The Personalist Project

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from a Dutch Catholic newspaper about the upcoming ToB conference in Rolduc. She'd seen the list of speakers and topics and was particularly interested in mine. She asked if she could interview me about it. With some trepidation, since my talk isn't finished and I know it's easy to cause misunderstandings by over or under-emphasizing various aspects of such a complex problem, I agreed. She encouraged me to be expansive, so I was, though I still inevitably left out a lot of what can and should be said about clericalism and its remedies.

In my talk, for instance, I mean to incorporate fuller references to ToB and to offer more in the way of hopeful solutions for the future.

The reporter translated my answers to her questions in no time flat. The article was published in Dutch this week. I thought it would be good to publish the whole thing in English too, for those who may be interested.

Here it is. I'll put her questions in bold and italics.

KN: You are going to speak at the Theology of the Body conference, can you explain to the readers what is theology of the body?

Me: ToB is a collection of reflections given by John Paul II at his Wednesday audiences from 1979 to 1984 on the topic of human sexuality and its place in God’s plan of salvation. On one level, it was meant to offer the deep theological and anthropological rationale behind the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae. More broadly and significantly, though, it can be seen as the late Pope’s profound and comprehensive answer to the major questions raised by modernity.

What has Theology of the body to say to our time? Why is it urgent today? Why did this emerge as central in our day?

We (at least we in the west) seem to live in a time of disconnect between the Church and the modern world. It’s a condition with many causes going all the way back at least to the Protestant Reformation—the breakdown of religious and cultural unity in Europe—followed by the rise of science, the industrial revolution, the spread of atheistic materialism, two cataclysmic world wars and the collapse of the monarchical and aristocratic systems of social organization, which had been so closely aligned with the Church. Then came technology and mass media, and finally, the birth control pill and the sexual revolution, which seemed to finalize the divorce, so to speak, between the Church and modern society. 

 My husband remembers well growing up in a Catholic village in Noord Brabant as a normal Dutch boy in the 70s and 80s, more or less taking it for granted that religion was a thing of the past. It was for old people or weak people who couldn’t cope with the discovery that life basically boils down to molecules. It wasn’t something he was taught explicitly; it was just the cultural air he breathed.

Pope John Paul II understood all this, as did all the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. They saw that the Church was losing its hold on people. It was out of step with modern developments and out of touch with the real concerns of today’s men and women. It seemed stuck in another age. So, those leaders undertook a great renewal. It was a paradigm shift, not in fundamental doctrine (which never changes), but in attitude, mode and ethos. In place of a defensive and didactic disposition toward the world, the Church would be open, receptive, affirming, and responsive.  Among other things, this involved a shift away from a natural law approach to morality toward a more personalist approach. The bottom-line moral conclusions remain what they were, but the way of arriving at them, living them, and offering them to the world has changed dramatically. 

So, for example, whereas before the Church had condemned artificial birth control as against nature and therefore sinful, today the Church instead wants to unfold the essential link between human sexuality, personal happiness and God’s plan of love for the world and for each of us, so that when we see it, we are irresistibly drawn to it. We choose it freely for ourselves, because we realize that it corresponds to the deepest desires of our hearts. 

But it’s more than just a repackaging of the same truths to make them more amenable to modern tastes. The new disposition established at Vatican II meant that the Church was now willing to learn from the world. Listening and receptivity were notable traits of John Paul II’s personality and character. He studied, he sympathized with, he paid close attention to modern experience, including, for example, feminism. Then, with his incisive mind, his deep faith, and his fearless spirit, he was able to absorb its values and insights and bring them into fruitful contact with the Tradition of the Church. He sifted the wheat from the chaff, and then incorporated the wheat into his magisterial teaching, so that something new and vital and beautiful could emerge.

From this point of view, we can see that Theology of the Body is both a fruit and a development of Vatican II. It’s the fulfilment of one of its major promises, and at the same time a sort of road map for fulfilling the rest. Pope Francis said somewhere that it takes about 100 years for the Church to assimilate a council as momentous at Vatican II. We’re about half way there. 

Personally, I think the next great stage in the assimilation will have to do with overcoming clericalism.

