The Personalist Project

I began this critique before word came that the author had been asked to resign from his post as theological consultant to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. I'm going to publish it anyway, at the risk of seeming to kick a man when he's down, because I hear Catholic friends speaking of his firing as if it were ominous—proof that "darkness is taking over," that "truth is being suppressed."  

We shouldn't forget that Fr. Weinandy's opinion isn't Truth; it's just his opinion, and it hasn't been suppressed. Rather, it's been deemed incompatible with his position as a theological consultant to the USCCB. 

Of course it has. The US Bishops can't employ as a theological consultant a priest who publicly berates the Pope—accusing him of fostering sin and error—anymore than they can employ a theological consultant who openly dissents from the teaching of the Church.

Maybe a closer examination of the contents of the letter will make the point clearer.

Fr. Weinandy begins by professing his respect for the Pope's office, and immediately a red flag goes up for me. The reverence (which is something more than respect) we owe the Pope is not to his office—not to a position or a set of functions—but to a person, the person of the Holy Father.

Then he slips in a kind of elision. "The Church turns to you in a spirit of faith, with the hope that you will guide her in love," discretely suggesting—as I read it—that the Pope has disappointed the hopes of the faithful on that score.

Next, he gets more explicit, blaming the Pope for causing "chronic confusion" and "growing unease" among the faithful. But when I look around it seems to me that it's not the faithful generally who are confused and uneasy, but only a particular (and very small) set of the faithful, vis. the doctrinely-focused conservative set. They seem to be upset that the Pope is not conforming to their preferred style of papal leadership. He is not ratifying their mode and their views. Rather, unsettlingly (intolerably?), he seems to be calling them into question. The great majority of Catholics seem perfectly happy with Pope Francis. He reminds them of Jesus.

Fr. Weinandy's first concrete charge is that Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8 appears to be "intentionally ambiguous"—framed to foster error, rather than dispel it. (!) Yet, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Jesus, too, was not infrequently "intentionally ambiguous." Ambiguity has its crucial religious uses.

Suppose, for instance, that among the particular "errors" the Pope is concerned with in that section of the exhortation is one that is not doctrinal in nature, but moral. Suppose that he wants to address the problem of legalism in our approach to messy human situations. Can he "dispel" a legalistic tendency by a minute clarification of the law? No. On the contrary, to clarify the law at the insistence of legalists would only serve to  increase the bad spiritual tendency afflicting them. It would confirm them in their habits of thinking that 1) the issue at hand can be settled on the level of the law, and 2) they are on the side of truth and right, when in fact, they are thinking and behaving like pharisees.

I'll quote the next paragraph in full:

Second, too often your manner seems to demean the importance of Church doctrine. Again and again you portray doctrine as dead and bookish, and far from the pastoral concerns of everyday life. Your critics have been accused, in your own words, of making doctrine an ideology. But it is precisely Christian doctrine – including the fine distinctions made with regard to central beliefs like the Trinitarian nature of God; the nature and purpose of the Church; the Incarnation; the Redemption; and the sacraments – that frees people from worldly ideologies and assures that they are actually preaching and teaching the authentic, life-giving Gospel. Those who devalue the doctrines of the Church separate themselves from Jesus, the author of truth. What they then possess, and can only possess, is an ideology – one that conforms to the world of sin and death.

Setting aside its shocking brazenness (who is he to lecture the Vicar of Christ?!), is this a just criticism? It doesn't seem so to me. I don't hear Pope Francis demeaning doctrine, only rebuking the doctrinaire. He chastises those who treat Catholic doctrine in a dead, bookish way, as well as those who treat our faith as if it were primarily a matter of preserving and expounding correct doctrine. Would Fr. Weinandy deny that Catholics can be doctrinaire? Would he deny that it's even something like an occupational hazard among scholars and a negative tendency among conservatives generally, in the same way laxity is a negative tendency among liberals? 

I think it obviously is. Further, I think Fr. Weinandy provides an example of the hazard and tendency in this very paragraph, when he asserts that it is "precisely Christian doctrine" that "frees us from worldly ideologies." Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but I find the formulation odd and telling. It's not doctrine that frees us, it's the Holy Spirit—a person, not a set of teachings. We're not redeemed by true ideas; we're redeemed by a personal encounter with grace. Of course lived faith  entails the profession of sound doctrine, but it's not mainly that, never mind reducible to it. Faith is not not an intellectual assent to truth, but a personal surrender—an entrusting of our selves to God. (Jules here reminds me of Newman's stress on the fact that the truths of our faith are given to us and to be received by us not as dead letter, but exactly via the living authority of the Pope in union with the bishops. I'm hoping he'll draw out the point and give us the reference in the comments below.)

