The Personalist Project

Our small hungry shivering self

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Tonight we're getting together with some friends to discuss the first two chapters of Rod Dreher's new book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. It draws lessons from the stories of those who lived under the domination of Soviet communism. I've only just begun reading it, but already a bunch of things jump out, including this: 

A Belgian priest named Joseph Cardijn, whose father had been killed in a mining accident, started a lay movement to do this among the working class. These were the Young Christian Workers, called “Jocists” after the initials of their name in French. Inspired by the Jocist example, Father Kolaković adapted it to the needs of the Catholic Church in German-occupied Slovakia. He established cells of faithful young Catholics who came together for prayer, study, and fellowship. The refugee priest taught the young Slovak believers that every person must be accountable to God for his actions. Freedom is responsibility, he stressed; it is a means to live within the truth. The motto of the Jocists became the motto for what Father Kolaković called his “Family”: “See. Judge. Act.” See meant to be awake to realities around you. Judge was a command to discern soberly the meaning of those realities in light of what you know to be true, especially from the teachings of the Christian faith. After you reach a conclusion, then you are to act to resist evil.

Anyone who has studied the life and thought of Karol Wojtyla will recognize the similarities: the stress on the working class as over and against the elites in power; small groups meeting privately, the theme of freedom and responsibility. Now check this out:

Václav Vaško, a Kolaković follower, recalled late in his life that Father Kolaković’s ministry excited so many young Catholics because it energized the laity and gave them a sense of leadership responsibility.

It tracks with what I have been saying for the last couple of years. We are depressed and unfruitful as a church, because the laity are disempowered. Change that, and we'll see Christianity come alive again in our time.

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From the first reading for today's mass, a line jumps out. It's St. Paul writing to Philemon from prison. [my bold]

I'm sending [the former slave, Onesimus], that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the Gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced, but voluntary.

Goodness entails freedom. Solidarity entails subsidiarity. Decision-making power belongs to human dignity and is the sin qua non of authentic community. Legitimate human authority comes first from God and secondly from the consent of the governed.

This basic truth is unrealized in Catholic parish life today. (Again and always, I'm speaking of matters within the competence of the laity, not things that belong specifically to the Petrine ministry.) The Church is hobbled and impotent because of it.

Many years ago I came across a passage in Raissa Maritain's journal that stays with me. When suffering is thrust on us against our will, we render it fruitful by making it voluntary, by giving it our fiat.

That's one mode of spiritual triumph. Another is to extend liberty, consent, and self-determination to those who might not otherwise have it—to divest ourselves of power or privilege for the sake of empowering others. That's what Paul is doing in this passage. 

I'd love to see the clergy do it much more widely—hand over responsibility; let go of ownership and control, so that freedom and goodness can abound and former slaves become "more than brothers."

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Last weekend I visited a friend in another city. At Sunday mass—very unusually in my experience—the priest preached about Catholic Social Teaching. Even more unusually, he highlighted the principle of subsidiarity, explaining correctly that, according to it, decisions affecting persons should be made by the "smallest competent authority," i.e., the authority closest to the individual. The further decision-making gets from the individual, the less efficient, more impersonal and more oppressive it becomes.

"So, for example," he said, "decisions affecting the parish should as much as possible be made by the pastor, because he's the one closest to the people." 

Like the pastor in our summer diocese, this solidly orthodox, well-educated and well-intentioned priest simply overlooked the laity. It's as if the idea that we, too, have competence in the self-determination of the life of the parish never entered his head. 

We do, though. According to the doctrines and documents of our Faith, not to mention our nature as free and responsible subjects, every baptized person shares in the roles of "priest, prophet and king." Every confirmed Catholic is co-responsible for the life and mission of the Church.

And the laity have specific competences that the clergy lack. We have complementary charisms without which the priestly vocation cannot be fulfilled. At present, they're stuck under a thick bushel basket of clericalism. Let's let them out.

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Here's something I've noticed about myself: My understanding is closely bound up with my sense of personal mission, and while, looking back, I can see a clear line of development, the way is marked by key moments of insight that caused dramatic shifts.

Maybe this is true for everybody. I don't know. It's true for me. I carefully preserve and cherish those moments, which serve as living premises for the path forward into Truth. They're like teachers whispering in my ear, "This is the way. Walk in it." (Isaiah 30:21)

One came into my life about 15 years ago. We were in the midst of an intense personal and professional crisis. It was an earthquake. Solid ground was crumbling under my feet. There was a lot of ruin, a lot of rubble. 

A line from Kierkegaard was playing on a loop in my head: "The sadness of being alone in the understanding of a truth." I kept picturing Edith Stein too: the moment she walked away from her revered Professor Husserl, sorrowfully convinced that some Reality couldn't be communicated via reasoning, but only through a personal holocaust. 

