How Far Can Personal Freedom Go?

Variety of Voices Laments the Fall of Culture and Family

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NEW YORK, MAR. 10, 2001 ( Should we be free to do anything we want? A number of cases recently highlight the conflict between the Christian view of culture and society and the attitude that holds absolute freedom to be the ideal.

Rap singer Eminem won a number of Grammy Awards last month. He has sold millions of albums with songs full of lyrics that violently condemn homosexuals, exalt the use of force, drug-taking, and describe the butchery of women. Some groups have protested against Eminem. But figures such as Madonna and the homosexual singer Elton John, who sang with Eminem during the award ceremony, have come to his defense.

In New York, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Museum of Art came up with another exhibition calculated to offend Christians. The display includes a photo of a nude black woman as Christ at the Last Supper. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani condemned the exposition as «disgusting,» «outrageous» and «anti-Catholic,» the New York Times reported Feb. 16.

In 1999 Giuliani tried to impede the «Sensation» exhibition by the same museum, which included a portrait of the Virgin Mary adorned with pieces of elephant dung. The mayor lost that battle in the courts, when a federal judge ruled that Giuliani violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech when he cut city funds to the museum and began eviction proceedings.

Museum director Arnold L. Lehman said in a statement, «Throughout history, the artist´s responsibility has been to make us think.» But as Roger Kimball commented Feb. 20 in the online edition of the National Review, behind the debate over freedom of expression lies the issue of the status of art. «It is taken for granted today that by calling something art, one automatically catapults it into a realm beyond the reach of moral criticism or legal censure,» remarked Kimball.

Offensive art shows are not limited to the United States. Linda Chavez, in her syndicated column March 7, informed readers of an exhibition by a German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, who has designed works made up of preserved body parts from 200 dead men, women and children.

The exhibit has toured cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan and has been seen by almost 2.5 million people in Germany alone. When the spectacle opened in Berlin last month, the Catholic Church protested vigorously. Failing to get authorities to halt the show, the day the exhibit opened, the Church held a requiem Mass for the dead on display.

Feminism and the family

Freedom and its use, or abuse, in relation to feminism was analyzed by Angela Lambert in a March 1 newspaper article in The Independent. A fervent feminist, she reflected on how, during the 1970s, she fought for women´s equality. Now she is concerned that today´s young women are abusing the freedom gained by yesterday´s feminists.

Lambert observed how young women «have lost tenderness, judgment, any realistic sense of their own place and value, decorum,» as well as any sexual standards. In its place they «are instead obsessed with their own bodies, makeup, hair and clothes.» Values, continues Lambert, «have been replaced by a lust for experience, excitement, exposure, affluence, drugs and alcohol.»

Lambert declared, «It is no infringement of their liberties to tell young women that certain forms of behavior are expected of them in public, not least because they may put themselves at grave risk otherwise.» She admitted that while the mothers and grandmothers of today´s young women had fought for their freedom, the elders «never taught them how to use it.»

In Spain meanwhile an opinion article by Vicente Verdú in the March 1 issue of El País examined how families can no longer discipline children by means of an appeal to moral authority. Invoking God´s authority would, observed Verdú, be like something from science fiction, because for many today God is simply a figure of times past, not even worthy of the effort of atheism. And while there is still a vague awareness of the concepts of good and evil, the force of moral relativism is such that no firm reference points exist.

In the 1970s the family was attacked by many for supposedly imposing middle-class values and being the vehicle for perpetuating a repressive culture. Nowadays, continued the article, the family has been «liberated.» Liberty exists in the area of sexuality, and divorce brought liberty to matrimony itself. As well, freedom from paternal authority has been achieved by today´s children. Moreover, we now also have liberty in culture and art. Yet the consequence, says Verdú, is that this liberty has left people stressed out and alienated.

Limits to freedom

While some continue to proclaim the freedom to express any opinion, however offensive, or the liberty to do what they wish without any limits, the cost of a lack of norms is increasingly evident. The downward spiral to the lowest common denominator in music, films, art and social behavior has not only damaged the family and moral values, but has led, almost inevitably, to the promotion of a nihilistic and violent culture.

In his encyclical «Veritatis Splendor» John Paul II observed that today people have developed a particularly strong sense of freedom (No. 31). This can have positive consequences, such as a heightened sense of personal dignity and a greater respect for the role of an individual´s conscience.

However, the Pope commented, some elements in modern thought have gone to the extreme of exalting freedom to such a degree that it becomes an absolute, which is then itself the source of values. When this happens the individual conscience becomes for itself the supreme arbiter of what is good and evil, and all moral judgments become subjective.

As a solution, John Paul II proposes a restoration of the link between freedom and truth: the truth contained in the moral law given by God. In this way freedom is used to choose what is truly good for each person.

The conflict between liberty and truth in the area of contemporary culture was already outlined in the Second Vatican Council document «Gaudium et Spes» (No. 57 and following). Culture, the council insisted, «must be subordinated to the integral development of the human person, to the good of the community and of the whole of mankind.» The need for freedom in the use of our intelligence and social life was recognized, and defended, by the document, but within the limits of the common good.

Polemics over the latest art exhibitions or attempts to change social norms are really only the secondary manifestations of a deeper problem: Many today no longer accept that their freedom should be limited by any objective principles. Battles can be fought in the courts and protests made in the press, but there will be no lasting solution until contemporary culture overcomes its intellectual pride and admits that there are limits to individual autonomy.

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