The Personalist Project

Saintly actions: admirable, but not imitable

We utter something deeper than we realize when we say of such acts that they are admirable, but not imitable. They are not generalizable, universalizable. They are good; indeed, they are the best of all moral acts. But they are good only for him who does them. We are here very far from the Kantian universal with its morality defined as the possibility of making the maxim of an act into a law for all men.

Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent

Let's suppose our parish had had a mature and well-functioning lay association of the faithful when the Covid crisis hit. What might have been different?

By mature and well-functioning, I mean one that comprises the large majority of active parish members, who (thanks to it) know one another and relate to each other regularly in all manner of extra-liturgical capacities. Members know who their elected leaders are and how to reach them. They have at least a general idea of who has what resources and abilities. (This couple has a large farm that can be used for open air gatherings; that woman runs the food pantry; Maria is practically the matriarch of the entire hispanic community among us; Bob, who heads the hospital ministry, knows who's sick; there are at least several doctors in the parish, a number of lawyers, and various people who work in local government. Joe is a wiz at data analysis. The in-house web guru can easily set up a new page at our site for Corona-related news and information...) The association has legal recognition, a governing structure, a bank account and budget, and handy vehicles of communication. Maybe it even has a building with offices and meeting rooms both large and small.

Think how much better prepared such an association would be to meet the needs of the local community in a pandemic than the newly-installed Archbishop in the city an hour's drive away, or the local pastor for that matter. He's maxed-out trying to figure out how to live-stream masses, get the sacraments to the dying without spreading the disease, field complaints, keep up with and implement diocesan mandates for sanitizing the facilities, etc. He has no time for anything else.

The potential of the association, though, is boundless. Here are some things it might have been able to do:

1) Post up-to-the-minute information about how many cases of the disease are in the parish, helping us all understand whether what measure and policies we might need to adopt are about containment or prevention.

2) Have a website platform for identifying concrete needs in our community: who's sick; who's out of work; who's grieving; how many of us are in the vulnerable category?

3) Coordinate ways of meeting those needs. For instance, the association's building might serve as a temporarily warehouse for dropping off and distributing key supplies. Its kitchen might ramp up its free meal service. With many members temporarily out of work, new modes of volunteering can burgeon: Zoom English lessons, for instance. A prayer ministry. Or a phone ministry for keeping in touch with people who are suffering from loneliness and fear and isolation.

4) Establish a committee to work with the priest and to propose ways of getting the Sacraments to people without violating government mandates. Open air masses maybe, or private masses in the meeting center with a rotating list of attendees, so we don't violate social distancing mandates and the diocese won't be legally liable if an outbreak occurs.

5) Establish a committee for outreach to the wider community: offering prayer, food, errand-running service for shut-ins, ways of bringing cheer to those cut off in nursing homes, etc.

6) Have an online forum for raising concerns, offering suggestions, debating issues, etc. Create a web page for sharing testimonies of God's work among us, of answered prayers, of spiritual resources...

The list could be extended infinitely, because the gifts, charisms, ingenuity, creativity and generosity of the faithful are infinite. But they have to be unleashed, and they have to be recognized, gathered, organized, and channelled, if they're to be experienced and effective.

I could write about how this imaginative picture contrasts with the awfulness of the status quo, but readers know that already from their own experience.

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To get a better idea of how a parish lay association might work in practice, let's think concretely. Consider a common situation: Fewer priests means one of the regular masses at a given parish has to be dropped. How does "which" get decided? 

I've seen it done two ways. 

In our parish, the new pastor simply made the decision and announced it. Parishioners were not consulted in advance, nor were we invited to offer feedback about it afterwards. There was a sort of impression in the air that to object would be unreasonable and unfair. You can't expect fewer priests to keep up the old schedule, and no matter what they decided some people were going to be unhappy about it, so the only thing to do is to accept it patiently and pray for more vocations. Give the overworked, harried priests a break.

Neither, as far as I can tell, was there any coordination with other local parishes. As a result, at least a half dozen Catholic churches within easy driving distance of our home have a daily mass at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. None has one in the evening. So, area Catholics whose schedules won't allow them to get to morning mass are out of luck.

Another pastor I know took a different approach. He made an announcement to his congregation that they were going to have to drop one of the Sunday masses, and asked for their input about which. He took the time and trouble to draw up and distribute a survey on the question. He was a bit taken aback by how little response he got, but he took what came into prayerful consideration and then made the best decision he could. 

