The necessity of sufferingDo you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?
Aug. 2, 2009, at 4:03pm
A Zenit item about the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ $660 million settlement with over 500 victims of sexual abuse is titled, “Spokesman: Church Saddened by Pedophelia”.
Father Lombardi spoke of the attitude the Church takes regarding the crime of sexual abuse.
He said: “Cardinal Mahony explained—as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said many times—that the Church is evidently and above all saddened by the suffering of the victims and their families, for the harm caused by the grave and inexcusable behavior of some of its members, and is firm in its resolve to avoid future vile acts of this kind.
“The agreement, and the sacrifice it involves, are also a sign of this resolve, of the decision to close a sorrowful chapter in history and to look forward in terms of prevention and the establishment of a secure environment for children and young people in all areas of the Church’s pastoral work.” [my emphasis]
I raise this question for discussion: Is sadness the right response to wrongs of this kind? What about wrath?
In a review of Leon Podles’ disturbing book, Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Adventist pastor, Bill Cork, argues that lack of due anger is part of the problem.
For Thomas Aquinas, anger is a necessary element of the virtue of fortitude—fortitude isn’t a matter of just putting up with evil, or of enduring sorrow, but includes actively resisting evil, bravery in the struggle, and anger at the evil which has led to sorrow. Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 123, Art. 10.
Leon Podles is angry, and wants us to be angry, too. He wants us to be angry at the sin of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. But more than that, he also wants us to be angry at the bishops and pope for not being angry at that same sin. That’s what irks him about this crisis more than anything else—never have the bishops or popes expressed any anger that priests molested kids or that other bishops covered it up and transferred the predators to new hunting grounds.
I tend to agree with him. But I would love to know what others think.
Aug. 1, 2009, at 1:41pm
In the course of an insightful analysis of this revealing photo
at the American Thinker blog, Thomas Lifson hits on a central theme of personalist ethics:
In my own dealings with the wealthy and powerful, I have always found that the way to quickly capture the moral essence of a person is to watch how they treat those who are less powerful. Do they understand that the others are also human beings with feelings? Especially when they think nobody is looking.
The tendency of the human condition since the fall is to succumb to a master/slave dynamic of interpersonal relations, with the strong vying for power and the weak cringing in fear and begging for favors. Meanwhile, at the heart of our true nature as persons is a call to give ourselves in love, to put ourselves at the service of others. Those who tend to be slavish have to learn to be self-standing. Those who tend to “Lord it over others” have to learn to be self-giving. This is why the answer to the question: “How does he treat the weak and powerless?” tells us so much moral essence of a given individual.
Like Thomas Lifson, I have often observed in strong and successful people a habit of contempt for weak people. They seem to imagine that their strength and power and riches make them admirable as persons. What a disastrous mistake!
Jul. 23, 2009, at 1:45pm
I am reading Catholic poet and mystic Caryll Houselander’s book Reed of God. It begins with a rich mediation on emptiness—contrasting the meaningful kind, the kind that is shaped for a purpose, like the warm round nest prepared to house a little bird, and the modern kind, of which our world is full.
Emptiness is a very common complaint in our days, not the purposeful emptiness of the virginal heart and mind but a void, meaningless, unhappy condition.
Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears, and these sometimes further overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are an attempt, and always a futile attempt, to forget how pointless such people’s lives are. Those who complain in these circumstances of the emptiness of their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded together so that there wil always be something to lean on for support. They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death. Death seems to them to be only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness.
They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life; they are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts.
Such emptiness is very different from that still, shadowless ring of light round which our being is circled, making a shape which in itself is an absolute promise of fulfillment.
Jul. 22, 2009, at 11:39pm
Over at the American Thinker, Kelcy Allen provides an eye-opening (let us hope and pray!) comparison of the rhetoric and principles of liberal sentimental favorite, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Saul Alinsky, whose political philosophy and program shapes so much of the American left. He uses quotations from both to imagine a verbal boxing match between them.
