The Personalist Project

[Laypeople] should not be regarded as “collaborators” of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really “co-responsible” for the Church’s being and acting. It is therefore important that a mature and committed laity be consolidated, which can make its own specific contribution to the ecclesial mission...

Pope Benedict spoke these words last August--but any Pope speaks so very many words that some of them invariably get lost in the shuffle.  Happily, Al Kresta recalled this passage to us at a recent conference called “Catholic Witness in a Nation Divided.”

I have seldom heard so many meaty, substantial, satisfying talks in one place, or been part of a more deeply engaged audience.  More than 600 people gathered for an all-day conference, all pulled together between the day after Election Day

and last weekend.

The conference focused on four areas—religious freedom, immigration, marriage, and life issues—but through a particular lens: not a political, or a structural-reform, or a culture-war lens, but (though Al didn’t use the word), a personalist one.  He dubbed the conference a “Declaration of Responsibility.”

There was no political strategizing, no finger-pointing

—unless you count the one pointed back at yourself and your own “household of faith.”

How to confront this new phase in American history?  We’ve already tried (and tried, and tried) throwing up our hands and demanding “Why doesn’t Bishop A do B?” or lamenting “If only Candidate X would do Y!” 

The results have been underwhelming.  The individual, Al noted, is left feeling as if “my life is in somebody else’s hands.”  Forty percent of weekly-Mass-going Catholics still voted for a candidate who championed (not tolerated, championed) the intrinsic evils of abortion and “gay marriage.”  Something seems deeply wrong within our own household of faith, and within our own hearts.

Countless Catholics are suffering from the kind of clerical mindset that leaves more passive laypeople feeling like helpless casualties of unwise decisions by higher-ups

and more zealous ones like irate but ineffectual backseat drivers to their own priests and bishops.

 Benedict’s point could be broadened to encourage people of all faiths to look less to politicians, mega-institutions, and laws, and more to mediating institutions and--ultimately--to themselves.

“When you have a sense of personal mission,” Al pointed out, “you can overcome tremendous obstacles.”  When you don’t, you’re easy prey to discouragement-induced paralysis.


Let’s make sure we understand what this approach does and doesn’t mean.

  • It doesn’t mean abandoning public life: it’s just clear that we need to get our own house in order (“build the Church, bless the nation,” was the conference’s subtitle). 
  • Nor is it a species of defeatism.  It’s true, Al reminded us, that there’s no promise that our country will endure until the end of time.  We do, however, have it on good authority that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.  And it’s not the gates of hell, he pointed out, that are on the offensive.

           We’re a battering ram,

not an inert target.  We’ve seen, with the fall of the Soviet Union, how the right battering ram can knock down the gates of a seemingly indestructible and permanent structure of evil.

  • Nothing against national politics and large institutions.  They’re very relevant to our mission as persons.  (There was some lively discussion, though, on alternatives to the large, well-funded, deeply compromised Catholic institutions that certainly don’t look to be the wave of the future).  But excessive attention to politics and institutions can very easily eclipse the persons for whose sake they exist.

So if this new approach is neither despair nor isolationism nor anti-institutionalism, just what is it?  What is this curious new methodology?

In fact, it’s nothing strange, and it’s certainly nothing new.  You can find it in the Second Vatican Council, and, long before that, you can find it in the prescient writings of St. Josemaria Escriva.  And long before that, you can find it in the lives of the first Christians. 
In fact, the old idea that the laity’s job is to “pay, pray, and obey” is the aberration.  Here’s how Al puts the crux of the issue:

The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that most Catholics still don’t see their lives as one of intentional discipleship. This is why so many operate without a sense of divine purpose in their lives....I think...most Catholics have never been encouraged to take responsibility for their mission according to the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay Peopleespecially par. 7. They have never considered what spiritual gifts they’ve received as a result of baptism and confirmation nor how they can use those gifts for the building up of the body...

So there you have it: my hopes of distilling the conference into a blogpost, dashed.   I have every intention of addressing the actual talks next time, though, especially the ones on marriage and immigration.

Stay tuned! 

Comments (3)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jan 16, 2013 10:24am

Oh man, does this ring true:

Countless Catholics are suffering from the kind of clerical mindset that leaves more passive laypeople feeling like helpless casualties of unwise decisions by higher-ups and more zealous ones like irate but ineffectual backseat drivers to their own priests and bishops.

I recently got in an online argument with a fellow Catholic who was complaining bitterly about the failure of the bishops.  I reminded him that we the laity, too, are to blame for the state of our culture.  He replied, "What power do we have that we haven't used?"  I said, "Why, the power to move mountains.  The power to become saints."

I am totally convinced that we feel powerless because we are busy trying to get other people to do what we think they should do, rather than attending to that "personal terrain" that is our actual responsibility.

Other people's terrain looks so much easier to manage.

Devra Torres

#2, Jan 16, 2013 4:41pm

An interesting point was made during the conference: part of the reason many schools, universities, and large Catholic organizations are so deeply compromised is that when so many laypeople fail to live according to the Faith, it's harder to staff institutions with people who understand and are committed to the Catholic mission of the institution.  

There are heads and presidents who make terrible decisions--the point is not to absolve people in authority who really have done great harm.  But that would matter much less if we laypeople made a greater effort to be faithful and took more initiative.  (I definitely accuse myself here, too--as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find that my reaction to the bishops' call to prayer and fasting was an immediate attempt to weasel out of it!)

One big difference between the late seventies, when my family became Catholic, and now, is the tons of wonderful, lay-run institutions that have sprung up, including schools, colleges, radio stations, crisis pregnancy centers...

I do think it's unfortunate when people talk about today's corageous bishops as if they were responsible for everything that every confused, malformed, long-retired bishop did in the last few decades.

Devra Torres

#3, Jan 16, 2013 4:51pm

Another interesting angle (maybe I should just forget longwinded comments and do another blogpost instead!) is the interaction between real leaders and laypeople (or just citizens of a country).  One crystal-clear example: Bl. John Paul II and the workers of Solidarnosc: they both inspired each other.  Another is bishops like Dolan and Chaput and the laypeople who are organizing "We will not comply" campaigns.  I heard Fr. John Riccardo speak the other day about the difference between the experience of saying Mass with an engaged congregation made up of people who appeared happy to be there and one made up of people who just seemed to be going through the motions.  He compared it to a football team playing in their home stadium before a friendly crowd, or else on the other guys' turf with no encouragement.  It's not just that they feel happier; they can play better and can do more.  But as soon as one party presumes himself helpless because of what the other party is or isn't doing, both can end up in paralysis.

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