What he got was a public demonstration, instigated by a nun in residence, who had said nothing to him about the issue in advance. She deemed his decision to drop one of the Spanish masses an outrage against the immigrant minority. She organized a protest outside the church, complete with signs and slogans decrying the injustice and demanding that the mass be restored to the schedule.

The pastor felt hurt and alienated. He had gone the extra mile in trying to include everyone in the decision-making process, and this was the thanks he got. Who could blame him if he were to draw the lesson that it's pointless to spend time and energy consulting the laity? 

A man who worked for my in-laws' business for decades has been volunteering for the Church in his retirement. He told us on a recent visit over coffee that it takes some getting used to. "Look, your father was always open to ideas, but we all understood that he was the boss. He made a decision, and boom, it got done. Here the pastor has to listen to a long story from this one, then long story on the other side of the issue from that one, then three or four other people have to chime in with tangents or problems or perspectives, and it goes on and on. It takes forever to get anything done, because he can't just make a decision." He wasn't blaming the priest. He understood that there are important human and religious values at stake. A good pastor doesn't want to act like a boss. He genuinely wants to listen and be receptive to his flock. But still. It's maddeningly impractical.

Now imagine there's a lay association of the faithful in the parish. It’s got a governing structure, elected leaders, a vehicle of communication, a budget, regular meetings with minutes and Roberts Rules, etc. How would a situation like this play out? Here’s how:

Seeing that the priests of the parish are overburdened, the Pastor judges that the mass schedule will have to be reduced. He approaches the elected head of the lay association. “We’re going to have cut out one of the Sunday masses. Can you help me decide which one?” “Sure, Father. Give me to the end of the month, and I’ll get back to you with the consensus.” 

He or she then raises the issue at the next regular business meeting. Someone moves to appoint a committee to host a discussion, gather views, and conduct a vote. That gets approved and accomplished. A notice about it is posted at the association website. Opinions are solicited and freely aired. There’s a lively back and forth online. In due course, a “group conscience” vote is taken, and the head of the association brings its results to the Pastor. Not everyone is thrilled with the outcome of course, but they accept it willingly because they know everyone had a chance to weigh in, and each one’s vote counted as much as anyone else’s. Meanwhile, the pastor didn’t have to expend an ounce energy on the issue. No one complains to him about the outcome, because everyone understands he wasn’t responsible for it. Rather, he accepted the duly-established consensus of the people.

Picture something similar over things like when to have the church open, whether to have perpetual adoration, what the terms are for use of the parish hall, whether to have an atrium, etc.

Let the laity take over everything that falls within the competence of the laity. Let the priests concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word. Everyone will be so much happier. 

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We are already members of our parishes. Why add a lay association? Wouldn't that be redundant at best, competitive and divisive at worst?

No, on the contrary. I believe such associations are, in truth, the prerequisite for our fulfillment and fertility as a body of believers. Think:

Marriage is the essence and image of Love itself. It's the earthly image of the Holy Trinity; it's the prime biblical image for the Church. The Church is the Bride of Christ. The priest, in persona Christi, is called stand in a spousal relation to the people of God. That means that people of God are called to be his complementary opposite, his companion, his equal, not his subordinates, not his peons, as Pope Benedict put it in the passage I quoted in the post below.

Keep in mind, we're talking about corporate subjectivity here. We're not meant to live spousally with the priest as individuals, obviously. That would be adulterous.

John Paul II stressed the mystery of the priesthood as a communal reality with the bishop as its head. The laity, too, I propose, are meant to live and relate to our priests as a communal reality, a corporate person. It's that corporate person who locally forms the spouse of the local priesthood. 

Let's go briefly to Genesis. (A close analysis of Genesis was the ground and source of JP II's Theology of the Body, on which I'm basing my proposal.) Remember that in the 2nd creation account, Adam was alone, which God said wasn't good. So what did God do? He put Adam into a deep sleep. Then he withdrew one of his ribs, and from that He created Eve.

Two key points here: 1) God's work of creating Eve was a work of separating-out-from and making distinct. Employing the terms of modern psychology, we could call it an act of "individuation." She had been a part of Adam, now she was to be her own full person.  2) Adam was asleep while she was being created. He had no hand in creating her. Rather, when he woke, he recognized her as a gift from God meant to be his helpmate and companion. "At last! Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone."  