Here is just a taste:
Round One: Saul Alinsky opens with, “To hell with charity…morality is but rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.”
Martin Luther says, “Now is the time to make real the promises of Democracy.”
Round Two: Alinksy fires, “Ours is a world not of Angels but of ‘angles’. Reconciliation is when one side gets the power and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation”.
MLK parries, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children”.
Round Three: Alinsky jabs, “Radicals…have contemptuously rejected the values and way of life of the middle class. They have stigmatized it as materialistic, decadent, bourgeois, degenerate, imperialistic, war-mongering, brutalized and corrupt…they are right.”
King fades right, “...Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
MLK, Jr. was a moral hero, deeply influenced—even in a sense “saved” from the temptation to violence, radicalism and revenge—by the encounter with Christian personalism, which shaped his theory of non-violent resistance.
Jul. 22, 2009, at 4:11pm
Yuval Levin makes sense on health care, reminding me again of Newman’s idea of the illative sense in the moral life. In the Corner today:
To me, this all looks like a demonstration of how much of what you conclude about public policy from social science really depends on the implicit assumptions you bring to the table about human behavior and human fallibility. When I look at the immensely complicated picture of American health-care decision-making that emerges from those Dartmouth studies, I don’t think “we need to centralize this,” I think “this can’t possibly be centralized.” I take it not as an indictment of local variability but as proof of the limits of imposed efficiency. Those limits, if we take them seriously, argue for rules that set general incentives and then give individual players the freedom to find their own ways of responding to them, because we cannot know in advance the peculiar pressures that will drive behaviors in different parts of the system, and we cannot hope to eliminate those pressures. There has to be room for local and individual decision makers to find what works for them. That certainly means that the system won’t be optimized for efficiency, but optimal efficiency is not in fact the alternative to this kind of messy market approach. The alternative is artificial shortages.
Jul. 22, 2009, at 1:06pm
Bertrand Russell, of all philosophers, pointed out that Byron’s concept of freedom was the same as that of a German prince or a Cherokee chief: the pleasure of doing as one pleases and not having to account for it.
Pryce-Jones ends the review with a melancholy reflection that Bryon’s notion of freedom has become mainstream.
Byron opened the way for men and women everywhere to indulge in whatever they like without moral judgment or acceptance of responsibility. Conduct that was once offensive has become commonplace. The outrage and destructiveness that surged around Byron have long dissolved into a sense that his poetry is a full and complete justification of the man. Radical politics like his have become a standard intellectual property, and transgression in personal relations and matters of art is considered perfectly normal, altogether in the order of things. Where once this singular English peer staggered the world by abusing the privileges of his class and his times, now innumerable demotic copycat Byrons feel born to opposition of their society, and they too have no idea that they are spoiled, abusing the very things that have protected them and made them what they are.
Contrast this notion of freedom with the Christian personalist notion, as expressed, for instance, in this article by John F. Crosby.
Jul. 18, 2009, at 3:07pm
More than worth listening to. Hat tip, Jonah Goldberg at the Corner
Jul. 14, 2009, at 10:40am
As I mentioned below, Archbishop Chaput recently gave an address to Legatus titled “Catholics and the Fourth Estate.’” You can read here. I found it via the American Papist, where host Thomas Peters praises it with the words “not a single word wasted.”
When I began reading it, I expected to be writing a Linde post about the need for genuine Catholic journalism. Up until lately it seems to me that Catholic journalism has tended either to be dissenting or to be controlled by the bishops in a way that prevents its being able to play the role it’s supposed to play, i.e., helping to shape public opinion and keeping leaders accountable. What is desperately wanted is Catholic journalists who are faithful to the Church and unflinching in their critique of it.
But, reading the whole thing, I got mad. It is Archbishop Chaput (whom I generally admire) preaching about the failure of the secular media to live up to its institutional vocation to inform the public truthfully. I got mad because of all institutions to have failed to live up to their mission in society lately, I think I’d put “Catholic bishops” at the very top of the list, with “Catholic laity” a close second.
