The Personalist Project

I ran across an excellent post the other day by Jen Fitz called “The Shame that Breeds Helplessness is Destroying Our Parishes.” It applies to a lot more than the title suggests.

The post addressed the recent Pew survey’s findings about the decline of Christians and the rise of the "Nones" (or religiously unaffiliated), but along the way, Jen makes a much broader point about the person.  She had set out to do an informal poll of a group of parents she knew, to see how many of their children—the 18-to-30-year-olds—still attended weekly Mass. She reasoned that we could all benefit from their experience--sorting through what they were doing right, or not, and how that stacked up against current assumptions about how to reach this age group.

But then she thought better of it because “I knew the parents would be embarrassed." She continues:

We Catholics have a taboo about discussing specific families, or even our specific parish programs, because we don’t want people to feel bad. All parents know that you can do everything right and still end up with children who use their free will all wrong. 

Then comes the really interesting part:

The trouble with the taboo, though, is that statistics don’t have eternal souls. Statistics don’t leave the Church. It’s not a percentage that fails to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ, it’s a person. A person with a name, a person known by God and by us, a person with a story. A person with reasons. …

It seems like Catholics are, almost to a man, terrified of real human beings. We lump people into broad categories and talk about problems that way, as if you ever met a category who was pressured into an abortion, or saw a category turn out at the confessional after thirty years away. “Just the other day I was at the grocery store, and I met the nicest category in the check-out line,” said no one ever.

There are only persons. Children are not begotten and borne by some vague generic entity; each one arrives in this world by the cooperation of a specific man and woman.

We never, ever talk about specific persons. We treat specific people as aberrations. “Well, yes, my daughter Madison isn’t going to church right now, but that’s because…” and we wave it away. Madison’s the exception. She’s been excused from the category, on account of how we actually know her. (emphasis mine)

I don’t think it’s just Catholics, though: I think it’s human beings. I know I’ve slipped into it. Everyone has. You form a conception of a “type”—liberals, conservatives, feminists, traditionalists, southerners, intellectuals, teenagers…

Understand, I’m not talking about bigotry. I’m talking about benevolently “lumping people into broad categories” because you’re trying to help them more efficiently. With billions of people to consider, if you’re trying to get some of them to do something, or think something, or approve of something, and you want to know what will appeal to them, you have to treat them as a lump. Don’t you? Sure, it would be nice to approach each one as a unique creature, an unrepeatable thought straight from the mind of God, with certain gifts, strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes, wounds, soft spots—but who has that kind of time?

And then I think of some of the most dramatically effective people out there: Mother Teresa, Pope Francis. They both make a big point of engaging people one on one, and encouraging others to do the same. 

Jen's post reminded me, too, of a scene in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. Mark Studduck, a mostly well-meaning but disastrously weak and unsubstantial man, is touring a village slated for destruction by the totalitarian organization he's gotten himself entangled with. 

They walked about that village for two hours and saw with their own eyes all the abuses and anachronisms they came to destroy. They saw the recalcitrant and backward labourer and heard his views on the weather. They met the wastefully supported pauper in the person of an old man shuffling across the courtyard of the almshouses to fill a kettle, and the elderly rentier (to make matters worse, she had a fat old dog with her) in earnest conversation with the postman. 

Against his better judgment, Mark is charmed by the human warmth so glaringly absent in his fellow sociologists at the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). But:

All this did not in the least influence his sociological could not have done so, for his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things that he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes" and "populations": for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

It seems to me that maybe Pope Francis and Mother Teresa are on to something.

As sensible as it seems at first glance, lumping people into groups is an injustice that distorts our vision. We can't see that the objects of our benevolence are also subjects. And the lumping process doesn’t even deliver on the efficiency it promises.

Because in the end, there are only persons.

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