The Personalist Project

I've heard many Christians, including priests, teach that "we have to stay in relationship" and that "nothing is more important than unity." In other words, they hold that it's not okay to cut ties. To me, this seems manifestly false—out of accord with Scripture, Church teaching, and ordinary moral experience. 

At 17, I took a life-saving course and learned that a drowning person has to be approached from behind, because he will instinctively treat his rescuer as a buoy, clutching at him in such a way that unless the rescuer quickly and aggressively disengages and swims away, both will drown. 

It's a good metaphor for certain relationships, isn't it? Unless we get out of them, we'll drown. Think of the case of a person who's been raised in a cult. "Staying in relationship" is the last thing she needs to do. Getting out and away is the beginning of her recovery. Same goes for any chronically abusive relationship. 

Over the summer, Jules heard a great homily on the gospel passage about what to do if your brother wrongs you. The priest said, "Suppose someone tells a lie about us. He slanders us. We're wounded. What do we do with that injury?" He reminded the congregation that what we don't do is spread the news to all our friends. Rather, we go directly to the person himself and "tell him his fault." Doing so requires courage, humility and vulnerability. It means admitting to another that he succeeded in hurting us, and it means exposing ourselves to the possibilty of a new injury. But it also means giving him a chance to make amends without the issue having to go any further. In other words, it's an act of mercy.

If he refuses to admit his wrong, we are to bring witnesses. That is to say, gather evidence; work to establish the facts in such a way that his guilt becomes harder to deny—not because we're bent on rubbing it in his face, but because we want the wrong made right.

Too many Christians talk and act as if there is something petty and mean about wanting facts to be established—as if it's more generous and merciful to drop charges and leave the question of actual guilt or innocence unexplored and undetermined. In reality, though, the truth of what happened is the ground of reconciliation. There is no other. If reconciliation could be grounded on nothing other than the victim's overflowing mercy, there would be no such thing as hell, and no need for confession. God's mercy is ever-ready and boundless, but it doesn't avail us unless we acknowledge our need for it. The first reading at Mass on Monday makes the point very starkly [my emphasis]:

Realize how far you have fallenRepent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Our union with God depends not only on His forgiveness, but on our repentance. The same is true of human relationships. They can't be restored after a serious breach unless the truth of the wrong done is acknowledged and repented.

The homily went on. If he still refuses to admit his fault, the next step is to tell the whole Church.

Here many of us balk again. Victims and perpetrators alike seem to operate under a mass psychic impression that we're not allowed to make another person's wrongs known. "That's detraction." To deem it such, though, is to miss the key qualifier in the definition of the term. We commit the sin of detraction when we make another person's faults known "without objectively valid reason." Plainly, then, there are valid reasons for making another person's faults known. Among those reasons are concern for his soul and concern for other potential victims. Another may be concern for ourselves, our own reputation and wellbeing. If someone has injured us or slandered us, making the truth known may be an indispensable part of our rehabilitation. 

No one who lies or commits slander has a right to a reputation for honesty. On the contrary. Both the victim and the wider community may well have a right to know he's not to be trusted. Oppressors, abusers and evil-doers of all kinds, having refused private opportunities to make amends, ought to be publicly called out for their wrongs, for their sake, for their victims' sake, and for the sake of the community as a whole. The damage from injustice spreads unless it's contained. And the first step to containing it is bringing it to light. We only need to think about the sex abuse scandals to see the point clearly. Keeping silent to "avoid scandal" only compounds the original evil. 

The priest went on in his homily to discuss the step after that. If the wrong is made known to the Church, and the wrongdoer still refuses to repent, then he is to be cast out of the community. "Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." In other words, cut ties; remove him from your company.

Why? Because the Church is hard and self-righteous and unforgiving? No, but rather because 1) suffering the painful consequences of his wrong is his last, best chance for recognizing his need for grace, and 2) otherwise the wrong remains in the community and festers. Unaddressed wrong destroys communion. One of the ways it destroys it is by rendering the relationships within it superficial and unreal. There are more and more things that can't be said or discussed. Increasingly, we are psychically pressured to "focus on the positive" and side-step problems. Soon, we can't tell the difference between reality and unreality, between true friendship and pleasant relations. We get more out of touch with ourselves and each other. We are starved for lack of the kind of belonging that alone can sustain a rich personal existence.