In the size of the gap between what we are and what we should be, the mainstream media doesn’t come close.
Jul. 13, 2009, at 3:50pm
At the core of serious problems in the internal culture of the congregation is a mistaken understanding and living of the theological principle - in itself valid - that God’s will is made manifest to the religious through his superior. The Legionary seminarian is erroneously led to foster a hyper-focusing on internal “dependence” on the superior for virtually every one of his intentional acts (either explicitly or in virtue of some norm or permission received, or presumed or habitual permissions). This is not in harmony with the tradition of religious life in the Church, nor is it theologically or psychologically sound. It entails rather an unhealthy suppression of personal freedom (which is a far cry from the reasoned, discerned and freely exercised oblation of mind and will that the Holy Spirit genuinely inspires in the institution of religious obedience) and occasions unholy and unhealthy restrictions on personal conscience.
Furthermore, Legionary norms regarding “reporting to,” “informing,” “communication with,” and “dependence on” superiors constitute a system of control and conformity which now must be considered highly suspect given what we know about Fr. Maciel. They furthermore engender a simplistic, and humanly and theologically impoverished notion of God’s will (its discernment and manifestation) that breeds personal immaturity.
More seriously, the lived manner in which Legionaries practice obedience is laced with the kind of unquestioning submission which allowed the cult of personality to emerge around the figure of Maciel in the first place and covered for his misdeeds. Legionary seminarians are essentially trained to suspend reason in their obedience and to seek a total internal conformity with all the norms, and to withstand any internal impulse to examine or critique the norms or the indications of superiors.
It sounds like a more extreme version of what I witnesses of the Covenant Communities in the ‘80s. It likewise brings to mind the clericalism and lay passivity that allowed the priests’ sex scandal to get as bad as it did. Truly Catholic education has to focus much more on developing a proper sense of adulthood, freedom, responsibility, and self-standing in its members.
Jul. 13, 2009, at 10:41am
I am just now reading an address by Archbishop Chaput on Catholics and the media about which I’ll have more to say soon. For now I just want to mention a personalist pet peeve of mine. It is the propensity seen everywhere lately to use the computer metaphor “hardwired” to refer to human nature, the sexes, or individuals. A friend of mine described her husband to me as “wired” to love fast cars. Men are frequently said to be “wired” to respond sexually to female flesh. Women are “wired” to love babies. It’s everywhere. The Archbishop does it in this address:
The great Jesuit defender of the American experiment, John Courtney Murray, argued that the natural law – the idea that human nature is hardwired with universal, basic understandings of right and wrong – gave all Americans a common language for their democracy, regardless of their creed.
I dislike it. I find it misleading, degrading, depersonalizing. Computers are inorganic and unfree. Persons, are genitum, non factum. Begotten, not made. And it is of the very essence of our nature and dignity (confer Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture) that we have spirituality; that we are open to the world as it is, that we are capable of relating to it in truth and through freedom. We don’t find murder evil because we are “wired” to find it evil—as if we might have been wired otherwise by some omnipotent techie in the sky. We find it evil because it is evil and we have been endowed by our Creator with the moral and intellectual power to recognize it as such.
Not “wiring”, endowments. Gifts. Powers.
Let’s take care to cherish and promote human dignity in small matters as well as large.
Jul. 10, 2009, at 2:06pm
Touching our discussion about prudishness, I came across just now in a book by Greg Popcak, this remark by the great English convert to Catholicism, Fr. Ronald Knox:
Jansenism never learned to smile. Its adherents forget, after all, to believe in grace, so hag-ridden are they by their sense of the need for it.
I can recognize this clearly in the Irish Catholic milieu I come from. And it occurs to me as I type that this same dynamic is at work in the anti-NFP providentialists I have clashed with over the years. So full of mistrust of themselves are they—so concerned about the possibility of illegitimate motives in the practice of NFP—that they believe and teach that married couples are best off, morally, leaving the size of their family up to God.
