Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Freedom & Moral Responsibility

Fulton J. Sheen, Roman Catholic Bishop and ear...

Fulton J. Sheen, Roman Catholic Bishop and early television preacher

Freedom Must Entail Moral Responsibility

How can man be free and, at the same time, not morally responsible for what he does? On the one hand, we protest against every tendency to limit human freedom even to a point of allowing license: we claim the superiority of the “free world” and glorify Western civilization that enthrones liberty as the condition of government and social life.

But, on the other hand, our psychologists tell us when a boy breaks windows, kills an old man because he does not like the way he whistles: steals an automobile and then kills a man who is fixing a tire, the boy is not to blame, nor is he morally responsible. Maybe he is raised on poor milk, or else he hated his grandfather, or his mother loved him too much, or his neighborhood had no boy’s club.

It makes little difference what the escapes are from personal responsibility. Whether they be the Darwinian explanation that such people have a “fall” in the evolutionary process, or Marxian and communistic notion that they were badly formed by a wrong arrangement of atoms, or the Freudian that they had either a grandfather or a grandmother complex- the fact remains that modern man is drifting toward the assumption that he cannot do anything wrong.

As Joseph Wood Krutch has so well put it: “On the radio one may hear preadolescent participants in junior forums assuring one another that when other children are what used to be called ‘naughty’ that is ‘only their way of showing that they need more love’: and thus from the tenderest age the future citizens are taught the art of exculpation and conditioned to believe that nothing but conditioning is important.”

We cannot have it both ways: if we are free, we are responsible: if we are not responsible, we are not free. Ice is not free, therefore, it is not blamed for melting; adding machines are not free, therefore, they are not patted on the keys for adding correctly: man is free, therefore, he is to be held accountable for all his thoughts and desires and actions. Hell is a guarantee of human freedom – grant that it be a negative guarantee. But at least it does mean that a man can be so free as to freely determine his condition for all eternity.

If we are to maintain a free world, we have to maintain a responsible world, and in a responsible world not everybody is “nice” and not everybody who does wrong is “anti-social.” Robinson Crusoe could not have been anti-social when on the island, but he could have done wrong things and been morally responsible in his conscience to someday render an account of his stewardship.

Man is invested with the regal power of choice, and with this faculty he cannot be driven into sin by any social forces, unless he willingly consents. When Stephen was stoned, his prayer was; “Lay not this sin to their charge.” Three years later, St Paul recalling the stoning of Stephen, as he held the garments of those who threw the rocks, said: “I stood by and consented.”

We cannot have it both ways. Lincoln said that “no people can remain half slave and half free.” We cannot on the one hand believe that we are free citizens and then blame all our bad actions on economics and social conditions when we do wrong. If we are not free, then who shall be virtuous? Can everything evil we do be blamed on our grandmothers, and at the same time, everything good be attributable to ourselves? If our evil deeds are determined by our glands or by economic circumstances, then why are not our good deeds determined by our grandfathers or by a housing development?

Heaven itself has guaranteed human freedom when it assured us of the final judgment. As a business man at the end of the day takes a slip out of the cash register on which is written the debits and credits, so a record shall be taken from our conscience on the last day on which is written the guilty and the praiseworthy deeds of our life. The universe is free because we will be judged as responsible beings. Politics and education better get together; politics cannot talk of a free world and educators deny free men. Politics is right in saying that man is free; educators are wrong in saying that he is not responsible.

God Love You!

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, D.D., Ph. D.


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