As I see it, this is the moment we're at in the Church. The priesthood is effectively alone in "cultivating the earth." He's functioning. He can relate to God, do some gardening and assign names to the beasts. But he's not really flourishing, he's not fruitful, and it's not good. He needs Eve, and we are Eve. We need (under grace) to separate ourselves out from the clericalist structure of the hierarchy and form ourselves into a whole, embodied, communal person.

We won't be starting from scratch (or dust). The core of our identity comes from the heart of the Church. It's always been implicitly present, but until now it's lacked full form. It's time to give it form. 

And that work can't be done by the priests. It can only be done by the Holy Spirit working in and through us and our subjectivity, which is to say, our free agency.

A dependent child comes of age through self-differentiation and self-assertion. She begins to see and take responsibility for the boundaries between her and her parents. "I am not them. I am making my own decisions for myself and my life." Likewise, a heretofore dependent laity is being called now to stand on our own two feet, to become who we are in Christ.

I said in an earlier post that right now the laity are like a soul without a body. We're ghostly, ephemeral, unreal, not present to ourselves, not able to act in and upon the world, not visible and relatable as a distinct other to our priests. We need to change that.

And that means we need structure. We need form, embodiment. A lay association of the faithful can give us those.

Consider this analogy: America used to be nothing more than a collection of colonies in a geographical region, with common and competing interests, ideas, desires and impulses. To become "one nation, under God," we needed the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and then the Constitutional Convention. We needed the Bill of Rights. We needed to establish in law and custom basic principles like separation of powers and federalism.

Or this one: Two separate individuals become one through marriage. It's a sacrament, but it's also an institution and a legal entity with rights and duties and terms recognized by the wider society. That's how a collection of individuals becomes a union, a corporate person. We freely establish ourselves together as one.

This is essentially what I'm proposing: that the laity of each parish form themselves into a distinct people.

In future posts, I'll lay out what I see as the essential elements involved.

This post from last year has more on the same theme, viz. the need to move toward reciprocity in relations between priesthood and laity. This one too.

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One of my favorite Bible passages since college, when I first became a prophet of doom, is from Haggai, chapter 2, verses 6-9:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: "In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory," says the Lord Almighty. "The silver is mine and the gold is mine," declares the Lord Almighty. "The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house," says the Lord Almighty. "And in this place I will grant peace," declares the Lord Almighty. 

Unlike prophets proper, I don't receive direct "words from God." Rather, I see principles, structures, and dynamics, together with their ineluctable implications. I see what's false and bad vs. what's true and good in the here and now. And I see what's coming from those.

Two basic motives drive my irresistible urge to "cry aloud and spare not": a desire to warn people I care about against error and wrong "while there is still time" and a high confidence in the goodness waiting in the wings to take its place.

I've been saying for at least two years that the status quo in the Church is collapsing. Parish life as we've always known it won't continue, because it can't. We don't have enough priests; there isn't enough money; it doesn't make sense in our day; it doesn't meet our real needs; it doesn't reflect modern developments, values, and sensibilities. It's a largely sterile cultural relic. (I'm talking about the structure here, not the Liturgy!) Increasing numbers of the lay faithful won't stand for it. They will gradually stop paying and even stop attending. The especially devout will keep going to get the sacraments, but they'll be disaffected and disengaged, or else burnt out and joyless. Our ecclesial experience will be less and less like the early Church we read about in Acts

But we don't have to be depressed or alarmed. We are a resurrection people! There is every reason to hope and believe that the glory of the new structure will surpass the glory of the former.

So what is this new structure I'm envisioning? How do we bring it about? Where do we begin? 

I'll tell you: The laity of every Catholic parish should form an association of the faithful. 

It sounds anticlimactic, I know. Stick with me. Let me explain, then sit with the idea for a while. Let it sink in. Later we can fill in the practical elements in a collaborative way.

First let me say what the biggest obstacles to right reform are. Two things: inertia and fear of wrong reform. The inertia we can't do much about right now. People generally won't change until there's no avoiding it. Part of it is just lack of imagination. They're comfortable enough, and they can't picture the what and how of change. That's okay. Time and events will take care of that obstacle.

The bigger problem is fear. Good Catholics have legitimate reasons for being afraid that the kind of change I'm talking about will be more destructive than beneficial. Those who remember the iconoclastic aftermath of Vatican II will be anticipating disaster. They're worried about doctrinal dissent. They're picturing laymen pretending to say mass. Or, like commenter Rhett below, they'll be concerned about the kind of factionalism and endless splintering that afflicts Protestantism. Lack of concentrated authority always leads to chaos, doesn't it?