I see it, too, in the courtship movement. Since sexual sin is such a near and present danger, the best thing, i.e. the safest thing to do (its proponents argue) is avoid all physical contact until the wedding day. Here is convert from Calvinism, Steve Wood, in his The ABC’s of Choosing a Good Husband:
Postponing all physical affection until marriage is insurance for a relationship that you really care about. The wisest answer to the “Just how far can we go?” is: “Zero,” “Nada,” “Zip.” Save all the fire for your marriage, and your relationship won’t get burned.
The more I think about it, the more sympathetic I become with Christopher West’s sense that prudishness, or Jansenism, is a much more serious and widespread problem in the Church than we commonly realize.
Jul. 10, 2009, at 11:46am
L.E. Ikenga, 40 Acres and a President
George Weigel, Caritas in Vertiate in Gold and Red
Christina Hoff Sommers, Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship
Peter J. Colosi, What’s love’s got to do with It
Mark Steyn, The State Despotic
Jul. 8, 2009, at 5:49pm
I am reading an extraordinarily touching and beautiful book, loaned to me by my friend Janene, called The Little Locksmith. It is the memoir of a woman born in Massachusetts to a happy, loving, bourgeois family at the end of the 19th century. In childhood she developed tuberculosis of the spine and was forced to spend ten years flat on her back in bed. When she finally arose, she found she had a hunchback. She also had all the spiritual sensitivity of the true artist, honed by suffering.
The whole thing is full of personalist resonance. And just now I came to a passage that seems to me to throw some light on the discussion of prudishness we had below. The quote is long, but so lovely and rich in perception I don’t think you’ll mind. In it, she has just emerged from a deep and long depression stemming (she later realized) from intense loneliness and “sexual starvation.” (She uses that term not to indicate a mere physical urge and need, but rather a soul-sickening yearning for love.) She writes at a time of dramatically changing social mores. It was the end of the Victorian era.
The great war between mothers and daughters was then only just beginning, and I was one of its most passionate fighters on the side of the captives. My friends probably thought of me as being much wiser than I really was partly because, as a partisan of the wistful daughters, I was always reiterating my belief that every human being must fulfill his or her own destiny. It must have been for these two reasons that my friends who were hesitating on the brink asked for my advice. They knew that I would be sure to give them the advice they wanted—that which was contrary to the world’s and to their New England consciences. They knew I would urge them to go ahead and risk everything.
I did urge them. For my conception of love was that it was merely another form of man’s assertion which he makes in every work of art, that life is not ordinary. I was a fanatic in my belief that life is not ordinary, and in my hatred for all the acts, manners, talk, and jokes which treat the mystery of life as if it were comic and obscene, to be handled with contempt and laughed at or kicked around like an old rag. I believed that the experience of being born, of living, and of dying was all a poem, and that it should be received—all of it, every part of it—with wonder and gratitude. I thought that love was a power, like the artist’s, which suddenly gave to a man and woman together the sense of wonder. When I saw a man and a woman in love regarding each other with an intense awareness of each other’s mystery and preciousness I believed that those two had for the time being cast off the corruptions of ordinariness which makes most people blind to the miracle of existence. I believed that their sudden vision was like a saint’s or an artist’s vision. And I knew that when two unextraordinary people are in this state their happiness is in great danger. It is new to them and they do not know how to hide it and protect it from its enemies, and therefore it is in grave peril at the hands of those traditional enemies of the ones who see visions, those members of society who make and enforce they rules which are hostile to anything they themselves cannot understand, and who take upon themselves the right ot treat the most sacred experiences in the manner of the police court. Whenever I heard or read in the newspapers about some poor devil of a hard-working respectable bank clerk or businessman whose career was suddenly ruined by the astounding discovery that he was keeping a mistress, I always used to imagine that he was a man who was merely trying to find for himself some reassurance that life is not ordinary—some escape from an existence that had been made intolerably unmiraculous for him by a prosaic wife. Most lives, I thought, lacking art, lacking religion, were choked and suffocated by the continual insistence of the personal, and of all its wearying insistent paraphernalia. I thought that husbands whose lives were so choked and suffocated with too much boredom and talk and anxiety and struggle wanted only a chance to worship love in the abstract, as it could be represented for them by an unknown woman or an anonymous girl in the darkness of an unfamiliar room. For this reason I believed that even prostitution should be regarded not as something evil, but as a sacred ritual as necessary for human beings as books and music and paintings are. I felt that my old favorite magic of transformation could show that it can be a good service just as easily as it can be a profane one.
