The Personalist Project

Dignity of the person: theme of the modern period

… the dignity of the human person is written over this period as its objective theme, regardless of how many persons hold the right and valid notion of this dignity and its metaphysical basis. The present period is great, because the struggle that centers around the human person is ultimately a fight engaged under the banner of Christ.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, The New Tower of Babel

We interrupt our posting hiatus to alert readers to the 5th International's Theology of the Body Symposium to be held this June in the Netherlands. I hope to give a talk along the lines I sketched out in a post below, on how John Paul II's Theology of the Body provides a prophetic theological blueprint for overcoming the scourge of clericalism now afflicting the Church.

The problem is bigger and deeper than we typically realize, and it goes far beyond the abuse scandals. Its spiritual roots are in Eden. But it's not hopeless; we are not helpless. And the coming solution will be more beautiful and more fruitful than "eye has yet seen or ear heard." 

You can find the full list of speakers, including several who have written for us over the years, at the website linked above. 

If by chance you plan to attend, please do let us know, so we can look forward to meeting you there.

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 0 cmts
  • print

Some Facebook readers responded to my post calling for a "presumption of veracity" to balance the "presumption of innocence" by objecting that I'm proposing a logical absurdity. It can't be true both that the accused is innocent and that the victim is telling the truth. A presumption of veracity in practice will nullify, not balance the presumption of innocence.

The other day (before Judge Kavanught's accuser came forward publicly) at NRO, Charles Cooke made the same point in response to Senator Dick Durbin, who had tweeted that the vote on Judge Kavanaugh should be postponed in light of the anonymous charge that he committed sexual assault in high school.

If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it is that we must respect and listen to survivors of sexual assault, regardless of the age of those involved or when the alleged attack took place.

Cooke points out that the senator begs the question of Kavanaugh's guilt by using the term "survivor" to designate his anonymous accuser.

It is logically preposterous to (1) recognize that a charge may be entirely false, and (2) demand that we treat the person making it — and the person on the end of it — as if it were proven. 

The difficulty he's expressing, stems from what Wojtyla called "excessive objectivity" in our approach to justice, and persons. He's confusing the objective and subjective realms.

Let me first qualify the point. Cooke is right that it would be logically preposterous to call one and the same crime both alleged and proven. It's one or the other; it can't be both. Therefore, when we're speaking of something objective, like an action or an event, we are right to characterize it as alleged until an investigation or trial establishes the facts one way or the other. As long those facts are in dispute, we do well (in both our formal and informal justice processes) to conscientiously refrain from prejudice.

But the presumptions we are talking about here have to do not with objects, but subjects, persons. The principles we are working to articulate and establish are about how we as individuals and as a society treat  persons—absolutely unique and unrepeatable, self-determining moral agents, who are worthy, always and as such, of respect and care. 

A major problem with our justice system and our moral habits to date is that we have lived and spoken and acted as though the presumption of innocence toward the accused entails an attitude of skepticism toward the victim. We've even treated such skepticism as morally virtuous in ourselves. "Since he's innocent until proven guilty, I'm right to regard her as a liar and a skank and a gold-digger or whatever."

That's not okay.

So what do we do about it? Turning this state of affairs on its head isn't the answer. We can't simply say that since victims have gotten the short end of the stick up till now, it's okay to weight the scales in their favor from here on out. 

It should be obvious to all that we can't fix a system that's skewed toward the accused by skewing it toward the accusers. Do that, and what we'd have is a still-skewed system, an unjust system, a moral climate in which all that's needed to ruin a person's life and career is an allegation of wrong, like in the Soviet Union. Don't like this priest or politician or judge or teacher or boss? Have a vendetta or a sincere conviction that he's on the wrong side of history? Find someone willing to say he abused her once, and he's as good as finished.

The answer, as I argued in my earlier post, is to extend to someone claiming to have suffered abuse a presumption of veracity. That means treating her as we would treat someone telling the truth. It means not attacking her credibility, not shaming her, not blaming her, not humiliating her, not acting like prosecutors hired to prove her a liar. It means meeting her with respect, listening to her, taking her seriously, caring about what becomes of her, making sure she has ample opportunity to make her case, and so on.

The same goes for the accused. Until the facts are duly established, we extend to him a presumption of innocence. Depending on the circumstance, we may decide that there's enough evidence that he has to be taken into custody. But we can still make a point of deeming him innocent until proven guilty. We can treat him with respect and concern about his welfare and his future. We can make sure he has ample means and opportunity to defend himself against the charges, and so on.

We can do both these things. We are capable of treating both accuser and accused with respect and care while the facts are being investigated. It's a matter of attitude, discipline and sound policy. 

