The Personalist Project

Privilege is usually discussed in terms of race, income, class, gender, etc. However, I found myself thinking about a different sort of privilege recently when a friend, a convert, tried to share a bit of her past with a friend of hers on Facebook. She replied to a post about Planned Parenthood with an account of her time interning in an abortion clinic, describing the kinds of interactions and dialogue that helped her make her journey from proabortion to prolife. While the public response was muted, she was attacked in private messages as an “accessory to murder.”

The acquaintances who attacked her found it impossible to believe that she had really acted out of goodwill and concern for women during the time she spent at the clinic—one lambasted her over her failure to immediately recognize abortion as murder: “It’s just so obvious. How could you?” Having never suffered a qualm of doubt over the righteousness of the prolife position, the writer could not wrap her mind around how prochoice reasoning had once attracted my friend. Her very virtue in this particular arena fueled her lack of mercy to the testimony of a repentant convert. She had, I think, a form of privilege that made it hard for her to understand the struggles others face—virtue privilege.

I’ve heard similar stories from women who have had (and repented) past abortions, from those who have left behind a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, from chaste individuals who identify as gay, from individuals recovering from broken marriages.  Depressed people are reluctant to discuss their struggles with suicidal despair for fear of the lecture about the evils of despair that is sure to follow. Those of us who are blessed by upbringing, temperament, environment or circumstances to have never had an inclination to one or another sin or set of sins can so easily take unearned credit for our ‘virtues’ or disparage those who lack what we never had to work overmuch to attain.

I’m not sure how useful the idea of privilege is in furthering discussion. It is not likely to be useful at all if it is used primarily to silence the “privileged,” which is how it has occasionally been used. But it seems to me that the usual purpose to pointing out privilege, of whatever type, is an intensely personalistic one—the intention is to make someone conscious of the subjectivity of those whose lives, experiences, and norms differ from their own. Awareness of the ways in which we are formed by our environment, upbringing, and social roles can remind us not to project on to those around us.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collecter, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

The idea of virtue privilege may be especially relevant to those of us who are cradle Catholics. Being raised in the faith has not made me especially immune to temptation, but it does give me a particular advantage in recognizing sin—or at least, certain sins—when they are encountered, and gives me access to the graces to resist sin and recover when I succumb. This is, after all, the primary function of the Church—to teach us how to be like Christ, and to give us the graces we need to pursue that goal.

Privilege, we are told, is typically invisible to those who benefit from it. The child of wealth may underestimate his own advantages while struggling to establish himself as an entrepreneur. He knows the hours he has put in to his business and prides himself on his success when so many others fail. Having struggled, he fails to recognize the role his connections and capital have had in his victories. Likewise, those of us who have been steeped in the graces and wisdom of the Church for years may fail to recognize how those very graces have eased our path—that as hard as we have struggled (for everyone struggles), we have had unearned riches to draw upon along our way. 

But maybe I need not invent a new term to counter hard-heartedness towards those who fall because they lacked the graces, knowledge, or advantages of temperament which I enjoy. Perhaps I only need to call upon a somewhat older response to the sins and struggles of others, a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, of petition for the future, and of solidarity with the fallen. Perhaps what is needed is that I, and all of us, remember: There but for the grace of God go I.

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