The Personalist Project

Touching our discussion about prudishness, I came across just now in a book by Greg Popcak, this remark by the great English convert to Catholicism, Fr. Ronald Knox:

Jansenism never learned to smile. Its adherents forget, after all, to believe in grace, so hag-ridden are they by their sense of the need for it.

I can recognize this clearly in the Irish Catholic milieu I come from. And it occurs to me as I type that this same dynamic is at work in the anti-NFP providentialists I have clashed with over the years. So full of mistrust of themselves are they—so concerned about the possibility of illegitimate motives in the practice of NFP—that they believe and teach that married couples are best off, morally, leaving the size of their family up to God.

I see it, too, in the courtship movement. Since sexual sin is such a near and present danger, the best thing, i.e. the safest thing to do (its proponents argue) is avoid all physical contact until the wedding day. Here is convert from Calvinism, Steve Wood, in his The ABC’s of Choosing a Good Husband:

Postponing all physical affection until marriage is insurance for a relationship that you really care about. The wisest answer to the “Just how far can we go?” is: “Zero,” “Nada,” “Zip.” Save all the fire for your marriage, and your relationship won’t get burned.

The more I think about it, the more sympathetic I become with Christopher West’s sense that prudishness, or Jansenism, is a much more serious and widespread problem in the Church than we commonly realize.

Comments (12)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Jul 10, 2009 10:10am

In case anyone is interested in this NFP clash Katie mentions in her post, you can find a great article of hers here:

(The related articles at the bottom of the article continue the discussion.  The Concourse is no longer published, but we can always pick up the thread right here in The Linde.)


#2, Jul 11, 2009 10:43am

I agree wholeheartedly, Katie.  I was caught in this conflict myself for awhile.  I had been reading all of these people such as Steve Wood who seem to equate chastity with no physical affection and getting caught up in the fairy-tale of “how romantic it would be to share your first kiss on your wedding day”.  I shared some of this with my young adult daughter who was attending the St. Ignatius Institute at USF.  She informed me that what I was saying was contrary to what the professors in SII were teaching her.  This gave me pause since I had great respect for the professors there. But then about the same time we were introduced to CW’s material and I began to have a different understanding.

This type of thinking is Jansenist, yes, but I believe that we are getting it primarily through Protestantism.  As Cardinal George once said, we all think as Protestants in this country—even Catholics.  I tend to be one of those who think that we are much different than Protestants—we have a very different worldview and it affects everything we do.  The difference is clearly manifested in subjects such as these.

I really enjoyed your article that Jules provided the link for as well.  Again, this is a conflict that I have witnessed and come to the same conclusion as you have.  We cannot judge another person’s holiness by the number of children they have.  There are, I’m sure, those who have a lot of children who are not very holy at all.  Possibly all they have is a lack of mastery of self!  One needs to very objectively look at one’s own individual circumstances and discern very carefully if their marriage and their children are flourishing or not and, if not,in either case, it might be necessary to postpone another child temporarily, or even permanently.  Our physical, emotional and spiritual selves are all very unique and we have to be discerning to know when to bring new life into our families.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 13, 2009 4:43am

You may be right, Lauretta, that what I’m calling the Jansenist streak in our culture comes mainly through Protestantism.  Although, Jansen’s influence in Ireland was apparently rather huge, as is the influence of the Irish on the Catholic Church in America.  Either way, I note two features in particular: a kind of joyless moral rigorism, and a fear of and distaste for carnality (in the sense of bodiliness).
People who suffer from this religious and moral deformation (I am one of them!) tend to be weighed down by guilt and discouragement.  They are not fully free.


#4, Jul 14, 2009 12:28am

This type of thinking is Jansenist, yes, but I believe that we are getting it primarily through Protestantism.

I agree 100 percent, Lauretta.

It seems to me that from the point of view of a strict Protestant who takes the moral life seriously, one has to make a hedge around the moral law—i.e. go overboard in staying away from any potential dangers. In the Protestant concept of grace and nature, there is not a possibility for a mature and robust understanding of an ongoing (ever-growing) process of sanctification—of continual, gradual inner transformation by grace. And, I would say, this is especially so because they do not have a robust sacramental theology (nor an adequately substantial theology of grace or of virtue). Without the Eucharist and Reconciliation, how is one to have confidence in an ongoing process of genuine interior transformation?

Perhaps at best, one ends up with something like Wesley and what became Methodism (at least that which followed shortly after him and took his thought seriously). He acknowledged (based on Scripture) that holiness was not an option for Christian life. We are all called to it. What he sorely lacked was a sound idea of how it is achieved. (He had a notion of a more-or-less instant or quick transformation that happened at once; a moment which would be experienced by the individual as a “transverberation” of the heart, indicating the presence of the Holy Spirit transforming the soul). Sadly, his theory and the evidence of concrete human life never corresponded very well, including in his own life.

