Freedom and Fort Nights

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During this fortnight for freedom, it is worth reflecting on some words of wisdom by Blessed Pope John Paul the Great: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” It is because our government is choosing the former (the “right” to do whatever we want) at the expense of the later (the ability to simply do what is right) that the bishops have united and launched this fortnight for freedom campaign. Now, the campaign is aimed specifically at the Obama administration’s tyrannical HHS Mandate, as well it should be. The freedom of religion—which includes freedom of conscience—is perhaps the most important of our liberties, excepting perhaps only the right to life [1]. There are several ways in which our freedom is under attack, including:

  • The HHS mandate which tramples on employers conscience rights and forces them to provide insurance which will cover contraception, sterilization, and even some kinds of abortion
  • The increasing hostility of what Mr Mark Shea would call the “gay brownshirts,” which largely consists of a “gay” couple suing a photographer, bed-and-breakfast, or baker for refusing to provide service to them for their “weeding”/honeymoon, and then a federal judge siding with the “gay couple” (often in the face of local laws) and leveling hefty fines or court orders that the photographer/baker/innkeeper provide his respective service. [2]
  • Taxes continue to be collected for distribution to Murder, Inc.
  • The conscience rights of pharmacists are violated when they are forced to provide contraceptives—including abortifacent contraceptives—or risk losing their jobs; this coercive power against conscience is given legal sanction in some states [3], and also now by the HHS mandate mentioned above.
  • Catholic charities adoption services are often told that they must either start placing children for adoption with “gay” couples or close their doors, despite their arguments that this is a) contrary to Catholic moral teaching and b) that this is not to the benefit of the children [4].
  • On the other side of things, the Church is being forbidden from carrying out a few works of mercy—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and especially harboring the harborless—on account of their being illegal immigrants.

And all of these name only direct, political assaults against the freedom of religion. They say nothing about the erosion which occurs thanks to pressures from society, from the media, from the academy—in short, from the greater “marketplace of ideas” [5]. There is another type of pressure against living as people of Faith, that is, against our religion and against our consciences: that is the pressure which comes from our own weaknesses, our own concupiscence, the temptations which we suffer for our own reasons.

Our late, great pope’s statement certainly can be aimed against the government which coerces conscience against freedom—the right to do what we ought. But we see that freedom is more than merely having this right: it is our own ability to act on this right, even when society, or even when our own appetites, urge us against it. There is, in other words, a moral dimension to freedom. I would go so far as to say that moral freedom—which starts with the individual—ultimately underlies political freedom, though political freedom (or the suppression thereof) can reinforce or undermine moral freedom.

Our freedom is threatened by those who wish to have a false freedom, the right to satisfy their appetites with no questions asked. The have gained ascension in the press, in the academy, and in the government: but this ascension is in part because of the decline of moral virtue, both as individuals and as a society; and, truth be told, this decline is in part because of the complacency of the Church in America. Catholics so much longed for safety within and acceptance by the larger society that when finally they had begun to earn it, they forgot that the mission of the Church is not to be liked, but to be Christ’s bride and His mystical body; the forgot, despite the emphasis of the second Vatican Council, that to be baptized was to be not only priest and king, but also prophet, to speak the ignored and at times uncomfortable Truth, and to speak that Truth to power; and to be confirmed is to be made a soldier for Truth, that is, to wage spiritual war (against the enemy, Satan) for Christ.

Part of that Truth which we are to proclaim and to fight for is morality—the moral truths according to which we ought to form our consciences. These moral truths will always be out of season with much of society; society is, after all, of us fallen men who are sinners, and thus who fall somewhat short of moral excellence. This is perhaps why morality is so hard to preach, because virtue is so hard to practice. Thus we committed the old Socratic error of relegating assuming that philosophy alone could suffice to inculcate virtue, that education was all which was needed to make men moral—and this during a time when education, and Catholic education, was in a crisis of identity.