A final point:

It's okay to find fault with acts and modes and practices in the objective realm. That is, we can criticize the way an allegation is made or handled or used in public without attacking the victim. In the Kavanaugh case now in the news, we can decry, for instance, Diane Feinstein's handling of the matter. We don't owe her a presumption of veracity or sincerity or even-handedness in such politically-charged circumstances. We can also characterize the public allegations as, say, too vague and uncorroborated, untimely, and unprovable to justly derail the career of a man with an otherwise unblemished reputation. We can do that without minimizing the event or discrediting the person making the charges. 

Anyway, let's try. It would get us a long way toward a more just and civil society.

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 0 cmts
  • print

I keep thinking about the present crisis in the Church and the wider society in personalist terms—especially in terms of the master/slave dynamic. 

Today I'm ruminating on that time-honored, bedrock legal principle "innocent until proven guilty." The Pope invoked it last week in response to those pressing him to act on a recent allegation.

Francis was asked about a petition calling for the resignation of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, who is facing criminal prosecution for allegedly failing to act on a case of abuse.

The pope deflected part of the question and never mentioned Barbarin. He said that if there are “suspicions, evidence or half-evidence,” there’s nothing wrong with launching an investigation, but always upholding the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty.

He's right that it's really important to keep in mind that not everyone who's accused is guilty. I recall a particular case I read about in the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report that came out several years ago. There was a graphic account of a priest molesting an altar boy in the sacristy after morning mass. It was stomach-churning. But later it came out that the priest had been serving at a completely different parish at the time. His alibi was rock solid. It also came out that the young man in question had a history of mental illness and bogus claims. The priest was innocent.

False accusations are a real problem. In the last few years alone, we've seen case after case in the news of women lying about having been raped (see here and here and here, for examples), or blacks and gays and hispanics staging hate crimes against themselves. It's horrible. Innocent people are unjustly maligned, law enforcement's time and money is wasted, social tensions are exacerbated, and, maybe worst, we all get that much more skeptical toward real victims.

That's one problem, but there's a bigger one on the flip side only now coming to light. Between the abuse scandals and the #metoo movement, we're waking up to the fact that  part of the injustice victims suffer is that they're too often not believed. To tell what happened to you is to be accused of lying, or dismissed because it's a "he said, she said" thing. Especially if there's a power differential involved, you might get instructed not to cause scandal, or find yourself accused of pushing an agenda or of having been seductive or manipulative or out for money, or whatever. Your story is denied or doubted or minimized or covered-up. Often your reputation is smeared too, blatantly or discretely. "She wanted it" or "pray for her; she's got issues."

Another case from the Philadelphia grand jury report haunts me. A young boy told his father that a priest had molested him, and in response his father beat him nearly unconscious for having a dirty mind. "Priests don't do that!"

I remember with misery that many years ago, when I was editor for an opinion journal at Francisican U., a man I was in email contact with (he was studying online for an MA in theology) told me that he'd "uncovered a ring of homosexual priests in St. Louis." My spontaneous reaction was to cut him off. I assumed he was some kind of nutcase pervert. I wanted nothing further to do with him. Only years later did I learn (from reading the book Sacrilege) that there was, in fact, a ring of homosexual priests in St. Louis. I've wondered ever since how many other "good Catholics" slammed their doors in his face when he tried to tell them the truth.

Think how many of us (including St. John Paul II) took it for granted for years that Maciel's accusers were liars attacking the Church. Imagine what that must have been like for those men. First they're abused by a priest they'd been taught to revere as a saint. Their lives are ruined, and then, when they work up the courage to report what happened to them (for the sake of preventing further abuses), they're spurned as enemies of the Church by pious Catholics the world over. 

Several friends have shared personal stories with me that follow the pattern. They're abused, and then they're blamed. Countless victims never tell their stories because they're too sure they won't be believed. A typical tactic of abusers is to tell their victim: "No one will believe you." Often, to say you were sexually abused is to be presumed mentally ill.

I myself have never been molested, but I've been abused in other ways by Catholic men in power and then "shut down" in ways big and small when I tried to tell my story. Not only was I not heard, I was presumed culpable. I must be exaggerating. Or I must have been partly responsible. "There are always two sides to these stories." Many people—former friends and family even—explicitly preferred not to know what had happened to me. They seemed to think it was virtuous to assume everyone involved meant well and the whole thing must have been no worse than a misunderstanding. When I pressed for truth and justice, I was "corrected" and judged bitter and unforgiving. 

For me, this was a worse suffering than the original abuse. So, I recognize the silencing pattern from my own experience. I understand how victims come to decide that it's better for them not to say anything. To speak up is to invite further abuse.

