The Personalist Project

Flourishing of persons is the final meaning of the universe

The most essential and important proposition that my present investigations would ground and communicate as perfectly as possible is the proposition that the final meaning and value of the [i]whole[/i] universe is ultimately to be measured exclusively against the pure being (and not the effectiveness)…the richest fullness and the most perfect development, and the purest beauty and inner harmony of persons, in whom at times all forces of the world concentrate themselves and soar upward.

Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values

We're back home after two weeks away. It was a wonderful trip. Rome with all its magnificence and beauty and antiquity. Experiencing the living reality of the Catholic faith at a joyful mass said by the Pope, packed with pilgrims from all over the world, celebrating the canonization of 5 new saints. One from Brazil, one from India, one from England, one from Switzerland, one from Italy. (I think I got that right, but maybe not.) The Pope has a remarkably gentle voice, full of tenderness and consolation. He sounds tired, though. What a cross he must be daily carrying.

We got some great time with our host priest friend. Lots of laughter and lively, clarifying and encouraging theological conversation, plus great food. We need more genuine friendship between priests and laity, imo. It would help so much with the terrible problem of clericalism afflicting us all. Bumped into my priest cousin too, out of the blue. It seems impossible to go to Rome without bumping unexpectedly into somebody from your life. It's like a foretaste of heaven, where we'll see everyone we love, without anymore pain or tension or awkwardness.

Then, every time I go to Holland, I fall deeper in love with all things Dutch. The charming orderliness of the landscape. The placid, contented cows and everywhere you go.

The lovely city centers, the food! the shopping! the thoughtful, kindly, omni-competent, amazingly relaxed people! Jules' wonderful family. It makes me regret how preoccupied and out of sorts I was when we lived there when the kids were little, and I hadn't yet learned how to be myself. I also regret that thirty years into marriage, I still don't have a very good grasp of the language. I'll have to work on that. Anyway, I hope we'll get more time there in the years ahead.

Even so, it was great to come home yesterday. I know jet lag is coming, and tomorrow I may feel depressed and exhausted. I may decide I never want to travel again. But today I'm thinking that alone for the joy of coming home, I should go away more often. I feel so happy with my family and my home and my town and Benedict's school, where I went to mass this morning. Just me and the priest and the religion teacher, who's also an FUS alum. It's all so good and beautiful.

This is not a normal post, I realize, but I wanted to record my experience, because it's an unusual one for me. I'm a high-strung, melancholic person, who too often experiences things negatively. I see and suffer the faults and problems and shortcomings of myself and the world around me. Today, I'm getting a lovely reprieve, which gives me a great sense of hope for what's coming next. Deo gratias.

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Some quotes stay in your head. Decades ago now, in grad school in Liechtenstein, we took a life-changing course from John F. Crosby on the thought of Newman. In it, Crosby referenced a book by Edward J. Sillem called John H. Newman: The Philosophical Notebook, which Jules just brought to me saying, "It's the best treatment of Newman by far." (He also reminded me that it's an expensive book, and I should take good care of it.) He brought it because I had asked him earlier if he could easily find the reference for a particular quote that's been with me for thirty years. He could. [my emphasis]

As far as philosophy is concerned [Newman] was no Augustine, Aquinas nor Scotus in stature. His real work lay in other fields. But he stands at the threshold of the new age as a Christian Socrates, the pioneer of a new philosophy of the individual Person and Personal life.

I don't think Newman ever called himself a personalist. That term came into scholarly usage later and elsewhere. But he was a personalist, in as much as he lived from and drew serious intellectual attention to the individuality of the soul, the sovereignty of conscience, the priority of experience and reality over theory, etc. All his writings are suffused with a sense of awe over the mystery of personal existence. They anticipates the developments in the mind and teaching of the Church in our day by 100 years. 

Much more should be said about this, but I lack time. Tonight we fly to Rome. We wanted to be there in person for his canonization on Sunday. I'll just offer a few great quotes for us all to ponder while we await that great ecclesial event. 

[Truth] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of [those] who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.

That's from his Oxford University Sermons. Here's a famous one from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, where he recounts his religious journey from unbeliever to anti-Catholic evangelical to staunch and ardent Catholic.

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. 

Here's one from his masterpiece of satire, The Tamworth Reading Rooms:

…deductions have no power of persuasion. The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.

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Looking through my quotes collection for something else, I came across this passage from an address by Pope Benedict to the UN:

This is all the more necessary at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.