But, by way of contrast, a Catholic vision of transformation by grace has everything needed for it all to make sense, and to be in keeping with the real experience of life! The reality of sacramental grace (as part of a larger understanding of grace and nature that includes helpful distinctions like sanctifying (or habitual) vs. actual (or auxiliary) grace), together with a well-rounded understanding of virtue—both natural and supernaturally infused—give us what we need to make sense of human life as it is actually lived on the way toward holiness.

I also think the propensity of Protestant thought to look askance at philosophy is a great handicap for them. For sound philosophical thinking is necessary to have a decent grasp of how growth in virtue takes place, and this is necessary to understand growth in holiness, for growth in holiness is, in fact, growth in supernatural virtue, which, while not the same (grace being key), is inexorably intertwined with growth in natural virtue. Without a good philosophical foundation from which to understand man (the soul, the body, the unity of body and soul, the mind, the intellectual faculties, the morally relevant powers of man, concupiscence distinguished from sin, freedom, etc.), you are pretty helpless to understand sanctification in a way that is still able to take Sacred Scripture seriously.

It seems to me that from the predominant American Protestant point of view (meaning here, Protestants that still believe in the divinity of Christ and that take the Bible seriously), one is forced to take one of two broad paths. Either disregard sanctification entirely—explain it away as somehow unbiblical or not a universal requirement or as applying only to a limited generation or some other way of getting us out of it (the predominant path taken, I think)—or, explain it somehow as important, perhaps even necessary, that it comes about in some way as a gift of God but without any depth of understanding how (without the intellectual or theological resources to understand that it is an ongoing process that takes place over time, and that it normally requires the graces delivered to man by the sacraments, frequented often, in that mysterious divine-human free and graced cooperation that is growth in supernatural virtue).

I also want to mention that in my opinion the Steve Wood-esque rigorism mentioned above (and there are things I would applaud Wood for), which indeed is too rigorist and perhaps tinged by a hidden fear of things carnal, is a phenomenon that occurs more readily among zealous laymen than among priests. At least this is my personal experience. In years of seminary and close interaction with priests (not all of them Dominican), I can hardly think of a single example of this sort of rigorism among them (admittedly this is anecdotal, but nonetheless covers a decently large number). I think the problem lies in a gap in training them to effectively catechize so as to address such a problem if it arises among their flock. And, for some, a concern for this sort of thing may not be on their radar screen as a potential problem to look out for. I may be wrong, but when it happens it seems to be largely a lay phenomenon influenced by a combination of factors to include our predominately Protestant culture and a philosophically and theologically poor catechesis of Catholic laymen.

Please disagree if your experience is different. Of anyone reading this, have you experienced this problem among priests as well, or mostly just with some laymen?

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jul 14, 2009 4:51am

The hideous scandal of the Christian Brothers in Ireland is a case of terrible rigorism among priests.  I also remember speaking with Dutch Catholics about what happened in The Netherlands after Vatican II.  It used to send out more missionaries than any country in the world.  After Vatican II, the Dutch Church sort of freaked out.  It went wild.  Many attribute this to a terrible heaviness and rigorism that was present in pre-Vatican II Dutch Catholicism (which was perhaps influenced by the Calvinism in the North.)
One youngish priest told me of the difficulties he had trying to reintroduce confession (after 30 years of none of it in his parish).  Some of the older people still had very bitter memories of priestly harshness and heaviness.  They associated the sacrament with that dark, oppressive ethos.  Sad.
This priest had to be as discrete and non-pressuring as possible.  At an adoration service during Holy Week he mentioned that he would be in the back of the Church, in case anyone wanted to talk.  The first year he had 2 people I think.  The second year 6, the third year 15…


#6, Jul 14, 2009 5:01am

Wow, thanks Katie. I suppose the degree to which clerics have been effected by this depends a great deal on the local context of both nation and the particular religious community. I had forgotten about the horrible case of Ireland.

I’m sure there were in America, examples of excessively harsh confessors. Hopefully, that is mostly behind us now.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jul 14, 2009 5:17am

Now if we could just tackle the problem of moral laxity among American priests… :)
I smile, but I am weeping too. 
Just got in the mail Philip Lawler’s, “The Faithful Departed.”  I dread reading it.

Teresa Manidis

#8, Jul 14, 2009 5:28pm

That was surreal.

As a technical writer, I spend the better part of my billable hours (proof) reading other people‚"s work.  Even when the content is excellent (I once had the privilege of perusing one of Dr. Peter J. Colosi‚"s papers before it went to press), it remains distinctly someone else‚"s, going off on tangents that I ‚Äì precisely because I am not its author ‚Äì cannot predict. 

That was not the case when I read Katie‚"s article.

I followed the link Jules posted to Katie‚"s original article on Providentialism ‚Äì and two hours later looked up from the computer screen, having just read every article by her in the archive.  To find someone who agrees with you on basic tenets of faith and religion is refreshing; to find anyone who shares your convictions and personal opinions incredible; but to read something written ten years earlier, by a third party, that not only (eloquently) expresses, but even seems to anticipate what I myself would have written on that very subject ‚Äì on many subjects ‚Äì on, seemingly, every published subject ‚Äì is one in a million.  When she spoke of Love, she was loving; when she spoke of Truth, she was truthful.  Not looking at my own YA fiction, but at some of the things I‚"ve written for medical, political and religious journals, this is what I‚"ve always strived for, and what Katie does so well.  So, again, it was a surreal experience.

