As Catholics, we are all familiar with the way the Church attempts to preserve the sanctity and dignity of human life. In various ways, we are taught that the Church believes that all human life, from conception to natural death, is of ultimate value. We are a culture of life, and God’s design of this world suggests that in many ways, our world truly does revolve around human life itself.
Consider a few things. Despite decades of search into alternative life forms on other planets or celestial beings, no confirmed life has yet been found in the universe, purportedly because so many factors needed to sustain life are simply not present as they are on earth. For starters, Earth provides the “basics” (which are really not basic at all), such as water, various forms of energy (such as the sun or natural gas), time (which allows complex life forms to develop), recycling capabilities (e.g., which permits carbon dioxide to trap heat, and then be used again), and many other life-sustaining features. Even beyond this, a number of constants from the universe must exist at astoundingly specific rates on Earth, or otherwise, we would die instantly. Take gravity for example. In order to sustain life on earth, it is fine-tuned to one part in a hundred million billion billion billion billion billion. As noted by physicist Robin Collins, it would be like throwing a dart from space, and hitting a bullseye just a trillionth of a trillionth of an inch in diameter on Earth. And yet, this is just one of up to 30 factors in our universe that are precisely calibrated for life to exist at all. As Nobel-Prize winner Jacques Monod stressed, the likelihood that life occurred by random processes is so infinitesimal it might as well be considered “zero.”
All of this would suggest that the peak of God’s design is life. Yet, if life was His peak, then it seems death would not exist and Adam and all of us would not have been vanquished from earthly immortality to bodily end. In fact, not only would death not exist, but it would not exist in such tragic and unexpected forms. In 2016, over 23,000 infants died in the United States. Over 37,000 in this country died in traffic fatalities the same year in this country. It is estimated that over 9 million people die of hunger each year while in 2016, approximately 429,000 people died of malaria.
These statistics aren’t meant to shock or depress people, or draw into question God’s compassion for each human being. But what they do suggest is that the pinnacle of God’s design is not simply life. As Christians, this makes sense because we believe that more important than life on earth is unity with God forever in heaven. We were created so that we could not just love God, but more importantly that he could share his infinite love with us and we could come to fully unify ourselves with Him.
Still, if unity was the peak, most critical element of His worldly design, then even when death occurred, we would all be unified with Him forever. But as noted in Matthew 25:46, “They will go away to eternal punishment, but righteous to eternal life.” The Bible is full of admonitions regarding Hell, and as Catholics, we are taught that if we repeatedly turn away from God, we may find ourselves forever separated from Him in an awful place.
So if life and unity are not the lynchpin of God’s design of our world, then what is? The key in unlocking this is a consideration of that which remains no matter what is taken away. Viktor Frankl once said that “the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.” As noted in the Catechism (1730), “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator…” Here in the United States, our democracy is founded on those “inalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life alone is not sufficient. The freedom of choice to pursue what we desire is not just the cornerstone of our nation. It is the cornerstone of God’s creation.
Consider for a second. From the earliest ages, infants are granted a freedom to respond as they will (even if we don’t understand it). When my 15-month-old spots something interesting on the floor, he often chooses to mouth it (good or bad). When he sees something curious on the table, he often responds by climbing after it. Prisoners may largely lack freedom of movement. But Nelson Mandela and others remind us that physical restriction does not equate to psychological or spiritual immobility. Even for those who are fully demented, they retain the ability to respond to stimuli as they will even if a rational perspective suggests that what they are doing or saying makes no sense.
The understanding of God’s design suggests a couple of things. One, while some may warp this treatise as a justification for all sorts of choices made by individuals on their own accord, the reality is that the state bears responsibility in preventing one person’s free will from restricting (or ending) that of another. The state cannot legislate or assure unity or freedom. It can only provide the infrastructure to support it. But God, in his mysterious wisdom, for reasons we cannot fully understand, decided that our free will (of mind, body, and soul) was more important than anything else. Even if it means we must die and go to Hell for using it not as intended.
Beneath the enigma of an infinitely loving God who allows his creation (humans) to fail in the name of freedom is a striking message that only we can come to know. Trees are ignorant because they are controlled by the seasons and the land. Seas are ignorant because they are controlled by the moon and the winds. Even animals are ignorant because they are controlled by the limits of their neurology. But we as human beings, no matter how jaded or distorted we have become, cannot claim we do not understand just how amazing and vital our freedom is.
Somewhere in this world men run marathons in almost 2 hours, because they can. High school seniors know upwards of 45,000 words. A man once made 5,000 free throws in a row and people have rowed alone across oceans and walked across the barren arctic plains. Every day, most of us are blessed to walk, and think, and talk, and see, and hear, and love as we will. And yet every day, all of us―self included―take our freedom, our free will, for granted as if it is not the most incredible gift ever given.
If God believed our free will was so important that he was willing to risk our eternal damnation, then what we do with it must be equally eminent. An astute, conscientious use of our freedom does not guarantee a happy, unified life now or after it is gone. But an ill-informed, or uninformed use of it, almost certainly guarantees that the odds will be heavily against us. The greatest gifts carry the greatest risks. And the only bigger risk than using our freedom in the wrong way is not learning how to use it at all.