I just read an article in Crux, about what the Church is learning by paying closer attention to victims:

The president of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection said most of the victims of clergy sexual abuse whom he has met primarily want the Church hierarchy to listen to them and understand the depth of their suffering.

“All concur in this, that the most important single element in a possible healing process, is being really listened to … all say this is the starting point,” Jesuit Father Hans Zollner told The Catholic Weekly, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, during an interview in late August.

I'm glad he said, "starting point," since listening isn't the same as seeing to it that justice is done. Still, it's an indispensable first step.

In light of all this, I'd say there's a problem with the "innocent till proven guilty" principle, wouldn't you? It gives abusers a moral and legal edge over their victims. It means, in practical effect, that unless a victim can prove her case, she's assumed to be lying or exaggerating or hysterical or whatever. He's assumed to be innocent.

I don't favor tossing that principle out. It's too important. It's especially important for mitigating the power differential between the State and the individual.  What I propose, rather, is that we balance it in both law and custom with a new and complementary principle: A presumption of veracity on the part of victims.

What I mean by that is that we make a careful point of not approaching those who claim to have suffered abuse with skepticism. Rather, we should begin by assuming they're sincere. We should listen to them as we would to someone telling the truth—not "what they imagine," but what actually happened to them. We should ask them the kind of questions we'd ask someone who was simply telling the truth.

So, no questions that subtly suggest blame on their part or doubt on ours: "Were you drinking?" or "What were you wearing?" or "Do you think you're maybe overreacting?" or "Are you sure he wasn't just trying to be nice?" 

Instead we should ask things like, "Are you okay?" or "How can I help?" "Tell me what happened." We should offer support and sympathy, not skepticism. Our efforts to get more information should be motivated first and foremost by a desire for truth and justice, not the urge to poke holes in her account.

A couple of points in closing:

1. I'm talking about victims, not any and all accusers. I mean that the "presumption of veracity" needn't extend to anyone who utters a charge at whatever remove from the event. So, for instance, Archbishop Vigano does not claim to be the victim of abuse. Rather, his accusations are based on what he's heard from others or what he suspects, not what he experienced personally.

2. A presumption of veracity doesn't mean we have to keep believing the victim no matter what emerges from an investigation. Just as a trial can establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, despite the presumption of innocence, a proper investigation can uncover false allegations and establish innocence, despite the presumption of veracity of the part of the accuser. The stories of false accusations linked above offer concrete examples of how it happens. 

The presumption of innocence is a necessary corrective to the power differential between the state and the individual. The presumption of veracity is a much-needed corrective to the power differential between abuser and his (or her) victims. It should be conscientiously woven into our response to injustice on both a personal and a societal level. It should be codified in ecclesiastical and secular law.

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 3 cmts
  • print

The American lay faithful are feeling both frustrated and galvanized. The scales have fallen from our eyes. We see clearly now that the status quo in the Church is unacceptable. Relations between the clergy and the laity are completely dysfunctional, and we're part of the problem. We have been acting like co-dependents, not properly self-standing adults. We've been living our Catholic life as if the classical definition of clericalism is the truth of the gospel: The clergy are to own all the property and make all the decisions, while the laity are to "pay, pray and obey."

No wonder abuse is endemic.

Happily, the status quo is not the gospel. Rather, I propose, it's a cultural relic of a particular period in history—a set of "human precepts," if you like—radically out of step with both modern developments and the original vision of Christianity. The developments I have in mind are expounded in our What We Mean By Personalism essay. They are rooted in a new and deeper appreciation of the dignity of the person as an absolutely unique and self-determining subject. They were embraced by the Church at Vatican II, magnificently explicated across the great papacy of John Paul II, and confirmed in their organic continuity with Tradition by Benedict XVI.

They have implications for relations between the laity and the clergy that we have yet to realize in practice. 

I suggested in an earlier post that the deep theological inspiration for the kind of reform I have in mind is to be found in the Church's teaching on marriage, especially JP II's Theology of the Body. I'll try to lay all that out more fully in future posts. For the moment, I want to focus on practical steps we can take in the here and now. We don't have to wait for the bishops or the Pope to act.

Like all true reforms, what I'm envisioning is a return to the beginning.

Check out this passage in Acts, chapter 6.

1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Note several key particulars:

1. There is a clear and abiding difference between the apostles and the disciples, or, in today's terms, between the clergy and the laity. The two groups have distinct and complementary roles within the Church. (I'm not advocating spiritual androgyny here.)

