The Personalist Project

I said in an earlier post that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were, humanly speaking, two of the prime authors and protagonists of the new paradigm in the Church. I have in mind "the turn toward subjectivity" that has characterized modernity and the post-conciliar Church. 

To get this, you have to understand that these two great thinkers, council fathers, and later popes, were not exclusively concerned with preserving doctrine against modernist threats. They were also concerned with and intent on grasping "whatever is true" in modern thought and experience, and incorporating that into the living Tradition of our faith.

I wish I could find the reference now where the Pope Emeritus tells an interviewer that when he looks back at human history what he sees a bright trail of the "magnalia dei"—the great acts of God. John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio that “the call and demands of the Spirit resound in the very events of history.” That general sense suffuses all their writings. 

Sound theology and a fortiori papal teaching is not about documents exclusively. It's even more primarily about experience. (Keep in mind that the fundamental doctrines of our Faith were not given through a text, but by way of concrete events and personal encounters.) It listens receptively and sympathetically to experience, “so the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible myster[ies]" of our Faith. (FC)

This openness to experience is not novel in ecclesial history. How was Peter persuaded that gentiles don't need to be circumcised before they're baptized? By studying the law? No. Through experience.

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?"
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Unless we understand this, we're missing the key. We can't hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church in our day. We won't properly understand Vatican II; we'll have at best a one-sided appreciation of John Paul II, and we will fail to perceive the luminous line of continuity between him and his successors, including especially Pope Francis.

We'll also be obtuse to the need for a new pastoral paradigm. And because of that, many of our efforts toward the new evangelization will backfire. We'll be coming across (despite our best intentions to the contrary) as self-righteous, rigid, and condemnatory, not as helpers and healers and bearer of good news.

I know this needs some explaining. Stick with me while I zoom way out, then back in.

Someone better versed in the history of culture and philosophy than I am might argue that it started with Palestrina and the introduction of counterpoint music. Or you could go farther back in time to the Magna Carta and the Barons of Runnymede with their insistence on the rights of individuals vis a vis the king. There was the invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy, allowing ordinary people to encounter texts, including the Bible, for themselves. The Protestant Reformation and subsequent religious wars were certainly major factors in the development of our understanding of conscience and religious liberty. There was the embarrassing Galileo affair and the Copernican Revolution in science. We had those great medieval saints and defiers-of-overreaching-authority: Joan of Arc and Thomas More. 

The seventeenth century gave us Descartes and his effort to find grounds for rational certainty in the experience of knowing rather than in external authority, plus John Locke and the other thinkers of the Enlightenment. There was the Age of Exploration, the founding of the New World, the beginnings of global trade, the vicious exploitation of indigenous peoples, and slavery. In the 18th century came Kant with his definition of persons as "ends-in-themselves, never to be used as a mere means," which was later adopted and adapted by Wojtyla as "the personalistic norm" of ethics. There was the American Revolution and the practical establishment of the concept of "government of the people, by the people and for the people."

In the 19th century we had Newman with his elaboration of implicit reasoning and the illative sense, plus the abolitionist movement and the beginnings of feminism and evangelical Christianity with its emphasis on personal experience in religion. There was the rise of nationalism against Empire. The papacy was compelled to abandon its temporal power; its teaching authority was formally limited to the areas of faith and morals. We got the music and poetry of the romantics, and the art of the impressionists and expressionists. Suddenly, beside giants like Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, women were writing great literature. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning...

New things were happening, both good and bad. New discoveries were being made, bringing new problems, new questions, new aspirations. 

You had rationalism and idealism and empiricism and materialism, the industrial revolution and the end of the agriculture-based society. After the cataclysmic destruction of the old order of Christian empires in blood-soaked insanity of World War I, the 20th century gave us "the little way" of St. Therese of Lisieux (a quite radical development in Catholic spirituality), and women's suffrage. Social justice became a matter of concern in papal documents. Totalitarian ideologies made their appearance, and more horrible wars with their countless victims and martyrs. We saw the evil phenomenon of genocide, the collapse of colonialism, the rise of mass media, the "discovery" of the sub-conscious and the founding of psychology, the sexual revolution, the spread of secularism and moral relativism, and then, too—almost smack dab in the middle of the century—the Second Vatican Council, followed by the stupendous papacy of St. John Paul II the Great.

A proper account of it all is a million miles beyond my scope and competence. Here I only mean to indicate that the need for a new paradigm has been a long time coming. It's developed organically over centuries, in disparate places, and across various sectors of human life and culture.

One way to characterize the trajectory and achievement of modernity from a spiritual point of view—the way, I would argue, the Church characterizes it—is to say that we, the heirs and progenitors of Western Civilization, have been gradually waking up to subjectivity. And, as John Crosby puts it in the essay he wrote for our site, "This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves." 

The basic story line is nicely captured and illustrated in the musical A Fiddler on the Roof. Pressures from within and without mean that a way of life previously governed by clearly defined social roles, rules and traditions is no longer sustainable. We have to let those go, and find a new way of living and dealing with one another—one that takes due account of the dignity of each person as a person, an absolutely unique and irrepeatable subject.

I warned you I might need the rest of my life to explain. I'll try not to be so slow with the next installment.

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?