The Personalist Project

Man’s superiority over the animals

[H]umanity’s superiority over animals is not only the one most often mentioned, the universally human, but is also what is most often forgotten, that within the species each individual is essentially different or distinctive. This superiority is in a very real sense the human superiority; the former is the superiority of the race over the animal species.

Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

If you google images of Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, you can find one of him absolutely towering over Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It's part funny, part painful to see those celebrity icons cut down to size like that, accidentally and unavoidably, and even though the photographer obviously does his best to minimize the situation with tricks and angles.

On giant screens  across the fruited plain, Johnny Depp has loomed large as romantic hero or or terrifying villain. But, in real life, if you're 5.10", you're going to look like a pipsqueak next to someone who's 6.9". It can't be helped.

It's just the same with Henckel von Donnersmark's two great movies: The Lives of Others and Never Look Away.

They're deeply thoughtful, intelligent, ruminative, compelling, and ambitiously, conscientiously composed in the service of the true good-for-man. You watch them and spontaneously you remember what art is—what it's meant to do and be. And you get a wave of surprise, gladness, and consolation to find that it's actually still a thing, still possible, still happening, even today. Hollywood pop looks small and pitiful in comparison.

The contrast is so embarrassing that you want to look away. You laugh, because you can't help it. But you feel sorry about it too. All the emptiness and manipulation, and the delusion, superficiality and self-importance, all the terrible not-understanding of what's really wanted and needed, what endures, who's important and why. It's sad. Also, it's hilarious, so you crack up. Then you watch those FHvD movies again, and you cry for the suffering in the poor world, and for the beauty in things. You seethe over the wrong and waste of evil ideologies and moral rot, and you quietly exult over the way imperfect individuals can triumph, and the way God's promises to humanity are always kept. They make you want to be good. They fortify your determination to live well, to resist the glamour of evil, the pressures of wrong, the mockery of the mob.

If you're like me, you might wish there wasn't quite so much sex and nudity in Never Look Away. There's an argument to be made that in a culture that has normalized pornography, it's good, even necessary, to show sex and nudity in the service of love and life. I get that, intellectually. But I still don't like it, personally, and I have doubts about its efficacy. Is it really possible to depict sex as the embodiment of authentic conjugal love with a camera, on a screen? Regardless, the very fact that there's an argument to be made about it is somehow enough for me. Those movies are all about big, probing questions and contentious issues. And about limited, imperfect human beings raising them, examining them closely, and working through them patiently, because that's the only way to arrive at truth, actually. 

I wonder if all the blue is meant to be an homage to Picasso's blue period—that stage of his somewhere between his immature realism and his decadent abstraction.

It's nice to wonder things like that about a just-released movie.

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Listening just now to an interview with Daniel Hannan, I heard this about the European Union: "If you want to have a democracy, you have to have a demos."  The EU, he basically says, is like a body without a soul. Think of a robot (my image, not his). It can do things human beings do, but only mechanically. It has no inner life; it lacks subjectivity. The EU does nation-like things: it enacts laws, issues penalties, and enters into trade agreements, but it's synthetic; it's inorganic; it doesn't really embody a people. It lacks the inner life of a nation.

Lay Catholics, in a sense—I'm suggesting in my current spate of postings—are something like a soul without a body. We're ghostly. We're a people with a life principle (given in baptism), but without a bodily framework that allows us to experience ourselves, act and relate as a people—as a community of lay believers. 

It's not the normal way of thinking about the Church, I realize. Normally, when we speak of the People of God, we have in mind priests and laity together. And of course, that's an entirely true and valid understanding of the term.

But I'd like to offer another sense that, imo, needs to come to the fore in Catholic thought and praxis today.

Human life exists in two essential forms: male and female. Each is both whole-in-itself and made for union with the other. Personal fulfillment and new human life come from the free, reciprocal self-giving of these two. Without embodied self-possession, there's no self-giving. Without polarity, there's no life. That's ToB in a nutshell.