2. The laity are asked to take on new responsibilities, because priests need relief from administrative duties. All the time and energy they have to offer is wanted for  "prayer and the ministry of the word of God": saying mass, hearing confessions, preaching the gospel, etc. The management of the practical affairs of the local body of believers, on the other hand, is plainly within the competence of the laity. We're capable of assessing needs, collecting funds, and distributing resources appropriately. We can manage charitable works, educational and enrichment programs, outreach initiatives of every kind and variety. As individuals, as adults, as baptized and confirmed, we have the power! Some of us (not me personally) even have particular gifts and training and experience in those areas.

3. The "seven men" were elected by the laity, not appointed by the apostles. There are important personalist principles embedded in that simple historical fact and apostolic example.

There is an implicit recognition on the part of the apostles that the laity are in a better position to choose good leaders "from among themselves", because they know each other. They know who is "full of wisdom and the Spirit." Trust is built on personal relationships tested over time and in various social contexts. The Apostles have been busy traveling from place to place preaching the gospel and setting up churches. They lack due familiarity with the local community. 

The "seven" are chosen to be representatives of the local faithful, not arms of the Apostles. Right relations require reciprocity and mutual respect, in contrast with the master/slave dynamic of the fall. We're meant to be regarded as co-responsible agents of Christ's redemptive work in the world, not the objects of the clergy's action. The Christian and personal dignity of the disciples is practically acknowledged in their being given the right and responsibility to choose their leaders by vote. Our not having a vote (as in the status quo) is at odds with that dignity. (Someone will point out that we elect members to the parish advisory council. In reply I'd note that an advisory council is not a decision-making body. So, not the same thing. At all.) 

4. The Apostles agree to hand over responsibility. Again, the "seven" are not mere deputies. They're to have actual authority. And that means the clergy have to let it go. They have to stop thinking it's their job to control everything. For one thing, they can't. The mission of the Church is infinitely vast and complex, and they are mere mortals, plus very small in number. (If I had the time and know-how, I would draw an analogy here between the notorious dysfunction of "command economies," where all the decisions are in the hands of a few elites, in comparison with the efficiency and wealth-creating power of free-market economies. Maybe someone else can do it. The bottom line is that the wider freedom and responsibility are spread, the more vibrant and fruitful the enterprise can be. 

As Pope Francis frequently says: It's past time for the Church to move from "maintenance to mission." It will never happen unless we unleash the laity

5. The proposal "pleased the whole group." The mood of the group went from a state of grumbling and tension to a state of peace and eager hopefulness. (Wouldn't that be lovely?)

6. They presented the men to the Apostles, who laid hands on them. The action indicates mutual openness, harmony, and dialogue. The clergy and the laity are "deferring to one another in Christ," like spouses do in marriage. Their way of relating to each other has nothing like the competitive, adversarial tone typical of, say, negotiations between labor unions and management. But neither does it resemble the top-down hierarchical relations of a military operation, or of marriages under Sharia law, where the wife is, as a matter of law and custom, socially beneath her husband. We are aiming for a true "union and communion of persons," which is to say, love.

7. Finally, in the "laying on of hands," the new role of the laity, practical and administrative as it is, is recognized by all as an integral part of the Church's mission. The power to fulfill it well will come from the Holy Spirit, not human talent and effort merely. 

I'll save my practical proposal for moving from where we are to where we ought to be for the next post. Here I just want to begin to show that it's possible, it's called for, and it's going to be great, even if rather messy at first. (Didn't Pope Francis call for us "make messes" in our parishes?)

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 0 cmts
  • print

When Pope Benedict resigned, many conservatives in the Church expressed worry over the precedent. He was exposing the papacy to the danger of political factions pressuring popes to resign. Some speculated that he himself must be resigning because of the intrigue surrounding the Vatileaks scandal (with which, I recall, Bishop Vigano was involved.) 

The Pope Emeritus responded (Jules reminded me yesterday) by saying this would have been impermissible. A pope should never resign because he's being pressured, but only from a place of deep peace and confidence in God's will. [My bold]

I said while it was still happening – I believe it was to you – that one is not permitted to step back when things are going wrong, but only when things are at peace. I could resign because calm had returned to this situation. It was not a case of retreating under pressure or feeling that things couldn’t be coped with.

...the moment had – thanks to be God – a sense of having overcome the difficulties and a mood of peace. A mood in which one really could confidently pass the reins over to the next person.

Now they're doing it. I mean a faction of conservatives is pressuring the Pope to resign. And on incredibly small grounds: a single accusation that "he knew" that Cardinal McCarrick had been guilty of sexual crimes against seminarians. 

