The Personalist Project

A decade or so ago arose "the new atheism"—a movement of prominent public intellectuals attacking religion on rational grounds, especially scientific grounds. It got a lot of media attention, and many people apparently found it convincing.

Personally, I had a hard time taking it seriously. It seemed to me so dumb. (Hello, Harris and Dawkins? You can't address metaphysical claims with empirical methods. Empirical methods only apply to the physical realm. And for their validity they rely utterly on philosophical, i.e., non-empirical, assumptions.) Its proponents came across to me as willfully obtuse and full of animus—their arguments not just intellectually weak, but juvenile. You wondered whether they'd ever met any actual religious people. They were furiously attacking straw men and caricatures, while completely ignoring all the real evidence and arguments in favor of faith. I thought no one would be convinced who wasn't already looking for justification for unbelief (and the moral license that goes with it.)

Lately, though, I've noticed the rise of a new form of anti-religion that I fear is much more potent. It attacks faith not on scientific, but on experiential and therapeutic grounds. Religion is bad for your mental health. It's abusive. It causes depression and eating disorders and all manner of misery and violence. If you want to thrive and be happy, get it out of your psyche.

It's more potent because:

1) There's a lot of truth in it.  (I'll come back to this point.)

2) It's much harder to overcome. Personal experience can't be rationally refuted; nor is it effectively answered by counter-experiences.

Long before Marcel Maciel's double life was publicly known, we had piles of evidence in the form of personal testimony that something was seriously wrong with the Legion of Christ. Countless ex-members had recorded disturbing stories of extreme control, emotional and spiritual abuse, financial impropriety, etc. 

Legion defenders initially dismissed all of it. It was coming from bitter people with "issues" and axes to grind; they were lying or deluded. As the evidence mounted and that line of defense grew less credible, though, the defenders down-shifted: "I'm sorry you had bad experiences. That wasn't my experience. I've had wonderful experiences in the Legion."

For those who were sure that Maciel was a saint and his Legion a great work of God, this seemed to do the trick. It acknowledged that some people (maybe) had had bad experiences. (The defender thus presents herself as open-minded and sympathetic.) It discretely suggested that such experiences were anomalous, and that it's unreasonable to tar the whole organization just because you personally had had a bad experience. (No organization is perfect, and one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch.) It even subtly insinuated that the one telling the story might be exaggerating or imbalanced or otherwise not to be trusted. (When dealing with a wounded, hysterical person, be kind, speak gently, but don't really engage; don't absorb the negativity.)

To anyone who more-than-suspected the truth, though, this response to damning testimony sounded like insanity. Complete denial. Also egotistical dismissiveness. "I like my group and what I get from it, so I don't care what happened to you at its hands."

One of the problems we're facing today—I begin to realize—is that this is how religious people often sound to the new non-believers: like we're in denial. Like we don't care about the damage done by religion. Like it's more important to us to protect our group and the consolations we get from belonging to it—no matter what it does or who gets hurt—than to face reality. We sound like we're not yet in recovery.

The reason we sound that way, I'll say again, is because there's a lot of truth in the "religion is abusive" charge. I of course don't mean that religion as such is abusive. What's abusive rather is (are?) 1) some doctrines, and 2) some modes and methods of practicing religion and promoting religion.

It's always been true. Only think of the primitive religions that demanded the blood sacrifice of children or the sale of temple virgins. Think of the moral precepts that allow middle aged men to marry children and have multiple wives—wives kept (by religious prescription) in social isolation and practical servitude to their husbands. Think of abuses surrounding the medieval sale of indulgences, or religious practices that incited violence against Jews. Think of teachings that condemn an entire segment of society as "untouchable." And then consider the closer-to-home cases of the emotional and financial manipulation rife in the world of big tent revivals and televangelism.

Religion (involving, as it does, post-Eden human relations) has always contained abusive elements. But those seem somehow more prominently present in it today than ever before. I want to propose two reasons for this:

1) "No-religion" is now a viable and widespread option in our society. (At least it appears to be viable.) Increasing numbers of both ordinary people and social elites openly identify as non-religious and unbelieving. Many used to be religious or were raised in religious homes, but abandoned faith and practice in later life as unnecessary and unconvincing or worse. So, on a practical and experiential level, the question facing individuals today isn't which religion is true?, but why religion at all?