Indeed, questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet

Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.

If I adjust it a bit, you can see how it applies to the problem of clericalism in the Church:

The Church is in crisis because in place of the multilateral consensus that should characterize any brotherhood of equals, the ecclesial communion throughout the world is "subordinated to the decisions of a few". The Church's problems "call for interventions in the form of collective action by the" entire people of God, yet, the vast majority of Catholics are effectively voiceless and powerless.

Indeed, questions of administration, resource management, clerical misconduct, abuses of power and conscience, Christian education, local and regional liturgical culture, missionary outreach, developmental goals, etc. require the People of God to act jointly. We need lay leaders who exhibit a readiness to work in good faith, always respecting the deposit of faith and the due authority of the local ordinary, and promoting solidarity with weakest members of our communion.

The rights and dignity the laity given in baptism and confirmation must be respected as a question of justice and fundamental Christian truth. Their full participation in the life of the Church is not the gift of the clergy.

I would go so far as to say that the current clericalist structure, habits and ethos are in dramatic disaccord with the gospel and with the teachings of our Faith respecting the dignity and vocation of laity. They are in disaccord with our nature and dignity as persons.

They're also in crisis. They can't last; they are rapidly disintegrating. The only question is how and when they will be replaced.

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Last week Jules and I had some quality time with a priest friend. There was a lot of heart to heart discussion about the state of the Church and the call of the moment, the challenges facing our generation of Catholics.

As a way of continuing the conversation, yesterday he forwarded to us Archbishop Chaput's latest column.

In his book Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing; foreword by Scott Hahn), Father Carter Griffin does a superb job of making a case for “the profound renewal of the celibate priesthood and the fatherhood to which it is ordered.” Every human being has the hunger to create new life. Husbands and wives express that in their children. The fertility of a priestly life reflects and shares in the supernatural fatherhood of God. Priests are therefore called to be real spiritual fathers to their people, transforming them with new life in Jesus Christ. Without that conscious, guiding sense of paternity, rooted in God’s own fatherhood, the life of a priest becomes little more than administrative tasks and sacramental dispensing.

I haven't read the book, but readers of this site won't be surprised to hear that the basic point goes against my grain, to the point that I am practically breaking out in hives as I type. The image of priest as father is of course true and valid, but it's also only one among several given in Scripture. And as I see it (as I think the experience and developments of the post-conciliar period prove), the real need in the Church at this moment in time is for us to realize in thought and practice the mystery of priest as husband, not father. These concepts essentially go together, but the metaphor of fatherhood has so dominated Catholic ethos that we’ve all but lost any consciousness of priest as spouse of the Church, which is primarily what makes sense of priestly celibacy, as well as the lay vocation, imo.

The exaggerated emphasis on priest as father has led directly to the endemic paternalism now crippling the Church. The laity are treated like children. We act like children, and not in a good way. Priests are regarded as parents; they act like parents, and not in a good way.

In the relation between parent and child, the concepts of authority and obedience are central. It’s a hierarchical relation, inescapably. In the relation between husband and wife, mutual self-giving and other-receiving is thematic. It’s a reciprocal relation. Paternity and maternity—fruitfulnesss—come from that complementary reciprocity. The fertility of the priest's life comes from his spousal relation to the people of God. It comes from his opening himself to them, his recognition of their subjectivity, their agency, his ordination toward them, his companionship with them, and his laying down his life for them.

One of the key discoveries for me during the last year of studying John Paul II's Theology of the Body was that his close analysis of Genesis practically identifies original innocence with reciprocity. Reciprocity is what makes Adam and Eve “safe” for each other, i.e. able to be “naked without shame.” Eve is not threatened by Adam’s gaze, because she finds in it his recognition of her equality as a subject, an agent, an image of God, called to dominion over the earth. Both see and intuitively grasp that her being made for him has everything to do with his being made also and equally for her.

That reciprocity was lost with the fall. With the fall came the master/slave relation and all its evil ways and effects. The renewal of the Church in our day entails a reversal of that dynamic in relations between clergy and laity. It entails a rediscovery of the "deep mystery" that the priest is bridegroom, which means that the laity are his bride, his companion and his partner, not his subordinate. We need less emphasis on the fatherhood of priests, not more. Or, maybe better: We won't understand rightly the fatherhood of the priest, unless we first get clear that his fatherhood comes from his being first husband.

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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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