I have some points to help allay that fear.

1. Keep in mind the marriage analogy. The authority/submission model of marriage (later refuted by JP II) I was taught in college was justified on the same practical principle: "Mutual submission" sounds nice in theory, the teachers of authority/submission would say, but in the end it doesn't work. "Somebody has to be in charge." 

But that turned out not to be true. I won't go into it here; I'll just say that the experience of couples the world over proves the opposite. Marriages flourish when they operate under the model laid out in the Theology of the Body. Mutual submission leads to a conjugal culture of peace, respect, happiness, abundance—the opposite of the disorder and discord predicted by its critics. 

We can expect the same at the parish level. If we reimagine and restructure parish life according to the marriage model laid out in the Theology of the Body, the result will be  a more harmonious, rewarding and fruitful communion of reciprocal love among the people of God. Of course tensions will arise. Even the best-conceived unions don't eradicate the human condition. But we can minimize the bad and maximize the good. We can develop methods for resolving problems that will generally yield more justice and peace than we have now, just like spouses in a healthy, loving marriage do.

2) There are identifiable differences between right and wrong reform.

We can look at the French Revolution and say, "Revolutions lead to disaster! Avoid them at all costs!" Or we can compare it to the American Revolution. We can analyze the differences between the two and try to understand why one led to evil and the other to good. We can likewise compare the ecclesial reforms of, say, Luther and St. Francis and discern why one brought about renewal and the other dissolution. 

When it comes to reform in our day and age, the 50+ years since Vatican II have included a huge amount of trial and error. We've learned a lot about what works and doesn't work; which movements and communities succeed and why others go off the rails. That experience can serve as a reservoir of wisdom as we proceed. 

I won't try to be exhaustive here, but will give a few examples to make what I mean more concrete. 

A) Good reform involves a going back to the beginning, a rediscovery of the original sources. Bad reform abandons those.

B) Good ecclesial reform holds fast to the Deposit of Faith; it reveres the divinely-give authority of the Chair of Peter and Vicar of Christ; it's about organic development. Bad reform abandons those; it's about rupture.

C) Good reform incorporates both the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching: subsidiarity and solidarity. Bad reform usually favors one at the expense of the other. It brings about unity by enforcing conformity, say. Or it gets so enamored of "welcoming" all comers that it loses its identity.

D) Good reform reflects and embodies a sound anthropology. It treats persons as free and responsible embodied subjects, individuals-made-for-communion, as fallen and imperfect, as redeemable, etc. It rejects utopianism and manichaeism and pelagianism and racism and communism and authoritarianism, and so on. Bad reform falls into one or another of such basic, notable anthropological errors.

E) Good reform is conscientiously informed by history; bad reform nihilistically rejects history.

F) Good reform is established in a body of good documents, laws, policies, rites, traditions, etc. that are freely endorsed, enacted and upheld by its members. Bad reform is typically lawless, or else its laws too arbitrary and changeable to serve. Often they are rooted in a cult of personality. That person's will serves as the authority for the group.

G) Good reform is transparent; it appeals to reason; it respects freedom. Bad reform typically involves secrecy. Its funds and leadership, for instance, are unaccountable. Its adherents are kept in line through guilt and shame.

H) Good reform is animated by a good spirit—a spirit of love, joy, hope, trust, confidence, peace, justice, etc. Bad reform is animated by a bad spirit—a spirit of pride, resentment, envy, bitterness, fear, defection, etc. 

I could go on, but won't for now. I'm just sketching to give a general idea of what's possible.

3) The reform I'm talking about is already provided for in the doctrines, history, and teachings of the Church. It's on solid ground anthropologically, scripturally, theologically, historically, and catechetically. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, and successive popes encourage the people of God to form lay associations. Examples:

CCC 900 Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth. 

From the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 215 The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.

Here is John Paul II in an encyclical on the laity:

[I]n modern times such lay groups have received a special stimulus, resulting in the birth and spread of a multiplicity of group forms: associations, groups, communities, movements. We can speak of a new era of group endeavors of the lay faithful. In fact, “alongside the traditional forming of associations, and at times coming from their very roots, movements and new sodalities have sprouted, with a specific feature and purpose, so great is the richness and the versatility of resources that the Holy Spirit nourishes in the ecclesial community, and so great is the capacity of initiative and the generosity of our lay people.”