Now, obviously I find her conclusion deplorable and her reasoning full of errors and problems. She projects her own romantic sensibility and poetry onto everyone else, overlooking the fact that sexual affairs (not to mention prostitution) can also be banal and prosaic and much worse than that. They might have nothing to do with love. Further, I find the whole notion of “love in the abstract” almost an oxymoron. But still, I understand what she means. And I think it may come close to what Christopher West has in mind when he speaks of prudishness.
Jul. 8, 2009, at 12:11pm
A New Statesman review of a book by public atheists Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom titled, Does God Hate Women? rivals Obama’s best in moral equivalency and obfuscation. It also appears to be inexcusably ignorant of Catholic teaching and ethos.
For instance, take this:
The first – especially beloved of the Vatican and Islamists – is that women are not being treated worse, just “differently”. They claim that it accords a woman special “dignity” to trap her in the home. But this is an abuse of language. As the authors note: “Permanent consignment to a limited and lesser role in the world is not what ‘dignity’ is generally understood to mean . . . The smallness and intimacy and relatedness of home are fine things, but not if one is confined to them permanently.”
Both Islam and Catholicism, you see, “confine” women to their homes. Now consider this passage from John Paul II’s Letter to Women:
Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life-social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery”, to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.
3. I know of course that simply saying thank you is not enough. 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. Women’s dignity 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. Certainly it is no easy task to assign the blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting. And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision. When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honoured the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love. As we look to Christ at the end of this Second Millennium, it is natural to ask ourselves: how much of his message has been heard and acted upon?
Yes, it is time to examine the past with courage, to assign responsibility where it is due in a review of the long history of humanity. Women have contributed to that history as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions. I think particularly of those women who loved culture and art, and devoted their lives to them in spite of the fact that they were frequently at a disadvantage from the start, excluded from equal educational opportunities, underestimated, ignored and not given credit for their intellectual contributions. Sadly, very little of women’s achievements in history can be registered by the science of history. But even though time may have buried the documentary evidence of those achievements, their beneficent influence can be felt as a force which has shaped the lives of successive generations, right up to our own. To this great, immense feminine “tradition” humanity owes a debt which can never be repaid. Yet how many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity; in a word, the very dignity of their being!
But, as they say, read the whole thing.
Jul. 7, 2009, at 12:58pm
I think I could spend the day posting the new encyclical paragraph by paragraph. Number three raises a point that came up in the Personalist Project’s recent discussions on forgiveness. In my experience, conventional Christian “forgiveness thinking” downplays truth in the name of charity. But more on this later. (Hint: The idea that to insist on truth is “harsh,” together with demands that it be set aside in the name of peace and “unity” are, I claim, prime characteristics of dysfunctional relationships—relationships where selves are suffocated for lack of due breathing space.)
Meanwhile, here’s the paragraph.
3. Through this close link with truth, charity can be recognized as an authentic expression of humanity and as an element of fundamental importance in human relations, including those of a public nature. Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal yet public dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.
Jul. 7, 2009, at 12:23pm
A reader who listened to Bishop Sheen’s talk on marriage, linked below, sends in this question:
This is good. I wonder, however, what Archbishop Sheen would say regarding intimacy during affective dryness. Michael Healy’s [June 3rd, available at our downloads page] talk seems to indicate that only romantic love can save acts of intimacy from various perversions (or inordinacies). Doesn’t dryness imply a lack of romantic love? If so, it would seem that there should be no intimacy during dryness.
