The Personalist Project

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Accessed on April 20, 2019 - 12:22:40

Our decisions belong to us; we are responsible for them

Katie van Schaijik, Feb 12, 2013

During my undergrad years at Franciscan University in the 80's, the problem of "overspiritualization"—the tendency of hyper-pious young people to live in an unnaturally religious way—was a theme.  At times it seemed that every conversation had to refer to God.  Every decision had to be prayed about. 

It's a mostly harmless tendency, as tendencies go.  But still.  It's a case of immaturity at best.  If we don't grow out of it, it can become a serious psychological and moral disorder.

The most characteristic feature of adulthood in comparison with childhood is personal responsibility.  Adults are in charge of themselves—responsible for themselves, answerable for their judgments, acts and decisions.

The most striking feature of entrenched "overspiritualization" is a habitual failure to take responsibilities for our judgments, acts and decisions.  It leads to passivity and paralysis in the moral realm.  But the problem is disguised (usually even from ourselves) as piety.  We imagine we are doing what the saints do: seeking God's will.  We only want to do God's will, we say to ourselves and others.  But what we are really doing is evading the responsibility of maturity.  We want God to "just tell us what to do."  We want to throw off what C.S. called "the weight of glory"—the demands of our dignity as free persons. We are like the timid servant who buried his talent instead of investing it, because he was afraid he might lose it. 

I have known people in whom this tendency has become seriously disordered.  I've heard adult Catholics say things like this in answer to questions about some decision they made, "Don't blame me, blame God.  I don't know why He wants me to do this."  I know people who resent God because He won't tell them what He wants them to do.  It's almost as if they are refusing to be selves.  This is not piety.  It's pathology.  We are made to be selves, and to exercise our selfhood.  We glorify God by exercising our selfhood.

A mature and genuinely pious person makes his decisions in his own name, freely and responsibly, and "in front of God," knowing that he will one day have to give an answer for himself. 

So clear and important is this basic truth to me, that I was taken aback a little by a generally very good article about the Pope's resignation, by Fr. Roger Landry, in which he wrote.

There are a few things about his decision to resign that are particularly striking to me.

The first is that it seems that it was not his decision, but the Lord’s.

This seems to me exactly wrong.  It was not the Lord's decision, but the Pope's.  We feel it to be a stunning and fearful decision, precisely because of our awareness that a mere human being is responsible for it.  Had the Pope died in office, it would have been different, since we know it is God who chooses the hour of our passing.  In this case, though, it was not God, but a mere man, who made so momentous a decision for the Church and the world.  

Fr. Landry goes on to elaborate. 

He began his shocking statement to the Cardinals by declaring, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Pope Benedict has long called conscience an “organ of sensitivity” to the voice of God indicating to us what to do or avoid. While the judgments of conscience can always be erroneous, Pope Benedict has been tuning his “organ” for so long and fighting against false ideas of conscience that it is highly unlikely that he would be hearing the Lord say “go” when the Lord was in fact stressing “continue on.” So his decision to resign does not seem to be the “no” of someone who wants to quit the burdens of the papacy, but one more “yes” in a lifetime of faithful fiats to what the Lord has asked of him.

Here Fr. Landry seems to me to collapse two critically different kinds of conscientious acting into one: acting under obedience and acting out of our freedom.  To get what I mean, consider the difference between the way a foot soldier approaches a battle and the way a general approaches a battle.  The foot soldier's responsibility is straight-forward (which is not to say it's easy), namely, to do as he's commanded.  The general's is much greater and more complex.  It's not a case of "yes or no", but rather of "which, where, when, and why" with innumberable variables at play and no guarantees.  His moral acting isn't a matter of obedience, but prudence.

The difference is recognizeable, too, in every individual's moral experience.  Some of our decisions are simple cases of yes or no to God.  Will we lie or not?  Will we go to mass on Sunday, or skip it?  Will we be chaste or will we give into temptation?  But others of our decisions (most of our moral decisions) are very different in kind.  They are not "yes or no; right or wrong", but "this or that; good or better; wise or less wise; daring or timid; cautious or rash..."

Such decisions involve our personal subjectivity in a much fuller way.  "Will I study music or physics?" "Or should I take a year off and work first?" "Shall I be Franciscan friar or a diocescan priest?"  "Should we practice NFP or open ourselves to another baby?" "Should I tell this person what I think, or keep silent?"  "Should I get up early to pray, or sleep in, to recover some strength?" 

Such prudential judgments and decisions can, of course, be made more or less conscientiously.  A conscientious person discerns carefully.  He checks his motives.  He considers his strengths and weaknesses.  He prays for wisdom and light.  He may seek the advice and perspective of others. He trusts in God's grace to lead him.  But, if he is mature, he understands that the decision is his.  He even understands that God wants it to be his.  

He made us to "stand on our two legs" as persons.  This is our dignity, our high calling, and our solemn responsibility

There are exceptions, of course.  God sometimes gives a person clear and concrete practical instructions, such as when He warned the Magi in a dream not to go back to Herod.  Or when He told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt.  Ordinary people, too, sometimes sense God telling them something very definite: "Get up and leave the room!"  or "Go to the seminary" or "tell that stranger over there that he should call his mother."  It happens, just like apparitions and miracles happen.  But they are not in the ordinary course of the moral life, even in high office—maybe especially in high office.  In any case, I think we have no warrant for assuming that this decision of the Pope's was such a case.  

Look again at how he himself speaks of his decision. He doesn't say, "This is God's will for the Church."  He only assures us that this decision, which is within the competence of his office, was made conscientiously, after prayer and deliberation.  He is a man of such deep prayer and great virtue and serious-mindedness that we can have confidence that it's a good decision, even that it's a manifestation of God's mysterious Providence for the Church.  But, at least to my way of thinking, that's a very different thing from calling it the Lord's decision.

I mentioned to Jules that I was writing this post.  He pointed me to two passages from von Hildebrand's spiritual classic, Transformation in Christ.

Those men err who believe it to be our supreme goal that we become pure instruments of God. 

And this one, on true humility.

For humility demands that we not only take account of the personality of God but at the same time remain fully conscious of our own.  Our awareness of "being naught" must not by any means entail on our part a tendency to depersonalization...

I've mentioned many times before how those whom Karol Wojtyla pastored closely as a priest say that he helped them primarily by listening sympathetically to their dilemmas and then reminding them, "You must decide."  He understood that being responsible for our own decisions is at the heart of our vocation as persons.

Nor are our decisions reducible to obedience to God's will.  The moral life is not passive, but personal and creative.