The Personalist Project

Further to my post of yesterday: The paragraphs following the one I quoted from that 1992 Letter to Priests draw the point out further to include another element I've been trying to articulate to myself for many moons now.

Before JP II and his Theology of the Body, marriage was represented in Church teaching and praxis in an "excessively objectivistic" way. Spouses were understood to be basically responsible to try to instantiate as nearly as possible the ideal essence of marriage, including its objective primary end of procreation.

So, my basic moral task in life was to do my best to be a good wife and mother. I measured my successes and failures against that general standard. (It was wretchedly discouraging.)

Thanks to JP II, the Church's new understanding of marriage—at least in her theology, if not yet fully in praxis—is far more personalistic. Now I recognize that my primary task isn't so much to be a good wife, but rather to love Jules, in all his concrete specificity, and to receive his love for me. This turns out to be a much more doable and enjoyable moral mission. "This I can manage, if you'll help me, Lord!" and "You mean, that's it?! That's all I have to do?!"

From this personalist perspective, too, children are received as the superabundant gift of love, rather than the primary "end" of marriage. It heals a terrible tendency first acknowledged by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae for women especially to feel instrumentalized by their fertility and subsumed by their social role as wife and mother. (For this reason, I dislike presentations on HV that treat it as if it boils down to a re-affirmation of the Church's long-standing prohibition on artificial birth control. It was much more than that. It was also the beginning of a quite dramatic development in Church teaching on marriage, which included a hitherto unimaginable endorsement of Natural Family Planning as a positive good for marriage.)

What the Church wants and needs at this moment in ecclesial history, I propose, is for the same spiritual adjustment to be made with respect to relations between clergy and laity. 

The spousal love that priests are to live isn't meant only to be directed abstractly to the Church as an ideal essence, as the Mystical Bride of Christ, but primarily concretely, to the People of God, to this people of God—the people right here, right now, my congregation, in all their corporate individuality and specificity. 

Here is JP II: [my bold]

The gift of self, which is the source and synthesis of pastoral charity, is directed toward the Church. This was true of Christ who "loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25), and the same must be true for the priest. With pastoral charity, which distinguishes the exercise of the priestly ministry as an amoris officium,(52) "the priest, who welcomes the call to ministry, is in a position to make this a loving choice, as a result of which the Church and souls become his first interest, and with this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife."

As startling and challenging as this new teaching may be, the good news is that it's actually a much easier, much more delightful and rewarding a way to live than the other way. We know that from the experience of married couples who have been living the Theology of the Body for decades.

A major problem with the status quo is that especially good priests are exhausted and demoralized. They've been pouring themselves out as heads, shepherd, governors, CEOs, CFO's of large, unresponsive organizations. They haven't been giving and receiving love as spouse.

When we finally make this shift, we can expect a great renewal, and lots and lots of beautiful fruit. 

Comments (8)

Rhett Segall

#1, May 31, 2019 7:14pm

Hmm...My pastor is my spouse...Well, I suspect JP11, speaking to the male clergy, felt it appropriate to provide them with a motivational metaphor for radical generosity. I wonder how well it would go down in mixed audiences! I'm afraid it conjures up images of "Father knows best".(I know there's been a reappraisal of "wives obey your husbands" in past decades; still...)

I'm not at all happy at imaging the priest as representing Christ as bridegroom. I think further that the multiple marriages men and women are engaged in today and the very confused role of gender today calls  us to be very careful with this metaphor. (When I give blood the technician is obliged, yes obliged, to ask me what gender I am. Ouch!)

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 1, 2019 3:17pm

Your pastor isn't your spouse. Your wife is your spouse.

Your pastor is the spouse of the congregation, the corporate subject of the local body of believers. The Church (including in its subgroups, like the local parish) is essentially feminine, which is a key reason that priests have to be male.

It's not just motivational talk, it's the deep theology of the Church, as laid out in ToB.

ToB (together with the rest of JP II's teaching) also shows clearly that reciprocity is of the essence of spousal love. "Wives obey your husbands" was identified by JP II as a cultural relic of ancient Judaism. It no longer obtains, except as conditioned by the more fundamental command: "defer to one another in Christ." Spouses defer equally to one another. "Reciprocity" is one of the key terms in ToB. The Pope identifies it with "original innocence." The master/slave dynamic came in with the fall.

