The Personalist Project

Difficulty of realizing the personhood of others

Nothing is more difficult than to realize that every man has a distinct soul, that every one of all the millions who live or have lived, is as whole and independent a being in himself, as if there were no one else in the whole world but he.

John Henry Newman, The Individuality of the Soul

Who decides?

Here's something I've noticed about myself: My understanding is closely bound up with my sense of personal mission, and while, looking back, I can see a clear line of development, the way is marked by key moments of insight that caused dramatic shifts.

Maybe this is true for everybody. I don't know. It's true for me. I carefully preserve and cherish those moments, which serve as living premises for the path forward into Truth. They're like teachers whispering in my ear, "This is the way. Walk in it." (Isaiah 30:21)

One came into my life about 15 years ago. We were in the midst of an intense personal and professional crisis. It was an earthquake. Solid ground was crumbling under my feet. There was a lot of ruin, a lot of rubble. 

A line from Kierkegaard was playing on a loop in my head: "The sadness of being alone in the understanding of a truth." I kept picturing Edith Stein too: the moment she walked away from her revered Professor Husserl, sorrowfully convinced that some Reality couldn't be communicated via reasoning, but only through a personal holocaust. 

There was a practical point at issue for us. Intelligent, religious people were divided over it. Someone said to Jules (whose job was on the line): "Reasonable people can disagree." Jules said, "Yes. But the question is, 'who decides?"

That was the breakthrough for me. Who, in justice, has the authority to decide? 

More often than not, I suddenly saw, interpersonal (and interpeople) conflict comes down to that question. What may look outwardly like nothing more and nothing other than a rational dispute in the objective realm is actually, at bottom, a moral struggle between Power and Love—with one party trying to control and subdue while the other fights to defend his freedom and right. Consciously or not, one party is acting according to the master/slave dynamic, while the other is animated by its opposite.

There's a wonderful passage in Mark Twain's Joan of Arc that illustrates the point. Maybe I've mentioned it before. Joan is about to lead a charge against an English stronghold, when some officious councilor, some military expert intervenes. He wants her to wait. He wants a committee to discuss the strategy first. He admonishes her that it would be rash for her to act without that approval—against, you could say, "the interagency consensus" of the day. She asks him flatly if the king has commanded him to stop her. He demurs and begins to explain that even though the king hasn't, per se, authorized him to...

While he's still talking Joan shouts, "Charge!"

She was clear about who decides. She also understood that that "councilor" was trying to undermine her confidence and usurp her right.

Here's another way this cosmic moral struggle plays out in the practical realm: We avoid deciding and acting in our zone of responsibility out of fear or laziness or excessive deference. We eschew choosing, because choosing is hard. The WW II movie The Battle of Midway has a scene showing an American Admiral in doubt. So much is on the line. There is conflicting intelligence and advice coming at him from all sides. He's paralyzed with anguished perplexity, until someone says to him: "When you're in command, command," and he accepts the fact that, like it or not, the fate of the battle is up to him. He must gather his inner resources and make a prompt decision based on his lights—his experience, his gut. To demur, to hesitate, to hedge, would be to fail his men, his country, his mission.

We can go wrong by sticking our noses into someone else's spiritual terrain and/or by not taking proper command of our own. 

It would be impossible to exaggerate the centrality of this principle to Wojtyla's personalism, and, we can say, to the whole modern world. The cosmic struggle between good and evil is the same as the battle between freedom and force, between subjective agency and the objectification of persons.

We see it playing out now on the political stage: Who's in charge of US government and policy? The "experts" or the people? Who answers to whom? We see it at play in the Church. Are the people of God objects of the clergy's ministry? Are we nothing more than sheep? Or are we responsible co-agents with a share in the sacred offices of priest, prophet and king? And we see it in the intimate struggles of our private lives. It's beautifully expressed in that wonderful serenity prayer that has served as a beacon for millions of souls in trouble:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Right moral formation and right interpersonal relations involves, maybe more than anything else, the identification, establishment, fortification, provision, exercise and management of our own "spiritual terrain," our personal and communal zone of freedom and responsibility.

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I've noticed some linguistic confusion interfering with mutual understanding and practical progress toward the common good. 

The term "systemic" is being used in two different senses. People on the right typically take it to refer to our objective system of laws and policies. The old Jim Crow laws of the south are a prime example of "systemic racism" in that sense. The wrong was embodied in law and policy. It needed correcting in law. It was corrected, thanks mainly to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his personalist philosophy and practice of "non-violent resistance."

