A sophomore stands in the corner of Club Fever, holding her fourth drink and watching one particular young man dance eagerly with another girl. She can’t understand why she feels angry and empty all at the same time, can’t understand why the actions of a meaningless “hook-up partner” could affect her like this.
Two young, freshmen roommates move into their new dorm room and love the hall community, but they feel pressured to attend upperclassmen’s parties and keep up with the fraternity-esque lifestyle right off the bat. Wanting to fit in, they go along with the crowd and spend every night of their first week drinking an unreasonable amount of alcohol, one ending up sick on the floor of the hall bathroom and the other passed out in an off-campus house.
Young women wake up across campus on Saturday mornings with pounding headaches, wondering what exactly happened the night before. Perhaps they don’t know the man lying next to them, perhaps they do, and yet in many cases these women feel a sense of regret. But despite this reality, they’re told that feeling regret is unnecessary, because such physical encounters don’t really mean anything at all.
One young man can’t resist the allure of pornography, especially not when most men around him indulge their guilty habit. Another watches his phone eagerly, waiting for a text from his “friend-with-benefits,” meanwhile wondering why he feels so attached to someone despite having made no commitment. Countless young men feel the social pressure to “score” with as many girls as possible, adding several of these physical encounters to their list of manly achievements.
We all know people, know friends, who have been in each of these situations, or similar ones. Perhaps many of us have been in them ourselves. What do all of these students have in common?
As young people, we are often told that college is the best time of our lives, that we will never have less responsibility or more freedom. But is this picture what freedom truly looks like? Do we feel freed when we choose these types of actions? It may seem at first glance like the people in these situations have the autonomy to make their own free choices, and perhaps they do, but are those choices bringing them true happiness?
Rather than setting us free, these types of choices ultimately leave us empty, because they do not acknowledge the human dignity of the individuals involved in each encounter. Such encounters or actions may be chosen freely, but they don’t truly free anyone, because they are not done out of love or with an eye toward the good.
Genuine freedom is the power to do good rather than submit to the demands of our passions. In opposition to this, today’s culture tells men and women that they will be free if they abandon the restrictions of traditional morality and instead follow their desires wherever they might lead.
To modern culture, the Church’s teachings, especially on matters of sexuality, may seem restrictive. However, it is only in maintaining control of our desires, which have the capacity to enslave us, that we can be freed to choose the good. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, but more consideration of particular cases makes this clear.
For example, the young man repeatedly sucked into pornography might exercise his autonomy when he chooses to view those images, but his sexual appetite will never be sated and thus will cause him to turn to porn again and again, when what he really longs for is authentic love.
Young women likely feel liberated when they choose to take part in one-night stands or ongoing sexual relationships, but in such encounters, they seek fulfillment where they will find only temporary emotional satisfaction rather than committed, self-sacrificing love.
Modern college students crave the approval of their peers, buying into the myth perpetrated by the media and popular culture, which tells them that they will find acceptance only if they drink excessive alcohol, objectify women through porn and hook-ups, or prioritize sexual interactions over compassionate friendship. In doing so, young people settle for empty relationships, foregoing their innate capacity to love and be loved in return.
As a Catholic institution, Notre Dame has the opportunity to offer something more than fleeting pleasure, which inevitably leaves one unfulfilled. The wisdom of the Church guides us down the path to true happiness by revealing the meaning of true freedom, and our university can and should choose to play a part in helping students come to understand this truth.
Rather than limiting freedom, the moral standards of the Catholic Church flow from love for mankind and exist to bring men to salvation. If we choose not to buy into modernity’s autonomous view of freedom, we will be set free from our passions and more easily be able to follow Christ.
We invite you to join our discussion on February 5-6, 2016, at the eleventh annual Edith Stein Project, “Free Love: The Liberating Power of Charity,” at McKenna Hall on the University of Notre Dame campus. We hope that our conference will be intellectually engaging, a chance for fellowship, and a source of healing. Register online at www3.nd.edu/~idnd/. Registration is free for high school and college students.
Alexandra and Hailey are sad that this is their last time planning the Edith Stein Project. However, they are looking forward to spending their days relaxing on a beach in Maui and never sending another email. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.