Katie van Schaijik

Testing for soundness in relationships

Aug. 21 at 8:44am

I don't know if I can call it the number one lesson of my adulthood to date, but it's up there. I have learned that individuals and groups who seem to be wonderful may actually be badly mired in dysfunction, that is to say, unsound. An unsound group or individual can't manage right interpersonal relations, just as an unsound physical structure can't support weight. No matter how noble their aim and how good and sincere their intentions, they will spread harm and injustice.

Take the Covenant Communiites of the '80s. Take the Legion of Christ. These are my go-to examples, because they're such clear-cut, out-there cases of abusiveness disguised as holiness. Both groups were full of sincere, faith-filled individuals. Both professed orthodoxy and adherence to the Church. For decades they looked for all the world like ideal Christian communities, until the wretched disorder at their center came to light, followed by a flood of heart-wrenching stories of terrible damage done in countless lives.

I've encountered many cases that were less thorough-going, but still deeply probematic: groups, insititutions and apostolates staffed with sincerely religious people working on great causes, but disorded in one way or another, so that innocent parties ended up badly injured and bitterly disillusioned.

The same is true of families. It seems every week I come across a new story, like this one: A prominent, apparently exemplary Christian family—leaders in this or that ministry—turns out to be harboring sex offenders or embezzling funds, and covering up evil of one kind or another. Associates or members of the family who try to raise concerns are marginalized and pressured to keep quiet, shunned for "gossip" or "unforgiveness" or "emotional problems." I am thinking, too, of all the instances of parents trying to get justice for children molested by priests being admonished by diocescan officials to keep silent lest they "bring scandal" on the Church.

The same is true of individuals. Remember Robert Hanssen, the father-of-six Opus Dei, FBI double agent? Remember Bruce Ritter?

Rev. Bruce Ritter (February 25, 1927 – October 7, 1999) was a Catholic priest and one-time Franciscan friar who founded the charity Covenant Housein 1972 for homeless teenagers. By the 1980s, it had grown to an $87 million agency, operating numerous large centers in New York and six other major United States cities, as well as locations in Toronto, Canada and Latin America.

In 1990 Ritter was forced to resign from Covenant House after widespread reports that he had engaged in sexual relations with several youth in the care of the charity, and had financial improprieties in the operations of the organization.

Recently I learned from my daughter of a large, prominent Catholic family where she used to go to school. It's just come out that the father is a bigamist. All these years, he had a second family, and no one knew.

There are less extreme cases too, of course—cases of people, who while obviously good and devout on one level are basically unsound on another. It's sobering for me to realize how often I've been wrong about people I thought I knew—people on whose Christian maturity I thought I could rely, only to discover belatedly that they had character issues of the kind that make all but superficial relations practically impossible. To be close to them is to be ill-used. To object to ill-usage is to be blamed for selfishness or arrogance or lack of charity, or what have you.

I've learned that part of the problem is in me. I've been too undiscerning and "boundaryless". An ardent longing for the warmth and closeness of friendship and the stimulation and support of true community has led me to draw too close too soon and entrust too much of myself—my time, my emotional energy, and my money—in people who turn out to be incapable of the reciprocity of authentic friendship. And I've had unsoundnesses of my own, which have led to the ruin of more than one promising relationship.

It's been a costly education, but I'm glad I've had it.

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7)

It goes without saying, I hope, that none of us is perfect. We all fall short. We all commit sins. We all do things daily that offend God and hurt even the people we love most. But we also know through faith and experience that there is a remedy for this: We can take responsibility for our bad acts and omissions; we feel and show contrition for the wrongs we've done and the pain we have inflicted; we can apologize sincerely to the one(s) we've harmed, and we can do our best to make amends. This should be a normal part of the Christian life.

I've learned, though, that there are many Christians—even seemingly exemplary Christians in influential positions engaged in worthwhile apostolates—who don't do this, who even seem unable to do it. They can grant the general principle that they're sinners and that they have faults. But they evidently can't bear the humliation of owning their actual, concrete wrongs. When they are charged with wrong, they respond with denial, anger, self-pity, and accusation. 

Whatever their culpability (which is for God, not me to judge), the result is unsoundess. Injustice goes unaddressed; wounds fester; and spiritual infection spreads.

It was true in the Legion; it was true in the Covenant Communities. It's true all over the place.

So, over the years I've learned to keep my distance from dysfunction, and I've developed a fail-safe test for detecting it.

Observe: How does the person or group respond to good-faith criticism?

Do they

A) receive it humbly? Do they ask themselves whether it's true, because they want to know if it's true? Do they apologize sincerely? Do they offer amends? or,

B) deflect it? Do they treat it as "attack" or persecution? Do they accuse their critics of "problems"—bitterness, envy, uncharity, whatever?

If the answer is A, you have a winner. This is a person or group that can be relied on to do justice, or at least to seek justice. It's not perfect (since it's human), but it's basically sound and healthy.

If the answer is B, you are looking at dysfunction. It's best to disengage. Do not send money, do not spend energy, do not lend public support. (Public support for groups that are habitually unjust is salt in the wounds of the people they have harmed. Think of how painful John Paul II's embrace of Maciel was for Maciel's victims. Think what it was like for people whose lives were wrecked in Covenant Community to see its leaders being extolled by bishops.)

Now, some notes to qualify.

1) To work properly, this test can't be administered artificially. That is to say, you can't just come up with something to criticize, so you can see how criticism is handled. You have to wait until you have a genuine concern—something that really worries or upsets you. You have to be aware—deeply and truly aware—that you are criticizing in good faith, out of a desire to do good or stop harm. This means, among other things, that real intimacy takes time. It is unwise to trust a person or group with much of yourself and what is precious to you until the relationship has undergone and passed this test.