Returning to the topic at hand, I (not surprisingly) agree whole-heartedly with Katie.  I remember my father always saying that it would be too easy if you could judge people by their outsides ‚Äì ‚"white-person-good-black-person-bad‚", and all that nonsense ‚Äì that that was the ‚"non-thinking‚" man‚"s way out.  He extended this to include arguments about family size ‚Äì that you weren‚"t necessarily a good Catholic because you had many kids, or a bad one because you had fewer ‚Äì that that, too, would be as judgmental, as ‚"non-thinking‚" (and as unworthy of his kids) as any other form of prejudice.  So, luckily I was personally spared from this misconception.  But many mothers I have met have suffered (in my opinion, needlessly) over this divisive internal conflict. (Continued)

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Jul 14, 2009 5:55pm

Well, Teresa.  I’m flattered.  Also touched, and very encouraged by the thought that old writing of mine holds up for someone like you.  Gives me hope that my ability to carry through a thought into a article-length argument might revive someday. :)

Teresa Manidis

#10, Jul 14, 2009 6:31pm

While agreeing with Katie that many with large families are ‚"worthy of our admiration," and ‚"willing to endure sacrifices . . . out of love for children and commitment to Faith,‚" not everyone is called to this specific vocation; God calls each of us to play out our personal role in His great plan of Salvation.  There are many women who are perfectly happy with (what the world would call) their ‚"large‚" families.  But, there are also women (sadly, this is the second generation of women I have known) who become proficient only at the ‚"early years‚" (babies, child care, etc) and balk at the challenge of older kids. 

This becomes a problem as these older children (necessarily) present different needs, and express more independent thoughts and opinions (personally, my favorite stage of development).  These same mothers may revert to what they know by having more babies ‚Äì not really out of choice (because they‚"ve abdicated decision making to Providentialism itself), or, I would argue, not even out of love (for the older child, at any rate), but out of a misplaced fear ‚Äì a fear of the unknown (an independent child) and a fear of their own sinfulness (ingrained after years of agonizing over their own ‚"selfish‚" motives for ‚"ever even considering NFP in the first place‚"). 

Any hardships these women may encounter as a result of their action (discounting their older children‚"s present needs, in favor of their current and future babies‚" care) is seen as ‚"self-sacrificing‚" and ‚"noble‚" within the Providentialist paradigm; and when their older children (I will not say, ‚"inevitably‚") experience their own behavioral and social difficulties, due (in part) to a lack of parental involvement, their overly exhausted parents can only ask, What could we have done about it? We can only do so much.  We were too busy raising our younger children to have time to deal with [sex, drugs, drinking, etc]‚".  And, in a sense, they know they‚"re right; and, in a sense, they know they‚"re wrong.  So, as a sort of ‚"penance,‚" or further ‚"self-sacrifice,‚" they may ‚"choose‚" to become pregnant, and start the cycle all over again.

Again, I cannot reiterate enough that this (less than favorable) picture is not the experience of every woman with a ‚"large‚" family ‚Äì far from it!  Many women are extremely happy in their chosen vocation, and they would be right to correct me if I did not add this hearty disclaimer; but really, there would be no need for them to do so.  I have friends who, out of love, chose to open their hearts to their sixth, to their seventh, to their eighth little wonder; and the love in their welling eyes was testimony enough to God‚"s true ‚"Providence‚" in their lives and in their choice. 

It is only when there is no thought, no discernment for God‚"s individual (and, at times, unusual) call to each and every person ‚Äì it is only when this ‚"choice‚" is thrust upon an unwilling parent, through a ruthless sense of obligation, blind to all imperatives but procreation, ignoring self and family and even existing children ‚Äì that I find this a rather impersonal lifestyle.  It has sadly been the experience of my own, often deeply-conflicted friends that the ideals of Providentialism do not play out very well when put into practical use; and it is my regret that there are women of character and intelligence ‚Äì women who had (and still could have) so much to offer their world and their church, who, either through fear or indoctrination, have unwittingly buried their lamp under the bushel of never-ending baby bottles, diapers and an inescapable sense of guilt and inadequacy.

Going back to another of Katie‚"s scintillating posts, it‚"s like a kind of spiritual burqa‚Ķ

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jul 14, 2009 6:44pm

I agree, Teresa.  When I re-read that original article of mine the other day, I thought that were I to write it now, I would be put more emphasis on the problem of providentialism—the problem of women having babies in an unfree way.  It’s clearer to me than it was then that this is one way Catholic families are burdened and weighed down in the world.  It’s also clearer than it was that the children in these families suffer.
O for a perfect world!


#12, Jul 31, 2009 7:21am

Great thread!


You provide a good argument against extremism; however, I think that one day the crusade of Christopher West against prudery will be acknowledged as another form of cultural reactionism, one, I might add, that is not mandated by the teaching of John Paul II.

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