The following is a condensed version of an essay written by Msgr. Charles Fink, a former pastor and seminary spiritual director of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY:
St. Dominic is often quoted as saying, “A man who governs his passions is master of the world. We must either rule them or be ruled by them.” To the extent that we can’t control ourselves, it is necessary that we be controlled by an outside force, such as the police or some other government entity. Our Founding Fathers knew our constitutional republic could only survive if its people were moral and religious.
Christianity does this if taken seriously. It produces internal control, helps us to live in harmony with others, and limits the need for external constraints. We see this truth played out in families, schools, and society at large. Good people require fewer external constraints than those who are unruly, undisciplined, and misbehaving. Self-restraint and discipline are the path to individual, familial, and societal peace, freedom, and happiness.
Today freedom has come to be understood largely as the right to do anything we please, so long as it doesn’t immediately injure anyone else. The trouble with this view is that the negative consequences aren’t always obvious. Think of drug or alcohol abuse, or any other addiction, and notice how what seems to begin as an exercise of freedom soon leads to the slavery of addiction. When enough people go down this path of unbridled freedom, there aren’t enough police in the world to control the criminals, enough laws in the land to control the chaos, and enough money pumped into our schools to make them safe and effective.
But we seem never to learn. We keep looking for the quick fix rather than root causes of the lack of moral values and self-discipline. The latter is perceived as being judgmental and fixated on an outdated moral code that is overly restrictive. I propose that “If it is good, do it” is a better principle by which to live than “If it feels good, do it.” I’m a better person for it, and a better neighbor too. You’d be safe living next door to me, even if I owned a gun.
As an example, while we engage in a war on drugs, we are legalizing the growing and sale of cannabis. Even if there were some merit to this policy, is it a good idea to turn a blind eye to the practice of routinely getting stoned? Is getting high on a regular basis good for the individual or society? Would a society of individuals exercising self-control such that very few ever even wanted to get high be a worse or better society? In such a society, would there be a profitable market for illegal drugs? On balance, would money be lost or saved, and lives lost or saved?
There’s much to be said for learning to control our passions. It’s not suppression of desires as many think, but instead freedom. As Frank Sheed once put it, “I’ll believe someone has an uncontrollable temper when I see him take a swing at [the champion boxer] Joe Lewis.” What’s needed, then, is the proper motivation, and given the condition of our society, for those not too far down the road of slavery, that motivation should be clear.
Msgr. Charles Fink