What do you mean by clericalism? You see it as a big problem of today’s Church? What do you think is the solution to clericalism?

I have in mind two basic things. One is outward and structural. It’s the state of affairs in the Church, whereby the clergy hold all the property and all the decision-making power, while the laity are essentially passive and dependent, like serfs in medieval society or wives under Sharia law, though that’s maybe putting the point too strongly. We’re not abused. Our basic rights are respected. We have a role to play and the essentials we need to live comfortably, but we’re not on the same level as the clergy. We’re second-class citizens, so to speak. 

So, for example, in the two parishes we’re connected to here in America, decisions get made by the pastors, and the laity aren’t even informed, never mind consulted. I have in mind decisions like how to spend the money that comes in, whether to hire a musical director, what times mass is offered, whether and how to renovate the buildings, who uses the buildings for what purposes, whether the parish will offer Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, who will run the religious education programs, what outreach initiatives will be offered, etc. Parishes have advisory councils, but they lack any decision-making power. Everything is up to the priests. There’s basically no room for lay initiatives or even any effective means of communication among the laity. The only way to “get more involved” is to volunteer for the pastors’ programs.  We can act as his arms in the parish life, but not really as independent agents.

This isn’t the fault of priests. It’s a structure we all inherited from earlier ages, a structure that served the Church well for centuries, but that has been outmoded, as I see it, by developments, including both historical developments and the theological developments found in the Theology of the Body.

The second meaning of clericalism has to do with inward habits of thinking and relating. In the philosophical world, it’s called the master/slave dynamic. In psychology and therapeutic circles it’s referred to as “one up/one down.” In it most extreme form, it’s literally a master/slave relation. The master’s will rules. The slave is exploited as if he has no rights, no independence, so subjectivity. He exists as an object to serve the master’s purposes. 

But most instances are much subtler and less evil than that. it’s just a case of one person or group being superior, the other inferior. The superior has his role, the slave has hers. And each has a corresponding set of virtues for keeping the peace and achieving the common good. If he wants to be good, the “master” will be patient, benevolent and generous, not harsh or overbearing or too demanding. If the “slave” wants to be good, she will be submissive, docile, and uncomplaining, not rebellious.

To see better what I mean, think of the differences between the ruling class and indigenous people in colonial societies, or between whites and blacks in the Jim Crow era in the American south or between labor and management in the early part of the 20thcentury or between aristocrats and commoners in, say, Victorian England, or even between husbands and wives before feminism came on the scene. It’s important to stress that I don’t mean to speak only of gross social injustices. There are relatively benign, even practically innocent forms of the master/slave dynamic throughout history and society. They come with the territory of being human.

But we see a definite trend against it throughout the modern period, a growing sense of the value and dignity of each individual—their right not to be defined and controlled by their place in a social hierarchy. 

Again and again, in matters great and small, a moment comes when the status quois challenged by the “slave,” who thinks the time is ripe for change. 

I love to think in this connection of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, which so compellingly and charmingly captures the phenomenon in the story of an early 20thcentury Jewish father of 5 daughters. They live in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia. In their traditional society, it’s for the father to choose the daughters’ husbands. When his first daughter pleads for permission to marry the poor tailor instead of the rich butcher her father had chosen for her, he is outraged. She says, “But Papa, I love him!” This assertion at first strikes the father as preposterous. What does love have to do with marriage? His concern is with her economic welfare. It’s not just preposterous; it’s dangerous. Their society is held together by its traditions. Abandon those, and it will fall apart. But, Tevya is basically a good person and a loving father, so he opens himself to his daughter’s plea. He looks at her—not in her role as his daughter, but as an individual in her own right, with her own hopes and dreams. He sings a song, “Look at my daughter’s face.” He is moved by what he sees there, and he realizes he has to relent. If he doesn’t, he will destroy her happiness. 

Then the second daughter comes to tell him she wants to marry a revolutionary—a man who will take her far away from the village, from her home and family. Tevya says no, but she replies, “Papa, we’re not asking for your permission; we’re asking for your blessing.” This is another blow for Tevya. A worse one. It upsets his entire worldview, his sense of himself, his identity, and his role in the world. The viewer sees the problem, but, at the same time, we see that it had to happen, that the daughters do well to insist on their right of self-determination. We’re glad when Tevya accepts the new reality he’s confronting. We know, and he knows, it will involve difficulties, but even so, it has to be accepted. And watching it, we trust that it will all be okay. Tevya’s essential character remains, as does his faith in God and his love of his family, while his heart and his mind expand.