Maybe Dr. Healy or someone else could take it up.
Jul. 7, 2009, at 10:56am
David Brooks mars an otherwise excellent column about the relation between rules of etiquette, personal dignity and the public good with a gratuitous dig at Sarah Palin and strange admiration for Obama.
Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.
To me, Obama comes across as detached, unserious and full of self-regard. On several occasions, most conspicuously toward his predecessor in office, he has been egregiously, cringe-makingly discourteous. I find in him none of the marked moral seriousness and conscientious respect for others that are the core of personal dignity.
You can find George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” here.
It would be interesting for the Personalist Project to develop a 21st century code of etiquette. Proposals in this direction are welcome. I’d also like to know who readers sees as exemplars of true personal dignity in our day. I’ll mention a few who have influenced me. Each one has made me feel the “apostolate of being” that is personal dignity, and made me regret painfully my own sloppiness.
Alice von Hildebrand and Tom Howard, the encounter with whom more than twenty years ago caused a radical revision in my aspirations for life.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I heard speak and met briefly at a Brandley Foundation Symposium. It came through in her height and stunning beauty, her way of carrying herself, the gentle strength and musicality of her voice, and above all her moral fearlessness.
Samuel Alito. Jules and I got to hear him speak at an ISI dinner in April. He was thoroughly unpretentious. There was nothing particularly great in his speech. But his physical bearing radiated rectitude, piety, modesty, moral seriousness, self-control.
Jul. 7, 2009, at 9:09am
New papal encyclical issued today.
Its first lines are notably personalistic.
Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth. Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:22). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person.
Jul. 6, 2009, at 3:04pm
The indefatigable Bill Drennen has thoughtfully challenged a point I made earlier regarding Christopher West’s Hefner/JPII comparison and Chesterton’s famous assertion that a man who is knocking on the door of a brothel is really looking for God. My point was that, while I understand West’s and Chesterton’s meaning, their way of expressing it is problematic for this reason: it obscures the dramatic difference between moral goodness and badness.
It is true, as Bill points out, that all men experience a certain restlessness and incompleteness in their hearts for which they try to find a remedy. Objectively and ultimately speaking that remedy is God and God alone. In this sense all are indeed “looking for God”: John Paul II, Hugh Hefner, the prostitute and her client, you and me.
What I want to stress, however, is that from the moral point of view—from the point of view of our character and well-being as persons—it makes all the difference in the world how each of us chooses to deal with this restlessness. There are two radically different possibilities—in our lives as a whole and in each of our acts. (This, BTW, is the kernel of truth in the “fundamental option” moral theory. It’s also what “conversion” is all about.) There is what John Paul II has called the “utilitarian” approach, which scans the world for anything that can satisfy our desires and cravings, or there is the “value-responding” approach (von Hildebrand’s term) which looks expectantly out into the world for things that are truly good and beautiful, and tries to live in accord with them. A person with this attitude does not simply use (and then discard) people and things, but respects and appreciates them for what they are. He finds happiness in so doing. His happiness and peace are not so much the direct aim of his moral acting, but a gift and a fruit of living in harmony with the world of values.
An unqualified “all are looking for God” idea, on the other hand, can leave the impression that saints and scoundrels are not so different from each other, morally speaking. We’re all looking for the same thing, all doing our best. Sin is nothing more and nothing other than ignorance—a problem of not understanding where to find the good we all seek. The truth is much more serious and much uglier than that.
Much more needs to said, and what I have said could be further clarified and expanded upon. But I’ll leave that for later (if anyone cares to take it up with me), and turn now to some of Bill’s specific objections:
1) First, Bill proposes: Even though God is not exactly WHAT the sinner seeks, he is the reason for (i.e. the WHY of) the seeking.