2) More positively, we—as a society and as individuals— have become more aware of and sensitive to the problem of abuse across the board. Our introductory essay explains it this way:

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons.  We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person.  We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others. We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof brilliantly captures this gigantically consequential historical and cultural development. However meaningful and beautiful, however serviceable for shaping a people and maintaining a way of life, longstanding tradition has to give way in front of the dawning awareness of personal selfhood. If it doesn't, it quickly becomes abusive. Once a daughter becomes conscious of her right to choose her husband for herself, for instance, her father's option is to respect her freedom or apply force.

Note that a vicious cycle has been set in motion. The more the daughter resists, the more the father feels provoked and aggrieved, and righteous in applying force. The more he applies force, the more the daughter feels (and is) abused.

I propose that we are witnessing this basic dynamic on a giant scale. In broad terms, it has to do with the problem of authority vs. the rights and dignity of individuals. Everything is being questioned and realigned. And—here is the really crucial point—to the extent that the new resistance to authority is valid, the reasserting of authority is abusive.

Religion is inseparable from the moral problems associated with authority. Religious people, then, are prone in a special way to abuses of authority. 

If we want religion to remain credible and convincing under these historical and cultural circumstances, the answer isn't and can't be to crack down authoritatively. That only makes matters worse. So what do we do? I'll make a start at answering that question in a subsequent post. 

Comments (12)


#1, Jul 19, 2015 5:02pm

Living authentically, humbly, immersing ourselves in prayer; so that the knowledge/information/Truth we share flows from who we are, not simply what we know.  Revitalizing Eucharistic adoration and other sustaining devotional practices...(We're in the midst of a diocesan reorganization plan. There's a first meeting Tuesday night.  Thanks for letting me rehearse input.) 

I wonder about fixating on Jansenism and Ultramontanism, and one forceful leader, though. I recall criticism of Opus Dei, at times, too...As a person living with a disability, Catholicism's focus on the intrinsic personal worth of each and every human being - regardless of limits - had far more to do with my self-definition than the abuses I experienced as a youngster in a non-Catholic, denominationally-run residential "hospital" supported with state funds.  That was nearly-toxic.  Maciel and others had plenty of non-Catholic company.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 20, 2015 7:25am

I don't think I'm fixating, just offering an example. There are others, both in and outside the Church. Opus Dei, before it instituted reforms, was (by report, as you say) not innocent of abusiveness; the Covenant Communities of the 80s were full of it. Many evangelical groups and churches have been exposed as rife with control and abuse. 

And then there are families. As I've become more sensitive to this problem, I've noticed how widespread a problem it is. Religious people believe in authority. We know that obedience is a virtue. We see the chaos in the surrounding culture and we easily conclude that's what's wanted is an authoritative crack down. 

What's really wanted, though (in my opinion), is something very different. Not an emphasis on authority, but freedom and responsibility. We need to learn different ways of relating, different ways of catechizing, raising children, etc. But I'll try to fill out my meaning more in a new post.

Meanwhile, you are surely right that deeper prayer and greater attention to the dignity and worth of individual are key.


#3, Jul 20, 2015 11:14am

Katie, I surely wasn't referring to *you* as fixating; rather, to those whose need for externally-imposed authority (rather than freedom and responsibility) leads them to a nostalgia for Ultramontanism with respect to faith and Jansenism re: personal relationships.  I see a lot of it here in a local retreat center - and in a couple Extraordinary Rite- preferring families.

Authority must, indeed, be freely-given and humbly accepted in dialogue and relationship; not merely imposed and acceded to...What do you think of all the talk of 'intergenerational catechesis'?  Have you seen it in action?  I await upcoming posts!

Marie Meaney

#4, Jul 20, 2015 12:50pm

You make excellent points, Katie, and raise very good questions. Most of us have probably experienced some abuse of authority within the Church personally (at the very “least”, in the confessional). And the stories of the saints are rife with examples of their suffering from abuses of authority. This is not to justify it, but simply to point out that it is very widespread and old. Since religion must include a certain amount of authority, it will also be abused, given the Fall, as you rightly point out.

I think this raises a whole number of questions:

1) How to deal with it personally:

o When do I/should I speak out and how?

o What do I do with this spiritually speaking?

2) What does good authority look like? For the danger is either, as you point out, to crack down heavy-handedly, or on the other hand to let everything continue on its merry way. 

