The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 12:26:27

To be human, a corporate body needs a soul and vice versa

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 14, 2019

Listening just now to an interview with Daniel Hannan, I heard this about the European Union: "If you want to have a democracy, you have to have a demos."  The EU, he basically says, is like a body without a soul. Think of a robot (my image, not his). It can do things human beings do, but only mechanically. It has no inner life; it lacks subjectivity. The EU does nation-like things: it enacts laws, issues penalties, and enters into trade agreements, but it's synthetic; it's inorganic; it doesn't really embody a people. It lacks the inner life of a nation.

Lay Catholics, in a sense—I'm suggesting in my current spate of postings—are something like a soul without a body. We're ghostly. We're a people with a life principle (given in baptism), but without a bodily framework that allows us to experience ourselves, act and relate as a people—as a community of lay believers. 

It's not the normal way of thinking about the Church, I realize. Normally, when we speak of the People of God, we have in mind priests and laity together. And of course, that's an entirely true and valid understanding of the term.

But I'd like to offer another sense that, imo, needs to come to the fore in Catholic thought and praxis today.

Human life exists in two essential forms: male and female. Each is both whole-in-itself and made for union with the other. Personal fulfillment and new human life come from the free, reciprocal self-giving of these two. Without embodied self-possession, there's no self-giving. Without polarity, there's no life. That's ToB in a nutshell.

So, similarly, I propose, following JP II, ecclesial life comes in two essential forms: clerical and lay, petrine and marian. Redemption, the fulfillment of our evangelical mission, and fruitfulness for the Church in the world come from the reciprocal union of these two modes of Catholic life and vocation. 

As things stand—in the clericalist status quo—we are suffering and too sterile as a communion, because the relation between clergy and laity lacks due reciprocity. It lacks complementary polarity. Instead of standing vis. a vis. the clergy as spouse and companion, the laity (who comprise the vast majority of the faithful) are effectively relegated to a subordinate role under the clergy. I've said it before, because I think it's true: we are like wives in Sharia law.

Someone at the recent ToB conference objected to the point (which I hadn't put quite so starkly) by saying, essentially, "Maybe that's your experience, but it's not mine. We have a great pastor at our parish; the laity are very active and involved, and he encourages that." Others say, "It's not the structure that needs changing, it's hearts. If pastors were more Christlike, and if the laity were more involved and generous with their time and talent, the structure wouldn't be an issue."

In reply, I point again to marriages under Sharia law. No doubt there are plenty of examples to be found within that system of genuine love and mutual respect between husband and wife. Still, as a matter of structural fact, wives have no standing vis a vis their husbands under Sharia law. The husbands more or less own all the property and decision-making power; the wives are at their mercy, and the system itself  induces inequity, immaturity, abuse, and dysfunction.

It's true in parishes and diocese, too, isn't it? There are lots of faith-filled and devoted bishops and priests who genuinely govern their respective domains with the true good of the Church constantly in mind. But, as a matter of structural fact, the laity have no standing vis a vis the clergy. The clergy own all the property and decision-making power; we are at their mercy. We might do well enough when we have good shepherds (though even then I think we're nowhere near as flourishing as we could be and should be); we suffer horrible abuse when we have bad ones. Further, the system itself induces and perpetuates clericalism, dysfunction and corruption, plus immaturity and passivity among the laity. Too much power + human condition = abuse. Always.

Now, back to Sharia for a sec. Think about the women—like, say, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran—who, with immense courage and at great personal risk, tell their stories and publicly decry the subjection of women in Islam. How should they respond to the many Muslim women who oppose them with comments like, "I haven't experienced that. I'm happy with my husband." Isn't the right answer along these lines: "Good for you, but please look at the plight of the countless women around you crying out for justice. Look at the structure. That's what I'm talking about. I'm not saying all Muslim husbands are evil. I'm saying the structure needs reform."

That's what I feel like saying to my fellow lay Catholics who are content in their subordination, because they happen to have exceptional pastors. "That's great for you, but the systemic problem remains. It's really damaging the Church. And it could happen in your diocese or parish tomorrow, if a new shepherd gets appointed." 