But chronic abuse and unrepented wrong are not the only valid reasons for dissolving relations.

St. Francis famously began his ministry by stripping himself in front of his father, symbolically returning everything that was his, and declaring that from now on, God alone was his father. This is a cutting of ties if ever there was one—a very public renunciation of family bonds.

How is this justifiable in a Christian? Wasn't it a flagrant violation of the 4th commandment? Wasn't he showing outrageous disrespect and ingratitude toward the one who had given him life and raised him?

His father may well have thought so, but I don't. If so significant a gesture at the beginning of his public ministry had been basely motivated, I think it highly improbable that he would have gone down in history as one of the greatest saints of all time. Don't you?

So how are we to make sense of it? Here's my theory:

Up until the time of his imprisonment, illnesses, and religious awakening, Francis had been following a life plan that his father approved—one that enhanced the reputation and public stature of the family. But then Francis began to embarrass his father, who was suddenly faced with a dramatic either/or moment: Serve and support your son's mission, or set yourself against it. He chose B.

He put his own ego ahead of his son's good (and the good God was doing for the Church through him).

That's why Francis had to cut ties with his father. Instead of humbling himself in front of the work of grace unfolding in Francis's life and soul, his father resented and opposed it. He tried to intimidate and manipulate and punish Francis into conforming to his ideas and aims and values.

It's sad, isn't it? If Francis' father could have overcome his preoccupation with himself and opened his eyes to what was really going on with his son, he, too, might have gone down in history as a saint. Instead he's a prime example of bad fathering.

The story puts me in mind again of the gospel passage about "shaking the dust from your sandals," which has come up before, here and here. Each of us has a unique personal mission. We are charged with cultivating the "interior terrain" we have received as a gift from God. And then, when we're ready, when it's ready, when grace prompts, we're to offer it to others, as a gift in return. If they spurn it, we're to gather it back to ourselves, and offer it to others instead—others who will recognize it and receive it and let it bear fruit.

Comments (8)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Nov 19, 2014 10:23am

I want to add a point.

The story of St. Francis cutting ties with his father is an especially dramatic one. Most cases of human conflict are not so clear and unambiguous.

Still, it offers us a pattern we can recognize in our own experience.

We can know and vividly experience that we are offering love and truth (the truth of ourselves) to a person who refuses it. Very often he not only refuses it, but heaps contempt on it, and tries to twist it into something else—something ugly and unacceptable. He tries to shame us into compliance with his false view of us, of himself and of reality. We experience the attempt both as a rejection of us, and as a terrible temptation to disconnect with ourselves and our mission of the moment.

Read the literature on co-dependency and other toxic forms of relating, and you'll soon see how normal an experience this is.

Abigail Tardiff

#2, Nov 22, 2014 11:27am

I'd like to add a point to your added point. Often, I think, people who decide it's time to cut ties don't recognize their own part in the rift--they don't recognize their own need to repent. They think they're completely innocent, and all the wrong-doing is on the other side.

As you suggest, that's rarely the case. But we can be so blind to our own faults! Friends tell me stories of outrageous wrongs done to them by family members (often in-laws), and even though I've only heard their side, I can see the part they've played in the problem. It's that obvious, but they can't see it. So I deduce that the same thing applies to me, even when I feel innocent. 

So I would add to the steps towards reconciliation and/or the righting of a wrong: examine your own conscience, with help, if possible, from someone who can see more clearly than you can. Ideally, this clear-sighted person is the person you've wronged without acknowledging it. Repent of, and ask forgiveness for, your own sins towards the sinner. Then proceed through the rest of the steps.

--Abby Tardiff

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Nov 22, 2014 1:42pm

Abby, thank you for that qualifier. You are right that we have to constantly examine our own consciences, realizing that we are imperfect and have blind spots.

I, too, have known cases of a person cutting ties and putting all the blame on the other party, convinced of her own rectitude and totally blind to the part she obviously played in causing the breach. I have a particular friend in mind. She tells her story without the slightest openness to the possibility that she might be in the wrong. It's sad and frustrating.

And like you, I can only assume I have similar blind spots. I agree with you that to check ourselves on that point, we should ask someone we trust to be honest with us in telling us if they see fault in us that we don't see. 

