The Personalist Project

Pete Colosi linked a great article contrasting two fundamentally different philanthropic approaches to social problems: one that disregards individuals and one that features them.

The author, Scott Walter, characterizes the first approach like this:

Particular men and women, so some folks tell us, aren’t that important, because if you really want to “change the world” and help people, you must turn your gaze from the people you see in front of you and contemplate instead social structures/societal forces/the root causes of poverty.

He uses the example of Pope Francis's recent hosting of 150 homeless men and women for a tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel by way of contrast. The Pope didn't seek publicity; he made a point of meeting each one; and (this point especially jumped out at me):

...he didn’t say, “I denounce the sinful structures of our globalized economic system that victimize the class to which you belong and deprive your class of material riches.” No, Pope Francis said that he, a world leader who lives amid palaces, lacks something that only they, in their dignity, could provide him:  “I’m in need of prayers by people like you,” he explained.

Here he once again reveals the Pope's essential personalism: The true source of personal dignity is our uniqueness as individuals. Each person has something to give the world that no one else can give. Each person I encounter has something to offer me that no one else can offer. Unless my service to the poor and underprivileged springs from that awareness, it runs the risk of playing into the master/salve dynamic, confirming me in my illusions of superiority and confirming them in their feeling of hopelessness for themselves.

He tells a beautiful story about John Paul II, and then he ends with a quote from Mother Teresa:

If someone feels that God wants from him a transformation of social structures, that’s an issue between him and his God. We all have the duty to serve God where we feel called.  I feel called to help individuals, to love each human being. I never think in terms of crowds in general but in terms of persons. Were I to think about crowds, I would never begin anything. It is the person that matters. I believe in person-to-person encounters.

Do read the whole thing.

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Comments (1)

Ian Skemp

#1, May 27, 2015 3:10pm

Good article!

After teaching US history for four years, I'm aware of how prevalent this mode of thinking is. The "Indian Problem," "Negro Problem," and "Illegal/Undocumented (whatever) Immigrant problem." Every one of these "problems" had/has a number of proposed solutions. Assimilate them, educate them, give them the vote, train them for manual labor, let them be, segregate them, send them to Liberia, deportation, amnesty, etc. Policymakers and intellectual figures try desperately to come up with the best solution to these "problems," but I'm starting to notice the real problem. Having a plan isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. Nor is aknowledging a poor social structure where it exists. But the solutions are hampered when the personal dignity of the individual is ignored and everyone is lumped together as a problem that needs solving. It's dehumanizing.

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