As a matter of fact, orthodox doctrine can be held and taught in an ideological way, as anyone with familiar with, say, the Legion of Christ or Covenant Communities or arch traditionalists can attest. Throughout the Church, alas, can be found many individuals and groups who—just as the Holy Father says—wield doctrine like a weapon, using it not to liberate and "build up" others, but to "puff up" self—to burden and diminish and control others, for the sake of advancing their own power and prestige. And these are destructive in a particular way exactly because their doctrine is sound, so that pious people trust them and fall into their hands. 

Moreover, and importantly, ideologizing doctrine isn't something only conmen and villains ever do. Rather, it's a perennial temptation for the faithful, just like selfishness and self-righteousness and pride are. It's a tendency we have to be on guard against in ourselves—something especially teachers of the faith need to examine our consciences over and purify ourselves of. Experts in law and doctrine are naturally inclined to exaggerate the importance of doctrine and law. They are inclined to become disengaged from the concrete and individual and to prefer the abstract and general. It's a widespread, deep and serious problem; the Holy Father is right to warn us against it.

Let me press the point further: it's not only flagrant hypocrites in the Church who are susceptible to the lure of legalism. Even good Catholics who mean well can and do fall into it. The case could be made (I mean to attempt it myself one day) that Vatican II—which Pope Benedict called the central gift and achievement of the Church in our day—was all about correcting an excessively objectivistic, legalistic and externalistic tendency in Catholic life and ethos. 

Pope Francis has said that it takes about 100 years for the Church to fully assimilate a council like Vatican II; we are only halfway there. I think he's right. One reason I think he's right is that I find that cosmic drama of our times recapitulated in my own spiritual journey.

I have been a faithful, practicing Catholic all my life, and a staunchly conservative one at least since I studied theology as an undergraduate at FUS. I'm also a student of Christian personalism, who has, across three decades now, developed a growing conviction that the "turn toward subjectivity" is the key to understanding the Church in the modern world. And, in very recent years, I have come to recognize with deep mortification what a shocking grip the pharisaical tendency has had on my own soul.

Five key things have brought it to light and taught me to address it in myself:

1) Extremely painful personal experience of my powerlessness over the effects of sin in my life (my own and others' against me), notwithstanding all my head knowledge of saving Truth.

2) Participation in a 12-step program which has taught me what non-judgmentalism really means and how it serves to bless and heal, so that now when I hear the Holy Father speak of "gradualism," my heart leaps with recognition and joy, and I understand exactly what he is and isn't saying.

3) Reading scores of books and articles about recovery from trauma and narcissistic abuse, and developing a profound sense of solidarity with the the particular struggles of our time and culture, and a humble appreciation for the practical wisdom to be found in the field of psychology—something I used to dismiss with contempt.

4) The personalist teaching of John Paul II, which I have studied closely and come to love and understand and admire more and more.

5) The words and witness of Pope Francis, which, for me, draws it all together.

I'm not going to go any further in my critique of Fr. Weinandy's letter. I saw this morning that one of his predecessors has done maybe as much as needs doing on that front. I'll just say this:

When I read it, my main thought wasn't "How dare a priest criticize the Holy Father!" rather it was, "Fr. Weinandy has completely misunderstood Pope Francis, and he's hurting the Church by publicizing his misunderstanding."

Attacks like his do harm because they foster fear and mistrust; they prevent us opening our hearts and minds to what "the Spirit is saying to the churches" through the person of our Holy Father. And the Church really, really needs that message.

I hope he repents.

Comments (21)

Sam Roeble

#1, Nov 3, 2017 2:26pm

But faith can be an assent vs. what you suggest "Faith is not not an intellectual assent to truth, but a personal surrender—an entrusting of our selves to God"  Newman's GRAMMAR OF ASSENT for example 

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Nov 3, 2017 2:35pm

Sam, Newman is pretty clear throughout his writings that faith is not reducible to intellectual assent.

