The Fundamental Liberty, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 2 February 1936

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'Thus far we have considered the two conditions of the prodigal’s return; namely, entering into himself or recognizing the primacy of the spiritual, and secondly, admitting a sense of need for the Bread of the Father’s House. We now come to the third condition: the recognition of Authority. In the words of Our Lord, the prodigal then said: “I will arise, and will go to my father”.

These words of the prodigal revealed two astounding admissions born of the ashes of a sad and disillusioned life. The first was that there is no escaping authority. The prodigal saw now that the choice before him was not whether he would accept or reject the authority of his father, but whether he would accept the authority of the father or the authority of his passions and his vicious habits. Secondly, the prodigal had finally to admit that the authority of the Father’s house which he once thought so enslaving was the only authority which could ever make him free.

Now, to apply this to Western Civilization. It, too, like the prodigal, is finding out to its own chagrin that in rejecting the authority of the Father’s House, it did not escape authority, but it only substituted one authority for another, and an authority of a tyrannical kind, like the passions of the prodigal. Following the example of the prodigal, our civilization threw off all authority: First the authority of the Church, then the authority of the Bible, and finally the authority of religion and morals in the political, economic, and social order. This break with authority created a false sense of liberty such as the prodigal felt in the first wild moments of dissipation. Liberty was bound to be distorted once it was torn away from Truth and Divine Responsibility. Freedom became synonymous with doing whatever you pleased, whether it was good or evil, or believing whatever you pleased whether it was true or false. The result was that freedom degenerated into a form of “selfishness”, expressed itself in such slogans as “be yourself”, frowned upon all forms of restraint and sacrifice as contrary to the individual libido, and ended in what might be called the exaltation and glorification of the ego.

But the modern man soon discovered that he is the slave of that which overcomes him, and that he really had not escaped authority. He had only substituted one kind of authority for another – in rejecting the authority of God, he became subject to the authority of Caesar. This came about because our civilization having lost the religious sanctions of authority, sought some obligatory organization as the sole means of escaping absolute chaos and degeneration. Like camels who run together when frightened, so these prophets of false liberty, when fightened by the collapse of every ideal they believed to be true, sought refuge in the human collective, in the mass, or in the State. It was a way of trying to get collective control over that which should have been controlled by a social religion informing the individual conscience. The abuses resulting from a liberty which was only selfishness reached such enormous proportions that political authority had to step in and re-establish itself over economic forces which had long escaped from it and were now mocking it. That is why the reaction against false liberty tended to dictatorship. In some nations it did not stop with the State attempting to enforce the legally just as a substitute for the morally righteous! It reached a point where the State assumed complete control over the temporal and spiritual life of man. A social conscience took the place of a personal conscience. Dictatorship overflowed into the spiritual order; organization became an obsession; social planning became a mania. A unity of ideas and beliefs was imposed upon the submerged personalities by the State, which felt the need of creating an economic unity to replace the spiritual unity whose basis is Christ.

The general effect of the reaction was the substitution of the authority of Caesar for the authority of God; or the mobilization of individual egotists into a collective selfishness, which is Communism. We are witnessing therefore the queer spectacle of a world that began by hating authority, now falling down before an authority more absolute than history has seen since the advent of Christianity. The authority of the Father’s House was rejected because it was said to stand in the way of liberty; and now the Prodigal World finds itself the slave of those forces it once thought would make it free. It would not have God with His law of love, now it must have Caesar with his iron law; it would not be subject to the Father, now it must be subject to the citizen of the foreign country.

There is no escaping authority; the prodigal found that out, and the modern world is now finding it out again. Its three hundred year old experiment with liberty has taught it that liberty does not mean the right to violate either the laws of God or man It wanted an order in which every man was free and found out too late that in such an order only the strong are free; it wanted a religion in which each man could think out his own beliefs and found it just as absurd as thinking out his own astronomy. Hence the problem is not whether we shall or shall not accept authority; the problem is which authority will we accept, the authority of Christ, or the authority of anti-Christ. Our age is now answering that question.