That’s a fictional example. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes a real one in her book, Infidel. She tells of the day she decided to defy her father and the customs of the Muslim faith and society she was raised in. Instead of taking the train all the way to meet the man her father had arranged for her to marry, she stepped off at an earlier station and became a refugee in a foreign country. She calls the day her “birthday as a person,” because it was the day she took her life and destiny in her own hands.

These are typical examples, and it’s not an accident that they have to do with marriage, which is a mystery at the heart of personal happiness and personal vocation.

Older forms of living, valid as they may have been in their time and place, have to accommodate new insights as they come. That’s the way we mature as persons and as communities. It’s a matter of putting new wine in new wineskins.

This is how I see the problem of clericalism in the Church. It’s a historical relic—an institutional structure and way of relating that assumes that the clergy are socially and religiously abovethe laity, and that that’s the way it’s meant to be—just like parents are above their children or teachers above their students. Just like husbands used to be above their wives.

What (negative/positive) connection do you see between ToB and clericalism?

Well, the ToB is all about love and marriage, and so is the relationship between clergy and laity. It’s meant to be conjugal. Why are priests celibate? Because they are called to live marriage in an eschatological way. Their spouse is the People of God. A priest is meant to lay down his life for his cogregation, to pay close attention to it as a body of believers, to respond to it, and make it spiritually fruitful through the preaching of the Word and the grace of the sacraments. The priesthood isn’t a career any more than being a husband and father is a career. Like marriage, it’s a personalvocation to a total, reciprocal, and fruitful union of love. 

The key words there are personal and reciprocal. The major development of ToB, I propose, is that it revealed that “from the beginning”, that is, from Genesis, from Eden, from God’s original design for human life, marriage was meant to be a relation of reciprocalself-giving and other-receiving. The master/slave dynamic came in with the fall. That was the beginning of the one up/one down mode of interpersonal relating that has menaced human life and human interactions ever since.

Redemption, as it is revealed in ToB, is all about achieving true inter-personal reciprocity. And that means the “master” in any given relationship or situation (both individual and corporate) has to “empty himself,” and the “slave” has to assert herself as person, as a unique and self-determining subject. The moment the two genuinely regard each other as person and begin to “defer to one another in Christ,” is the moment we move from the dynamics of power, which are the mode of the fall, to the dynamics of love, which are the mode of the gospel, the mode of redemption. And that’s where we find joy and new life for the world.

What would happen if every Catholic would embrace and live the ToB? 

If every Catholic lived the ToB, we’d already be in heaven. The whole world would rush join us, because our love would be so manifest and radiant and overwhelmingly attractive. But while we’re working our way toward that goal as individuals, it would be good, too, if the Church as a whole could take steps toward realizing ToB more fully and practically in terms of relations between the clergy and the laity. 

Would it change the Church as it is now? 

Yes, in a way analogous to the changes in marriage that have happened over the course of the last 50 or 60 years. 

I mean changes like a new awareness of the centrality of love, and of the equality of women—their right to pursue education and careers, for example, and their right not to be instrumentalized by their fertility or completely submerged in their function as mother and wife. I love that fathers are typically much more involved with raising their children than they were in my parents’ generation and more attentive toward their wives. I love all the beautiful teachings on sexuality and resources like Natural Family Planning that married couples have at our disposal now. So, even though there are many terrible problems affecting family life in our society, there’s no time I’d rather be in a Catholic marriage than today.

My husband and I had the great gift of encountering John Paul II and the Theology of the Body before we got married thirty years ago. I’m so grateful. I wish everyone had that gift. 

But to be more concrete: On the level of structure, applying the principles of ToB to the problem of clericalism will involve the laity acquiring greater influence and decision-making power in the Church, as Pope Francis has consistently called for. It will involve the clergy “handing over” responsibility for the practical affairs of the local body of believers, as the Apostles did in Acts, chapter 6.

