The Personalist Project

In 2009 or so, when the crisis surrounding Marcial Maciel was beginning to break open, I got involved in some intense online discussions between Legion defenders and Legion accusers. They continued for months, before, during and after the public admission that Maciel—the founder the Legion had held up as a saint—had led an evil life.

It was for me a fourth major wave of experience of the way preachers of "charity" and "forgiveness" easily become enablers for abuse in Christian circles. The first had been during the breakup the Covenant Communities in the early '90s, when I had watched honest critics being dismissed or vilified as attacking a work of God—condemned and marginalized, rather than listened to and appreciated for their role in bringing serious problems to light. The second had been during the priest abuse scandals, when I saw again how covering up wrong in the name of "mercy" and "avoiding scandal" led inexorably to more abuse and worse scandal.

The third had been more recent, more personal, and (for me) much more painful. I was still processing that experience and couldn't discuss it publicly, so the Legion debates were cathartic. In them, I could have at the deniers, abusers, and enablers, and defend the victims, gaining insight and confidence about my own case as I went.

I wrote a long post at the time comparing what I was watching unfold in and around the Legion to what I had undergone in a different context, but then, deciding I couldn't publish it, put it in a sticky note instead, to deal with (or not) another day. Several years on, I still can't publish it. But neither do I want to delete it entirely. So I'll offer it here in a heavily redacted, hypothetical version that matches not only my own experience, but also the experience of several friends involving different groups or institutions. Then I'll delete that note, in accordance with my New Year's resolution.

Imagine you work for a Catholic or Christian enterprise of some kind. You witness or experience serious misconduct, personal or professional. You confront the wrongdoer, and you get denial. You bring it to the attention of higher-ups and call for an investigation, and, get lectures about the sin of detraction and Christ saying we have to forgive "seventy times seventy times." You press the point, and instead of addressing the problem, your supervisors begin to voice concern about your moral condition. Word somehow goes out that you have "personal problems" or that you've turned out to be a disappointment. When you decide to publicize your experience more widely (having your own good and the good of the organization as a whole in mind), people shut their ears:

"That can't be true. These are Catholics. You  must be exaggerating. There are always two sides to the story..."

You are pressured to drop the whole thing; not to push it; not to cause disunity (the devil wants to divide us); not to rock the boat... Here's what almost no one does: Look into your claim; try to find out what really happened, or back up your request for a proper investigation, so the truth could be determined and justice done.

It seems that most people prefer to keep the truth obscured under a cloud of uncertainty. That way, no one will be forced to take a stand against colleagues and/or those who had power over their jobs, and the organization won't have to deal with any negative publicity. Instead, they'll pretend to address the issue by "crafting better policies," so that this sort of thing won't happen again. "Let's focus on the future, not the past." Easier that way to feel virtuous—a "peacemaker," a neutral friend to all parties. Just sweep the wrong under the rug and spray the area with some pious aerosol to cover the festering odor. 

I've been fascinated and dismayed to see this pattern repeating itself in matters big and small among even the devoutly religious. We don't want truth.  We prefer to have our consciences free-floating on intentions, plausibilities, theories, and hopes.

Which brings me back to the Legion discussion. When Maciel's evil was finally acknowledged, someone in our online group asked one of the fiercest Legion defenders whether she was sorry for not having believed his victims, now that she knew they had been telling the truth. Her response was blunt. (I paraphrase from memory.) "No. Because it could have gone either way.  It was one word against another." (More than not believing those victims, she had tarred them repeatedly as liars, publicity hounds, scandal-mongers and Church-haters.)

The truth of the matter was a non-issue to her. Since she had been abstractly justified in believing in Maciel's innocence and in his accusers' vindictiveness, she felt no remorse whatsoever for having sided with the liars and evil-doers against those they had abused. She thought she deserved moral credit for loyalty to her group. Nor, apparently, did the discovery that she had been grievously wrong cause her to question her powers of insight and judgment in the new circumstances. She was still slamming Legion critics as uncharitable and worse.

I think, BTW, that many who imagine themselves justified in believing the ones they want to believe over the ones they don't want to believe, aren't really so. There is such a thing as culpable ignorance. We have a way of avoiding or downplaying the evidence that tells against our preferred conclusion. We minimize or tune out indications of what we don't want to be the case. We condemn those calling for justice to be done as "harsh" and "merciless," and we feel righteous for doing it.

When conservative Catholics insist that conscience to be related to truth, we typically have in mind the objectivity of the moral law. We like to stress that the inviolability of conscience is not to be understood as a license to dispense with absolute moral norms. But it's not only universal truth that conscience has to be related to; it's also concrete truth—the truth embodied in the complicated here and now. We have a responsibility not only to obey the objective law, but to seek truth and do justice in and among the events and persons we encounter as we go in life. 

To avoid or downplay that kind of truth isn't charity; it isn't peace-making. It's dereliction of duty.

Comments (5)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Jan 9, 2016 5:21pm

I LOVE the second to last paragraph, Katie. You're absolutely right. It's amazing that such an obvious truth—obvious once stated—is so easy to ignore in practice. To pat ourselves on the back for being objectively right, at the very moment that we're trampling on what's right in the here and now.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Jan 9, 2016 5:34pm

I just reread the title. The term "free-floating consciences" is also very good. Universals are not enough to "anchor" a person to reality.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jan 10, 2016 11:45am

Jules van Schaijik wrote:

To pat ourselves on the back for being objectively right, at the very moment that we're trampling on what's right in the here and now.

It's difficult to express, I find, because the meaning of terms like "objectively right" and "subjective" is so changeable and elusive.

But I want to keep trying, because I think the point is key, and central to what Pope Francis keeps stressing. When he says, "Who am I to judge", for instance, he isn't calling into question the objective immorality of homosexual acts. He's drawing attention to the value and dignity of the concrete person in front of him—the objective value of his subjectivity, so to speak.

It's not enough to assent to the doctrine and adhere to the laws. We have to dedicate ourselves to the good and true in the concrete mixed bags we are and deal with.

Sam Roeble

#4, Jan 13, 2016 11:29am

Am I getting the sequence correct, from above post?

1) Communities break up in 1990s

2) priest abuse scandals

3) ???? "More recent, more personal..."

4) Maciel exposure

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jan 13, 2016 11:31am

Yes, that's right, in terms of my own experience of the problem I'm talking about.

Though, of course it's not as if there was a clear starting or stopping point to any of these. Really they all run together.

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