The freedom of the individual to order his own life is declared [today] to be the real goal of societal life. Community has no value whatever in itself but exists only to allow the individual to be himself. However, if the individual freedom presented here as the highest goal lacks contents, it dissolves into thin air, since individual freedom can exist only when freedoms are correctly ordered. Individual freedom needs measure, for otherwise it turns into violence directed against others.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 54
Reflection – Ratzinger continues here a theme which has defined his life: the nature of freedom and its relationship to truth, and what is needed for modern society to remain free.One of his truly great contributions to the conversation has been this insight that ‘freedom without content [i.e. truth] destroys itself.’ What I want, you want, he wants, and she wants are directly contradictory. If we all pursue our ‘freedom’ without reference to a moral law or some larger vision of reality, we will fight to the death and then none of us will be free.
This has been the tragic story of humanity so many times. The phrase ‘pyrrhic victory’ describes it: even the one who ‘wins’ the battle for supremacy has paid such a heavy price in defeating all others that his or her freedom is either non-existent or utterly valueless. If I have to climb over a mountain of dead bodies to attain what I wish, will I really enjoy it once I get there?
Individual freedom needs measure, Ratzinger says. In other words, freedom has to be for something, a freedom that has a meaning. And it cannot just be whatever meaning I want to give it: that collapses back into the individualistic striving that destroys freedom.
Individual freedom only exists within a communal life, then, within a society where a positive vision of what life is about exists and all can fit their own path of freedom and life into this larger vision.
Religion has always been able to produce such a common vision; secularity has not yet done this, but has left us as little anomic individuals jostling against each other. Atheism, when it has become the dominant social ideology, has produced visions of human life that have resulted in human sacrifice numbering in the millions.
The Roman Catholic Church has passed through 2000 years of engaging in these questions. It has made mistakes along the way (at risk of over-simplifying, the excesses of the Inquisition and the Crusades among them). But it has shown a capacity to learn from its mistakes and presents today, in the person of Pope Benedict among others, a truly deep and beautiful vision of how a society can organize in such a way that freedom rests on truth and human dignity is primary. And this—or something like this—is what our world is urgently in need of today.