The Personalist Project

Having a home, rooted in the metaphysical situation of man

…being at home is grounded in the metaphysical situation of man. The need for being sheltered is grounded on the one hand in the creaturehood of man, and on the other hand in his existence as a person. There are indeed attempts to live without shelteredness, but these are theoretical illusions. Without shelteredness there is no real happiness, no uncramped existence, and above all no life in the truth. There is a residue of truth in the person who experiences unsheltered existence as despair.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Nature of Love

Looking through my quotes collection for something else, I came across this passage from an address by Pope Benedict to the UN:

This is all the more necessary at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.

Indeed, questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet

Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.

If I adjust it a bit, you can see how it applies to the problem of clericalism in the Church:

The Church is in crisis because in place of the multilateral consensus that should characterize any brotherhood of equals, the ecclesial communion throughout the world is "subordinated to the decisions of a few". The Church's problems "call for interventions in the form of collective action by the" entire people of God, yet, the vast majority of Catholics are effectively voiceless and powerless.

Indeed, questions of administration, resource management, clerical misconduct, abuses of power and conscience, Christian education, local and regional liturgical culture, missionary outreach, developmental goals, etc. require the People of God to act jointly. We need lay leaders who exhibit a readiness to work in good faith, always respecting the deposit of faith and the due authority of the local ordinary, and promoting solidarity with weakest members of our communion.

The rights and dignity the laity given in baptism and confirmation must be respected as a question of justice and fundamental Christian truth. Their full participation in the life of the Church is not the gift of the clergy.

I would go so far as to say that the current clericalist structure, habits and ethos are in dramatic disaccord with the gospel and with the teachings of our Faith respecting the dignity and vocation of laity. They are in disaccord with our nature and dignity as persons.

They're also in crisis. They can't last; they are rapidly disintegrating. The only question is how and when they will be replaced.

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Last week Jules and I had some quality time with a priest friend. There was a lot of heart to heart discussion about the state of the Church and the call of the moment, the challenges facing our generation of Catholics.

As a way of continuing the conversation, yesterday he forwarded to us Archbishop Chaput's latest column.

In his book Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing; foreword by Scott Hahn), Father Carter Griffin does a superb job of making a case for “the profound renewal of the celibate priesthood and the fatherhood to which it is ordered.” Every human being has the hunger to create new life. Husbands and wives express that in their children. The fertility of a priestly life reflects and shares in the supernatural fatherhood of God. Priests are therefore called to be real spiritual fathers to their people, transforming them with new life in Jesus Christ. Without that conscious, guiding sense of paternity, rooted in God’s own fatherhood, the life of a priest becomes little more than administrative tasks and sacramental dispensing.

I haven't read the book, but readers of this site won't be surprised to hear that the basic point goes against my grain, to the point that I am practically breaking out in hives as I type. The image of priest as father is of course true and valid, but it's also only one among several given in Scripture. And as I see it (as I think the experience and developments of the post-conciliar period prove), the real need in the Church at this moment in time is for us to realize in thought and practice the mystery of priest as husband, not father. These concepts essentially go together, but the metaphor of fatherhood has so dominated Catholic ethos that we’ve all but lost any consciousness of priest as spouse of the Church, which is primarily what makes sense of priestly celibacy, as well as the lay vocation, imo.

The exaggerated emphasis on priest as father has led directly to the endemic paternalism now crippling the Church. The laity are treated like children. We act like children, and not in a good way. Priests are regarded as parents; they act like parents, and not in a good way.

In the relation between parent and child, the concepts of authority and obedience are central. It’s a hierarchical relation, inescapably. In the relation between husband and wife, mutual self-giving and other-receiving is thematic. It’s a reciprocal relation. Paternity and maternity—fruitfulnesss—come from that complementary reciprocity. The fertility of the priest's life comes from his spousal relation to the people of God. It comes from his opening himself to them, his recognition of their subjectivity, their agency, his ordination toward them, his companionship with them, and his laying down his life for them.

One of the key discoveries for me during the last year of studying John Paul II's Theology of the Body was that his close analysis of Genesis practically identifies original innocence with reciprocity. Reciprocity is what makes Adam and Eve “safe” for each other, i.e. able to be “naked without shame.” Eve is not threatened by Adam’s gaze, because she finds in it his recognition of her equality as a subject, an agent, an image of God, called to dominion over the earth. Both see and intuitively grasp that her being made for him has everything to do with his being made also and equally for her.

That reciprocity was lost with the fall. With the fall came the master/slave relation and all its evil ways and effects. The renewal of the Church in our day entails a reversal of that dynamic in relations between clergy and laity. It entails a rediscovery of the "deep mystery" that the priest is bridegroom, which means that the laity are his bride, his companion and his partner, not his subordinate. We need less emphasis on the fatherhood of priests, not more. Or, maybe better: We won't understand rightly the fatherhood of the priest, unless we first get clear that his fatherhood comes from his being first husband.

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If you google images of Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, you can find one of him absolutely towering over Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It's part funny, part painful to see those celebrity icons cut down to size like that, accidentally and unavoidably, and even though the photographer obviously does his best to minimize the situation with tricks and angles.

On giant screens  across the fruited plain, Johnny Depp has loomed large as romantic hero or or terrifying villain. But, in real life, if you're 5.10", you're going to look like a pipsqueak next to someone who's 6.9". It can't be helped.

