Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee
There’s a phrase that one doesn’t like to hear, and that is “I told you so!” Two figures in the Church have been prophetic in what they have written, taught and preached to Catholic audiences around the world and especially in the United States. St. John Paul II and Cardinal Francis George warned of the embrace of radical individualism, its consequences and the ideologies created which are contrary to faith and truth.
In the last few weeks, we have been confronted with Bruce Jenner who wishes to be Caitlyn Jenner and accepted as a woman, and a female director of the NAACP, who presents herself as an African American woman (however was born and raised in a Caucasian family). Now, the Milwaukee Art Museum – the Calatrava – accepted a work that fashions a portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI out of condoms and refers to it as art. What is similar in all these situations, is that they each rely on the notion of “radical individualism” based on personal freedom, that is exercised without license.
Now, I am all for freedom. Americans hold freedom sacred and the Church is for freedom. Remember, Jesus Christ died to make us free. But, freedom is never exercised in a vacuum. Freedom demands responsibility and that is a responsibility to truth, beauty and goodness (sorry, if I’m bringing the Ancient Greeks into the discussion, but it’s hard to ignore the obvious wisdom).
Here’s the rub. In our society, we have characterized “truth” as whatever we want to make of it. Therefore, truth is only accountable to the individual. In that context, Bruce Jenner can be a woman this week, a man next week or a Labrador Retriever the week after. Our NAACP director can be an African-American woman this week, a Native American the next and possibly an Asian, simply because she likes egg rolls. Would the art museum accept works that depicted various political leaders of our state in cow dung (a significant animal for Wisconsin)? Would they accept art – pick your favorite religious or historical figures – featuring them in various pornographic poses (which has happened in some international publications)? What about art featuring national or international popular social reconstructionists in a manner that would depict the opposite of what they represented, such as Gandhi sporting an uzi, Lincoln in Klu Klux Klan garb or Hitler with a yarmulke reading the Torah, all in the name of art and beauty? Whose art and whose beauty? I would offer that even if the art museum considered accepting any of the above examples, there would be an extensive public discussion that would take place before any decision would be made.
There are three areas I believe have contributed to this radical individual craziness which is taking place in our society. First, the loss of objective truth: when we lose objective truth, meaning that something is truth apart from assessment, then we lose language and our ability to speak with one another from a common perspective. Is something objectively true apart from what I believe it to be? Every word becomes subject to a person’s individual perspective.
Second, is the loss of natural law, a concept which is mocked by some in the academic circles. How we come to a conclusion of whether something is right or wrong has been traditionally accepted as coming from reason. We can know the good because it is engraved in our hearts. However, when there is no longer a good or an evil and it is only such if I choose it to be, or enough people affirm it, you can see why we exist in this chaotic situation. The good is subjected to the whim of the individual.
Third, is the loss of the sense of God. There are two ways by which we come to the truth through faith and reason. God reveals His plan or will to us. Cardinal George wrote in his book, “The Difference God Makes,” “In the face of triumphant human reason at the end of the nineteenth century, the First Vatican Council taught that faith is not irrational. Ironically, at the end of the twentieth century, the Church is saying that faith must rescue reason from its own self-inflicted wound of skepticism,” and I might add, radical individualism.
We have lost the sense of sacred and in so doing, everything becomes profane and is subjected to our own individual appreciation. I need not remind us all of the recent tragic situation in Charleston S.C, where a young man killed nine people after praying with them for an hour. What sense of God or the sacred could he have possibly had? When we lose our sense of God, we lose our ultimate accountability and the identification that my dignity depends on the respect of the dignity of my brothers and sisters who were made in God’s image.
Some may want me to be more upset at the museum for their callousness – calling for boycotts, suppression of donations or picketing. God, religion and faith have been insulted by others throughout the ages and by autocrats and movements far superior to our little local museum. But, still God rules supreme, the Church is here and will be until the end of time, and faith continues to inform and form.
An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a church, whose charitable outreach through its missionaries and ministers has eased the pain of those who suffer throughout the world, must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who themselves have been insulted.
Love your enemies, do good to those who might harm you, said Jesus. In the face of ridicule, we’ll continue to do our best to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Note: This blog originally appeared as the June 23, 2015 "Love One Another" email sent to Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. If you are interested in signing up for these email messages, please click here.