This is why someone like Attorney General Bill Barr can say that while we no doubt have issues with residual racism in some places and individuals, we don't have a problem with systemic racism. He's right about that, imo. On the level of law and policy, America is not racist, unless we're talking about the reverse racism of Affirmative Action policies and practices.

For those on the left, though, "systemic racism" refers rather to a subjective, often unconscious, condition of society. They are talking about our collective moral state, so that even if our laws and politics are race-neutral, we, as a people, can and do still harbor racist attitudes that "leak out" in our social habits and manifest in unequal outcomes like chronic poverty among blacks.

People on the left get upset when someone on the right says something like, "We are the least racist country in history," because they're focused on moral attitudes and disparate outcomes, while the right is talking about objective laws, principles and values. They accuse the right of lying and gaslighting, when, really, they're just using the term in a different way.

Both ways are valid and meaningful. They just shouldn't be confused. 

The main reason they shouldn't be confused (apart from mutual misunderstanding) is that their respective solutions are radically different. Inequities in the objective structures can and should be addressed through law and policy. Injustice in the heart, though, whether individual or communal, can only be fixed through freedom. You can't make a person or society just and generous through force.

And that's what the left seems to want to do. They seem to want to use the coercive power of government to improve moral attitudes and equalize outcomes, which is why the right gets upset when they talk about things like reparations and critical race indoctrination seminars. It can't be done that way. It can only be done through culture, and culture is suffocated by excessive government.

So, speaking for myself, when I vote for smaller government and race-neutral laws and policies, I'm not denying that our society is still suffering from the legacy of racism. Rather, I'm trying to help create the best conditions for allowing it to be addressed at a deeper level.

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A priest of our archdiocese, who knows me and knows how I feel about the status quo between clergy and laity sent me this recent article from Philly Catholic titled, "Laity called to share responsibility for the Church, experts say".

He added the comment, "At least they're talking about it!" 

I agree with him about that. Talking about it is good and necessary. Still. Can I just list some items that get my goat and stick in my craw?

1) Take the title. "Experts say". Experts?! As if we're talking about a recondite point of scholarship rather than the central thrust of the gospel. Only where a clericalist worldview prevails can the co-responsiblity of the laity come as a surprise.

2) Note that the panel discussion was moderated by a priest. And while two of the five were laymen, all were employees of the diocese. No women. No "normal" laymen, i.e. laymen who work and live in the secular world. So, an essentially clericalist panel on the role of the laity. This is like a gathering a panel of men to discuss the role of women in marriage.

3) Fr. Dailey, a professor at the seminary, spoke about the challenge of co-responsiblity during a pandemic. "It’s hard to be all in anything together when we are socially distanced.” I'd say rather that the pandemic has made the disaster of clericalism much more obvious and acute. Apart from the drastic falloff in attendance and funding, it's shown how insubstantial our life-in-common is and how ill-prepared we are as a Church to handle a crisis of this kind. The centralized power of clericalism is too remote, bureaucratic, unresponsive and unwieldy. The situation would have been very different if the laity really were co-responsible—I mean had we already had the kind of lay associations I've been calling for. In that case the pandemic would have been an occasion for our coming together, not a catalyst for our dissolution. In a comment under one of my recent posts on Facebook, reader Paul made the point concretely:

Within a week of the lockdown starting here, in England, our local Evangelical Church had a whole prayer and support network in place for anyone, especially for the vulnerable, including collecting medical supplies on prescription, shopping, and making sure they received a phone call if they needed one. Their congregation has grown as a result ('transfer growth' from mainline denominations as these types of ecclesial communions often are), as these more 'traditional churches' - like ours - the ministers went on 'radio silence'.

4) Here's a welcome point of agreement. John Haas, one of the two laymen on the panel pointed out:

Decades before clergy shortages, declining Mass attendance and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the laity as “sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

But Haas said many, such as Pope Benedict XVI, have “lamented that the teachings of the council had yet to be fully implemented.”

I've been repetitious about it: the status quo is collapsing, and the solution is already given in the dogma and documents; it's just not yet realized in practice.

5) Haas puts his finger on the problem I mentioned above in (2):

Haas pointed to his own career as an example of the “natural trap” to simply view the church’s employment of Catholic professionals as a sign of greater lay involvement.

