The Personalist Project

Something in Catholicism seems to foster a flourishing personality. This was my family's distinct impression upon converting from evangelicalism. (That conversion was a major subplot of our altogether uninventable family microcosm of salvation history, recounted by my mother, Marilyn Prever, in Honey from the Rock. But that's a story for another day.)

How is it, though, that a church that proclaims that truth is fixed and unchangeable, and that some actions are just plain intrinsically wrong—indeed, a church that claims for itself a certain immunity to error (under carefully defined conditions)—turns out to be so congenial to the flourishing of each person's inner freedom? You might not expect to find a lot of wiggle room among all those dogmas.

Personalist philosophy draws attention to the way in which each of us is self-determining and unrepeatable. Our life stories are the unfolding of a unique inner reality, by means of our own free decisions. God's dealings with us are never a stultifying process of pressing inert specimens of humanity into a mold: not even a mold of goodness and truth, not even in flawless imitation of some admirable saint. And this was clear from the personalities of many of the Catholics we met.

We were especially struck by the priests. They were all such characters! There was the dour, curmudgeonly one who referred to the cross-less Christ that some misguided renovators had suspended above his altar as "the flying whiz-bang." There was Fr. Stan the Tootsie Roll Man, as we called him, with the cassock that must have been bigger on the inside than the outside, with pockets deep enough to house an apparently endless supply of those delicacies.

I've been Catholic for decades now, and I haven't met a cookie-cutter priest yet. My current pastor, Fr. Ed, a scholarly, Harley-Davidson-riding taekwondo master and licensed pilot, speaks ancient Greek and Hebrew. Then there's Fr. Fortunato, an endearing Sicilian transplant who works with mentally handicapped children and keeps his car perpetually stocked with Dollar Store trinkets and sentimental holy pictures, so that any parish child who has a birthday can go to the trunk and pick out one of each. There's my old college classmate, Fr. Andrew O'Connor, who cares for his inner-city parish in the Bronx and designs high-fashion garments from cloth woven by women in Guatemala and hand-sewn by immigrants in his church basement (to the benefit of all concerned).

Wisecracking and earnest, shy and gregarious—but all strikingly comfortable in their own skin, their quirky individuality flourishing. The differences among them are not differences of degree—of greater or lesser success in conforming to a mold—but something more profoundly personal.

With our evangelical pastors, we sensed that there was a mold. They dressed alike (and this was curious, since no cassock or priestly collar or even black clothing was required). They all wore the same kind of shoes—at least, I think they did. I was a child, and it may well be that my memory exaggerates the caricature—but there was an unmistakable uniformity that I was not imagining. Their affectivity, too, could seem strained: a "compulsory, smiley-face friendliness," as my mother put it, seemed to be the correct demeanor. I don't mean that they were less interesting or dedicated or holy people. I certainly don't mean to brand all evangelicals, or all non-Catholics, as wanting in individuality. It just seemed that these people were not being encouraged (in the hackneyed phrase) to "be themselves."

It extended beyond clothing and personality: there was intellectual conformism as well. The intellect itself was treated with some suspicion. People were quick to warn us away from "vain philosophy"—by which they sometimes seemed to mean any use of the reason at all. They didn't acknowledge that they were interpreting the Bible, or accepting their pastor's authority to do so: to their mind, they were simply absorbing the Word. "God said it; I believe it; that settles it," they'd say.

They had a point—up to a point. You can see the appeal of this approach when you consider some of the exceedingly wacky theories that the most heavily credentialled scholars can come up with. Some ideas, as the saying goes, are so crazy that only an intellectual could believe them.

But the wish to bypass the human intellect altogether is foreign to the Catholic Weltanschauung. So is the desire to bypass the development of the personality, the free unfolding of the inner reality of each human person. We're not looking to avoid Blessed John Paul II's call to "become who you are." Not all Catholics have received a formation that made this clear, but it is true.

It might seem startling, though. You might think an institution with a fixed body of teaching and a belief in infallibility would leave little free play for human reason or human initiative. You might expect that the command to renounce self would foster a dead uniformity. But the opposite turns out to be true. In future posts, I'll be addressing why this is so.

But I'm curious: Have others gotten the same impression? What is it that makes Catholicism so congenial to the insights of personalism? What do you think?

