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Catholicism and Personalism: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Devra Torres, Apr 11, 2012

Something in Catholicism seems to foster a flourishing personality. This was my family's distinct impression upon converting from evangelicalism. (That conversion was a major subplot of our altogether uninventable family microcosm of salvation history, recounted by my mother, Marilyn Prever, in Honey from the Rock. But that's a story for another day.)

How is it, though, that a church that proclaims that truth is fixed and unchangeable, and that some actions are just plain intrinsically wrong—indeed, a church that claims for itself a certain immunity to error (under carefully defined conditions)—turns out to be so congenial to the flourishing of each person's inner freedom? You might not expect to find a lot of wiggle room among all those dogmas.

Personalist philosophy draws attention to the way in which each of us is self-determining and unrepeatable. Our life stories are the unfolding of a unique inner reality, by means of our own free decisions. God's dealings with us are never a stultifying process of pressing inert specimens of humanity into a mold: not even a mold of goodness and truth, not even in flawless imitation of some admirable saint. And this was clear from the personalities of many of the Catholics we met.

We were especially struck by the priests. They were all such characters! There was the dour, curmudgeonly one who referred to the cross-less Christ that some misguided renovators had suspended above his altar as "the flying whiz-bang." There was Fr. Stan the Tootsie Roll Man, as we called him, with the cassock that must have been bigger on the inside than the outside, with pockets deep enough to house an apparently endless supply of those delicacies.

I've been Catholic for decades now, and I haven't met a cookie-cutter priest yet. My current pastor, Fr. Ed, a scholarly, Harley-Davidson-riding taekwondo master and licensed pilot, speaks ancient Greek and Hebrew. Then there's Fr. Fortunato, an endearing Sicilian transplant who works with mentally handicapped children and keeps his car perpetually stocked with Dollar Store trinkets and sentimental holy pictures, so that any parish child who has a birthday can go to the trunk and pick out one of each. There's my old college classmate, Fr. Andrew O'Connor, who cares for his inner-city parish in the Bronx and designs high-fashion garments from cloth woven by women in Guatemala and hand-sewn by immigrants in his church basement (to the benefit of all concerned).

Wisecracking and earnest, shy and gregarious—but all strikingly comfortable in their own skin, their quirky individuality flourishing. The differences among them are not differences of degree—of greater or lesser success in conforming to a mold—but something more profoundly personal.

With our evangelical pastors, we sensed that there was a mold. They dressed alike (and this was curious, since no cassock or priestly collar or even black clothing was required). They all wore the same kind of shoes—at least, I think they did. I was a child, and it may well be that my memory exaggerates the caricature—but there was an unmistakable uniformity that I was not imagining. Their affectivity, too, could seem strained: a "compulsory, smiley-face friendliness," as my mother put it, seemed to be the correct demeanor. I don't mean that they were less interesting or dedicated or holy people. I certainly don't mean to brand all evangelicals, or all non-Catholics, as wanting in individuality. It just seemed that these people were not being encouraged (in the hackneyed phrase) to "be themselves."

It extended beyond clothing and personality: there was intellectual conformism as well. The intellect itself was treated with some suspicion. People were quick to warn us away from "vain philosophy"—by which they sometimes seemed to mean any use of the reason at all. They didn't acknowledge that they were interpreting the Bible, or accepting their pastor's authority to do so: to their mind, they were simply absorbing the Word. "God said it; I believe it; that settles it," they'd say.

They had a point—up to a point. You can see the appeal of this approach when you consider some of the exceedingly wacky theories that the most heavily credentialled scholars can come up with. Some ideas, as the saying goes, are so crazy that only an intellectual could believe them.

But the wish to bypass the human intellect altogether is foreign to the Catholic Weltanschauung. So is the desire to bypass the development of the personality, the free unfolding of the inner reality of each human person. We're not looking to avoid Blessed John Paul II's call to "become who you are." Not all Catholics have received a formation that made this clear, but it is true.

It might seem startling, though. You might think an institution with a fixed body of teaching and a belief in infallibility would leave little free play for human reason or human initiative. You might expect that the command to renounce self would foster a dead uniformity. But the opposite turns out to be true. In future posts, I'll be addressing why this is so.

But I'm curious: Have others gotten the same impression? What is it that makes Catholicism so congenial to the insights of personalism? What do you think?