The Personalist Project

This started out as a brief response in discussion of my earlier post on SSM, but developed into a further article.  I think what Katie and Jules worry about in terms of the corrosion of the natural moral sense, the impairing of ethical judgment, and the destructive effect on the moral imagination of having to deal openly with “unthinkable” evils (abortion, infanticide, homosexual relations, SSM), expresses existentially the reason why not only martyrs and virgins, but doctors of the church have special feasts and a special office in the Breviary—they have to deal with all the "unthinkables" because somebody has to refute them.   

This is their crown of thorns but it is a special work of mercy and a special call from Christ, to defend the innocent from terrible error blithely presented—and it merits a special joy in heaven for the intellectuals who have deeply loved and defended the truth.  Seen in this light, as a necessary cross, it does not have to corrode the natural moral sense nor impair ethical judgment.  Katie, in her response to my SSM post, worries that when it come to things like infanticide or SSM, “even to think and talk about it affects us—degrades us morally—opens us to what is wrong.”  But certainly this is not the case with St. Thomas or St. Bonaventure or the many other saints who have had to deal rationally with the evils of their day.  They see the truth (and its beauty) more deeply in contrast to terrible error.  So too with those today who have to deal with such things directly on a regular basis, like Robbie George and Pat Lee.  When the “unthinkables” are foisted upon us, we must respond—not simply long for a lost time when they would not have been mentioned.  Devra's comment on my SSM article shows how unexpected good may come from speaking up even when the tide is against us. People begin to see or at least seriously investigate rather than presume.

I recall one time, years ago, in the Reagan years in fact, when the Republican party was establishing itself as strongly pro-life, I had in class a fellow who turned out to be the Republican party coordinator for all of southern Ohio.  He was a very impressive, successful lawyer.  After the class was over, he approached me to say that it was the first time in his life that he had ever heard a genuinely reasoned set of arguments against abortion and that it had changed his mind.  He had been pro-choice because everyone he met in his milieu (as a moderate to liberal Republican and a successful lawyer/yuppie) was pro-choice.  He thought pro-lifers were mindless fundamentalists trying to foist their religious beliefs on others (and remember he was a Reagan republican, not a democrat).  But all he needed was to hear the truth once reasonably argued and he changed.  

A similar thing happened in grad school at the University of Dallas.  A high school friend of mine who had gone to Notre Dame and been “liberalized” came through on a visit and expressed his vague pro-choice views.  A whole group of grad students, led by John Barger (founder of Sophia Institute Press), collared him and gave him an entire pro-life presentation, complete with slides.  He left totally pro-life, scales had fallen off his eyes.  To his credit, he was willing to listen originally—many are not.

Another example.  An acquaintance of mine, who had spent his entire life in California and Hawaii, visited for a week in Steubenville.  We had some very extensive conversations about morality and religion.  He was a man of very high ideals morally, though very eclectic about religion.  Unfortunately he was on his third marriage, but this no longer “hit” him with its full force due to his everyday milieu.  In Steubenville, however, he experienced full-force dozens of life-long, committed marriages with deep and serious responsibilities and challenges (many children), couples who had been together for decades with no end in sight.  At one point in my car, while discussing some of this, he broke down in tears at the thought of his divorces (one including children)—at his failure to live up to the moral ideal.  He said that he had never seen an enduring marriage in his whole life until now.  His parents had divorced, his wives’ parents had divorced, all his relatives and friends had divorced, and he had just drifted into thinking that faithful monogamous marriage simply wasn’t possible—and therefore was not really part of the moral ideal or requirement.  But now he saw that it was and changed his judgment. 

So we must continue to witness in argument and in our lives to the truth—even if we have to face and discuss seriously evils which should be immediately and self-evidently seen as such.  We have to get our hands dirty in order to do our job, but it does not mean that we sully our souls.

Comments (11)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, May 30, 2012 8:56am

Thanks, Michael.  It's always so encouraging to hear examples of people really changing their minds on fundamental moral questions!

I'm going to push back further, though, because I'm not yet convinced. 

1) I agree--of course I do--that we need to give reasons for our moral convictions.  This is practically the raison d'etre of the Personalist Project.

2) I wonder whether sexuality isn't a special case in the moral realm, because of its essential intimacy and its fascination.  I don't mean we don't need to reason about it, but rather that we need to take special care not to violate its intimacy as we go.  

3) A point of rhetoric: Many people who go from pro-abortion to pro-life testify that photos of mutilated fetuses backfired.  They only convinced them that pro-lifers were sick, angry, violent people.  Photos of a developing baby, though, had a different effect.

I wonder there isn't a parallel here too.  Might it not be that images of the beauty of human sexuality inspire change by contrast (as it did in your friend), while discussion of what goes on in homosexuality backfire rhetorically?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, May 30, 2012 9:05am

I know people who have been shaken out of a kind of naive unseriousness about the threat of SSM by being confronted with a more explicit account of what it entails.  Homosexual acts are not and cannot be acts of love and union, anymore than they can be procreative.  They are acts of use and abuse. 

But, a counter example:

I have a vaguely Christian, vaguely pro-life friend who was horrified and outraged by the Ken Starr report about President Clinton and Monica Lewinski.  But her indignation was focused on Ken Starr.  Why?  Because he had made revolting sexual details public. Nothing I pointed out, such as that the acts were Clinton's, and that his obstruction of justice had forced the revelations, made any difference to her.  Ken Starr and the Republicans egging him on were perverts who were defiling the public airwaves with things nobody wants to think about or talk about.

It reminds me of the "rhetoric" of mutilated fetuses.  Many, many pro-abortion people who see those photos see not the violence of abortion, but the sick obsessions of the pro-life crowd.

So, I'm still doubtful.  

