The Personalist Project

While in Rome last month, we picked up a book by Thomas Cahill: Pope John XXIII, A LIfe.

Its first pages include two quotations that jump right out at a personalist. The first is by the French theologian Yves Congar about the late Pope: "He loved people more than power."

The second is from the Pope's own remarks at the opening of Vatican II [my emphasis]:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral ministry—and much to our sorrow—we must sometimes listen to those who, consumed with zeal, have scant judgment or balance...To such ones the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages, and they rant on as if they had learned nothing at all from history—and yet, history is the great Teacher of LIfe...We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity—as though the world's end were imminent.  Today, rather Providence is guiding us toward a new order of human relationships, which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing human hopes, will bring us to the realization of still higher and undreamed of expectations.

I have mentioned before and often, I think, that John Paul II, whose personalism was deliberate, deep, explicit, and rigorous, indentified two antagonistic dynamics at the center of the cosmic battle between good and evil: the post-Eden master/slave dynamic and the union and communion of self-oblating love at the heart of the gospel.

One opposite of love is "use."  Another is "power," that is to say, power as a mode human relations. Power seeks to make others conform to my will; love freely puts self in service of others.

I would like to propose that this idea can be understood as a discovery or achievement of the modern world, and specifically of Christian personalism.

I'm only thinking out loud here, but would it not be right to say that love used to be understood as almost co-terminous with "doing good," so that, as long as an act had objective good as its aim, it could be considered an act of love?

Of course that conception captures a vital element of the truth—an element that is all too easily lost in modern thought. Love aims at the (objective) good. Love does (objective) good. It's not enough to mean well. It's not enough to feel loving.

But that aspect of the truth has another, complementary aspect that has become clearer and been more fully articulated in our age, namely a personalist aspect. Love aims at the good for persons as persons, as subjects, as other free agents. This means, among other things, that coercion is recocgnized as antagonistic to love, and with it propaganda, paternalism, and all other forms of misrespecting the person. 

It's not enough for me to do objective good for the other; I have to do good in a way that duly respect the other as person, as a free agent.

So, to make the point more concrete. In earlier days, relations between parents and children were understood largely in terms of authority and obedience. Good parents exercised firm authority, for the good of the children; good children were obedient to their parents.  Now we understand that it's more complicated than that. Good parents also have to attend to developing their childrens' sense of freedom and personal responsiibility. They have to learn to respect and cultivate their childrens' conscience and individuality.  

Formerly, a father was understood to be a good and loving father if he made sure that he found a good husband for his daughter. Now we understand that a good and loving father realizes that his daughter must find her own husband. Likewise, catechizing used to be conceived mainly as providing sound doctrine to young Catholics. Now we understand more deeply the importance of the child coming to subjectively appropriate the truths of our Faith. It's not enough that we teach what's true; we also have to inspire the child to take up that truth in a genuine, free and personal way.

Good government used to be conceived almost solely in terms of whether the rulers did good for their subjects. Now we understand good government much more in terms of the limits of those in power vis-à-vis their constituents.  Good politicians respect the rights and protect the liberties of the people. We deplore paternalism in our public leaders. And so on.

I'm speaking too broadly and simplistically, of course, but I think the point is valid nonetheless. I think further that we are only just beginning to realize all its practical implications.

Pope John XXIII was not exaggerating; he wasn't being a naive Pollyanna when he claimed that Vatican II was about "a new order of human relationships." Rather, he was correctly interpreting "the signs of the times"—the true "theme" of our era.

Comments (1)

Sam Roeble

#1, Nov 19, 2013 3:41pm

The Yves Congar reference to this article is clutch.  he got me thinking about this...

An interesting study would be the interrelationship between virtue (both cardinal and theological) and persons.  I have heard it said that the "virtues are the muscles by which we love others"

As relates to John XXIII, his calling for VCII challenged the laity to 'flex' their muscles in the Church!

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