The Personalist Project

Chapter 3 of Amoris Laetitia reviews the Church's teaching (including especially post-conciliar developments) on marriage as an indissoluble "communion of life and love." It's familiar territory to me. And I'm taking mental note as I go: the word "mutual" comes up often—mutual self-giving, mutual love, mutual commitment, mutual belonging—the word "headship" not at all. I'll say it again:  There is no support in post-conciliar Church teaching for the headship/submission model of marriage, which, lamentably, some Catholics still preach and teach. 

I'll say more. I think that that "headship" teaching is directly contrary to the what "the spirit is saying to the churches" in our day.

1) It stresses the practical subordination of woman, when the Church wants to stress her dignity and equality. 

2) It focuses on external forms at a moment when the Church is directing our attention to interiority.

3) It prescribes roles and conformism, in the face of the Church's call for greater respect for freedom and individuality.

The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons. (71)

The term "persons" has developed in the theological and philosophical tradition to denote subjectivity and individuality-in-relationship, as distinct from, say, "man" which refers to the human nature we hold in common. So, whereas humanism is about the nature of man as species in the cosmos, personalism is about the unique subjectivity and agency of the individual as an individual. To be more concrete: A humanistic view of abortion will emphasize the dignity of man as a rational animal, a creature with intelligence and free will; a personalist approach will focus on the dignity of each child as a unique and irrepeatable self. A humanistic approach to marriage will naturally stress its procreative end; a personalist approach centers rather on love, mutual self-donation, vocation.

These are complementary aspects of the same reality. But the Church has unquestionably  taken a deliberate personalist turn in since the Council—not (of course!) in a such a way that anything true in what she has taught before is lost, but in a way that put "person" (i.e. uniqueness, subjectivity, interiority) in the center of her attention. Three reasons for this turn:

1) It compensates for what Wojtyla excessively "cosmological" tendency in the tradition. (See his seminal essay "Subjectivity and the Irreducible in Man" for more on this point and the next.)

2) Especially when it comes to questions of faith and morals, our reality as persons—subjects—holds a certain priority over "mere" objectivity (again, it's not a priority that does away with objectivity; rather it helps us grasp it rightly. Think of the way the soul has priority over the body when it comes to knowing a person, and love has priority over the law when it comes to morality.)

3) It is the theme of our age. Here is then-Cardinal Wojtyla, in a letter to theologian Henri de Lubac:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person.

And here is von Hildebrand: 

… 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. 

If we want to understand the Church's teaching on marriage in its depth and fullness, we have to understand it personalistically. And we have to decisively reject outmoded and de-personalizing headship/submission teachings, however plausible and pious they may appear.

That's what I'm thinking as I'm reading paragraphs 58-75. The paragraphs after address "imperfect situations." I'll take those up separately.

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Comments (7)

Peggy Burgoyne

#1, Jun 11, 2016 10:20pm

Instead of rejecting a teaching of the Church we should see it through a different lens. Headship is an easily abused teaching.  Conservatives romanticize it and liberals dismiss it.  I wish it (like limbo) would be clarified by the post Vatican II Church.  An encyclical specifically on the role of men would be helpful. 

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 11, 2016 10:25pm

Peggy, do you see me rejecting a teaching of the Church?

My claim is rather that "headship" (i.e. the headship/submission model of marriage taught by many groups and individuals) is precisely not the teaching the of the Church. I claim that the the Church (at least since Vatican II) herself has consistently rejected that interpretation of Ephesians 5.

If you think I'm wrong, could you provide evidence from Church documents in support of your position?

Sam Roeble

#3, Jun 14, 2016 1:31pm

I agree with Peggy that an encyclical is needed concerning men. 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 14, 2016 9:07pm

I don't see the need myself. I agree with what the Pope has said—following JP II—viz., that the work of correcting historical injustices against women is still incomplete. (Apropos of that: I'm so thrilled about his publicly honoring Mary Magdalen as "the Apostle to the Apostles" and upgrading her feast day to be on a level with theirs!)

But I freely admit it's usual for me not to see what the Church needs until after it's already been provided. (I never noticed anything lacking in the treatment of women, for example, until JP II wrote his encyclical and letter on the subject.) So, if a Pope were to issue an encyclical on men, I'm sure I'd come to agree with you that it was needed. 

Regarding your point about the diaconate, I think I don't get it. There is no question that Christ and his ordained ministers, as such, have authority in the Church. The question (and I don't think it really IS a question anymore) is whether husbands have authority over their wives. My claim is that post-conciliar Church teaching on marriage indicates that they don't, except in the same sense that their wives also have authority over them (i.e. the authority that comes from belonging to one another and being responsible for one another).

Peggy Burgoyne

#5, Jul 3, 2016 9:24pm

Hi Katie,

Apologies for the delay in responding.  That within marriage husbands are the "head" and wives are the "heart" or "body" has been part of catholic teaching and tradition. If I'm understanding you correctly, you don't disagree with that,  just the idea of what is commonly understood as "headship."  I also don't like the term for that reason. 

Post Vatican II the Church has moved away from that language, but throwing out the scripture-based analogy seems hasty. Complementarity of the sexes and mutual submission don't necessarily challenge the analogy but bring deeper meaning to it. Maybe we agree here.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 3, 2016 11:22pm

Thanks, Peggy. We're at least very close to each other, I think, if not in complete agreement.

I don't think there has been anything hasty about the Church's developing understanding of marriage. And it's not the head/heart analogy that's been rejected, but rather a particular interpretation of Ephesians, according to which the husband has authority over his wife. That interpretation, too, has been part of Catholic teaching and tradition, but it's been superseded in recent decades by a deeper (more personalist) understanding. (Thank you, St. Pope John Paul!)

You're right that that understanding does not preclude a genuine difference and complementarity between the sexes.  I like the head/heart analogy a lot, provided the heart is understood to be a spiritual faculty, on par with reason and will, not subordinate to them.

Sam Roeble

#7, Oct 14, 2016 10:28am

Katie van Schaijik wrote:

You're right that that understanding does not preclude a genuine difference and complementarity between the sexes.

 I highly recommend the work of Dr. Deborah Savage on "Masculine Genius", in addition to her insistence on complementarity as mission.  IMO, it's crucial for Catholics to appreciate both the "feminine genius" identified by JPII in MD, and the "masculine genius" identified by Dr. Savage.  Together, these can help us combat the gender confusion in the world, but also live mutual submission and complementarity with renewed understanding and respect.

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