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  • The Meaning of Freedom and the Redefinition of Marriage
  • Michele M. Schumacher (bio)

In this article, I will address “the human and legal base for protection and support of the family.” 1 I will do so from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, since I am a Catholic theologian. In addressing this important theme, moreover, I find it necessary to begin by challenging a very common presupposition of much social, political, and legal thought today and one representing a tremendous threat to the future of the family. That presupposition concerns, more specifically, the relation between human rights, personal dignity, and individual freedom.

Whereas human dignity and human rights were once understood as the basis of human freedom, today we all too often tend to reverse that relation, so as to base human dignity and rights upon the sovereign power of freedom, which in turn is far too often reduced to subjective interests and personal desires.

To be sure, we might acclaim the “more lively awareness of personal freedom,” which Pope Saint John Paul II accredits for various positive phenomena characterizing the family in the early years of his pontificate, including “greater attention to the quality of interpersonal relationships,” the promotion of “the dignity of women” and “responsible procreation” as well as a heightened sense of responsibility [End Page 113] for the education of children. At the same time, however, he mourned a certain “corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom” to which he in turn attributed “a disturbing degradation of some fundamental values.” Human freedom was, more specifically, being understood and lived as “as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being,” rather than “as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family.”2

Here, in the very heart of the family, which in turn he recognized as the heart of human civilization, John Paul thus pointed to a confrontation between two conflicting interpretations of human freedom: “the antithesis between individualism and personalism.”3

An Individualistic Understanding of Freedom

The first of these—an individualistic understanding of freedom—is, he explains, “a freedom without responsibilities.” As such, it is proper to utilitarian manners of thinking, which instrumentalize persons to one’s own gain and represent “a systematic and permanent threat to the family” by opposing freedom to love.

This, of course, is the notion of freedom that I pointed to above, as socially and culturally pervasive, so as to be blessed by public opinion. This blessing, in turn, leads to the confusion of what Georges Cardinal Cottier points to as the normal and the normative.4 Hence, when certain behaviors or manners of acting are observed with frequency among a given population, they are regarded as suitable or corresponding to human nature regardless of their consequences for the social order. Within our present cultural situation, marked by rampant individualism, this means that it is considered “normal” to accord to individual consciences “the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly,” John Paul remarks. It follows that each individual is “faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others.”5 The social norm has become, in other words, that of living and acting without norms. [End Page 114]

The consequence of this absence of ethical and ontological norms is what theoreticians in various fields refer to as the survival of the fittest: not only from a biological perspective, as Darwin theorized, but also socially, as Thomas Hobbes would have it; politically, as we witness in various tyrannical forms of government, and morally, as is the case in utilitarianism.

“Utilitarianism is,” more specifically, John Paul explains, “a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons’, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used. [. . .] Woman can [thus] become an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members.”6 Hence, also the astonishing contradiction between a world community acclaiming the idea of human rights—“rights inherent in every person and prior to any Constitution and...