The Personalist Project

Truth and personal influence

[Truth] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of [those] who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.

John Henry Newman, Oxford University Sermons

  

I have some brief remarks on the hashtag du jour that I'd like to share. Kate Cousino has already posted some noteworthy thoughts on the subject, here and here.

Said hashtag is #metoo, and here's its raison d'etre:

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "Me too" as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

It's credited to celebrity Alyssa Milano, who credits an unnamed friend. Others say it was created by Tarana Burke years ago. Whatever the origin, there's a distinction that I think could clear up a lot of the disagreement about it. 

Lots of people I respect have jumped on the bandwagon and told their stories which, sadly, I don't find shocking. Or at least, I don't find them surprising. I could tell my own if I wanted to, incidents from 40 years ago up until one the other day in the Aldi parking lot. (The one thing that did surprise me was one levelheaded, trustworthy woman who said she had never been harassed or assaulted. I don't doubt her, but I was certainly surprised!)

So what do people have against the #metoo project?

Some see it as pressure to join in the indiscriminate man-bashing which, in some circles, has been unabated for decades. Some object to blurring the line between harassment and assault, noting that even though obnoxious come-on's and rape are on the same continuum of objectification and abuse, mentioning them both in the same breath minimizes the seriousness of the latter. One friend was furious at the idea of being pressured to produce her story of trauma for the pleasure of Facebook's voyeurs: just because a hashtag happens to be trending, do we all have to dredge up our most miserable memories on command? Because Facebook says so? And doesn't compressing these things into a hashtag just trivialize the whole subject?

In the end, more careful thinkers started pointing out that men also get harassed and even assaulted, that blurring the line has the virtue, at least, of not seeming to demand gory details, and that their own participation should be construed as neither man-bashing, nor trivialization, nor pressure to follow suit. And as usual, when a hashtag begins to spawn real conversations with real distinctions, the whole thing began to dissipate, and the internet moved on to the next (momentarily) big thing.

One commenter, author and speaker Leila Miller, after criticizing the campaign as man-bashing, took a step back and asked an interesting question:

Was the hashtag campaign meant to be a political statement/movement or therapy/healing? Can anyone tell me for sure? I took it as the former. For anyone who took it as the latter, and were searching for healing or solidarity, I can understand why you were hurt by my post. I never thought of it as a "healing" thing--we all heal differently and that's not how I heal--so I was not targeting anyone's healing.

And here's what I want to say. It's both. Just like it always is. You have a crowd, a throng, a community, of people who've all suffered some particular kind of genuine injustice. And on their heels--or striding self-righteously at their head--you have a gaggle of power-hungry politicians, or attention-hungry celebrities, or money-hungry moguls, who, for their own slimy reasons, are heading out on a click-generating crusade, using as pawns the victims (or survivors, if you like) in search of solidarity and healing. (Subjects like #metoo that involve both sex and violence are best of all--the kind that really make the ringleaders' mouths water.) Let's you and him (or better, you and her) fight, they urge gleefully. Then the pawns, instead of the ringleaders, get belittled and mocked, and come away feeling less understood and more hopeless than before that things will ever change. 

And the ringleaders quietly sneak off to count up their clicks. 

---------------

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 1 cmt
  • print

So I've talked a bit about how the master-slave dynamic affects consent in romantic and sexual contexts, and how to reduce the cost of "no" to balance out differences in power and risk.

There are other relationships where this dynamic plays out, of course. Children are not in a great position to say no to their parents, or teachers, or other authority figures. We can't eliminate the imbalance of power in that case, but we can be careful not to ask our children for anything that might be damaging to them, and we can respect their emotional autonomy--you can ask for obedience, but you cannot demand a corresponding inward attitude of cheer or gratitude.

We can seek to reason or persuade adult children rather than yank on the strings of guilt or financial dependence to ensure compliance.

Our friendships, too, may be marked by the master-slave dynamic if a domineering or especially outgoing personality is matched with a subdued, timid, or insecure friend. It's possible to run roughshod over a beloved sibling or friend, not out of malice, but simply out of a failure to recognize an imbalance in influence or resources.

This is, of course, the lesson Jane Austen's Emma has to learn, having exploited her position of relative privilege to interfere in her friends' intimate emotional lives. At the conclusion of the book, Emma is only saved from the consequences of her meddling in Harriet Smith's life by the revelation that Harriet had not been quite so submissive as she appeared, having continued to see the young man Emma had decided she was too good for. Even in this moment of relief, the imbalance in their friendship is still evident in Harriet's confusion and shame over having failed to take the advice of someone who had been "so good" to her. 

Let me be clear: I am not drawing an equivalence between meddling in a friend's love life and rape. Not every temptation to dominance is equally monstrous. But...well, let me show you. 