Here is Pope Benedict XVI speaking to fellow bishops on the related topic of clericalism:

The lack of consciousness of belonging to God’s faithful people as servants, and not masters, can lead us to one of the temptations that is most damaging to the missionary outreach that we are called to promote: clericalism, which ends up as a caricature of the vocation we have received. A failure to realize that the mission belongs to the entire Church, and not to the individual priest or bishop, limits the horizon, and even worse, stifles all the initiatives that the Spirit may be awakening in our midst. Let us be clear about this. The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees. They don’t have to parrot back whatever we say. “Clericalism, far from giving impetus to various contributions and proposals, gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belong to all the faithful people of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, 9-14), not only to the few chosen and enlightened.”[2] 

And here is one of Pope Francis' biographers writing of a seminal conference that articulated some the central themes of his future papacy:

The San Miguel Declaration saw the people as active agents of their own history; startlingly, it asserted that ‘the activity of the Church should not only be oriented toward the people, but also derive primarily from the people.’

Reader, I have collected pages and pages of such quotations. In a way, I've been studying this issue my whole adult life. I've learned some things. I know whereof I speak, and I am full of confidence. But I've said enough for now. This post is getting too long. I'll save the rest for future posts. I'll end this one by going back to where I started, Haggai, chapter 2:

Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 

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I've spilled a lot of virtual ink over the years trying to persuade fellow American conservative Catholics that they misunderstand Pope Francis. He's not the kind of leftist they imagine him to be. They are judging him too much through the lens of the political divide in our country, rather than on his own terms—terms that were formed in 20th century Latin America, where "right wing" meant something very different from what it means to us. It involved luxury and juntas, for instance. It entailed defending social injustices. It meant standing with and for the rich and powerful against the poor and oppressed. 

Now I wish I could do the reverse. I wish I could persuade Pope Francis that he misunderstands American Catholic conservatives. He is judging us too much through the lens of his Latin American and European experiences, rather than on our own terms, where "rightwing" means not protecting power and privilege, but standing up for life and marriage, for individual rights, for the objectivity of truth, free exercise of religion and things like that against the elites in power, who are working hard to replace the American system that has served so well for so long with a neomarxist ideological regime that has wrought violence and evil throughout the world since the French Revolution. In the American Church, left-leaning Catholics often use the cover of "social justice" and the vocabulary of "compassion" to align with secular elites to press for changes in the moral teachings of the Church—changes that we see lead exactly to the "throwaway culture" the Pope rightly deplores.

I get that there are nuances. Jorge Bergoglio sympathized with the cause of the left, but he rejected Marxism. At personal cost, he opposed the liberation theology that was all the rage among his fellow Argentine Jesuits. Instead he subscribed to a school of thought that went by the name of Theology of the People—a theology that I hope one day to show is almost exactly parallel to John Paul II's Theology of the Body. The difference is that while the late pope focused on the intimate union of marriage in opposing the master/slave dynamic to a reciprocal communion of self-giving love, the present Pope focuses on large social structures. On that level, he too seeks to replace a master/slave dynamic with a dynamic of reciprocity, of mutual service and enrichment.

Anyway, just as there is a range and gamut on the left that goes from Robespierre and Lenin all the way to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day, there's a range and gamut of type and opinion on the right. We have our extremists and bad guys as well as our saints. We have our characteristic short-comings, our rigid legalists, our bigots and authoritarians who have to be deplored. But, in general, we're not who Pope seems to think we are. Nor is the left as benign as the he seems to think it is, to judge by many of his words, acts and gestures. (I'm thinking, for instance, of his making a personal call to the bishop who got on his knees in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.)

I wish he would see that. But whether he does or not, when it comes to matters outside the Faith, it's up to us to stand for what seems to us right and true, even if it means opposing a bishop or the Pope.

P.S. For the record, I oppose the Black Lives Matter movement for the same reason Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed the Black Panthers. King saw that social justice can only be established on personalist grounds, i.e. on the ground of love, non-violence, and respect for individual rights. BLM, like its predecessors orgs. Black Panthers and Black Power is rooted in identity politics that reduces individuals to units in a class. It then justifies violence against the oppressor class. It's an evil movement that has fooled a lot of good and sincere people into supporting it, imo.

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