Sam Roeble

#3, Nov 3, 2017 2:46pm

Neither is faith reducible to personal surrender like in Islam.   It's a both/and

Sam Roeble

#4, Nov 3, 2017 4:09pm

§ 2. Complex Assent

{188} Assent as the mental assertion of an intelligible proposition, as an act of the intellect direct, absolute, complete in itself, unconditional, arbitrary, yet not incompatible with an appeal to argument

Rhett Segall

#5, Nov 4, 2017 11:27am

Thanks Katie for your considered reflections on Fr. Weinandy's response to Pope Francis mode of teaching. I'm not sure whether Weinandy's tone and forum is appropriate for a Catholic's response to papal teaching.; however i know that it is important for Catholics to make the weight of their opinon clear, as St Paul did with his differences with Peter and our on esteemed DvH has done with the Liturgy (he referred to it as worthy of one of Screwtapes devils!)

Anyway, I've carefully studied chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia and the commentary by Cardinal Coccopalerio.  Now the principle of gradualism is in fact very fuzzy.  Does it mean that I should cut down my lies from five a day to 2? Our protestant bretheren hold that the indissolubility of marriage is an ideal, just like turning the other cheek, that cannot always be lived up to and so they allow for divorce and remarriage  Is this a  way of seeing gradualism?  Catholicism has always seen the relevance of circumstances in evaluating our moral decisions. But it seems to me that  Pope Francis would allow Sonya in "Crime and Punishment", given that she

Rhett Segall

#6, Nov 4, 2017 11:40am

prostitutes herself for the sake of her family, should be allowed to receive communion so long as she really feels it's impossible to break out of the situation.  DvH says Sonya is sinning in her actions. Of course he doesn't judge her subjective culpability, but he also doesn't say it was the best she could do under the circumstances.

Theologian Karl Rahner says that our Christian vocation cannot exclude the call to martyrdom. This martyrdom is not infrequently found in daily crosses.

As you can see, for me Amoris Laetitia IS confusing. It seems to boil down to "So long as I really think I'm doing my best, then I'm doing my best." It doesn't allow room for self deception. -"From ny hidden falts deliver me, O Lord." Psalm 19:12

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Nov 4, 2017 11:48am

Rhett, it seems to me you're not understanding what the Pope means by gradualism. And by the example of Sonya, you're showing you're in objective mode, when the Pope is pointing to the subjective. I think that's the basic problem.

Would the Pope ever say it's okay to be a prostitute, as long as your motives are good? No. No way.

Rather he would look at Sonya (as Dostoyevski does) and say, with tenderness and compassion, "I see your heart. I see that you hate what you are doing. I see that you are doing it as a kind of sacrifice of love for your family, and I love and affirm that goodness in you. Come, let's see if we can find a solution together, to free you from this terrible ordeal and take care of your family."

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Nov 4, 2017 12:03pm

He is asking the Church to do the same: to look at sinners not as "prostitute" or "tax collector" or "adulterer", but as the individual persons they are.

Look for what is good and true in them; affirm and encourage that. Look for where there might be an opening for grace; offer grace exactly there. Show them where hope lies. Do not condemn; do not judge; do not categorize; do not compare. 

Dcn. Joseph B. Gorini

#9, Nov 5, 2017 10:18am

Katie, You are speaking from your own experience, and I appreciate that.  Consider, however, that we clergymen of the Confraternities of English-speaking Catholic Clergy, who have direct responsibilities for the care of souls, see the core issue very differently than you do. 

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Nov 5, 2017 12:18pm

Dcn. Joseph, I think I don't follow you. I know you can't mean to suggest that all clergymen, having direct responsibility for the care of souls, see the core issue just as you do, or just as your confraternity does.

There is, in fact, quite a lot of disagreement among those with direct responsibility for the care of souls. Some of them agree with me and see it as I do; some don't.

And the Pope himself, of course, is a clergyman of sorts with direct responsibility for the care of souls. He and Fr. Weinandy clearly see things very differently, don't they?

Dcn. Joseph B. Gorini

#11, Nov 5, 2017 1:50pm

Katie, I agree with your thinking; you don't get what I presented.  Simply stated, I provided you a statement from the English-speaking CCCs which we issued on behalf of our members.  This statement does not necessarily represent the views of clergy who are not members. For the sake of clarity, however, the joint statement of the English-speaking CCC, taken together with the dubia, the fraternal correction, Fr. Weinandy's letter, and many other statements - which come from some very competent, well-intended persons - speaks to a major problem whether you perceive the problem or not. Of course, you are entitled to your own opinion. In the end, the truth will prevail.  Meanwhile, whatever one's opinion is, qualified or not, it is a time for prayer and continued dialog, and personal study, reflection and conversion.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Nov 5, 2017 1:59pm

Strictly speaking, you didn't provide a statement; you provided a link to a statement. I didn't follow it, because (to be perfectly frank) I don't like that form of engagement. I don't like being given a reading assignment rather than a concrete response to my argument. I'd rather dialog with individuals who are willing to dialog with me.