Comments (20)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Apr 11, 2012 10:30pm

Thanks for this great post, Devra. I agree that it is striking, and somewhat paradoxical, to find so much room for the expression of individuality in a Church that, more than any other, insists on objective and universal truth, and that also imposes many other norms and rubrics having to, for instance, with the liturgy.

One reason for this, I think, is that the universal truths it insists on are truly universal, and therefore liberating rather than limiting. E.g. it would be intollerable to insist that all women are made to be stay-at-home moms, but it is liberating to insist that all women are equal to men.

As to the liturgy, your post reminds me of a passage in von Hildebrand's Liturgy and Personality, which we recently discussed during a reading circle (Dec. 2, 2011). I'll have to put the passage in a new comment, to avoid going over the 200 word limit.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Apr 11, 2012 10:32pm

From Liturgy and Personality, chapter IV, pp. 38-39:

The liturgy alone, because of its supraindividual stamp, its all-embracing wealth, never violates man’s separate individuality. As for other prayers, it is always possible for them to bear an individual mark and for this reason they cannot be imposed on everybody without an unwarranted pressure...

This supraindividual character of the Liturgy is at the same time the very opposite of colorless neutrality or of a bloodless stereotype; it combines holy sobriety with the greatest ardor, eternal calm with the deepest emotion, holy fear with holy joy and winged peace; all these are mingles in that coincidentia oppositorum, that meeting of opposites, as found only in God Who is the Sum, and in Whom all values are contained per eminentiam. Each individuality, however strongly expressed, can take place in this supraindividual prayer; and one can take part in it without having to give up or disavow that specials secret word that God utters anew to each soul, in that each soul represents a unique, unduplicable design of God.

Marie Reimers

#3, Apr 12, 2012 10:00am

Thanks, Devra, for the beautiful post and the thoughtful question.  My response is two-fold:

Catholicism is congenial to the insights of personalism because Jesus is Who He Is and he welcomes us into a very close and personal relationship with Him.  It is in our relationship with Him that He reveals to us who we are.  Now this is true for all Christians.  But for Catholics, we possess in our faith the path to full incorporation into Christ through our baptism and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  Look at all the saints!  What variety we have!  No two allike.  No prototype of personality.  Also, just to reflect a little on Augustine, we choose to live in "Jerusalem" rather than "Babylon".  We know where we belong and how to live as free citizens in that kingdom.  This in itself is very freeing, because we don't have to measure up to the latest ideological definition of what it means to be human.  And, as persons who love Christ, we love one another as He loves us - individually and personally.  Self-giving love is always personal.

Devra Torres

#4, Apr 12, 2012 11:52am

Thank you, Jules and Marie, for your comments.  Yes, Jules, "supraindividual" is an excellent word to describe the liturgy and the whole cast of thinking that is so central to the Faith.  And Marie, that's very well put. So many people have a false dichotomy lurking in the back of their minds: either a "close and personal relationship" or a "full incorporation" through sacraments, liturgy, and other elements that they misunderstand as impersonal rules and regulations.

I'm being driven, lately, to try to express more clearly how freeing a true understanding of the Faith is.  I find that lots of people are reacting against a impersonal constrictiveness that's not really there--if the Catholic Church really were that way, they'd be right to flee it!

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Apr 12, 2012 12:07pm

I love this post! 

I, too, have come to appreciate and marvel over the paradoxical and uninventable "correspondence" between the strong objectivity of Catholicism and the flowering of individual subjectivity.  

I became aware of the issue negatively, through a recognition of something wrong in the Covenant community spirituality that influenced me in my college years (mostly positively, I think).  Though the communities I knew best were ostensibly Catholic, there was in them, unmistakeably, an element of pressure to conform to a kind of mold.  It was my encounter with personalist philosophy that snapped me out of it.  I was not surprised when the bishops intervened to correct serious errors and misemphases in those communities.  

Since then, a conformist tendency in a given Catholic group has been a bright red flag for me: something's off here. I noticed it in Marcel Maciel's Legion.  I was not surprised when the allegations against him proved true and the Vatican had to intervene.  It wasn't just that he was corrupt, but that the order he had formed was too controlling.

Only God is adequate to humanity.  Only a faith designed by Him can do it full justice.