While working in the banking industry, said Haas, he was just as “co-responsible with the hierarchy in enabling the church” to fulfill its mission as he was while holding positions within the institutional church.

Those who work for the Church are not "normal" laymen. And the agency of the Church is not reducible to the clergy and its staff.

6) Notice how Fr. Dailey totally misses the boat:

Father Dailey said that “increased mobility and the digital culture have expanded the confines of existence … especially in younger generations.”

As a result, he said, parishes must build on lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic — during which livestreamed Masses, video homilies and devotional podcasts became standard — and reimagine how to engage current and potential believers through digital media and formal communications plans.

The solution isn't about the clergy reaching more people more remotely. It's about the clergy  handing over responsibility in the here and now. 

7) I didn't attend the conference, but to go by this article, there was no discussion at all about how the laity might take up actual responsibility, actual power and authority in the Church. There were some sops. Archbishop Perez says he "couldn't have done what I've done" without the laity, which—I'm sorry to say it—is stating the obvious. It reminds me of Newman's comment about the laity, "the clergy would look rather silly without them."

 8) I'll give the bishop this, though [my emphasis]:

That effort requires a real partnership between both clergy and laity, he said, since “we are back to where the early church was.”

And I'll end by pointing out: You can't have real partnership without real reciprocity. The laity will not be duly co-responsible unless and until we share in the ownership and decision-making of parish life.

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The hypothetical case I raised a couple posts below is happening in the here and now. At mass recently, the pastor of our summertime church* announced that one of our priests is retiring and won't be replaced. The parish, which—due to dwindling numbers of both clergy and practicing Catholics in the diocese—is already a consolidation of several smaller parishes will now have only two priests instead of three. There will have to be a "restructuring," he said, to include fewer masses.

I've mentioned this pastor before. He's youngish (I'm guessing early 40s), and radiantly faith-filled, ardent, and committed. He loves God and loves being a priest. His service to his flock is generous and heartfelt. So he took time and care with his announcement. He assured us that he's come up with a proposal based on his best sense of our welfare; that it's being reviewed by a diocesan canon lawyer and a committee of people with relevant expertise; that the bishop, who will ultimately be making the decision, is a thoughtful man, who will listen carefully to the pastor, since the pastor is the one who best knows the situation on the ground. He (the pastor) understands that this won't be easy; that we'll all need to be patient and forbearing during the transition. But he promised us, with manifest sincerity, that he will be transparent throughout. He will keep us informed regularly and as soon as possible. He will update us every week...

It's as if it didn't even occur to him that the laity should have a part in the decision-making. So thoroughgoing and unselfaware is his clericalist habit of mind that he seems to believe that a promise of transparency amounts to going the extra mile in showing love and respect for the laity. 

I can't stress enough that my judgment isn't against this priest personally, but rather against his formation—the same clericalist mold that has formed practically all Catholic souls for generations at least. Jules said to me after mass, "His total obliviousness is almost endearing." I agree. This particular priest obviously intends nothing but good. Which, besides timeliness, is what makes the example so apt and helpful.

The clericalism I'm opposing isn't about the ill-will of a few. Rather, in the parlance of the day, it's systemic.** It's the air we breath as Catholics. Not withstanding our good intentions to the contrary, we've been set up for the dysfunction we're suffering. We've been taught to think of priests as governors and superiors whom the laity are responsible to respect and obey as subordinates.

It's understandable, humanly and historically. It's not without its theological and doctrinal justification. As a result, for many, the empowerment of the laity I'm proposing is unthinkable and undesirable. They're worried it would involve the undoing of a divinely-instituted hierarchy, an unacceptable subversion of Church teaching, and practical chaos in parish life. I totally understand.

But, through my posts on this subject and in the manual I'm working on, I'm trying to persuade fellow Catholics that it doesn't, in fact, involve those things. I do it primarily by way of an analogy with marriage. 

Think about it with me:

Until fairly recently, all Catholics were formed into a hierarchical view of Christian marriage. The husband has authority over his wife. She is his subordinate. It's his role to lead (though with an attitude of loving service!); it's her role to submit to his leadership.