In a week full of stirring confessions and emotional revelations, only one managed to bring me to tears. It wasn't a #metoo post. It was rarer, and powerful because of its rarity. It was this mea culpa from a scriptwriter, Scott Rosenberg, who worked for the monstrous Harvey Weinstein for over a decade. In it, he takes responsibility for his own slavishness, his own culpability: 

As the old joke goes:
We needed the eggs.

Okay, maybe we didn’t NEED them.
But we really, really, really, really LIKED them eggs.
So we were willing to overlook what the Golden Goose was up to, in the murky shadows behind the barn…


Rosenberg doesn't just apologize for failing to stop Weinstein's abuse of women. As he says in his post, who would he have told? What could he have done? It was the stuff of rumours and gossip for him and other bystanders. 

No, although Rosenberg's culpability includes repentance for silence, it goes beyond it.

So, yeah, I am sorry.
Sorry and ashamed.
Because, in the end, I was complicit.
...Harvey was nothing but wonderful to me.
So I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut.
And for that, once again, I am sorry....

He was complicit because he allowed himself to be bought. He participated in a system that simply accepted domination as the price of comfort, luxury, success.

The cost didn't seem so great--just don't look too closely into the shadows. But in reality the cost was even greater, because the price was allowing the master-slave dynamic to go unchecked, affirming Weinstein's sense of entitlement and becoming part of the wall of silence that protected the worst abuses of power. 

This is the cost of accepting the master-slave relationship as the price of doing business, the norm of human relationships. 

I'm tired of paying that price. I'm ready to find another way to live and love and coexist.

Aren't you?

Golden Egg image by Nevit Dilmen (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 2 cmts
  • print

I've heard a lot of people say, in the conversations sparked by #metoo on Facebook and Twitter, that rape, sexual assault, even harassment are ultimately about power.

But power enters into sexual dynamics long before we reach assault, doesn't it? It's there as soon as the insecure initiator starts manoeuvring, consciously or unconsciously, to get the upper hand in an encounter. It's there when the older guy pursues the younger girl who makes him feel like the worldly, experienced one. It's there when the "nice guy" decides to make a move on a friend while she is crying on his shoulder after a nasty breakup or the death of a loved one. It's definitely there when an employer invites an intern up to his hotel room to discuss her professional future, having made it obvious that he has the ability to destroy reputations or make careers at a whim. 


Years ago, skeptic and activisit Rebecca Watson talked in a short video about her experience of being made uncomfortable by a men at an atheism conference who, after listening to her talk about rape threats and harassment during a panel, followed her into an elevator to suggest (after the elevator doors closed) that she should come up to his room for coffee and talk more. 

She was surprised at the hostility this story evoked from men. How dare she assume the fellow's motives were nefarious? How dare she connect this expression of interest with things like sexual harassment and rape? 

Watson never said that she felt assaulted. She said she felt uncomfortable. She was in an elevator, with someone larger than her, with no witnesses and no way out. She was acutely aware of her own vulnerability should the man react badly to her "no." The entire manoeuvre felt predatory to her, and because she thought men might not be aware that this is how they can come across, she decided to tell the story and say, hey, don't do this. But she was excoriated up and down for making a big deal out of something small, something "just in her head."


This stuck in my mind because of how someone else--in a commentary I'm not longer able to find or remember in its entirety--explained the problem: men are often conditioned or accustomed to cornering women, physically or emotionally, before asking for more intimacy, and this is threatening to women for all the reasons Watson gave and more. Men can't necessarily stop women from worrying about rape or assault, but they can make it easier for women to say "no"--and the ability to say "no" without undue consequences is a prerequisite for a truly free "yes."

Watson's encounter was experienced as threatening because she didn't know what the consequences of her "no" might be. It's threatening not only because men are larger, or because women have so many experiences and stories of rape and assault to make us aware of our vulnerability, but also because (as Katie van Schaijik has noted before) the temptation for women in the master-slave dynamic is often to submit, to please, to manage other's emotions, to act out of "the fear of power and punishment and abandonment." 

So #metoo has me thinking about what Katie Van Schaijik calls the master-slave dynamic, and how it inserts itself into matters of sexuality. We moderns want consent to be a clear, clean line, a boundary that makes everything on this side of it OK and legitimate, and everything on that side of it illicit.

But there are times when even being asked for a "yes" or a "no" amounts to a power play. It's a power play because the consequences are unevenly balanced, because the pressure is unevenly placed. Sexual matters aside, waiting until someone is tired, drunk, sad, dependent, indebted, or lonely to push for something from them is...well, it's predatory, isn't it?

