd, then, that this week we mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man, Pope John Paul II, who had "theocratic" trappings and convictions and yet is universally regarded as a great warrior for freedom.

Actually, it is not odd at all. Many of the great leaps of freedom in the West have come at the instigation of Christian believers. Their faith lends them an unbending belief in human dignity and an audacious hope in success against all odds that sweep aside excuses for inaction.

When the Quakers began agitating against slavery in 18th-century England, igniting a wave of moral revulsion against it, they didn't care that slavery was important economically to the country. They believed slavery was a violation of God's law ? enough said. When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his collection of (in secular terms) fellow religious fanatics began marching in the American South in the 1960s, even some pro-civil-rights liberals demurred, warning against "impatience." King responded that justice wouldn't wait. John Paul II acted in this tradition of Christian confrontation of evil in his titanic struggle against Communism in Eastern Europe.

Through accidents of history, Protestantism has traditionally been associated with political freedom. The Catholic Church, in contrast, had a scarring experience with a nominally democratic revolution in France in 1789 that was viciously anti-clerical. In Europe especially, the church tended, thereafter, to side with established authority.

But there had always been an important seed of freedom in Catholic thought: True faith must be freely chosen. This appreciation of "interior freedom" wouldn't be joined with full acceptance of liberal democracy until the 1960s, when American bishops pushed for adoption of a "Declaration of Religious Freedom" as part of the Vatican II council. It put the church firmly on the side of liberty of conscience and pluralism. Karol Wojtyla advocated for the Declaration, realizing what a powerful tool it would be for the church in Eastern Europe.

Pope John Paul believed in the connection between truth and freedom. One school of thought ? generally, liberal secularist ? has held that truth is a threat to freedom: If there is only one true way, it will inevitably squash freedom. Another school of thought ? associated with religious reactionaries ? believes that freedom represents a threat to truth because it will lead to moral relativism. The pope rejected both arguments.

The secularist view misses that freedom is grounded in truths, in the God-given dignity of man as a rational creature and in our fundamental equality. This is why the pope could say, "God created us to be free." If the idea of freedom is detached from these truths, it has no secure ground, because the strong will inevitably attempt to dominate the weak unless checked by moral truths (see slavery or segregation or communism).

The reactionary view is mistaken too, because freedom, properly ordered, is not a threat to truth. Freedom shouldn't be understood as moral anarchy, which makes freedom impossible. Truth narrows our choices. In Pope John Paul's thought, truth makes dictatorship impermissible, but also abortion and exploitation of the poor ? they all offend against human dignity.

The pope's views had a real-world test in Eastern Europe, where a commitment to truth undermined a system based on lies; a recognition of the fundamental imperatives of human dignity exposed rank injustice; and religious belief made it possible for people to brave the threats of a police state. It was Pope John Paul's faith, in turn, that gave him the convictions, the courage, and the optimism necessary to shepherd this revolution to fruition. When the chips are down, give me a freedom-loving man of faith every time.