When modern developments began to make this view controversial, many good Catholics doubled down on it. They were naturally alarmed over the negative effects of the militant feminism they saw gaining sway in society. It seemed nothing other than an attack on God's design for the family. They demonstrated their case using Scripture and papal documents, including Ephesians 5 and the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. I'm not mocking; I was one of them. I once sincerely held and preached this view. It seemed to me the biblical and only possible answer to the real evils of feminism.

Note how exactly it so far parallels the normal Catholic understanding of the respective roles of clergy and laity in the Church—an understanding likewise apparently bolstered by tradition. Note that the forces against it, too, appear wantonly destructive and sinister. They are against the priesthood. They want to destroy the Church.

But now consider what happened over the course of the last several decades respecting marriage. Instead of rejecting feminism wholesale, the way most us conservatives were doing, John Paul II fearlessly "encountered" it. He "listened" to it.  And, in his Theology of the Body, he not only sifted its wheat from its chaff, but he positively and dramatically advanced Church teaching on marriage under its influence. 

How exactly? In essence, while rejecting (on personalist and exegetical grounds) both a hierarchical relation between men and women and an androgynous elimination of sexual difference, it elevated wives to a position of equal dignity and co-responsibility with their husbands in marriage. It replaced the hierarchical, externalist model of relating with a model of reciprocal and wholly personal self-giving. And it showed that far from representing a rupture with Scripture and Tradition this "new" teaching on marriage was actually a deeper and fuller articulation of the Deposit of Faith.

The divine mysteries themselves are unchanging, but our understanding of them constantly deepens and gets refined under grace and in light of human experience,***  including bad experiences. In short, JP II's magisterial teaching established that among persons, according to God's original design, love and fecundity come from the reciprocal self-giving of complementary opposites. The one up/one down tendency of the human condition is the legacy of the fall.

So, far from prescribing a hierarchical model of marriage, Ephesians 5 (interpreted rightly) actually demonstrates how the gospel, in "a great mystery," overcomes the master/slave dynamic of the fall and replaces it with the dynamic of redemption. The total, reciprocal union of man and woman in marriage is the earthy icon of divine love and the model for all inter-personal relating. It's the source of all new life.

I'm proposing that the Church is in the midst of an analogous development of our understanding of right relations between clergy and laity, which, after all, according to Scripture and Tradition, are meant to be spousal. The Church is the Bride of Christ; the body of believers, as a body, is, we can say, in a sense, the wife of the priesthood.

That deep theological and anthropological mystery isn't reflected in our current parish life, though, is it? We are set up rather to reflect almost exclusively the shepherd/sheep metaphor. The laity are passive, unequal, dependent. The pastor is in charge. The more docile we are the better.

Of course this metaphor too is based in Scripture. I'm not against it any more than I'm against submission as such. JP II never said wives are no longer called to submit to their husbands. (That would have been a rupture.) Rather, he said, husbands are also called to submit to their wives, because, to be a Christian (to be a person, really) is to be called to service. The interpretative key to Ephesians 5, says John Paul II, is given in verse 21: "defer to one another."

Likewise, I'm not calling for the shepherd/sheep metaphor to be eradicated; I'm calling for it to be properly relativized and contextualized by other biblical metaphors, including especially the prime metaphor of marriage.

So, we're looking at different levels of adjustment, and a three-step development in ecclesial life and thought. 

1) We have to adjust our conventional understanding of marriage to achieve the greater depth and fullness of ToB, according to which the relation between man and woman is a reciprocal, fruitful union of love.

2) We have to adjust our understanding of relations between clergy and laity to reflect the marriage metaphor. Relations between clergy and laity should be a fruitful, reciprocal union of love, not an externalist, hierarchical relation.

3) We have to adjust our ecclesial structures and habits so that they capture and embody that new understanding.

Note how this has already been happening for a long time regarding women and marriage. Not that long ago in Christian societies, women could not own property or attend university or work in most professions or vote. Less than 100 years ago, the brilliant, original thinker Edith Stein, who received a doctorate summa cum laude under one of the most distinguished professors in Germany, couldn't get a post teaching philosophy except at a girls' high school. In the 1960's, Catholic universities prohibited women to teach either philosophy or theology. None of that is true anymore. Nor is the idea that wives owe their husbands obedience a normal part of Catholic marriage. Rather, husbands and wives "defer to one other." And, look!, it didn't cause chaos. Chaos is never the result of mutual deference and service. Rather, it's the result of the master/slave dynamic, and the violent backlash against it. Militant, atheistic feminism is a a backlash against the injustices of male chauvinism, for instance.