Marie Meaney

#5, Jul 20, 2015 12:50pm

Real authority must look very different. Respect the other in his freedom and experience, while challenging him to something else if he is on the wrong path – and this might sometimes have to lead to a clear “no”, for his sake and that of others who are confused. It also means using authority (when saying "no") only when necessary, and with the realization that one might well be wrong in one's application. 

Anyway, I look forward to your next posts on the topic. And there are many more questions, as you rightly say, that this raises, for example regarding education etc.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 20, 2015 1:41pm

Marie, the formatting on your first comment came through garbled, so I tried to fix. Let me know if I got it wrong.

And thank you for weighing in!

I feel how many loose ends there are in my post! Still, it's a start on what is sure to be a complicated and multi-faceted conversation.

I think one of the major things that we need to rethink is not just when to use our authority, but where the limits of our authority lie and whether we have it at all. One of the prime abuses in religion is the assertion of authority where there is none, really. 

For instance, I think it used to be generally understood in Christian culture that husbands had authority over their wives. Now (thanks mainly to JP II), we see it differently. So, if a wife "disobeys" her husband, the problem (perhaps) isn't that she's rebelling against authority, but rather that her husband is asserting an authority he doesn't really have.

Likewise, shaking off habits of clericalism in the Church, may mean resisting the asserted, but not legitimate authority of priests. (I don't mean priests have no authority, only that it's limited.)

Marie Meaney

#7, Jul 21, 2015 2:29am

Thanks for this clarification, Katie! I agree!


#8, Jul 21, 2015 10:51am

Katie, I hope shaking off clericalism doesn't become disdain for priests...A priest-friend recently had his religious ed. program 'decertified' (under a prior bishop) because he taught the Confirmation class!  The 'priesthood of the baptized' doesn't usurp, does it?

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Jul 21, 2015 6:51pm


Nanda wrote:

Katie, I hope shaking off clericalism doesn't become disdain for priests...A priest-friend recently had his religious ed. program 'decertified' (under a prior bishop) because he taught the Confirmation class!  The 'priesthood of the baptized' doesn't usurp, does it?

No, not at all. Speaking for myself: my hatred of clericalism (which is intense) has nothing to do with a disdain for priests or the priestly vocation, just as my hatred of male chauvinism has nothing to do with disdain for men.

What I hate is relations distorted by the master/slave dynamic of the fall. One of the reasons for wanting the Church free of clericalism is a desire to free priests to attend to their real vocation and competence. No layman can say mass or hear confessions (for instance.)

But laymen CAN catechize. I'm not against priests catechizing. I'm only against priests condescending and controlling and acting like they're the elite in the Church, while imagining that the laity's role is to submit to their leadership and instructions.

They are not above the laity, except in their sacramental function. 


#10, Jul 22, 2015 11:49am

Katie, I'm disturbed by a dynamic present in the current American Church; in my diocese, under a recently-former bishop, who would probably prefer that priests be little more than 'sacramental dispensers'...I find this sort of episcopal anti-clericalism distressing and strange.  Yes, properly-prepared, well-motivated laypeople can and do catechize; but when ill-prepared highly-motivated transplants from other faith traditions catechize, whole cohorts of students and the Church are poorer for it...That's my concern with a misplaced emphasis on the 'priesthood of the baptized'.

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jul 28, 2015 12:38pm

One of the problems with, say, male-chauvinism, is that it tends to create a backlash. We get radical feminism—women who hate and abuse men.

Similarly, one of the problems with clericalism is that it creates a backlash: laymen (and clergy) who hate priests and the priesthood. It's a problem. (In Holland I knew a priest who was eagerly looking forward to a priest-less Church.)

The only answer is to work toward right relations from every side. We can't defeat radical feminism by reasserting male-chauvinism; we can't defeat anti-clericalism by reasserting clericalism. (I know you agree with this.)

We have to establish right relations. We have to correct wrong relations, whenever we come across them.

It's not easy in the concrete.


#12, Jul 28, 2015 1:35pm

It's the concrete that worries me, Katie: a whole cohort knowing little-to-nothing about the Faith, because an emphasis on what someone *terms* the 'priesthood of the baptized' prefers eager, well-intentioned - yet ill-informed themselves - volunteers for catechesis - while discounting the priest's role as shepherd/teacher.  I have very little patience for politicizing in the realm of preparing the next generation to "take up the Cross". 

I just sat through a mindless, diocesan-sponsored meeting full of blather about 'mission statements' and 'hospitality ministry'. (Coffee and doughnuts, anyone? :-).) Grrrr! 

Thanks for listening - and responding!

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