The Personalist Project

This section of the exhortation is headed: "The tenderness of an embrace".

I've noted several times before (see here, for instance) that "tenderness" is a favorite term of Pope Francis's. It was the theme of one of his very first papal exhortations: "Do not be afraid of tenderness!"

In paragraphs 28 - 30 of Amoris Laetitia he elaborates, dwelling on the image of a mother nursing her child, and teaching again that family is the prime image of the Holy Trinity and of God's intimate care for us.

I feel him setting up the problem. Or, maybe better to say: I sense a problem and hope he will address it in what follows. Though I can see and exult in the ideal, it is a sad fact that many, many people do not experience tenderness in family life. They experience, rather, the hardness, rejection, abuse, and abandonment that the Holy Father deplores as the very opposite of tenderness. 

12-step programs use the term "higher power" because so many of its members have painful and problematic associations from childhood with "Father" or "God", whom they have learned to fear and dread as the one who shames and punishes—or to grieve and resent because of his absence. For an alarming number, the thought of family evokes nothing like warmth and trust and security.

Reading a book on recovery from trauma recently (by a woman who is convinced that trauma is "the great mission field of the 21st century), I found this hair-raising report from a Protestant pastor working in a South American town: "All the men in my town are alcoholics, no exceptions. All the husbands beat their wives, no exceptions. All the fathers sleep with their daughters, no exceptions."

Where does one begin in such a society? How will talk of the family as the Image of God's tender loving kindness sound to their ears?

And what about the less extreme cases—cases where children experience severity and/or emotional neglect at home? Where parents are maybe not physically abusive, but still domineering, dismissive, or emotionally distant? Husbands and wives speak derisively to and of each other; children are scorned by their closest relatives. Such families not only fail to live up to the ideal, they deeply injure and deform their members. Children of grow up spiritually malnourished or worse. And, unless they find help and healing, they will repeat the pattern. In place of a life-giving communion of love, we have generational strife, co-dependency, and dysfunction.

The Holy Father holds the suffering of the whole world in his heart. He must know and see all this.

In paragraph 30, he notes that the Holy Family, too, had its experience of hardship:

Every family should look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Its daily life had its share of burdens and even nightmares, as when they met with Herod’s implacable violence.

But—I'm thinking as I read—that was violence from outside, not violence within the family, not violence from the family. I trust he will address this question issue eventually, and meanwhile, he offers this consoling reminder:

The treasury of Mary’s heart also contains the experiences of every family, which she cherishes. For this reason, she can help us understand the meaning of these experiences and to hear the message God wishes to communicate through the life of our families.

And so we come to Chapter 2: The Experiences and Challenges of Families

He begins with a plain statement of fact:

The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church.

Then he sets out on a sort of "fearless moral inventory" of the state of the family today, again stressing the importance of the concrete.

In the experience of contemporary man, he finds both goods and bads. He notes the dramatic "cultural and anthropological" changes of modernity that have led, for instance to "a greater emphasis on personal communication between spouses"—a genuine good, under-appreciated in some circles—but also to a weakening of "social structures" that used to support family life. (Think of Fiddler on the Roof: There was little in the way of "personal communication" between Tevya and his wife; there was poverty and hardship; but there was much security in the traditions that governed the way of life in their early 20th century Russian Jewish village life. Historical forces and modern sensibilities disrupted all that—for good and ill.)

The Pope laments individualism and consumerism, with their associated weakening of family bonds. And then he mentions personalism explicitly, including both praise and caution:

We also encounter widespread uncertainty and ambiguity. For example, we rightly value a personalism that opts for authenticity as opposed to mere conformity. While this can favour spontaneity and a better use of people’s talents, if misdirected it can foster attitudes of constant suspicion, fear of commitment, self-centredness and arrogance. Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others.

I'm with him entirely here. While personalism is radically opposed to "mere conformism" and all tendencies to reduce individuals to their social roles, if it is understood (as it is in some places) as being "all about" individual authenticity, then it is "misdirected" and stunting. A full Christian personalism must hold (in Vatican II's formulation) both that persons are created "for their own sake" and that they fulfill themselves through "a sincere gift of self."

If individual liberty is prized to the point that we eschew commitment and sacrifice, it degenerates into license, egotism, and meaninglessness.

True personalism stands for both the individual and communal dimensions of human life, for freedom and truth, for self-ownership and self-donation, for individual authenticity and concern for others...

Ok. More soon.


Comments (3)

Sam Roeble

#1, Apr 18, 2016 2:22pm

Thanks for highlighting this quote, it's classic JPII!  Francis is largely drawing from JPII here: The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church.

"The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family"--Familiaris Consortio Paragraph #75

Sam Roeble

#2, May 26, 2016 12:31pm

Should man be God-centered or man-centered?

Katie van Schaijik

#3, May 26, 2016 1:00pm

Sam, please spell out the meaning of this question as it relates to this post more fully.

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?