Rhett Segall

#3, May 30, 2012 2:26pm

A quick comparison:

To what extent should pictures of the holocaust be shown in explaining the horrors of the Shoah?

I think bluntness without crudeness is sometimes necessary.

Of course individuals will vary in their sensitivity. A warning about the mode of presentation is necessary.

I show Dr. Nathanson's "The Eclipse of Reason" in my 11th grade morality class. It's an actual film of an abortion of a 4 1/2 month old fetus. I let the students know ahead of time precisely what they will see. They may choose not to see the film. A few do. The overwhelming majority of the students choose to watch.

Afterwards I have the students answer two questions:

1. Do you think it's important for teens to see this film?

2. How has this affected your attitude towards abortion?

Overwhelmingly the students say: "Teens should see this film. I never realized. I am now against abortion."

I think similar things happen in the realm of the holocaust. Realistic documentaries have a unique power.

Scott Johnson referenced a paper on SSA delivered to the Bishops of Texas. It was explicit without being offensive and perhaps is a model of the kind of presentation appropriate.

Tim Cronin

#4, May 30, 2012 3:35pm

We may be able to slow the tide of this "right" strategically but so long as our American juridicial framework is built upon a view of the person as an individudual autonomous self with a voluntaristic relationship to God (a formalized freedom) we will have difficulty putting forth the case that this "right" should be denied based on argument of the fact that man is a gift from God with a nuptial nature. American liberalism is founded on a freedom as viewed as the right to be free from coercion in one's choices which necessarily benefits the SSM side. American liberalism denies a constitutive relationship to God by its empty juridicial framework.

Michael Healy

#5, May 30, 2012 10:11pm

I don't think the necessity to describe, at least to some extent, homosexual acts to contrast them with true one-flesh sexual acts can be compared with trying to use "shock" pictures of those killed in abortion to (supposedly) wake people up.  In the latter case, it is very understandable that the positive beautiful pictures of the child in the womb would be much more effective.  But in verbal argument, we are not talking about showing explicit photos of any kind of sexual act.  Nonetheless, we have to point out the difference between homo- and hetero- sexual acts if we are going to make our point.  Certainly, sexuality has a special intimacy and to speak so openly in ethical terms and insights to some extent does violate that intimacy; but, I would again say that when the culture around us already explodes that intimacy and argues for greater amorality and immorality about all things sexual, we simply have to respond and not abandon the field of debate.  

Mr. Segall's way of handling it when it comes to the pictures--giving students the chance to opt out--while letting the others have a chance to have their eyes opened, is very wise.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, May 31, 2012 8:18am


Tim Cronin, May. 30 at 2:35pm long as our American juridicial framework is built upon a view of the person as an individudual autonomous self with a voluntaristic relationship to God (a formalized freedom) we will have difficulty putting forth the case that this "right" should be denied based on argument of the fact that man is a gift from God with a nuptial nature. 

The case I make in secular contexts goes something like this:

SSM severs the essential link between law and nature, on which the entire American experiment is grounded.  We can't legalize it without destroying our foundation.

We are grounded in "the given".  The rights and duties pertaining to citizenship are given in our nature as free, self-standing, responsible adults.  The rights and duties pertaining to marriage are given in our nature as male and female, whose sexual union engenders children.

If we use the force of law to declare marriage nothing more and nothing other than a contract between consenting adults, and SS relations the moral equivalent of the conjugal union of a man and woman, we will stand in defiance of reality and the moral underpinings of our nation.

"Endowed" means "given", "bestowed".

Katie van Schaijik

#7, May 31, 2012 8:24am


Michael Healy, May. 30 at 9:11pm

But in verbal argument, we are not talking about showing explicit photos of any kind of sexual act.  Nonetheless, we have to point out the difference between homo- and hetero- sexual acts if we are going to make our point.  

That we are willing to show pictures of concentration camp victims and mutilated fetuses, but wouldn't dream of shoing pictures of homosexual acts speaks to the point I'm making, doesn't it?

In the ethics of sexuality we are dealing with something unique.

Even in verbal argument, words call to mind images. 

Tim Cronin

#8, May 31, 2012 1:20pm

The American "experiment" ("experiment" already takes a reductionist scientific viewpoint) was not founded on an adequate view of nature. Locke's liberalism was wedded with Francis Bacon's view of knowledge as power over nature. Thus we have the technological destruction of our planet. Contraception is also a technology founded upon our founders viewpoints of technical manipulation of nature. Thus contraception, abortion, etc is viewed as enabling liberty. A false view of liberty upon which our country was founded. We are now seeing the fruits of the tree planted. Can the tree be planted in better soil  to produce better fruit or will it wither?

Katie van Schaijik

#9, May 31, 2012 8:40pm

You seem to see America exclusively from the point of view of its defects and shortcomings, and you don't yet say what you practically propose.  

Abolish America and start over?  Start over how?  

Tim Cronin

#10, May 31, 2012 8:59pm

There are many good people and communities in America but since this thread was a discussion of how to deal with SSM I was showing how our government is structured to support this. If we make our arguments of natural law in a liberal framework they will be pushed back to the private sphere as metaphysical and theological arguments are considered subjective private matters in the liberal framework. A practical step may be to amend the 1st Amendment of the Constitution in regards to "respecting an establishment of religion" to clarify that while we don't establish any certain religion we do believe that the human person and the enviroment is a gift of a benevolent God. We would also want to put into the constitution a belief in natural law. Otherwise our court system is going to continue to support secular "rights" such as SSM.

Tim Cronin

#11, May 31, 2012 9:01pm

The liberal framework doesn't support freedom of religion, it supports a dictatorship of relatavism (as currently structured). If it was altered to include broad metaphysical and theological truths it would be different.

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