If you'd like to critique my post, you're welcome to do here or elsewhere. But, if you do it here, then I'd like you to address its argument, not just point out that what we all already know, viz. that some "very competent and well-intended" persons don't agree with me.

Of course there are also incompetent and ill-intentioned people against me, and against the Pope.

Dcn. Joseph B. Gorini

#13, Nov 5, 2017 2:30pm

Katie, Another clarification: My reference to the members of the CCC having direct responsibilities for the care of souls was for the purpose of comparing our understanding of the situation as compared to you and your understanding. This difference in responsibility should not be construed a lack of regard for your opinion.  Whether or not you wish to read our statement is up to you.  I made it available not just for you but for anyone reading this thread.  Last, but not least, you can accept or reject my input, however, you are in no position to tell me how to respond, in fact I find it disrespectful.  In His Peace, Dcn. Joe

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Nov 5, 2017 3:50pm

Well, we are alike in finding each other disrespectful, then.

I find it disrespectful that someone unknown to me comes onto my site and comments on my post to suggest that my opinion isn't worth as much as a clergyman's, to point out that many competent and well-meaning individuals disagree with it, and then to post a link to his own site, while declining to engage my arguments at all. I find that quite rude, in fact.

If you knew me better, you would know how much I hate clericalism in all its forms, and how completely unimpressed I am by arguments from authority, unless, of course, we are speaking of the authority of the Vicar of Christ teaching in union with the bishops of the world. That authority impresses me with great awe. And it trumps the opinions of all the rest, be they ever-so ordained or in charge of souls or theologically competent or whatever.

Sam Roeble

#15, Nov 6, 2017 10:08am

Two way street=dialogue CCC 907 "In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons."443

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Nov 6, 2017 10:13am

Sam, please don't just quote or link. Spell out your meaning so that it makes sense in the context.

Sam Roeble

#17, Nov 6, 2017 10:31am

I prefaced the above reference to the CCC with "two way street =dialogue".  All to often today discussing the truth is monologue.  So thanks Katie for providing this space to debate truth

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Nov 6, 2017 10:34am

I still don't see your point in the context.

Did anyone here call into question the right of the faithful to make their views known to pastors?

Rhett Segall

#19, Nov 6, 2017 11:10am

Thank you for drawing our attention to that very important teaching of the CCC Sam. It bears directly on our endeavor to understand how a responsible Catholic should respond to the work of the Spirit on the issues involved in Amoris Laetitia.

On the other hand (!) we do have the instruction from Donum Veritas which Fr. Strynkowski refers to in his response in America to Fr. Weinandy , and which I think Katie is referring to in her initial comments:

"30. If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.

Donum Veritas, Cardinal Ratzinger 1990

Rhett Segall

#20, Nov 6, 2017 11:17am

It's difficult to reconcile the CCC stament with Donum Veritas. I think a Catholic's responsibility in terms of the issues raised by AL , so long as the issue of sin and scandal is not unequivocal, is to follow his conscience, and when it seems to be at odds with the Magisterium, to continue to be open to reevaluation. Then- be at peace.


Katie van Schaijik

#21, Nov 6, 2017 12:43pm

I really don't see the difficulty. I don't see anyone here calling into question the faithful's right (and sometimes duty) to make their views known to their pastors.

Nor do I see how that conflicts in any way with the quote from DV directing theologians to make known difficulties they may have with a given papal teaching to the proper magisterial authorities and in a manner consistent with the good of the Church.

Obviously, I think Fr. Weinandy's letter falls short on both fronts (so, evidently, do the US bishops)—viz.  he shouldn't have published it, and his manner is shockingly bad.

But as I've tried to stress, my main objection isn't that he criticized the Pope; it's that he drastically misunderstands the Pope. His narrow focus on a point of doctrinal difficulty is apparently causing him to not hear the Pope's strong, beautiful message—a message offered by the Vicar of Christ to the Church urgently needed for this particular hour in her history. 

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