The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:09:30

The spousal love between priest and laity is meant to be concrete and personal

Katie van Schaijik, May 31, 2019

Further to my post of yesterday: The paragraphs following the one I quoted from that 1992 Letter to Priests draw the point out further to include another element I've been trying to articulate to myself for many moons now.

Before JP II and his Theology of the Body, marriage was represented in Church teaching and praxis in an "excessively objectivistic" way. Spouses were understood to be basically responsible to try to instantiate as nearly as possible the ideal essence of marriage, including its objective primary end of procreation.

So, my basic moral task in life was to do my best to be a good wife and mother. I measured my successes and failures against that general standard. (It was wretchedly discouraging.)

Thanks to JP II, the Church's new understanding of marriage—at least in her theology, if not yet fully in praxis—is far more personalistic. Now I recognize that my primary task isn't so much to be a good wife, but rather to love Jules, in all his concrete specificity, and to receive his love for me. This turns out to be a much more doable and enjoyable moral mission. "This I can manage, if you'll help me, Lord!" and "You mean, that's it?! That's all I have to do?!"

From this personalist perspective, too, children are received as the superabundant gift of love, rather than the primary "end" of marriage. It heals a terrible tendency first acknowledged by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae for women especially to feel instrumentalized by their fertility and subsumed by their social role as wife and mother. (For this reason, I dislike presentations on HV that treat it as if it boils down to a re-affirmation of the Church's long-standing prohibition on artificial birth control. It was much more than that. It was also the beginning of a quite dramatic development in Church teaching on marriage, which included a hitherto unimaginable endorsement of Natural Family Planning as a positive good for marriage.)

What the Church wants and needs at this moment in ecclesial history, I propose, is for the same spiritual adjustment to be made with respect to relations between clergy and laity. 

The spousal love that priests are to live isn't meant only to be directed abstractly to the Church as an ideal essence, as the Mystical Bride of Christ, but primarily concretely, to the People of God, to this people of God—the people right here, right now, my congregation, in all their corporate individuality and specificity. 

Here is JP II: [my bold]

The gift of self, which is the source and synthesis of pastoral charity, is directed toward the Church. This was true of Christ who "loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25), and the same must be true for the priest. With pastoral charity, which distinguishes the exercise of the priestly ministry as an amoris officium,(52) "the priest, who welcomes the call to ministry, is in a position to make this a loving choice, as a result of which the Church and souls become his first interest, and with this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife."

As startling and challenging as this new teaching may be, the good news is that it's actually a much easier, much more delightful and rewarding a way to live than the other way. We know that from the experience of married couples who have been living the Theology of the Body for decades.

A major problem with the status quo is that especially good priests are exhausted and demoralized. They've been pouring themselves out as heads, shepherd, governors, CEOs, CFO's of large, unresponsive organizations. They haven't been giving and receiving love as spouse.

When we finally make this shift, we can expect a great renewal, and lots and lots of beautiful fruit.