So, similarly, I propose, following JP II, ecclesial life comes in two essential forms: clerical and lay, petrine and marian. Redemption, the fulfillment of our evangelical mission, and fruitfulness for the Church in the world come from the reciprocal union of these two modes of Catholic life and vocation. 

As things stand—in the clericalist status quo—we are suffering and too sterile as a communion, because the relation between clergy and laity lacks due reciprocity. It lacks complementary polarity. Instead of standing vis. a vis. the clergy as spouse and companion, the laity (who comprise the vast majority of the faithful) are effectively relegated to a subordinate role under the clergy. I've said it before, because I think it's true: we are like wives in Sharia law.

Someone at the recent ToB conference objected to the point (which I hadn't put quite so starkly) by saying, essentially, "Maybe that's your experience, but it's not mine. We have a great pastor at our parish; the laity are very active and involved, and he encourages that." Others say, "It's not the structure that needs changing, it's hearts. If pastors were more Christlike, and if the laity were more involved and generous with their time and talent, the structure wouldn't be an issue."

In reply, I point again to marriages under Sharia law. No doubt there are plenty of examples to be found within that system of genuine love and mutual respect between husband and wife. Still, as a matter of structural fact, wives have no standing vis a vis their husbands under Sharia law. The husbands more or less own all the property and decision-making power; the wives are at their mercy, and the system itself  induces inequity, immaturity, abuse, and dysfunction.

It's true in parishes and diocese, too, isn't it? There are lots of faith-filled and devoted bishops and priests who genuinely govern their respective domains with the true good of the Church constantly in mind. But, as a matter of structural fact, the laity have no standing vis a vis the clergy. The clergy own all the property and decision-making power; we are at their mercy. We might do well enough when we have good shepherds (though even then I think we're nowhere near as flourishing as we could be and should be); we suffer horrible abuse when we have bad ones. Further, the system itself induces and perpetuates clericalism, dysfunction and corruption, plus immaturity and passivity among the laity. Too much power + human condition = abuse. Always.

Now, back to Sharia for a sec. Think about the women—like, say, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran—who, with immense courage and at great personal risk, tell their stories and publicly decry the subjection of women in Islam. How should they respond to the many Muslim women who oppose them with comments like, "I haven't experienced that. I'm happy with my husband." Isn't the right answer along these lines: "Good for you, but please look at the plight of the countless women around you crying out for justice. Look at the structure. That's what I'm talking about. I'm not saying all Muslim husbands are evil. I'm saying the structure needs reform."

That's what I feel like saying to my fellow lay Catholics who are content in their subordination, because they happen to have exceptional pastors. "That's great for you, but the systemic problem remains. It's really damaging the Church. And it could happen in your diocese or parish tomorrow, if a new shepherd gets appointed." 

Small example from a Dutch woman who came up to me after my talk last month. Someone had recently donated a house to the parish to use as a kind of parish hall. Eager about its potential for enhancing the life of the community, she and several other parishioners devoted time and money to fixing it up, painting it, making it nice. Almost as soon as it was done, they were told that it had been decided that the priest would live there. Gonzo. They had no say and no recourse.

Neither did the laity of Philadelphia have any say in the recent payouts of $19,000,000.00 to abuse victims, or in the sale of our magnificent seminary to a secular healthcare conglomerate. Some will say, "There were many lay men and women on the Archbishop's advisory council." Fine. They were appointees, not representatives, and it wasn't a decision-making body, was it? Maybe the Archbishop made the best decision he could in the circumstances. That's beside the point. The point is that the laity had no say. We are expected to hand over our money and trust the clergy to make good decisions. Still. Even now, after millions and millions of our dollars have been sent down the drain of clerical corruption.

Another friend in the same archdiocese told me that not long after the grand jury indictment was in the news, his parish announced that it would now be  a "tithing parish", wherein all members are "encouraged" to donate ten percent of their income. When my friend said to the layman in charge (under the pastor) of the initiative, "Shouldn't there be some kind of transparency and accountability in exchange for this new financial commitment on our part?", he got rebuked for his impious lack of trust.