It's just the same with Henckel von Donnersmark's two great movies: The Lives of Others and Never Look Away.

They're deeply thoughtful, intelligent, ruminative, compelling, and ambitiously, conscientiously composed in the service of the true good-for-man. You watch them and spontaneously you remember what art is—what it's meant to do and be. And you get a wave of surprise, gladness, and consolation to find that it's actually still a thing, still possible, still happening, even today. Hollywood pop looks small and pitiful in comparison.

The contrast is so embarrassing that you want to look away. You laugh, because you can't help it. But you feel sorry about it too. All the emptiness and manipulation, and the delusion, superficiality and self-importance, all the terrible not-understanding of what's really wanted and needed, what endures, who's important and why. It's sad. Also, it's hilarious, so you crack up. Then you watch those FHvD movies again, and you cry for the suffering in the poor world, and for the beauty in things. You seethe over the wrong and waste of evil ideologies and moral rot, and you quietly exult over the way imperfect individuals can triumph, and the way God's promises to humanity are always kept. They make you want to be good. They fortify your determination to live well, to resist the glamour of evil, the pressures of wrong, the mockery of the mob.

If you're like me, you might wish there wasn't quite so much sex and nudity in Never Look Away. There's an argument to be made that in a culture that has normalized pornography, it's good, even necessary, to show sex and nudity in the service of love and life. I get that, intellectually. But I still don't like it, personally, and I have doubts about its efficacy. Is it really possible to depict sex as the embodiment of authentic conjugal love with a camera, on a screen? Regardless, the very fact that there's an argument to be made about it is somehow enough for me. Those movies are all about big, probing questions and contentious issues. And about limited, imperfect human beings raising them, examining them closely, and working through them patiently, because that's the only way to arrive at truth, actually. 

I wonder if all the blue is meant to be an homage to Picasso's blue period—that stage of his somewhere between his immature realism and his decadent abstraction.

It's nice to wonder things like that about a just-released movie.

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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 the 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.

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Like love, the truth about persons and personal life entails reciprocity and openness. This has directly to do with the fact that we are first and foremost subjects, not objects. Persons live our lives from within. We are, as Karol Wojtyla put it, the eyewitnesses of our own experience, and our experience is unique, real and valuable. ("We must never forget that the subjectivity of the person is something objective.") 

It follows that our knowledge of any given issue or situation involving persons is incomplete to the degree that we lack others' perspective and experience. No matter how high my IQ or how learned and credentialed or prominently-positioned in the field I may be, if I'm not genuinely open to others involved and solicitous of their views and experience, my knowledge is at best partial. Typically it's also distorted, just as conjugal relations are distorted by birth control. No one can fully or rightly understand a personal matter who fails to approach those he's dealing with as persons, that is, in a spirit of sincere openness and reciprocity.

The Jeffery Epstein case is on my mind, as is my experience yesterday of Facebook "dialogue" over my post below.

How do we get another person's truth? There's only one way: through her freedom. She has to offer it to us, willingly and sincerely. What makes a person willing to share her truth responsibly? Reciprocity. She has to be able to see and believe that the person who wants her truth is willing to offer his to her.

No one can get personal truth on demand. We can't get it by browbeating or pressuring or sneering or cajoling or manipulating or bribing or shaming. In those cases, even if she reveals something, it won't be her truth, any more than seduction can yield a woman's love and devotion. Authentic love and devotion can't be had except by way of a free, sincere gift. And a free, sincere gift can't be gotten by extortion.

But I've noticed with sorrow and pain and frustration that a lot of people actually aren't interested in truth. They're interested in winning an argument or scoring points or swatting down or belittling an opposing viewpoint or looking tough or smart or whatever. I've noticed that there are even many Catholics who present themselves publicly as experts on, say, the Theology of the Body, while they treat their interlocutors abusively. It's worse than ironic.

Guardini, following Buber, explains why fallen human beings are inclined to objectify others. We prefer the safety of the I-it relation to the vulnerability of the I-Thou. I-it relations allow us to feel safe, superior, and in control. The I-Thou relation demands something of us, it prohibits superiority and control.

When confronting an object a man is only objectively interested. His personality is at rest. [His self is not involved.] … But as soon as he confronts the other as an 'I' something arises within him ... he loses the protection which consists in the 'objective quality' of the situation in which he is acting. When I glance at another as 'I', I become open and 'show' myself. ... Personal destiny springs only from the unprotected openness of the 'I-Thou' relation.

Did you catch that last line? Personal destiny springs only from the unprotected openness of the 'I-Thou' relation. 

No one can achieve fulfillment in his personal life unless he opens himself personally to others. Neither can anyone acquire the truth about a personal issue or situation unless he deals in the I-Thou mode.

Jules and I are working on a new website—a sort of successor to the Personal Project that better reflects our current aims and intentions. Part of that involves thinking about and establishing the terms of engagement. Yesterday's experience and reflections have led me to a new resolve. I'll engage only with those who show themselves willing to engage reciprocally with me—those who show a sincere interest in and respect for my views and for me as a person. The kind of truth I'm about here requires it, and so do I as a particular individual.

I don't mind disagreement or objections or challenges or even fights. I do mind being dismissed or belittled or objectified in any degree.

There's a difference between a discussion and a put down. It's a lot like the difference between a caress and molestation.

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