Devra Torres

#6, Apr 12, 2012 3:20pm

Katie, that's very interesting for me to hear--we know lots of people formerly connected with the various Covenant communities, and it does seem there was a mixture of very positive and very negative elements.  

Fr. Michael Najim

#7, Apr 12, 2012 5:26pm


I think you offer a great insight.  People often see the "rules" of Catholicism as restricting, when in fact they bring us true freedom.  Fr. Robert Barron uses the example of Michael Jordan: Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players of all time; he was completely free when he played the game, precisely because he mastered the basics...the rules.  Or think of a concert pianist: he/she is completely free to play the piano precisely because his/her freedom has been shaped by conforming to the rules, the basics.  We become more free by living the virtues, and these same virtues shine forth differently from each one of us.  That's what we see in the lives of the saints.  Charity is charity, but it is embodied (personalized) differently in my life than in Mother Teresa's. 

Great thoughts.  Thanks!

Devra Torres

#8, Apr 12, 2012 5:40pm

Thank you for your kind words, Fr. Michael!  I'm mulling over a post on that very idea: every "game" has its "rules," and just because we don't individually, arbitrarily make up the rules, from scratch, as we go along, doesn't mean we're un-free.  (And I always like to hear about Fr. Barron, because I have a son by the name of Baron who might make a great Fr. Baron himself one day.)  

I wonder: all the people who have an artificially constricted view of what kind of personality, or style, or "modo de ser" is pleasing to God--why do they think He bothered to make us all so very, very different? 

Josef Seifert

#9, Apr 13, 2012 2:33am

Dear Devra:

How nice to read what you have written - after so many years since I used to read your papers. And to read such a deep and yet witty piece with which I almost entirely agree except for one point that was even more emphasized by Katie von Schaijik. The deeply personalist spirit of the Catholic Church is not necessarily reflected in every priest wearing entirely different clothes nor in any way diminished by former Protestant pastors wearing a kind of stereotype vestment.

Just think of all former and those priests who follow Pope John Paul II's wish that priests wear the Roman collar etc., or of the Benedictine monks who all wear the same robes, or the Jesuits under Saint Ignatius who are models for the legionaries and who formed somewhat an army of the Church and followed a strict order of life and dress codes, or the Franciscans who wore the same habits in the whole world.

This has nothing to do with their and their holy founders being any less individual and unique persons. There was hardly a more unique and "personalistic Saint" than St. Francis all of whose friars.

Josef Seifert

#10, Apr 13, 2012 2:52am

I must therefore confess that take even more issue with Katie van Schaijik's suggestion that the strict order and same appearance of the Legionaries led one to somehow expect that the horrible abuse and double life of Father Marciel could almost have been expected from the uniform way of the legionaries cladding themselves. To say this about the legionaries because their founder - tragically, and against his vocation - fell into deep sins, is not only unjust towards the countless saintly legionaries who are a great support of the Church, but likewise unjust towards the innumerable good monks, priests, and nuns who wore the same habits during almost two millennia.

Besides, to lack a full unfolding of individual personality, which cannot be attributed to wearing the same outfit, and to commit grave sexual sins are two very different and hardly connected things. Otherwise, the many truly "non-personalistic" and pale or "uniform" sisters or monks who became a bit faceless behind their order's same outward appearances would mostly have to have been particularly sinful, which certainly cannot be claimed.

Therefore, for justice's and truth's sake I have to contradict you, dear Katie, on this point, while agreeing with you on almost everything else.

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Apr 13, 2012 6:40am

Dear Josef, you have misunderstood me, which perhaps I brought on myself by bringing the Legion into this discussion too briefly.  It wasn't merely a case of uniform appearance, which one finds in virtually all religious orders, it was what I will describe as a controlling spirit, a suppressed individuality, and an unfreedom in the order itself, as an order.  As I mentioned, my experience with the Covenant Communites (which, like the Legion, were full of sincere and ardent people of true faith) had made me highly alert to that particular problem.)

I also had many friends with experiences in the Legion that confirmed and deepened the impression.  My sense was: "There's something wrong here."  I began to look into it, and found scads of testimonies of abusive practices in the Legion.  Not sexual abuse, but abuse of conscience.