But I also want to say that the false teaching that "we have to stay unified" interferes, imo, with the normal moral process by which a person comes to recognize her fault in a situation where she is mainly the victim of wrong. It skews the adjudication by suggesting moral equivalence and putting pressure on her to drop her claims.


#4, Nov 27, 2014 5:06pm

Thank you for your posts, Katie.  Very affirming.  Was born into a family cult with narcissist/sociopathic elders ... tied in with spiritual abuse.  On the road to healing.  Limited contact with abusers is incredibly helpful. It seemed that this boundary (though at times confusing as how to implement and painful because I longed to shower them with my love and receive theirs in return) was a stepping stone to gain some freedom to try to even see the light of Truth. For abusers of this sort, it seems they want nothing to do with love only control ... in which case, limited contact is charitable.  It took me a long while to understand this, for I thought that gentle words and kindness would turn their wrath and soften their hearts.  In their eyes, sadly, it was just permitting them access to abusive "recreation". So grateful that you brought up St. Francis. Though familiar with the story, had not occured to me the type of charity he was exercising with his father in "cutting ties".  Do you know if his father ever had a change of heart? 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Nov 28, 2014 10:11am

Thank you, Leonie.

I think there's no question that we are witnessing an epidemic of narcissism and spiritual abuse. And yet, those who experience it often feel very alone and not-believed. Their particular plight isn't recognized or addressed in conventional Christian wisdom. When they turn to the Church (in the "People of God" sense), they get bad advice, like, "You have to forgive," or "You have to stay in relationship," together with discrete forms of victim-blaming. Even to use the term narcissism is to be condemned as hysterical or outrageous or whatever.

I remember an online discussion among Legion critics and defenders just as the truth about Maciel was becoming known. I said that a woman I know told me, trembling, that she felt "spiritually raped" by the Legion. (She had been on a retreat where a third party was listening in on confessions and taking notes.) I said to one of the Legion's more passionate defenders, "What do you have to say to a woman like her?" 

His response: "I'd say she's a bit hysterical."

This is something I see often. Rape victims don't come forward because they're not believed.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Nov 28, 2014 10:23am

About St. Francis' father, if he repented, I don't recall the story. And if it was a deep and true repentance, I think I would have. It would have been a beautiful and amazing story.

For a proud, ambitious and habitually-egotistical man to humble himself in front of a son who has publicly embarrassed him is very difficult. Like a heavily-laden camel having to pass through the eye of a needle. It can only happen through a miracle of grace.

We can hope he was saved in the end though, even if like a man escaping from a burning house. God's mercy is big enough.

Very often that kind of egotism is as much an inheritance as a vice, if what I'm reading is true.


#7, Nov 29, 2014 11:20am

Dear Katie,

Yes, it is so very true that all too often the victim is not believed and validaiton is so very helpful for a victim to move to safer ground. A hasty word of "you must forgive" may imply to a traumatized mind that they have some guilt in the matter, which may subsequently return them to their dangerous environment in an attempt to "do their part" to remedy the situation (even when they have already truly forgiven their aggressor).

The cutting of ties (or seriously limiting them as circumstances allow) is often a charitable course.  For example, if one confronts a narcissist, they may very well flare up in a dangerous narcissitic rage. A covert narcissist may launch a smear campaign of twisted lies to discredit and even destroy their vicitms. The list goes on. They feed on being confronted - they feed on drama.  But if the "narcissistic supply" is no longer so readily available (cutting or limiting of ties), the victim may be afforded healing and the narcissist (now left with this new "void") has been shown an act of charity by their victim in the hopes that they will experience a change of heart.


#8, Nov 29, 2014 11:46am

Thank you for your reply regarding St. Francis' father.  It would be such a beautiful story if he had changed during his life and been responsive to the wonderful workings of God.

"We can hope he was saved in the end though, even if like a man escaping from a burning house. God's mercy is big enough."

With all my heart, I hope that is what happened.  Father in Heaven's love is so infinite. I remember reading once that St. Therese of the Child Jesus loved to collect the tears of Jesus and offer them with tender love as precious pearls for souls.  May the tears of all victims be gathered and offered to our Father in Heaven for their own healing and for the conversion of those who have abused.

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