Small example from a Dutch woman who came up to me after my talk last month. Someone had recently donated a house to the parish to use as a kind of parish hall. Eager about its potential for enhancing the life of the community, she and several other parishioners devoted time and money to fixing it up, painting it, making it nice. Almost as soon as it was done, they were told that it had been decided that the priest would live there. Gonzo. They had no say and no recourse.

Neither did the laity of Philadelphia have any say in the recent payouts of $19,000,000.00 to abuse victims, or in the sale of our magnificent seminary to a secular healthcare conglomerate. Some will say, "There were many lay men and women on the Archbishop's advisory council." Fine. They were appointees, not representatives, and it wasn't a decision-making body, was it? Maybe the Archbishop made the best decision he could in the circumstances. That's beside the point. The point is that the laity had no say. We are expected to hand over our money and trust the clergy to make good decisions. Still. Even now, after millions and millions of our dollars have been sent down the drain of clerical corruption.

Another friend in the same archdiocese told me that not long after the grand jury indictment was in the news, his parish announced that it would now be  a "tithing parish", wherein all members are "encouraged" to donate ten percent of their income. When my friend said to the layman in charge (under the pastor) of the initiative, "Shouldn't there be some kind of transparency and accountability in exchange for this new financial commitment on our part?", he got rebuked for his impious lack of trust.

Our summer parish in a different diocese has a wonderful new pastor. He's full of faith; he radiates love and commitment. He's got energy and ideas, and he clearly wants the laity involved in everything. After mass yesterday, he made announcements about the $400,000 new heating system they're working on putting in the adjacent disused convent, which is going to become a Catholic high school starting next year. He said the money is already collected for the new kitchen for the parish hall in the basement, where he wants to host regular "family meals" for parishioners and guests. There was more, and it was all good.

Anyone paying attention to him can tell it's all about improving the life of the parish; it's not about his personal ambition or luxury lifestyle. He's no Bishop Bransfield. But what happens to all his initiatives when he moves on to his next assignment? We have no idea, do we?

What if the new pastor is like the old pastor, who, for example, summarily fired the lay DRE who had served the parish with all her heart and soul for 12 years? He fired her and her assistant on the spot midyear. No explanation, no compensation, no opportunity for her to so much as inform the parents and students she worked with. She was to leave that day. The materials for the Atrium she had gathered and paid for and constructed with such love and care over years were boxed up and donated to the school, which had no use for them. When she called the Vicar in charge of personnel for the diocese to object, she got some sympathy, but no recourse. Lay employees of the diocese are at-will employees. So, if your pastor has a personality disorder, too bad for you. There's nothing to be done. The parishioners weren't informed of his decision, never mind consulted. When a few asked him where she was and what had happened, he said it was a financial matter, which was a lie, since she had offered to work for free. 

I could go on with stories like this all day. (If you have some of your own, please send them to me. I've started a collection.)

My point is, it's not okay. It's not sustainable. It's not in accord with our dignity as persons and as baptized, and it's not in accord with developments in the Catholic understanding of marriage since Vatican II.

The solution is in John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Relations between clergy and laity have to be transformed so that they reflect Christian marriage, rather than Sharia marriage. And for that to happen, the laity need to acquire self-possession and embodiment as a corporate subject.

The need, the absolute requirement for a renewal of ecclesial life, for a fruitful union and communion of love, is opposition, that is, polarity.

Here is something Pope Francis said. "I love opposition." He means it in a very specific sense, the sense of Guardini's book, Der Gegensatz, which was to have been the key text of Jorge Bergolio's unfinished doctoral dissertation. Opposition, in Guardini's sense, is the practical equivalent of sexual polarity, the uni-dualism of ToB. True unity and fecundity do not come from the submission of one pole to another, the subordination of one people under the other. Rather, they come when each pole is fully and properly itself, and the exchange between them free and reciprocal.

How do we, as laity, stop being ghostly and acquire embodied self-possession? I'll have more to say about that in coming posts.