This is why ToB is such a crucial remedy for clericalism. Sheep are under shepherds. Children owe their fathers obedience. Wives are not under their husbands; they are fully equal, complementary others.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 1, 2019 3:51pm

"In Christ there is neither man nor woman" isn't interpreted by the Church as an abolition of sexual difference, but rather as an abolition of the social hierarchy that had put men above women.

Likewise, the principle doesn't abolish the difference between the lay and clerical vocations. What it does is challenge us to work toward due spousal reciprocity, which is the dynamic of redemption, and to purify ourselves of every vestige of the master/slave mode of relating, which is the dynamic of the fall.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 3, 2019 8:32am

Rhett, re-reading this morning makes me want to make another point. It's about generosity. One of the things I regret about the way ToB is often presented is as if it defines love as self-giving. I've addressed this before, including here.

In stressing the spousal character of a priest's relation to his congregation, I see the Pope not so much exhorting priests to give themselves more generously, but rather to  receive and cherish that particular congregation, with all its gifts and needs and potentialities. He has to see and affirm their unique spiritual wealth. He as to recognize and cultivate their charisms, because he needs them, as priest, and the world needs them for its redemption.

I know I'm not the only layperson who often senses that a priest is working for a parish with sincerity and generosity—sometimes to the point of total exhaustion— but without ever really receiving us. He doesn't even see us in our subjectivity. We are, in effect, treated as the objects of his ministrations, not as self-standing equals whom he needs, and to whom he should open himself.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 3, 2019 8:33am

To me, it's worrying that I often hear Catholics talk of priests as "basically the CEO of an organization with a mulit-million dollar budget." They evidently don't see that as problematic, except insofar as some priests aren't well-trained for that job.

Priest as bridegroom, though, bothers them, notwithstanding the fact that it's the prime scriptural metaphor for relations between God and Israel and Jesus and the Church.

We're uncomfortable with intimacy. We prefer the safety of more objective relations.

The problem is, though, that redemption is an interpersonal dynamic. It only happens when there is mutual openness and mutual self-giving, and where the focus of the love is not some external "end", but the other person.

I really appreciate your honestly in sharing your reaction. It helps me understand better the challenges we're facing as a Church.

Rhett Segall

#6, Jun 3, 2019 11:15am

Katie, on a few occasions, at liturgy, I've had a sense that the congregation was totally into praising and loving the Lord as a bride for her groom. But here it was a sense that Christ was the groom and He was deeply pleased with , well, His bride.In some of my reading in spirituality I've come across the idea that "every soul is feminine before God." I understand what this means metaphysically butI think Elizabeth Johnson might bristle at the idea!

Yes, we are uncomfortable with intimacy, and rightly so if isn't organically arrived at. Your points on mutual self=giving and reciprocity are well expressed. However, I think Ephesians is quite modest about the bridal image and Christ. "This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church." (Eph.5:32)

By the way, have you read Luke Timothy Johnson's "A Disembodied Theology of the Body"?  You'll probably say "Burn it!" But Johnson needs to be heard.


Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 3, 2019 11:50am

I don't know who Elizabeth Johnson is. Regardless, again, my point is that it's not each individual who is bride of the priest, but rather the congregation as a corporate subject.

This is Church teaching, not my personal opinion. It goes a long way toward explaining why the priesthood is reserved for men.

I don't read Ephesians as modest, but rather monumental in its elevation of marriage as the human image of redemption. Its significance is drawn out in ToB.

There's nothing wrong with being concerned with inappropriate intimacy or premature intimacy. But there is something wrong with the rejection of intimacy as such, which is chronic and debilitating in the Church today.

Without it, we're simply not being Church, we're utterly lacking in our witness of Truth. (You can't be of "one heart and mind" without intimacy. In fact, "being of one heart and mind" is a pretty good definition of intimacy.)

Obviously, JP II's ToB calls for embodied love.

How a corporate subject is embodied is topic for another post. I'll just say here that one of the key problems we're dealing with is that in the status quo, the local body of believers is actually wretchedly disembodied. 

Rhett Segall

#8, Jun 3, 2019 12:37pm

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson C.S.J. is saying important things on feminism and God.

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