On the inward level, it will involve the clergy learning to listen and defer more to the laity—to regard us as peers. They will have to make a point of not thinking of themselves as “in charge” and “in control” and “above,” while the laity are responsible to “pay, pray and obey.”  It means recognizing and affirming the laity’s right to self-determination as a body of believers. On the part of the laity, it will mean learning to take more responsibility, to have more confidence in our rights and dignity as baptized, and to avoid the habits of excessive deference and passivity that have been ingrained in us over centuries. 

It's maybe important to add that none of this entails a loss or downplaying of the essential difference between the clerical and lay vocations. On the contrary, marriage implies complementarity as much as it implies reciprocity.

What do you see as the main challenges for the Church today? Abuse scandals, a symptom of a failing system?

The abuse scandals are the extreme version of the master/slave dynamic. They are, at least in part, a result of the clergy having too much power and the laity having too little. Too much power + human condition = abuse.

Those are the worst cases. On a much broader scale, the structural and inward imbalance in relations between the laity and the clergy means that we’re unable to fulfill our redemptive mission in the world. We’re not nearly fruitful enough. Pope Francis has pointed out the obvious fact that the laity make up the vast majority of the Church. But in the status quo, the charisms of our baptism are effectively suppressed rather than cultivated. I think this is basically what the Pope means when he says we have to move from “maintenance to mission.” Rather than spending all our energy and resources keeping the status quo intact, we should break it open and let the Holy Spirit loose.

How do you think this (practically?) will be achieved? What steps are necessary?

The practical steps will vary according to the differing circumstances of time and place. And the steps for clergy and laity will be different too. In general, the clergy should move in a “handing over” and “standing down” direction, gradually learning to defer more to the laity. The laity should move in a “taking up” and “standing up” direction, gradually learning to be bolder and more self-standing vis a vis the clergy—like the daughters in Fiddler on the Roofvis a vis their father. It’s not a power struggle; it’s a struggle for love, waged under grace.

You’re talking about personalism. Is this in the same as what the charismatic renewal emphasizes about having a personal relationship with Christ? Weren’t there always mystics like Teresa de Avila who keeps reminding the Church to personal engage with God or is this a new phase in time? 

The charismatic renewal is certainly a sign and manifestation of the “turn toward subjectivity” that characterizes the action of the Church in our day, the fundamental shift that was formalized at Vatican II. You see in the renewal the change in ethos the Council fathers had called for and anticipated. Instead of understanding what it means to be Catholic in primarily objective terms: accept the teachings, go to mass, obey the law, etc., the emphasis is on interiority, on a personal communion of love with God.

Of course, as in all true renewal, this isn’t a break with the past, but a recovery of a deeper past—a restoration of the original meaning and experience of our faith.

But when I speak of personalism, I’m also referring to a modern school of thought, a new way of approaching the perennial questions and problems of human experience. It’s described well in the “about us” essay at our website, which was written by our form professor, John F. Crosby, an authority on John Paul II. 

When I read your post on your website I sense a lot of fire, you want a revolution in the Church, where laity and clergy are much more equal. Why are you so passionate about this subject?

My passion has I guess two sources: my love for the Church and my frustration with the status quo. I look at the laity and see so much potential—an absolute treasure trove of vital charisms—and it’s buried under a giant mass of hereditary bureaucracy and bad habits. We’re dormant. And meanwhile, priests are exhausted and demoralized. The good ones have been pouring themselves out, but they haven’t been receiving. It’s been too one-sided and dysfunctional. It’s time for that to change.

It’s time for relations between the clergy and the laity become more like marriage in ToB.

I’m so grateful for the chance to talk about all this in the Netherlands, the country that gave me my husband.



Comments (5)


#1, May 23, 2019 12:03pm

Do you have the link to the original article in Dutch?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, May 23, 2019 2:46pm

I don't think it's online.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, May 23, 2019 2:47pm

If it is, I haven't seen it.


#4, May 23, 2019 3:52pm

Exactly, couldn’t find it. Can you send it to me by email?

Katie van Schaijik

#5, May 24, 2019 7:00am

If you email the PP, Jules should get the note. (He's on the road today.) My email isn't functioning. 

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