Consider, friends: John Paul II "knew" that Maciel was guilty. That is to say, he knew he'd been accused. Does it follow that he didn't care about the sexual abuse of minors or Maciel's double life? No. It means he didn't believe the accusations. People lie. In the atheistic, communist regime where Wojtyla had lived for decades, false accusations were a routine tactic for destroying the reputations of good priests. So, John Paul II looks at the Legion and sees doctrinal orthodoxy, burgeoning vocations, thousands of eager, enthusiastic devotees all over the world, "good fruit" out the wazoo. He listens to Maciel sorrowfully noting that Christ, too, had been betrayed by his disciples, and asking him to pray for his accusers. And he believed him. He declared Maciel "an efficacious guide to youth."

He was horribly wrong about that, but he wasn't guilty of "covering up" crimes.

Bishop Vigano may be sincere in his accusations. It's possible he's telling the truth as he sees it and expressing genuine distress over the state of the Church, just as the authors of the Dubia were. Let's stipulate that he did tell Pope Francis in 2013 that Cardinal McCarrick had "corrupted generations of seminarians."

Maybe the Pope didn't believe him. Maybe Bishop Vigano has a reputation in the Pope's inner circle for being a loose canon, or for being part of the same group of arch-conservative malcontents (as he sees it) that have been undermining his papacy from the beginning. So, he may have taken what Vigano said with more than a large grain of salt. Whether the Pope was right in that assessment is a separate question. (The tone and quality of the letter give reason for thinking the bishop is apt to exaggerate.) What matters in terms of his being guilty of evilly covering up crimes is what the Pope believed.

Consider this too. If the Pope believes that there is a group of too-narrow and rigid conservatives in the Church opposing his priorities and undermining his authority as Vicar of Christ, this letter can now displace the Dubia as Exhibit A. 

Just look at what's happened. The Church is bitterly divided. American conservative faithful are up in arms. They are full of anger and mistrust of the Holy Father. Some are petitioning him and demanding he take action, as if they were his constituents. Why? Because—as I read the situation—they judge the ecclesial scene through the lens of the conservative/liberal cultural and doctrinal battle that has roiled the Church since Vatican II. They see the Pope as a liberal. (He clearly is a liberal in some respects.) They suspect him of wanting to change or "water down" Church teaching. They are confirmed in their suspicions by conservative prelates and opinion-makers they've always looked to as the "good guys" in the Church, like Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Chaput, and Philip Lawler. So, when those guys say Bishop Vigano's letter is credible, they believe it.

I'm not belittling this view. It's held sincerely by many of my friends, who love the Church and are genuinely upset by what's going on. But it's a deeply problematic view.


- None of us knows more than a tiny fraction of what happens in the Vatican. We don't know the characters or circumstances involved; we don't know the history or the background. We have no way of weighing the Pope's actions and inactions justly. 

- The Legion scandal, plus several others implicating conservative groups and institutions in the Church, should have put paid forever to the idea that doctrinal orthodoxy and cultural traditionalism are guarantees of true faith and moral uprightness.

- Similarly, we should know by now that liberals are sometimes right. Even people who have lost their faith may be telling the truth, while conservative prelates are lying.

- Even conservative prelates and opinion-makers who are true believers and excellent men of virtue may be wrong in their judgments. (It happens, as I've tried to show, that I think they are wrong in their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis generally.)

- Being liberal in certain respects (such as emphasizing issues like poverty, immigration and the environment) doesn't mean being "anti-Church." (Take Dorothy DayArchbishop Romero and Fr. Brochero for examples of "left-leaning" saints.) It doesn't entail wanting to water down doctrine. Nor does it have the same color and flavor in all times and places. We might be liberals too, if we'd been raised under a right-wing dictatorship in South or Central America. 

Throughout ecclesial history there have been holy men and women on both sides of political issues and even doctrinal disputes. Every human perspective, valid as it may be, is limited; Catholic Truth and plenitude transcend it. This should make us modest in our opinions and slow in condemning others'.

Maybe most importantly, please consider how odd and inconsistent it is for doctrinal conservatives to be opposing the Pope, who is and always has been and always will be, according to the unchanging teachings of our Faith, the objective center of unity in the Catholic Church. We should have more faith in the protection of the Holy Spirit.

It's not wrong to worry about the Pope. It's not wrong to disagree with him outside the areas of faith and morals. No one is bound to love his way of conducting his office. It's right to ask him to take action against bad bishops. It's good pray for him. It's okay to think he's made mistakes and to wish he'd do things differently. 

It's not okay oppose him or pressure him to resign.  He's not a political leader; he's the Vicar of Christ on earth.

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 4 cmts
  • print