But while philosophy may aide in inculcating virtue, it is certainly not enough—for some of the most immoral men are quite educated, or at the least have quite a bit of schooling. Education taken more broadly can be helpful—a part of correctly forming your conscience is to learn what is right and what is wrong and why, and a part of becoming virtuous and morally upright is to heed the warnings of a well-formed conscience. On the other hand, there is also an element of child-like simplicity: if we are to become innocent, we must also become obedient, trusting of God and His authority.

“Fortnight,” or “fort night”? Source.

There is a sense in which the “Fornight for Freedom” is really also a “Fort Night for Freedom” (to borrow a pun from my friend Mr Gregory Turco). Indeed, there are at least two senses in which this is true. There is the childlike sense implied in mistaking a “fortnight” for a “fort night.” Then there is the perhaps more spiritually mature sense of recognizing that this is no mere physical, political battle, but a spiritual one; and the Church is our only Fort in that fight, and the Church is the only army on earth which can storm that enemy’s stronghold.

It is no mere coincidence that the Fortnight for Freedom was begun on the feast day of Sts Thomas More and John Fisher. For they were witnesses to a truth, a reflection of the Truth, against the secular tyranny of their day. And they also won out, by God’s grace, against the enemies which ultimately underlies all such tyranny: our own sinfulness, and the temptations of Satan. Now it is for us to do the same. It is, moreover, no mere coincidence that this fortnight involves some form of fasting or sacrifice, some asceticism; for asceticism is the weapon we use against our own desires, and prayer against the temptation of the devil.

In the second volume of his History of Christendom, the late historian Warren H Carroll mentions an episode between another great saint who was faced with the tyrannical demands of the government of his day: adhere to the Arianizing creed (that is, proclaim as true the heresy of his day), or else. Professor Carrol presents this exchange between the newly elected bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (Asia Minor) and Prefect Modestus, an agent of Eastern Emperor Valens, which took place in AD 371:

MODESTUS: What, do you not fear my power?

BASIL: What could happen to me? What might I suffer?

MODESTUS: Any one of the numerous torments which are in my power.

BASIL: What are these? Tell me about them.

MODESTUS: Confiscation, exile, torture, death.

BASIL: If you have any other, you can threaten me with it, for there is nothing so far whcih affects me.

MODESTUS: Why, what do you mean?

BASIL: Well, in truth confiscation means nothing to a man who has nothing, unless you covet these wretched rags, and a few books: that is all I possess. As to exile, that means nothing to me, for I am attached to no particular place. That wherein I live is not mine, and I shall feel at home in any place to which I am sent. Or rather, I regard this whole earth as belonging to God, and I consider myself as a stranger or sojourner wherever I may be. As for torture, how will you apply this? I have not a body capable of bearing it, unless you are thinking of the first blow that you give me, for that will be the only one in your power. As for death, this will be a benefit to me, for it will take me the sooner to the God for Whom I live, for Whom I act, and for Whom I am more than half dead, and Whom I have desired long since.

Carroll notes that the prefect (Modestus) and later the Eastern Emperor Valens himself, retired from these conversations rather abashed, and left St Basil alone. Saint Basil was truly and radically free, because he was obedient to the LORD. I pray that for us, it won’t come to these punishments in persecution. But I pray even more that we would be willing to suffer these things if that is what it takes to bear witness to the Truth. Saints Thomas Moore and John Fisher, pray for us! Saint Basil, pray for us!



[1] Which is itself threatened in various ways by the current President and his administration and his party.

[2] It also consists of some vandalism of Churches, disruption of the Mass, or even death threats against those who speak out.

[3] You’ll have to scroll down a bit, and the map in question is two years old, so some things have changed.

[4] And somehow, I suspect that the Regenerus study—which shows lots of evidence that the Church is right about this—will continue to be roundly ignored or worse, decried on the patently absurd ground that it was funded by a conservative organization (The Witherspoon Institute), all the while ignoring the axe to grind which is held by the various smaller, more limited, and frankly biased studies which sought to show that there is no difference between “gay” and “straight” parents as concerns the well-being of the children.

[5] These pressures we will always have wit us to some extent or other. They do, however, lack the coercive power of government (or of employers, as sometimes the case may be concerning consciences clauses).

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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