Leah Libresco used the "Elevatorgate" example a couple of years ago to argue that, in order for consent to be as free as possible, it is incumbent that we reduce the risks of saying "yes" and the costs of saying "no," especially in relationships and systems that tend towards a power imbalance. 

Specifically, when it comes to romantic and sexual overtures, men must learn to pick up their share of the emotional work. Don't merely settle for being someone who accepts "no" non-retributively. Be someone who provides an easy "out" for others, who looks for ways to let everyone save face. 

The conference attendee could have introduced himself to Ms. Watson in the lobby, with others around, and asked her to join him for a coffee in the hotel bar. The risks of saying yes are lower for coffee in a public place than they would be for a private tete-a-tete in a stranger's hotel room. The cost of saying no are similarly lower in a lobby with multiple exits and people around.

(To be continued)

Image via Pixabay

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 4 cmts
  • print

                       

Fr. James Martin contends that the "sexual relations between people of the same sex are impermissible" teaching has, to all appearances, never been "received" by the people it's addressed to.

He has a point--a seemingly obvious one. Or does he?

Catholic Digest columnist Matt Archbold has quipped in response: 

Based on the murder rates all around the world, can one assume that the Church's teaching about killing has not been "received" and is therefore non-binding?

He has a point, too.

Or he might. It all hinges on what "received" really means.

And that's what I want to think about today. Regarding Fr. Martin himself, just a couple things: No, he hasn't called Church teaching non-binding (not in so many words, not as far as I know), and yes, he does admit that some few of the people affected directly by the teaching do accept it. I'll leave further commentary on Fr. Martin's ideas to people who have read his recent book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. 

But it is worth considering what it means for a teaching to be "received." Let's begin with a few possibilities:

  • Does it just mean people are failing to live by it because they find it too difficult? Is it merely that, as Chesterton once quipped about the Christian ideal, it "has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried"?
  • Does it mean that a teaching has been just plain rejected--that its "target audience" has just plain refused to live according to it?
  • Does it mean that a teaching was never promulgated, or that people are ignorant of it? If someone were living on a desert island and had never heard of Christianity, would we say he has failed to "receive" it?

I don't think any of these capture it. But what then? 

One thing it could mean is to see the truth clearly, embrace it, internalize it, walk in it, and make it your own. This is something that goes beyond knowing of it and consenting not to violate it. It's possible to be familiar with a teaching but not have received it. It's possible, too, to abide by the truth--to refrain from violating it--but still not have received it.

How can we help people receive the truth? How can we facilitate their going beyond hearing about true teachings and even beyond staying within their bounds? In fact, giving people a chance to receive them doesn't have to be that complicated. Maybe it comes down to speaking the truth in love.

IAs Warren W. Wiersbe says,

Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.

Or, better, here's Edith Stein:

Do not accept anything as truth that lacks love and do not accept anything as love that lacks truth. 

Expressing an objectively true teaching without any regard for the subjectivity of the person addressed is "truth without love." Focussing on the subjectivity of the addressee to the point of indifference to objective reality is "love without truth." Or, to speak more exactly, neither is itself without the other.

Speaking the truth in love, though, means more than expressing it in an affectionate or respectful manner. It entails expressing it in the context of a loving interpersonal connection. If your attempt to get this truth into somebody's head is the extent of your relationship with him, you're not only disrespecting him--you're also highly likely to fail.*

So Fr. Martin is right if he means that maybe some obstacle has prevented the "LGBT community's" reception of Church teaching. It's not sufficient to announce that the Church, or God, prohibits such-and-such if something in your addressee's life experience is preventing him from hearing what you're saying--or if the message is tainted by your own bad example or conceit or manipulative approach or indifference.

And Matt is right that we shouldn't fall for the cop-out of abandoning the truth every time it turns out to be unpopular or hard.

__________________________________

*Of course this doesn't mean you can never address people en masse. Writing an article can bring somebody nearer to receiving a truth, even if author and reader never meet in person. You can't sidestep one-on-one communication, but truth can also be served in a public forum.

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 12 cmts
  • print

* This is not a typical blog post. It's really an article. But I couldn't find a publication to take it, so I'm posting it here. Its subtitle is: One layman's questions and concerns about "restoring the original order" of communion and confirmation.

Two of our sons were confirmed in 2015: the youngest, then 12, with our parish, and the oldest, then 21, at the Easter Vigil Mass at the University of Dallas. Our middle son, 19, was confirmed in Rome last November, during his sophomore semester abroad. Both of our daughters, too, chose to receive the sacrament while away at school, one in high school the other in college.

The reasons for the irregularity are various and complicated, but they have a lot to do with the clericalism and bureaucracy bogging down diocesan religious education programs today. It’s bad enough in our current diocese that even though those programs are doctrinally sound and staffed with great people, my husband and I were genuinely concerned that making our children go through them would cause them to become cynical and lose their faith.

