The Personalist Project

I want to call your attention to a strikingly candid (but little-noted) address that Pope Francis gave to a plenary assembly of the council of the bishops' conferences of Europe back on Oct. 3rd.


Do read the whole thing here. As Sandro Magister explains, this is not the prepared text: he distributed that but then said this:

What is happening today in Europe? What is going on in the heart of our mother Europe? Is she still our mother Europe, or grandma Europe? Is she still fertile? Has she fallen into sterility? Is she unable to give new life? 

...for one thing, this Europe has committed a few sins. We must say this with love: it has not wanted to recognize one of its roots. And because of this it feels and does not feel Christian. Or it feels Christian somewhat in secret, but doesn't want to recognize it, this European root.

The subject of Europe's unacknowledged Christian roots reminded me of “The Bearable Lightness of Dignity,” an old First Things article by Mary Ann Glendon.


She talks about what happens when Europe—and the West in general—wants to keep acting as if “human dignity” is something we all agree upon as a bedrock principle, while rejecting the Judeo-Christian roots it came from. 

Jacques Maritain was actively involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--founded on the idea of human dignity, which seemed self-evident enough when the Nazis' so-recent violation of it enjoyed such universal condemnation. But he saw that it was being affirmed by people who had no coherent reason for that affirmation, and that sooner or later this incoherence was bound to come to light.


It was like imagining you can keep living in a building from which the foundation has been removed, expecting it to stay poised in midair as you go about business as usual.


This, it seems, is where we are now. What do you get when a society has cut itself off from its own roots and is still groping around to patch together something else to live for instead?

Pope Francis' remarks illustrate just what it looks like:

Europe is wounded. … Wounded by all the trials it has undergone. It has gone from the time of prosperity, of great well-being, to a worrying crisis in which young people too are discarded.

…there is the danger that the children of mother, today practically grandma Europe, are losing their dignity because they do not have jobs and cannot bring bread home. Europe has discarded its children. A bit triumphantly. I remember that when I was studying in one country the clinics that did abortions then prepared everything to send it to cosmetic factories. Makeup made with the blood of innocents. And this was something to brag about, because it was progressive: the rights of the woman, the woman has the right over her body.

Then at the other end of life, what happens?


And the elderly—I've said this about Latin America, about my country, but I believe it's a universal problem or of many countries or some other continents—the elderly are discarded with stealth euthanasia. The social services cover medical treatment up to a certain point, and then you're on your own!

He speaks of “a Europe weary with disorientation.”

And I don't want to be a pessimist, but let's tell the truth: after food, clothing, and medicine, what are the most important expenditures? Cosmetics, and I don't know how to say this in Italian, but the mascotas [pets], the little animals. They don't have children, but their affection goes to the little cat, to the little dog.


And this is the second expenditure after the three main ones. The third is the whole industry to promote sexual pleasure. So it’s food, medicine, clothing, cosmetics, little animals, and the life of pleasure. Our young people feel this, they see this, they live this.

This immediately rang true for me.

I lived in Rome for a year, one small village in Liechtenstein for three, and Spain for ten. So my "evidence" is purely anecdotal. But I remember riding the bus one day in a suburb of Barcelona. At 37, I was clearly the youngest person there.  That was a little disconcerting, and then I looked out the window. Nothing but banks and beauty parlors. Bank after bank after bank, and those dead-serious salons full of aestheticians who don’t just cut hair but retool the appearance in every way that creams and chemicals and minor elective surgeries can offer.


And something else, something very odd: pet stores without the pets. There were high-end pet accessories, pet status symbols, things for your “little animal” which no animal would take the least interest in but which would proclaim the owner’s taste and social standing.


It sounds like Pope Francis is seeing the same thing. I just kept riding the bus with an ill-defined sense of unease. But he at least proposes a solution:

It's like a sickness that Europe has today. A wound. And the greatest resource is the person of Jesus. Europe, return to Jesus! Return to that Jesus whom you have said was not in your roots! 

Comments (9)

Rhett Segall

#1, Dec 11, 2016 11:12am

So what's a Christian to do? Of course they must constantly proclaim the root of human dignity, namely God's divination of humanity through the Incarnation.But ought a Christian feel guilty about working in a cosmetics store? The Monks of New Skete charge a great deal for their dogs. Would it be irresponsible to buy one?  I think the essence of the spirit of poverty is a willingness to share. So long as we are willing to share and are good stewards and do what we can to promote social justice, then we can enjoy God's good creation.


#2, Dec 11, 2016 12:22pm

Your description of the bus ride made me think of Roald Dahl books like "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" for some reason.  I wanted to ask you, "When did the Oompa-Loompas appear?"  That is so bizarre!  I had no idea that a certain suburb of Barcelona was like that; never been there.  Never read about this phenomenon there either.  But, in many ways suburban America is the same.  Especially the pet industry.  Also, it makes me think of the booming nail salon industry in America- it's all so bizarre to me, but I think many people are resigned to it.  Also, I'm not suggesting there's something wrong with these industries or that participating in them is immoral.  But when they start dominating a culture lets get real; it gets a little much- there's more to life folks!