Our summer parish in a different diocese has a wonderful new pastor. He's full of faith; he radiates love and commitment. He's got energy and ideas, and he clearly wants the laity involved in everything. After mass yesterday, he made announcements about the $400,000 new heating system they're working on putting in the adjacent disused convent, which is going to become a Catholic high school starting next year. He said the money is already collected for the new kitchen for the parish hall in the basement, where he wants to host regular "family meals" for parishioners and guests. There was more, and it was all good.

Anyone paying attention to him can tell it's all about improving the life of the parish; it's not about his personal ambition or luxury lifestyle. He's no Bishop Bransfield. But what happens to all his initiatives when he moves on to his next assignment? We have no idea, do we?

What if the new pastor is like the old pastor, who, for example, summarily fired the lay DRE who had served the parish with all her heart and soul for 12 years? He fired her and her assistant on the spot midyear. No explanation, no compensation, no opportunity for her to so much as inform the parents and students she worked with. She was to leave that day. The materials for the Atrium she had gathered and paid for and constructed with such love and care over years were boxed up and donated to the school, which had no use for them. When she called the Vicar in charge of personnel for the diocese to object, she got some sympathy, but no recourse. Lay employees of the diocese are at-will employees. So, if your pastor has a personality disorder, too bad for you. There's nothing to be done. The parishioners weren't informed of his decision, never mind consulted. When a few asked the him where she was and what had happened, he said it was a financial matter, which was a lie, since she had offered to work for free. 

I could go on with stories like this all day. (If you have some of your own, please send them to me. I've started a collection.)

My point is, it's not okay. It's not sustainable. It's not in accord with our dignity as persons and as baptized, and it's not in accord with developments in the Catholic understanding of marriage since Vatican II.

The solution is in John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Relations between clergy and laity have to be transformed so that they reflect Christian marriage, rather than Sharia marriage. And for that to happen, the laity need to acquire self-possession and embodiment as a corporate subject.

The need, the absolute requirement for a renewal of ecclesial life, for a fruitful union and communion of love, is opposition, that is, polarity.

Here is something Pope Francis said. "I love opposition." He means it in a very specific sense, the sense of Guardini's book, Der Gegensatz, which was to have been the key text of Jorge Bergolio's unfinished doctoral dissertation. Opposition, in Guardini's sense, is the practical equivalent of sexual polarity, the uni-dualism of ToB. True unity and fecundity do not come from the submission of one pole to another, the subordination of one people under the other. Rather, they come when each pole is fully and properly itself, and the exchange between them free and reciprocal.

How do we, as laity, stop being ghostly and acquire embodied self-possession? I'll have more to say about that in coming posts.

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Like love, the truth about persons and personal life entails reciprocity and openness. This has directly to do with the fact that we are first and foremost subjects, not objects. Persons live our lives from within. We are, as Karol Wojtyla put it, the eyewitnesses of our own experience, and our experience is unique, real and valuable. ("We must never forget that the subjectivity of the person is something objective.") 

It follows that our knowledge of any given issue or situation involving persons is incomplete to the degree that we lack others' perspective and experience. No matter how high my IQ or how learned and credentialed or prominently-positioned in the field I may be, if I'm not genuinely open to others involved and solicitous of their views and experience, my knowledge is at best partial. Typically it's also distorted, just as conjugal relations are distorted by birth control. No one can fully or rightly understand a personal matter who fails to approach those he's dealing with as persons, that is, in a spirit of sincere openness and reciprocity.

The Jeffery Epstein case is on my mind, as is my experience yesterday of Facebook "dialogue" over my post below.

How do we get another person's truth? There's only one way: through her freedom. She has to offer it to us, willingly and sincerely. What makes a person willing to share her truth responsibly? Reciprocity. She has to be able to see and believe that the person who wants her truth is willing to offer his to her.