2) The criticism must be warranted. Some "criticism" is in itself out of bounds. It calls for a rebuke. If my neighbor were to look over my fence and preach to me about spending money on perrenials that I could have given to the poor, I'd be perfectly right to say, "Back off; it's none of your beeswax" (or words to that effect.)

Unless we're especially close to another person, or in a position of objective superiority over her (she's our young child, or our student, say), we trespass when we issue corrections of her moral being or her prudential choices. We're always out of bounds when we intrude without call on the sovereign territory of another's subjectivity.

The criticism I have in mind with this test is different in kind; it is "situated" in the objective, interpersonal realm. It has to do with acts and omissions that affect others. "This is what you did, or I suspect you did. This is the law you broke, or the boundary you crossed. Here is the evidence; here is the damage done; what have you got to say to me?" In such a case, the right response is never, "How dare you question my integrity?!" or "Who do you think you are to accuse me?!" or "I don't understand why you would attack this great work of God I'm doing" or "Nobody's perfect" or "You are not handling this the way you should" or "You have problems too." The right response always involves an implicit, humble recognition of the fact that it is all too likely that I crossed a line, since I'm a sinner with lots of faults and blind spots. It involves an awareness that the one who brings my wrong to my attention does me a service and deserves my respect and gratitude. And it involves an honest, unshrinking look at both objective reality and individual claiming to have been harmed by me. 

3) This test works even if the criticism you have turns out to be wrong, objectively. Imagine, for instance, that you begin to suspect that your supervisor at the non-profit where you work is embezzling funds. It is starting to make you sick with worry. You wait; you pray; you finally decide to approach him with your worry and your evidence. And it turns out that there is a perfectly innocent (true) explanation for what had looked unethical to you. You can still learn all you need to know from how he responds to your approach. Did he get angry or self-pitying? Did he condescend? Did he attack your character and competence? Or did he express gratitude for your sincere intention to protect the integrity of the organization and your straight-forwardness in approaching him directly? Did he show you the exonerating evidence willingly, or did he just demand that he be trusted? Was there humility and kindliness in his attitude, or was it all pride, self-righteousness, and indignation?

4)  It takes some time to grade this test. Often a person's initial reaction to criticism is defensive, but after he's reflected, he changes his tune. "I'm sorry I was so defensive. I know you were trying to help. And, thinking it over, I see that you're right."

5) This test can be self-administered. I mean, we can (and should) use it to check our own soundness. Most of us, being human and growing up in an imperfect world, have spongy spots in our character. We have areas of our life that we regard, practically speaking, as above criticism. Someone challenges us in that area, and we react badly. Or we have particular relationships that are afflicted with dysfunction. Until much too late in life, for instance, I wasn't really open to criticism from my children. If they criticized me, I typically responded by reprimanding them for disrespect. Part of what helped me get over this was Jules saying, on more than one emotionally fraught occasion, with his characteristic calm, "I think he (or she) has a point." I had to learn (to my intense chagrin) that being the mother doesn't mean always being in the right, and that being Jules' wife doesn't mean he's bound to back me up no matter what I do. Sometimes, he needs to defend our kids from my wrong.

Ask yourself sincerely: How do I handle honest criticism? Do I accept it or deflect it? Do I view it as help or as an attack? Do I make excuses for myself or do I apologize, from my heart, for real wrong done? (Not just in the confessional, but to the face of the one I've hurt?) Generally speaking, do I feel contrition? Or do I only feel injured because I've been accused? If I can't remember the last time I really owned and acknowledged mistreatment of another person, I should realize that it suggests that I am either a saint or afflicted with unsoundness. (And, be honest, which is more likely?) It may be time for a "fearless moral inventory."

6) "Disengaging" doesn't mean blowing off; it doesn't mean seeking vengeance or stewing in bitterness. It's not indifference; it's not incompatible with Christian charity or with the command to forgive. Rather, it's like the "shake the dust from your sandals" of the New Testament. It is a recognition of the real. For whatever reason, at this time, this person or group is unable or unwilling to receive what you have to offer and make a due return. Therefore, move on, and spend your energies elsewhere. 

7) "Dysfunctional" and "unsound" don't mean "irredeemable" or "unforgiveable." Nor do they mean "no good." If there were not lots of good to be found in the Legion, the Church would have condemned it outright. Instead, she's working to help it reform. Same goes for the Communities. I have in mind, too, the much milder case of an apostolate I supported financially until recently. It's a great cause with a lot of nice people working for it. But it did some bad work, and when that was pointed out by many supporters, instead of issuing an apology and making a course correction, the leadership responded by closing ranks, touting the Christian devotion and heroism of its staff, and attacking its critics for their lack of charity. Later, that same leadership expressed shock and dismay over the fact that donations are down sharply. My hope for this group is not that they are destroyed, but that they are reformed. In any case, unless and until they reform, my support will be going elsewhere.

Why do I bring all this up? I bring it up because I see dysfunctional interpersonal relations as one of the central problems and challenges of our time.

I said in an earlier post that persons are made for communion. We suffer without it, and we suffer when it's disordered or badly done. 

In his Letters from Lake Como, Romano Guardini reflected on the implications for the person of the perishing of the "old world" that had formerly rooted and shaped his existence and his relationships. That world is gone. In its place something new is arising. Accordingly, our way of being must be new. He goes so far as to call for a new form of humanity:

A new humanity must emerge of more profound intelligence, new freedom, new inwardness, new form, new ability to give form.

I propose that the task of "giving new form" applies first and foremost to our way of relating ourselves to ourselves and others. The old, dysfunctional forms have to go.


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