I think St. John Paul II said it clearly in Mary Ann Glendon's quote of him in his essay, On the Dignity of the Human Person,  viz.:  “The community is the vehicle through which we experience our own dignity and the dignity of others, and the connectedness of persons and the value of persons are discovered through their interdependence.”


#3, Dec 11, 2016 12:59pm

To be fair though, there is a place for nail salons!  I have first hand experience in seeing their benefits.  My father, having recently passed away was incapacitated for a few years before his death.  My mother hired a manicurist/pedicurist for him about once a month.  The professional came to their house for the treatments because it was easier this way for my father.  It was really a great experience for my father to receive these treatments this way and for my family.  All of the hands on attention he received was of great benefit to his overall experience of wellness, as my father attested to and as we observed in my father.  We respected this professional greatly for his service to my father when our family was in need.  My own opinion of this is that there can be a social intimacy created in these salon experiences that is in high demand in our post-modern culture of technological driven social networks that in a way have usurped a more real way of interacting with each other through face to face communication, eye contact, reading body language, facial expressions, gestures and physical contact that we require for our own wellness.


#4, Dec 11, 2016 2:57pm

Based on Mary Ann Glendon's premise that it remains a question as to how humanity can achieve a coherent and agreeable pragmatic universal notion and practice of dignity for the human being, is it too far fetched to believe that it is these very nail salons and similar industries that have a kernel of wisdom relevant to this political dilemma?  I witnessed it in my father.  My experience of it was that it was no less than dignifying for him to have this "cosmetologist" care for him as he was trained to do.  In my experience of witnessing this professional care for my father, I saw first hand that both my father and the professional knew exactly what was going on for my father- that he felt dignified.  Should we be more careful of generalizing that these industries are solely relegated to cultural disintegration?  If what St. John Paul II said as I quoted him above, could at least part of the solution to the human dignity problem be manifesting itself (even if unconsciously) as caring people trained in an industry that has the potential and actual methods for creating dignity in the human soul?  I think it deserves consideration.


#5, Dec 11, 2016 9:59pm

I agree with Pope Francis on pointing to Jesus in consideration of an answer to the human dignity issue.  In the case of cosmetology, one could complete a parallel by invoking Jesus' example of washing his disciple's feet (John 13:1-17), with the meaning being that we live in a community of service to each other- the meaning that St. John Paul II gives in the above quote.  Also, if you look to Kierkegaard for an answer, you find that he advocates looking at the "how" as opposed to the "what".  The "how" being an experience of holding fast, with passion, to our particular immanent experience in spite of it's incommensurability with human understanding (it's absurdity), opposed to the "what" being the objective moral stance articulated by a given religion that by it's nature, is subject to infinite intellectual approximation, being amenable to never ending infinite shades of meaning depending on observed context and subjective analysis.  In this way, any answers to the human dignity problem that come from dogma or "what" based solutions would fail to penetrate a living experience of dignity.  But, according to Kierkegaard the answer lies in the person's particular immanent experience notwithstanding the absurdity of the "how".


#6, Dec 11, 2016 10:23pm

To do this, according to Kierkegaard, requires working through two "movements" successfully.  The first "movement" being moving successfully to an inner state of "infinite resignation", which requires fully renouncing worldly desires so as to develop a sort of immunity to our unconscious urges.  In other words mastering what it means to know and commune with God.  The second "movement" requires successfully holding fast to a passionate experience of our particular, immanent, subjective self in the face of it's absurdity against the objective reality of our resignation with the infinite.  This existential experience of living successfully in this double world would be Kierkegaard's approach to finding a solution to the human dignity problem.  This is no small task, and Kierkegaard himself admits that even he himself is on the sidelines of the experience of this theoretical spectacle.


#7, Dec 11, 2016 10:53pm

I think it's through an uncanny Grace that this is even possible, but nevertheless it does happen and we can only be ready for and prepare ourselves for such an encounter with a living experience of human dignity that is bound to it's proper objective telos.  Through the Grace of God and by doing our best at all times, which means giving ourselves a break by knowing our limitations as well as learning what we can in order to grow, we may at last achieve miracles.

Rhett Segall

#8, Dec 12, 2016 10:00am

Peter, your example of the cosmetologist and your Dad is  an excellent story of dignity! IYour further comments about getting ourselves in sync with God's action is also to the point. We all know the story of the juggler of  Our Lady.  I would add  that the kind of work and life style of Mother Teresa cannot be for all.  She herself insisted that the ability to smile in the midst of such work with the destitute  was a criterion for that vocation.  Once I was telling a class of teens that  I could never do  what Mother Teresa did. Then I thought "But Mother Teresa could never handle a class of teens!" We all have our vocation. It might even be  being a cosmetologist!


#9, Dec 12, 2016 11:41am

Hi Rhett, thanks for sharing.  Good tie in with St. Teresa of Calcutta.  If anyone showed a living example of what human dignity looks like it was her.  We can look to her as an example.  And what you said about vocation is an excellent point.  Each person has their unique qualities to bring to the human dignity issue through their vocation.  And our process in life is not static.  We can change and grow in unexpected ways too.


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