This brings us to the second admission of the prodigal, namely, that the authority of the father which he rejected as the obstacle to freedom was the only authority which could ever make him free. Our civilization too must eventually come to realize that the Church which for the last three hundred years has been attacked as the enemy of liberty and freedom now stands alone as the bulwark and guarantee of liberty, and that every word she utters is a protest against the new slavery of the modern man.

The new slavery is different from the old. The old slavery was physical. A man under that regime was not permitted either the fruits of the labor of his hands or the rev/ards of the sweat of his brow; his work, his talents, his body, his wife and his children, belonged to the man who owned him. The new slavery is not physical but spiritual and moral. It affects sometimes the body as in Russia, but principally it affects the soul, the conscience, the will, and the personality of man; it takes its roots into the more human and divine part of him, asserts the primacy of the economic order over the human, and subjects him to the race, the class, the Proletariat, the State which owns him and whose dominant passion is the Passion for Power.

Against this new slavery whose venom strikes deeper roots than the old, the Church has risen in protest. Why has she condemned Birth Control, Sterilization? Why has she anathematized Communism? Why has she condemned employers who would deny workmen the right to organize? Why has she frowned upon workmen who would abolish all private property? Simply because each of these things is a violation of the Rights of Man; because a human personality has certain inalienable rights which no one can take away from him; in a word, because a man is to be measured and judged not by what he produces for the State but by what he is destined to be by God.

This is a new role for the Church. Yes, she has had to defend liberties before, but they were liberties of the supernatural order. Up until the close of the 19th century she had to assert the freedom of man to accept grace, against Calvinistic Determinism; but now she is called upon, not to defend liberty in the order of grace, but liberty in the order of nature. Before she had to go forth to battle for the freedom of a man to be a saint; now she has to fight for the freedom of a man to be a man. This is a sad state of affairs when Christ in His Mystical Body has to remind the world of those truths which even the pagans believed, namely, the right of a man to be free, to be captain of his own fate and destiny, and the right to pray, “Our Father, Who art in heaven”, instead of “Soviet Union which art in Russia”.

If the world continues to get so far away from fundamentals, a day may yet come when the Church will go out to battle in defense of the truth that two and two make four, that grass is green in summer, and that snow is white. Her excommunications of the future will not be against those who deny that there are three persons in one God, but against those who deny that every citizen in a State is a person. She has been the defender of the revealed liberties of the world; now, she is to be the defender of the last liberty of all, the freedom of man.

Rob man of the freedom of serving and loving God and you have robbed him of his manhood. Men with minds that can fly cannot be kept in cages; men with divine home-sickness cannot And homes under roofs; men destined to be filled with Life and Truth and Love cannot be satisfied with only their bellies filled. Rob them of their God, which is the root of all the liberties of man, and they will build a false god as they are doing now. When Moses was absent for forty days on the mountain-top communing with the Living God, the children of Israel made for themselves a golden calf. And today when the people in Russia and Germany and Mexico are deprived of God, they make the iron calf of the State and the Race; if they are not permitted to walk in processions to the Mother of God, they will dance about tractors; if they are forbidden to adore God in a tabernacle they will bow down before an embalmed corpse and a paraffined cheek in the Kremlin of the Red Square. That is why the religion of Russia is the opium of the People – it does not deny God who was the root of all their liberties; it falsifies His image and makes them slaves. But this will not satisfy them long. Communism may build Babels, a thousand factories, schools and hospitals, but their Babels will crumble without the Cornerstone; the products of their factories will be without excellence, the dying in their hospitals will not be healed, the scholars in their schools will not learn wisdom because they have forgotten that a cow is satisfied when its stomach is full, but not a man. He is not satisfied until he is free, and he is not free until he can love when he pleases, and he cannot love when he pleases until he loves the One for Whom he was made – the God whose name is Love!