The Personalist Project

In part one, I spoke of my experience of authoritarian control as part of the backdrop of my understanding of the term "accompaniment" in post-conciliar papal teaching.

After publishing, I thought perhaps that doesn't quite capture it. The problem I want to draw attention to also has to do with externalism and conformism. These three things—control, externalism and conformism—are close relatives in in the moral life. In each, the "law" or norm or standard or ideal at issue is outside of me. I am being measured or measuring myself against it. I am constrained by it, compared to it, found more or less wanting in relation to it. I understand virtuous living to be the effort to bring myself through "acts of will" into greater conformity with that objective standard.

It's a plausible approach with a kernel of truth, but (thanks in large part to the rich teachings of recent Popes), I've come to understand it as a fundamental spiritual disorder or misorientation, widespread in the Church today. An embarrassingly crude version of it had me in its grip in my first two years of college. Two key things liberated me:

1) The experience of falling love.

2) The encounter with deeper truth in philosophy classes.

First, the sheer, awesome reality of love exposed the stiltedness and shocking superficiality of the dating theories I had been taught were "God's plan". I wrote about it years ago. To fall in love with someone who was also in love with me was to grasp immediately, profoundly and irrevocably the ludicrousness of trying to make it happen by implementing a practical, externalist program like the one I'd learned from well-meaning zealots. Conjugal love is a gift and mystery. We can prepare ourselves to recognize and receive it, but we can't bring it about by an act of will.

Further, and maybe more importantly in the context, its reality is something interior and intimately personal. It's not something that can or should be "managed" or directed by someone else, not parent, priest or pastoral leader. The discernment is the couple's own. Only they are in a position to judge whether the love they have is deep and strong and reciprocal enough to warrant a total, life-long commitment. And they can only do it by really searching their own hearts and making up their own minds, not by resorting to outside authority. Fr. Wojtyla was well-known among the young men and women he counseled for consistently reminding them, "You must decide."

Something else key was bound up in this experience of mine. Not only did those false teachings melt like wax before the sun of real experience, but suddenly people I had looked to as wise leaders were exposed as having no idea what they were talking about. Their vaunted wisdom and advice I now saw were worse than useless to me. They may have meant well, but they were wrong. They were positively  mis-leading us.

I don't mean to suggest we didn't need any guidance at all. But, the kind we needed was the kind that would help us learn to discern for ourselves. Instead, we were taught to mistrust our "feelings" and submit ourselves to a practical program designed by "holier" people. It was bad.

It's not okay to present yourself as an authority figure and offer dumb ideas as "God's plan." It's not okay to put moral pressure on impressionable young souls to conform to a narrow ideal under the guise of "Christian formation" or "spiritual direction." It may be innocent and understandable in the circumstances, but it's not okay. In fact, it's what's now known as religious abuse. It's what cults do.

It also wasn't innocent, at least not in some. That became apparent to me when I (along with many others) raised good-faith concerns. We used personal experience and Scripture and Canon Law and moral philosophy to point out that what was being taught and done was out of synch with the Church and with the dignity of the human person. In response, we got trashed in more or less discrete ways. We were called "rebellious" or "prideful" or "troubled" or "sick" or "attacking a work of God," or whatever. 

It was a seminal experience for me—a bitter, disillusioning encounter with the dynamics of the fall in religious circles. I had to come to terms with the fact that even good and devout Catholics, men and women with manifestly sincere faith and public reputations for holiness, people I had looked up to and modeled myself after, could be badly wrong, even abusive, in their way of dealing with others, self and God.

I was to have that experience repeated many times in the years ahead, on both sides of the ball, as it were. I mean I was victimized by it, and I victimized others, as a mother and as a student life staff member at more than one Catholic college, in as much as I thought and behaved as if having authority meant requiring others to conform to my directions and my judgments for them. 

The problem in these circles and situations wasn't relativism or subjectivism. On the contrary. It would be much more accurate to call it "excessive objectivism." It was a practical disregard for the primacy of subjectivity, of conscience and individuality.

How do we recognize and live by that primacy without abandoning objectivity?

In a word, it's "accompaniment."

I'll explain further in part 3.

Comments (1)

Paul Rodden

#1, May 4, 2018 7:11am

Will Part 3 be coming any time soon? Still in suspense here, as it's such a good series... :)

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