There was a practical point at issue for us. Intelligent, religious people were divided over it. Someone said to Jules (whose job was on the line): "Reasonable people can disagree." Jules said, "Yes. But the question is, 'who decides?"

That was the breakthrough for me. Who, in justice, has the authority to decide? 

More often than not, I suddenly saw, interpersonal (and interpeople) conflict comes down to that question. What may look outwardly like nothing more and nothing other than a rational dispute in the objective realm is actually, at bottom, a moral struggle between Power and Love—with one party trying to control and subdue while the other fights to defend his freedom and right. Consciously or not, one party is acting according to the master/slave dynamic, while the other is animated by its opposite.

There's a wonderful passage in Mark Twain's Joan of Arc that illustrates the point. Maybe I've mentioned it before. Joan is about to lead a charge against an English stronghold, when some officious councilor, some military expert intervenes. He wants her to wait. He wants a committee to discuss the strategy first. He admonishes her that it would be rash for her to act without that approval—against, you could say, "the interagency consensus" of the day. She asks him flatly if the king has commanded him to stop her. He demurs and begins to explain that even though the king hasn't, per se, authorized him to...

While he's still talking Joan shouts, "Charge!"

She was clear about who decides. She also understood that that "councilor" was trying to undermine her confidence and usurp her right.

Here's another way this cosmic moral struggle plays out in the practical realm: We avoid deciding and acting in our zone of responsibility out of fear or laziness or excessive deference. We eschew choosing, because choosing is hard. The WW II movie The Battle of Midway has a scene showing an American Admiral in doubt. So much is on the line. There is conflicting intelligence and advice coming at him from all sides. He's paralyzed with anguished perplexity, until someone says to him: "When you're in command, command," and he accepts the fact that, like it or not, the fate of the battle is up to him. He must gather his inner resources and make a prompt decision based on his lights—his experience, his gut. To demur, to hesitate, to hedge, would be to fail his men, his country, his mission.

We can go wrong by sticking our noses into someone else's spiritual terrain and/or by not taking proper command of our own. 

It would be impossible to exaggerate the centrality of this principle to Wojtyla's personalism, and, we can say, to the whole modern world. The cosmic struggle between good and evil is the same as the battle between freedom and force, between subjective agency and the objectification of persons.

We see it playing out now on the political stage: Who's in charge of US government and policy? The "experts" or the people? Who answers to whom? We see it at play in the Church. Are the people of God objects of the clergy's ministry? Are we nothing more than sheep? Or are we responsible co-agents with a share in the sacred offices of priest, prophet and king? And we see it in the intimate struggles of our private lives. It's beautifully expressed in that wonderful serenity prayer that has served as a beacon for millions of souls in trouble:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Right moral formation and right interpersonal relations involves, maybe more than anything else, the identification, establishment, fortification, provision, exercise and management of our own "spiritual terrain," our personal and communal zone of freedom and responsibility.

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I've noticed some linguistic confusion interfering with mutual understanding and practical progress toward the common good. 

The term "systemic" is being used in two different senses. People on the right typically take it to refer to our objective system of laws and policies. The old Jim Crow laws of the south are a prime example of "systemic racism" in that sense. The wrong was embodied in law and policy. It needed correcting in law. It was corrected, thanks mainly to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his personalist philosophy and practice of "non-violent resistance."

This is why someone like Attorney General Bill Barr can say that while we no doubt have issues with residual racism in some places and individuals, we don't have a problem with systemic racism. He's right about that, imo. On the level of law and policy, America is not racist, unless we're talking about the reverse racism of Affirmative Action policies and practices.

For those on the left, though, "systemic racism" refers rather to a subjective, often unconscious, condition of society. They are talking about our collective moral state, so that even if our laws and politics are race-neutral, we, as a people, can and do still harbor racist attitudes that "leak out" in our social habits and manifest in unequal outcomes like chronic poverty among blacks.

People on the left get upset when someone on the right says something like, "We are the least racist country in history," because they're focused on moral attitudes and disparate outcomes, while the right is talking about objective laws, principles and values. They accuse the right of lying and gaslighting, when, really, they're just using the term in a different way.

Both ways are valid and meaningful. They just shouldn't be confused. 

The main reason they shouldn't be confused (apart from mutual misunderstanding) is that their respective solutions are radically different. Inequities in the objective structures can and should be addressed through law and policy. Injustice in the heart, though, whether individual or communal, can only be fixed through freedom. You can't make a person or society just and generous through force.

And that's what the left seems to want to do. They seem to want to use the coercive power of government to improve moral attitudes and equalize outcomes, which is why the right gets upset when they talk about things like reparations and critical race indoctrination seminars. It can't be done that way. It can only be done through culture, and culture is suffocated by excessive government.

So, speaking for myself, when I vote for smaller government and race-neutral laws and policies, I'm not denying that our society is still suffering from the legacy of racism. Rather, I'm trying to help create the best conditions for allowing it to be addressed at a deeper level.

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