April 28, 2016

Amoris laetitia: The Cultural Challenges

Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others. Indeed, in many countries where the number of marriages is decreasing, more and more people are choosing to live alone or simply to spend time together without cohabiting. We can also point to a praiseworthy concern for justice; but if misunderstood, this can turn citizens into clients interested solely in the provision of services. (33)
Freedom is highly valued in our world; freedom of choice, self-determination, etc. This is a good thing in itself. But the Holy Father points out rightly that if freedom is not accompanied by "noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates." If in my 'freedom' to do what I want with myself I do what makes me miserable and makes those around me suffer, I am not free. I am a slave to sin. If I am 'free' in such a way as to compromise or ruin the gifts I have been given for my own flourishing and the good of others, what good is such 'freedom'?

As Pope St. John Paul II famously put it, "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."

If, for example, I have the 'freedom' of 'choice' to end the life of another person, am I not unfree in my inability to accept the gift of life, needing to extinguish the freedom of another to assert my own 'freedom'? Is there not then less freedom in the world as the result of my 'choice'?

Along these same lines, Pope Francis points out that a concern for justice that lacks real values will degenerate into a kind of consumerism. I am outraged because my particular thing has not been respected. I need the world to respect and support me in all of my choices; otherwise it is an injustice. Never mind justice for others or for whole suffering parts of the world; what matters is that my particular suffering must be recognized, and even when I have brought that suffering on myself with my bad or absurd choices, the choices themselves must be recognized as praiseworthy.

As the Pope suggests, true freedom is the capacity to 'give oneself generously to others.' This leads into another challenge from the document:
We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye. Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs. Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used themselves, manipulated and discarded by that same mind-set. (39)
When our way of relating to others becomes infected by our consumerism, the result is that we become unchaste. People become things or extensions of my desires, needs, and issues. In the world of myself, there is no room for another whole person in his or her whole integrity and dignity as a unique and unrepeatable created being. But as Francis points out, the unchaste person eventually becomes a victim himself, left "manipulated and discarded" and alone. Practicing a life wherein other persons are treated like things, or even worse than things, one ends up isolated from what makes us truly free and happy, namely giving ourselves to others. In our own time, this is no more plain and naked before us as in the culture of pornography.

Against this, Pope Francis exhorts us with a beautiful definition of chaste sexuality:
Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. (151)

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