March 10, 2001
Far Can Personal Freedom Go?
Variety of Voices Laments the Fall of Culture and Family
NEW YORK (Zenit.org) - 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
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
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
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
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.