Because I had heard and read so much, I was inclined to believe the testimony of the seminarians from the 1940s that so many others had dismissed out of hand.  That the founder was a scoundrel and not a true priest would explain everything else I saw.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Apr 13, 2012 6:51am

I don't know whether you know that the Vatican intervened not only to discipline Maciel (whose evil and depredations against innocents were covered up by those closest to him and continued for decades) but to review and correct and restructure the order he founded, whose constitutions were found to be inconsistent in various particulars with the demands of our Faith.  The committee appointed to investigate the Legion found mountains of evidence of abusive, cultlike tendencies.

Of course that doesn't mean that there were not good and holy priests among them.

My experience of the Legion scandal confirmed and deepened my personalist understanding of our Faith, and my appreciation of especially John Paul II's philosophy.

Devra Torres

#13, Apr 13, 2012 8:08am

Dear Josef,

It's wonderful to be back in touch after all these years!

Thank you for giving me the chance to clarify: What I meant to say was that each priest's individuality was all the more striking in the context of the superficial uniformity of their appearance—not that their outward appearance detracted from their inner uniqueness. I certainly didn't mean to fault them, or any other religious who faithfully wear a habit—for obeying Blessed John Paul's wishes, and a long-established Catholic custom.


#14, Apr 15, 2012 10:15am

    Thanks for the wonderful and thoroughly 'down to earth' insights. Not only priests but saints, as well, have an astonishing range of 'personalities' that God seems to delight in and 'use'.  Look at Father Damien of the lepers.  He was a coarse, gruff peasant, full of peasant values and also had to struggle with a bad temper. Once he received a good sum of money and intended to use it only for his Catholic lepers.  His assistant begged with him an entire night NOT to do this terrible and narrow-minded act.  The next day, in tears,  he thanked the man, "You saved me from committing an awful sin!"  And HE was a saint!  God cuts 'personality' some slack that He would not for pride and Phariseeism.

Helvi Moore

#15, Apr 15, 2012 12:32pm

I agree!  At the tender age of 58, I am realizing that my hippy youth is not far behind me.  I am suddenly plunged, courtesy of a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, into the anti-materialist, anti-consumerist, environmentally-aware passions of my youth, all of which resonate deliciously with Catholic social teaching. 

There are no cookie-cut-out Catholics who really love Christ, His Blessed Mother and His Church.  The Mysticaly Body embraces souls of all stripes - and how interesting this is for students of personalism, indeed!

Devra Torres

#16, Apr 15, 2012 2:37pm

@Dan, that's a great story, and how topical, what with the HHS mandate only allowing exemptions for Catholics who exclusively serve fellow Catholics!  I thank God that he can also work with everything from ill-tempered peasants to refined intellectuals.

@Helvi, welcome to the conversation!  When I was introduced to personalism in graduate school, I was immersed in the idea that there are grains of truth, and more than grains, to be found all over the place--a very Catholic idea: "Diligere veritatem omnem et in omnibus" was the motto of the International Academny of Philosophy--you could loosely translate that as "Love all truth, even when you find it in the most unlikely places!"

Greg Camacho

#17, Apr 15, 2012 11:38pm

Hi Devra, I followed the link on Simcha's facebook. I'll always remember a conversation with a priest who, reflecting on Christ's 40 days fasting in the desert, commented that He was able to resist the devil's temptations because, "He knew who He was."

In college, I was a member of the Christian Life Movement, the lay wing of the spiritual family of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (phenomenal Peru-based society for apostolic life), which three of my friends eventually joined. I'm still struck by the poignance of certain phrases the Sodalits use, like "fundamental dynamism" and "unfolding every accent". They're very keen on spiritual formation that is very Catholic and catholic.

Devra Torres

#18, Apr 15, 2012 11:52pm

Greg, thanks for reading!  I'm always struck by the difference between the Church and the caricatures in people's minds, even Catholics' minds.  Yes, "fundamental dynamism"--nothing static--but at the same time, unchanging and rock-solid.


#19, May 17, 2012 10:00pm

Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

- Chesterton

Devra Torres

#20, May 17, 2012 11:30pm

Well put!  (Well, of course; it's Chesterton!)  Having lived in Spain and Italy, even long past the time when he would have gotten his impressions, I see what he means.  Thanks for joining the conversation!

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?