No one can get personal truth on demand. We can't get it by browbeating or pressuring or sneering or cajoling or manipulating or bribing or shaming. In those cases, even if she reveals something, it won't be her truth, any more than seduction can yield a woman's love and devotion. Authentic love and devotion can't be had except by way of a free, sincere gift. And a free, sincere gift can't be gotten by extortion.

But I've noticed with sorrow and pain and frustration that a lot of people actually aren't interested in truth. They're interested in winning an argument or scoring points or swatting down or belittling an opposing viewpoint or looking tough or smart or whatever. I've noticed that there are even many Catholics who present themselves publicly as experts on, say, the Theology of the Body, while they treat their interlocutors abusively. It's worse than ironic.

Guardini, following Buber, explains why fallen human beings are inclined to objectify others. We prefer the safety of the I-it relation to the vulnerability of the I-Thou. I-it relations allow us to feel safe, superior, and in control. The I-Thou relation demands something of us, it prohibits superiority and control.

When confronting an object a man is only objectively interested. His personality is at rest. [His self is not involved.] … But as soon as he confronts the other as an 'I' something arises within him ... he loses the protection which consists in the 'objective quality' of the situation in which he is acting. When I glance at another as 'I', I become open and 'show' myself. ... Personal destiny springs only from the unprotected openness of the 'I-Thou' relation.

Did you catch that last line? Personal destiny springs only from the unprotected openness of the 'I-Thou' relation. 

No one can achieve fulfillment in his personal life unless he opens himself personally to others. Neither can anyone acquire the truth about a personal issue or situation unless he deals in the I-Thou mode.

Jules and I are working on a new website—a sort of successor to the Personal Project that better reflects our current aims and intentions. Part of that involves thinking about and establishing the terms of engagement. Yesterday's experience and reflections have led me to a new resolve. I'll engage only with those who show themselves willing to engage reciprocally with me—those who show a sincere interest in and respect for my views and for me as a person. The kind of truth I'm about here requires it, and so do I as a particular individual.

I don't mind disagreement or objections or challenges or even fights. I do mind being dismissed or belittled or objectified in any degree.

There's a difference between a discussion and a put down. It's a lot like the difference between a caress and molestation.

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I was always taught that the priesthood is reserved for men because Jesus is male, and they represent Jesus. That's true, but it's only part of the mystery. The other part is that the Church, as a corporate subject, is essentially female. 

The structure of redemption, we learn in Scripture and in JP II's Theology of the Body, is spousal. And spousal love, communion, and fruitfulness entail polarity—the polarity of sexual difference, which is not only physical, but spiritual. Our nature as male or female reaches to the roots of personality. It's true on the communitarian level as well as the individual.

The priesthood has a "communitarian form," and as such, it is male (at least in a sense); it's Petrine. The laity, too, as a body of believers, exist in a communitarian form, only ours is female, or Marian. (This isn't a personal flight of fancy. I got it from the papal magisterium of JP II, most explicitly this 1992 Pastoral Exhortation.)

The same mystery explains why homosexual men should not be priests. They lack a due orientation toward the female form of personhood, and hence the capacity for a full self-donation of love to the Church, which includes a spousal tenderness and regard for her in her feminine identity and procreative power.

Someone recently pointed out to me that, maddeningly, two camps seem to have emerged in the world of online Catholic commentary. On one side (usually the left side), the abuse scandals are blamed on clericalism. Ex-priest James Carroll's recent Atlantic magazine article, To Save the Church: Abolish the Priesthood is exhibit A in this camp.

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. 

I think he's right about this, by the way. I don't agree with him that the answer is to dismantle the priesthood. The answer is rather to transform the element of subservience into the reciprocity of authentic spousal love.

On the other side, the scandals are blamed on homosexuality in the priesthood. Michael Voris, is among the most outspoken in this camp.

I don't get how everyone doesn't see that these two things go together. Both have to do with the master slave dynamics of power and subservience, and a lack of due appreciation for the value and dignity of women as complementary equals.

In my ToB talk, I quoted a passage from JP II's 1995 Letter to Women.

Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. The dignity of women has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.