I answer: I understand and agree with what you’re getting at, but I don’t like the formulation, for two reasons. First, in the sense explained above (2nd paragraph) God is, ultimately, BOTH the what AND the why of our seeking. And second, usually it is precisely the answer to the question “why?” that makes the moral difference between men clear. Why is he going to visit that woman? Because he loves her and wants to propose marriage? or to find a cheap and convenient release for his sexual urges? (This is what St. Anselm refers to when he writes that every act has not only a “what” but also a “why”.)
The difference you are getting at (I think) is more like the difference between a blind urge, which impels, spurs, or prods a person to do something (e.g. the feeling of being hungry), and a genuine motive, which is an objective reason for acting in a certain way (e.g. a perfectly cooked steak). What do you think?
2) Bill says: Not every bad choice is a conscious and explicit choice of self over God.
I answer: True. When we gossip, tell a small lie, fail to speak up when we know we should, and so on, we are commonly not thinking about God. (If we were, we probably wouldn’t do it.) But our stance toward Him, is nevertheless involved in each case. That’s why, if we’re serious about holiness, we confess it as a sin and ask for forgiveness. Even in the case of grave sins, such as adultery, we may not be thinking about God or fully realize the effects they have on our communion with Him. But regardless, a rejection of God is implied and accomplished.
3) Bill says: The “love of self to the contempt of God” is very rare and a sure sign of an advanced stage of corruption.
I answer (along similar lines): It is true that we rarely find this attitude in a fully conscious, explicit and deliberate form. It requires sincere and deep reflection on our own behavior to recognize it (such as Augustine’s famous reflections on stealing a pear from a neighbor’s orchard). There is also the important difference between one bad act, and a vice. In the latter case, it is not just one act but our moral character that is (mal)formed.
Jul. 6, 2009, at 2:51pm
To begin to answer to the question below, let me take a short excursion into metaphysics.
When we examine “Being” philosophically, we see that the first crucial divide is the one between Creator and creatures. On the one hand, Absolute Being, Infinite Perfection, on the other: metaphysical dependence and contingency. No creature can account for its own existence; it was God’s gift. The second most radical divide is between personal and non-personal being. On one side, we have the Absolute Person, God, but also angels and human beings. On the other, all impersonal creatures: animals, plans, rocks and minerals.
I recall once hearing Cardinal Schonborne give a talk on evolution in which he mentioned that the difference between a chimpanzee’s DNA and ours is minimal, but this “insignificant” difference is the abyss between someone who can say I, somethone who can pray, someone who can love another not because of needs, but because of his beauty and goodness. Because man has an immortal soul, every single organ of his body is elevated to a totally different level. This is why an eagle’s superb eye sight does not perceive and therefore cannot contemplate beauty. This is why the amazing sensitivity of dogs to “decibels” does not enable them to be moved to tears by sublime music.
When God created Adam and Eve, He made them kings of creation. They were masters over material nature. Nature was to feed them, and provide for their needs. All impersonal creatures were given to serve human ends (which of course, does not mean that this ownership could not be abused—something which happened, alas, after original sin).
Because of his dignity as a person, man can never be used as a mere instrument, a mere tool whose purpose is to “serve” others, as if he were a lemon that can be squeezed and its rind discarded. This is so true that God respects human freedom—taking the “risk” that men might abuse this freedom.
This was Kant’s great insight when he defined a person as a being who is an end in himself, never to be used as a mere means.
But from this, we should not draw the conclusion that man is his own end. Man, being an imperfect creature cannot be his own “fulfillment”. To be person is to be called to be in communion with others. Animals “flock” together. Man is called to love—which is not an instinct, but a sign of his nobility and capacity to transcend himself. He is called, primarily, to be in communion with His Creator, through adoration, praise, gratitude. He is called upon to “love his neighbors”—persons like himself made to God’s image and existence. By transcending himself, he fully finds himself.
To suppose that man “does not need” anything beside his own being, is to forget that he is but a frail and imperfect creature. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” (St. Augustine, Confession I, 1)