Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.
— Bl. John Paul II
The five weeks or so between Memorial Day and Independence Day, which also embraces Flag Day, could be designated the “Patriotic Season”. It makes for an especially appropriate time to reflect on liberty, what it means, how it can be defended or delineated.
Over the last few days, Mark Shea, the Anchoress, Stacy Trasancos and I have all commented on the scurrilous “Foreskin Man” cartoons published by the “intactivist” group behind the San Francisco circumcision ban initiative. I respect all three writers, who have all been at the apologetics game longer than I have, but Stacy I find most simpático.
But in her remarks, Stacy made a statement I had to read twice:
Much of the debate over homosexual marriage has turned from the fact that marriage has a meaning regarding families and the foundation of society, a good meaning — good for all — and instead become rhetoric about religious ideas oppressing homosexuals from exercising their freedom. That is a distorted view of the issue. Real freedom comes from defining your own relationships without depending on the government to do it for you [emphasis mine — TL]. That is the essence of personhood — freedom to exist.
Ah. Er. Hmm. Is that really true? On the face of it, it almost seems that Stacy grants precisely what gay-marriage activists want: the ability to define their relationships as they see fit. [That isn't what she was going for, though; see our discussion in the comments below.—TL] The opposing argument, which we Catholics back, is that the essence of marriage is an objective, immutable fact, not open to redefinition.
My choice of words is deliberate, taken from what Aristotelian philosophy I know. The essence of an object or concept is that which makes it what it is, whereas the accidents are what make this object different from that object.
Consider, for example, a chair. Well, what kind of chair? A barstool, a love seat, a drummer’s throne, an ottoman, a wicker swing? To all appearances, these things are different, and yet they possess a trait in common: they’re all objects constructed for the purpose of resting our butts. That singular point of contact between these particular items — their “chair-ness” — is their essence.
By contrast, accidents are what make the barstool different from a divan, or this love seat different from that love seat. And it’s precisely this distinction where nominalist arguments tend to fall down; as G. K. Chesterton pointed out in Heretics, you can’t say “All chairs are different” without indirectly recognizing that they have enough in common to be called chairs. Translation from one language to another depends on our ability to recognize the essence behind the accidents, so that we can equate the Latin gladius and the Japanese katana with the English “sword”.
When we’re born, we’re already enmeshed in a web of predefined relationships; while we can choose what we do with or about those relationships, we can’t do anything about the fact that those relationships already exist — they’re “baked in”, so to speak. My brother will always be my brother whether we choose to live together the rest of our lives or we choose to perpetually avoid each other. One language might have finer distinction than another, just as Aleuts have multiple words for “snow” and English parses between “beige”, “bone” and “ecru” (while some tribes haven’t gotten beyond “red” and “blue”). Nevertheless, the relationships are already there; again, translation from one language to another depends on the objective nature of the relationships themselves.
Now, with people outside the family, we can choose with whom we have relationships. But different relationships have different natures to them: a female friend is not a sister is not a mother is not a girlfriend is not a concubine is not a fiancée is not a wife is not a lover (except by metaphor). The relationship of a man to any of these has different sets of expectations and obligations by their objective natures, not by law.
I have a friend named Debbie. Because she’s related to me neither by law nor marriage, several relationships are already unavailable to us: she can be neither mother, sister, daughter, aunt nor cousin to me, among other things. If we chose to date, she would be my girlfriend; if we chose to sleep together, she would be my lover; if I chose to financially support her and have sex with her while living separately from her, she would be my mistress. But calling any one of these possible relationships a “marriage” wouldn’t make it so, no matter how desperately I wish it.
People with same-sex attraction can make the choice to live together and sleep together; they can feel an emotion for each that we can call “love” with only minor hemming and hawing, recognizing that many loves this side of Paradise aren’t pure agape. But collecting around themselves the accidents of modern marriage — children, house with a white picket fence, etc. — no more makes their relationship a “marriage” in truth than putting tights and makeup on a paraplegic makes her a chorus-line dancer.
Contra Stacy, true freedom doesn’t begin with choosing our relationships, but rather in choosing our behavior within the network of relationships we develop. This requires a knowledge and acceptance of the truth of our humanity. If we aren’t free to behave in any other way than the way we do behave, we aren’t “free” in any meaningful sense. If we’re condemned to do evil, then to call it “good” is no liberation but rather an Orwellian confirmation of our enslavement.
“… You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). We say, “It is what it is,” as a recognition and acceptance of unpalatable yet irreformable facts. In that recognition is our freedom to act. For the truth to set us free, we must recognize the truth first.
 Here we’re talking about what’s possible, not what would be moral.