Then I repeated it, making two word substitutions:

Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of the laity. The dignity of the lay vocation has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of the Church and even reduced to servitude.This has prevented the laity from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of the Church.

The substitution works because the form of the laity as a body of believer is essentially feminine and because, as a matter of fact, we have been conditioned by history to devalue the lay vocation. All of us have.

Vatican II made a particular point of trying to fix that. But, as Pope Francis has said, it takes about 100 years for the developments of such a momentous council to be fully absorbed. We're a long way from being there.

I'll try to explain in my next post what I think we need to get there.

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Reflecting on one of the talks about the sacredness of sexuality at the ToB conference last month, something clicked for me.

The speaker said he always begins his presentations of ToB to today's young people by pointing out what they already know from experience and intuition: Sexual abuse is the worst kind of harm you can do a person. It violates him in a way punching him or stealing his wallet, say, doesn't. Somehow, sex is linked to who we are, deeply and intimately. So, it makes sense to surround it with protections. I loved that. 

I was more ambivalent about other parts of the talk, though I couldn't at first say exactly why. Part of it had to do with modesty—how women wearing a dress, for instance, is a way of indicating the sacredness of sexuality.

I've heard this before of course, and I don't disagree. But I balked even so. An image a friend had shared on Facebook a while back came to mind. It's apparently from an old church vestibule. (I'm guessing pre-Vatican II.)


It makes my skin crawl and my blood boil. It's controlling and manipulative and misogynistic.

1) What about men and boys? Is it only females whose manner of dress affects their neighbor or exposes the state of their souls? Men can wear whatever they like? 

2) Who is the priest (or whoever composed and hung the sign) to publicly announce what a woman's dress signifies? How does he know why she picked the outfit she picked that day? Maybe it was reverence for the Eucharist or concern for her neighbor. But maybe it was nothing nobler than convention or habit. Maybe it was fear of being judged. Maybe she's showing off a new outfit. Maybe it was the only clean thing in her closet. Maybe a particular woman is immodestly dressed because she's been sitting at a sick person's bedside all night and had no time to change before mass. Or maybe she's just had a conversion and never gave a thought to her clothes. She's only thinking of getting to church be close to God. We have no idea, do we? 

3) Everyone who reads that sign is practically being instructed to judge the women who come through the door by their clothes and to shame those who don't meet this priest's standard of Christian modesty.  

Not okay, not okay, not okay! I don't care how eloquently and truly you can wax about the sacredness of sexuality and the symbolism of the veil, if you're judging women by their clothes, you are doing something worse than dressing immodestly, you're objectifying persons, you're operating in the master/slave mode, which is the opposite of love, the opposite of ToB. I've written about this before, including here and here.

The speaker who sparked this train of thought didn't say anything like as egregious as that sign, but neither did say anything to counteract it either. I mean, he said nothing to show he was aware of and sensitive to the fact that there might be a personalistic problem with modesty norms and/or good personalist reasons for the reaction against them today—reasons rooted exactly in a sense of the dignity of the person.

At another point in the talk, the speaker mentioned St. Maria Goretti as an example of someone who was so committed to the sacredness of sex that she preferred to die than violate it. That reminded me of a article of Simcha Fisher's. "Maria Goretti didn't die for her virginity."

Over and over, I’ve heard this saint praised as a holy girl who prized her virginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it.  And she did die as a result of defending her virginity.  But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell.  She didn’t say, “Please, please, spare my virginity!” She begged him to spare himself.  

Sex is sacred because persons are sacred, and sexuality is the most intimate aspect of a person. It's where both our potential for the mutual self-giving of love and our vulnerability to abuse are most completely embodied.

Whenever we scorn persons for immodest dress, we are radically contradicting ourselves. If we try to manipulate or force or shame women into complying with our norms for their behavior, we're being much more sacrilegious than she is being with her clothes, or her lack of clothes.

If we want to see a rebirth of reverence for sexuality in our society, let's begin by cultivating reverence for persons in ourselves.

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