The Personalist Project

Vatican II resolved a theological and philosophical dilemma that had perplexed Catholics since the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars that followed in its wake. We have always believed that our Faith is the One True Faith.  We believe that error and heresy are destructive of individuals and communities; they can't be considered as on par with truth. "Error has no rights" was the way the point was usually expressed.

And yet we also believe in religious liberty. How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory dogmas?

The answer came through the personalist developments in modern thought.  Error has no rights, but conscience does. (Newman put it this way, "Conscience has rights because it has duties.") The locus of liberty is not in dogmas, but in persons.  

The social implication of "freedom of religion" isn't that we have to be pluralists, never mind relativists. We don't have to pretend that heresy is as good as orthodoxy or that all religions are equal. Rather, we have to eschew all coercion in religion and morality. We have to supply persons the spiritual space they need to choose for themselves, in freedom and with integrity. We have to understand that religious and moral truth is something to be proposed, never imposed.

I think personalism similarly holds the key to the dilemma Devra discusses in her post below. We believe and proclaim that Love is unconditional, and yet we also insist that there are terms and conditions involved in living the Christian life. There are such things as excommunication and hell. How can this be?

Personalism has the answer here too, I think. It's this: Love is unconditional, but relationships have terms.

What do I mean?

First, what is love? It is, put simply, a recognition and affirmation of the real being of someone—a response to his or her value. "You are good; it is good that you are." It is a response that manifests in a sincere intention and a commitment to do good for that other.  Von Hildebrand calls this the "intentio benevolentiae" of love. "You deserve goodness; you are owed goodness; therefore I will give you good; I will do you good." He elaborates another feature of love: the intentio unionis, the desire for union with the beloved.

Every true and authentic love has both these features. Wherever and to whatever extent these are missing, we have a deficit of love.

Another thing follows. Intending the good of another entails intending goods in right order, according to their true hierarchy. Mothers let doctors prick their babies with needles, because the good of vaccination against deadly disease outweighs the bad of fleeting pain. We withhold drugs from the addict because we understand that the high he craves does him harm. We refrain from eating the second helping of dessert, because sound health and the virtue of moderation are better for us than the sensual pleasure of too much food. We tell the truth rather than lie to our friend, because we understand that he deserves truth, even if its painful for him and for us. And so on.

The greatest good for persons is to live in a union and communion of love with others—first with God, and second with other human beings.

But that communion is incompatible with sin and harm, with use and abuse. Love makes real demands exactly because it is genuinely concerned with the good of the other; it wants real union with the other.

So, when Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You viper's brood," he isn't being "unloving". Rather he is—out of love—warning them that they are on the path that leads to misery and death. When He says, "If you love me, keep my commands," He isn't setting limits on His love for us, rather he is setting the terms for a relationship of love with Him. We can't be sinful plus intimate with the Holy One.

The same goes in human relationships. The wife who won't allow herself to be battered or belittled or bossed around, isn't failing to show unconditional love. Rather, she's insisting on what it takes to have a real communion of spousal love.

The person who is wronged by injustice shows true love when she insists that the injustice be repaired before the relationship is restored. The abuser  who wants to let bygones be bygones—in other words, let the injustice go unaddressed—is the one who is failing at love, because he is showing a lack of due concern for the true good of the other, as well as himself. Implicitly, what he wants is not communion, but submission.

One of my favorite moments in a movie that's full of great ones—On the Waterfront—takes place on Terry and Edie's first date.  Edie is asking Terry to help her find the truth about who murdered her brother.  Terry wants her to drop the quest.  It's too dangerous. Just let it go; move on; enjoy your life. She won't do it. She needs justice and is imploring his help in getting it. Terry cries out in frustration, "What do you want from me Edie?" She looks at him with passionate intensity and says, "Much more.  Much, much, much more," and runs off in pain at his refusal. The "more" she wants from him is for his own good as well as hers.

Her demands on him set the stage for his redemption.

The conditions she sets for the relationship are the ground rules for real love and communion.

Comments (6)

Sam Roeble

#1, Feb 7, 2014 9:32am

Thanks Katie, On the Waterfront is a good one and very applicable to the ideas of error, freedom, Love, etc.

It's all based on a secret "cover-up", as though peoples' consciences won't bother them.  Edie is right to refuse to be "coerced" into a culture of mob rule and murder--even if everyone's livelihood depends on it! 

The story of king David is similar.  I can imagine him telling Bathsheba: "just forget about Uriah--he died well for Israel--and you will be queen!"  And Bathsheba saying, "you better believe it, and my son will succeed you or else I'll tell Nathan!"

But the difference with David is repentance, which is always within the capacity of a person's decisions right?  Imagine if Obama addressed the nation today: "folks, I am guilty of untold errors: planned parenthood, socialism, gay marriage--I admit to undermining human society and I am truly sorry--from this point I am a changed man and you will see it in my veto/approval of legislation"

The reality is that the world uses coercion, and is unrepentant

Sam Roeble

#2, Feb 7, 2014 9:41am

Another great example is Lewis' That Hideous Strength, particularly the struggling married couple: Mark and Jane Studdock.

Mark's ambition leads him into joining a Nazi-like fellowship, while Jane's independence enables her to meet a good Christian fellowship--but in spite of her marriage.  So, instead of taking her in for their own benefit--Dr. Ransom advises Jane to make a decision with her husband--since Ransom does not utilize coercion like the NICE (who had taken in Mark without question).

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Feb 7, 2014 10:02am

I think you're trying to get at something that I'm not quite understanding, Sam.

I certainly agree that repentance is the way to redemption and healing of broken relationships.  My point is that they can't be healed without repentance and conversion.  And the cause of the breach is unrepented and unaddressed wrong, not a lack of forgiveness or unconditional love.

It's been a long time since I read That Hideous Strength, but generally I find that Lewis, not having lived long enought to benefit from JP II, is somewhat lacking when it comes to an understanding of marriage.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Feb 7, 2014 10:19am

Notice that the Church has terms for marriage.  The spouses must be free to marry; they must freely choose to marry; they must agree to accept children generously; they must promise to love and honor each other until death.

If any of these conditions are lacking, according to the Church, there is no marriage.

Sam Roeble

#5, Feb 7, 2014 11:19am

ah good point.  All those were lacking in the Studdock's relationship--and they were nominal Anglicans.  So, Ransom could have advised her to join the company for the sake of her soul


#6, Feb 8, 2014 3:49pm

Good points, Kati; thank you. We live in a society (liberalism) that thinks religious freedom means simply being able to choose your religion.  But freedom can only be true freedom if there is an objective good to which one can good.  If the "object of choice is not a real good, not grounded in reality, then one cannot be said to be free if he/she "chooses" this non-existent good; it is arbitary.

True religious freedom ultimately means freedom in Christ, the one true objective good of the human person.

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