“Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.” – G.K. Chesterton
People in our culture today—and I am by no means excluding Catholics from this observation—are both fascinated and repulsed by the idea of boundaries. We abhor the idea of limits to unbridled autonomy as a prisoner would abhor his shackles, even as we grow in personal and global awareness of the consequences of our “free” decisions.
The ideal of personal freedom is accentuated by our history as Americans, whose national identity was forged in the fires of colonial independence from British rule, spurred on by rugged individualism and the assurance of our “manifest destiny.” Yet it’s worth noting that since the temptation in the Garden of Eden, human beings have suffered the illusion that boundaries are a threat to our dignity. Did God really set this rule for our good? Would it not be better to be like God—that is, limitless?
Freedom from oppression—unjust laws, violence, etc.—is a good, and one that we ought always to work for. And yet, rooted in the spirit of our society today is the belief that natural limitations of any kind may be oppressive, and therefore unjust. Still, a total freedom from limitations is truly self-defeating, as it is our limits—our boundaries, if you will—that give shape and direction to our lives. Indeed, it’s only through the limits of our human nature that we know who we are, and what we are made for.
The Christian understanding of freedom, then, is not one of unmoored, distracted, and directionless permissiveness, but rather of strong and freely chosen love: a love that is all the stronger because it is directed to the good of the other and is focused within the boundaries of truth and goodness.
The Christian rejoices in freedom, yes! Because it is only with freedom that we are able to love. We rejoice in freedom and we praise God for the gift of free will, because He has set us free for love.
For all our modern convictions that limits are inherently unjust and that every crossing of traditional boundaries is a cause for celebration, the human heart recognizes a need to submit our immediate desires to some outer standard. Take, for example, the phenomenon of “meatless Mondays.” While Christianity has long held that Fridays are to be days of penance, with the traditional observance being to abstain from meat, many people now choose, independent of the Christian tradition, to observe “meatless Mondays.” This voluntary self-denial is performed in good will – to reduce one’s carbon footprint, to protest the mistreatment of animals raised for slaughter, or even for one’s own health.
Or consider more broadly the diet culture that is so pervasive in modern America (who among us has not, at one time or another, attempted to place limits on the amount or types of food we consume?). Think also of the ways that people consciously limit their social media usage because they recognize the detriment it has on their health. Think even of the popularity of a term like “toxic relationship” (or “toxic person”) and how freely we as a society advocate decisively “setting boundaries,” to the point of “cutting out” such people from our lives.
At this point, I am not offering a moral judgment for these particular practices: meatless Mondays, ending certain relationships, or the setting of any other boundary. I am simply pointing out that the desire for boundaries and limitations is written into human nature—and this is a good thing.
The Body Matters uses the Theology of the Body to illustrate the beauty inherent in human nature—a beauty that is not hindered by, but rather finds its true form in, our limitations. Specifically, children learn that “… human limits remind [us] of [our] need for God and… family” (The Body Is God’s Design, 19). In the light of Theology of the Body, we can begin to see not only our freedom but even our limits—one might say, our weaknesses—as gifts from God. Our bodies, then, reveal the enormous paradox of the Gospel: that the power of God “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Acknowledging our limitations, therefore, should not be seen as a capitulation to the oppression of our human nature—far from it! When we accept the boundaries of our human nature, we are truly freed to accept the power and love of God. We are freed for love.
Emily Archer is the donor relations manager for TOBET. She enjoys reading, writing, and planning for her future as the grandmotherly owner of a bed and breakfast in the Irish countryside.