To the worry that my proposal will abolish the priesthood, let me say: As a layman, I don't favor the abolition of the priesthood with its unique powers and gifts any more than, as a woman, I favor the abolition of masculinity. I cherish my husband's masculinity. I absolutely rely on it. It makes me feel safe and secure and free to be myself with all my imperfections and shortfalls. I also cherish the priesthood and rely on it completely to sacramentalize my life and apostolate. I want to see it enhanced and perfected, not diminished.

The "more perfect union" I'm envisioning between clergy and laity in parish life entails complementarity as much as it does reciprocity.

Anyway. I have much more to say, as always. But I'll leave this here for now.


*" Summertime church" doesn't quite capture our relation to the parish. I've been going to its masses for nearly 50 years—far longer than either of us has regularly gone anywhere else. And we were married there. I can't say I've ever felt like a proper parishioner. But I haven't felt that anywhere else either. It's a sad fact that I have a much stronger sense of belonging to the local 12-step group I've been attending sporadically for 5 years than I've ever had at any Catholic parish. Which speaks to the problem I've been trying to address.

** BTW, I don't agree with the Black Lives Matter movement when it accuses the US of systemic racism, unless it's the reverse racism of Affirmative Action policies, etc. I'd say rather that our society, like all societies, is not entirely free from residual racism, which should be addressed in the same way we address all our moral faults, viz., through culture, not coercion. Legal slavery IS systemic racism. The Jim Crow laws were too. Sharia Law is an example of systemic sexism. 

*** For those with a scholarly bent, moral theologian John Grabowski—a fellow FUS alum and professor at Catholic U—has written what was for me the definitive essay on this topic. “Mutual Submission and Trinitarian Self-Giving.” Angelicum 74 (1997): 489-512. 

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After several weeks away, I went to mass at our parish Tuesday morning. Among the 30 or 40 attendees, I was the only one not wearing a mask. I felt a little distracted by self-consciousness. No one said anything, but I imagined fellow parishioners being perturbed and judging me selfish and disobedient.

I know of a family with five young children who now drive a long distance to a different parish, because they so oppose the mask mandate at ours. I know others who feel pressured to act in a way that feels wrong to them or otherwise alienated by church policy in these Coronavirus times.

Here's one of the main things that bugs me about it all: the laity have no say. Our thoughts and suggestions aren't solicited; we're not consulted; we're just instructed and expected to cooperate. There's no forum for discussion, nowhere to air our views or listen to others', never mind participate in the decision-making.

And it's not as if this is a small matter. For months, we were completely deprived of the Eucharist. People were left to die alone. Visits from priests and family members were prohibited. We weren't allowed to go to funerals or weddings. How many babies haven't been baptized, I wonder? How many people have left the Church altogether because they're demoralized and disaffected?

"We had to stop the spread to keep people from dying," "Better safe than sorry," I hear people saying in reply. And then of course there's the liability issue. Imagine the lawsuits if an outbreak were to happen in our church! 

Fine. I understand that perspective. I'm not accusing anyone of bad motives. Rather, I'm pointing out that there's another perspective not being heard. Important values besides physical health and safety are at stake.

Set aside the dubiousness of masks as a health measure. What's most disturbing to me is that the Church as a whole seems to be paying no attention whatsoever to the large social and moral issues at play at this historical moment. The secular authorities are asserting a shocking degree of control over our freedom to worship, and the Church is meekly complying. A violent, marxist, atheistic, anti-family, anti-life ideology is making gigantic inroads in our society, and the Church is virtually silent. 

The battle of our times is the same as the battle of all times since Eden: It's the master/slave dynamic of fear and objectification versus the interpersonal exchange of faith and love.

Masks abet the master/slave dynamic. They embolden the violent while they disempower the righteous and law-abiding. They thwart the interpersonal encounter that is the only true antidote to the evil sweeping our society. I hate them with a passion. I wear them in stores because I have to. I won't wear them at mass, where I go on purpose to meet God and fellow-Christians face to face.

Also, I want to publicly stand for what I deeply believe: "It's for freedom that Christ has set us free." We're not supposed to be slavish. We're not supposed to be timid and compliant. We're supposed to live and act like the sons and daughters of the Most High God we actually are.

That's my opinion. I hope I'm not alone.

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