So, I’m more than sympathetic to the idea that substantial changes to sacramental preparation are in order. Many of my friends, including priests and lay directors of religious ed., strongly favor “restoring the original order,” i.e., having confirmation at a much younger age, before first communion. I’m not completely closed to the idea. But, speaking as a layman steeped in the personalism of John Paul II and attuned to the themes of our present Pope, I have serious doubts. Last year’s  announcement of the “restored order” in Denver and its accompanying pastoral letter from Archbishop Aquila increased them. I don’t live in his diocese, but I want to air my concerns even so, because the practice is spreading. Recently our summer diocese of New Hampshire became the latest to adopt it.

There is a strain of traditionalism (if you hang out in conservative Catholic circles, you’ve come across it) that tends to regard all modern changes and developments as errors and corruptions. It talks almost as if “the way it was before Vatican II” is synonymous with “theologically correct,” and at the same time treats theology in a highly legalistic way—as if it were grounded in books and canon law exclusively, rather than in experience primarily.

Christian experience is ontologically prior to theology. It is theology's proper horizon, whereas the reverse is not the case. Theology, understood as systematic and critical investigation, is in itself incapable of producing Christian experience by its own resources. What is more, theology is born of Christian experience and must ceaselessly refer to the horizon that this experience sets for it. (Angelo Scola, in a 1996 Communio article)

I don’t imagine Archbishop Aquila is that kind of traditionalist, but the tone and content of his pastoral letter remind me of it.

For instance, early on he writes, “I have been charged by Christ with guiding each of you on your journey to heaven.” Has he? It doesn’t seem so to me. To me, the claim sounds jarringly paternalistic. I can’t imagine John Paul II saying it. As I understand it, a bishop is charged with guiding his diocese, not each soul’s journey. Persons are self-determining. We are guided inwardly, by conscience and the Holy Spirit— a point stressed continually by John Paul II, who, preferred the term “accompaniment” to “discipleship” when it came to priests’ relations with the laity. Clergy are not to think of themselves as responsible to “form” and “mold” and “guide” laymen, so much as to serve and accompany us on our way, always with a profound respect for our freedom and dignity as individuals. When John Paul addressed the faithful, he sought to awaken in us a lively sense of personal responsibility. “You must decide;” “Be the protagonists in your own lives!” His favorite papal title was “Servant of the Servants of God.”

Pope Francis has, if anything, pressed even further in the same direction, frequently urging priests and laity alike to resist clericalism. (see, for example, Evangelii Gaudium 31, 63, 102, 104, 105)

We could maybe set aside the Archbishop’s phrasing as accidental and insignificant, if the paternalistic tone weren’t reinforced by the content of the letter that follows. I’ll come back to that. First let me first address National Catholic Register news story about the change

After repeating that confirmation-before-communion was the “original order” of the sacraments, the article quotes Fr. Michael Flynn, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explaining the history of the change, which came about 100 years ago.

At that time, St. Pius X lowered the age of first Communion to 7 years old, but mentioned nothing about confirmation, where the practice to administer it at 12 continued. Over the course of the subsequent century, U.S. Catholics came to incorrectly view confirmation as a “sacrament of maturity,” because that is how they grew up with it.

I don’t dispute the history, but I question whether it follows that it’s incorrect to view confirmation as the sacrament of maturity, or that the only reason for thinking of it that way is that that’s what we grew up with. It seems to me that there are much deeper reasons. For instance, it makes intuitive sense. In baptism, our parents profess faith on our behalf; in confirmation we profess it for ourselves.

Years ago I heard a series of talks on the sacraments by lay theologian Scott Hahn that drew analogies between natural family life and the supernatural life of the Church. Baptism is spiritual birth; holy communion is sacred nourishment. He compared the graces of confirmation with the hormones released in the body at adolescence empowering us to become men and women. It was convincing.

Here’s another reason: There is an organic link between Judaism and Catholicism. Judaism’s ancient rites are mirrored in our sacraments: circumcision and baptism; temple sacrifice and Eucharist; atonement and confession. Judaism has its rites for marriage and ordination. It also has one for coming of age.

According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar mitzvah… Prior to reaching bar mitzvah, the child's parents hold the responsibility for the child's actions. After this age, the boys and girls bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics, and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life. (From Wikipedia)

Note how religiously and morally significant an occasion bar mitzvah is. Up until age 13, the child’s parents are responsible in front of God for his behavior. With the ceremony, he formally becomes a man, responsible for himself and co-responsible for the religious life of the community.

The idea of confirmation as a Christian corollary to the Jewish bar mitzvah makes sense.

Thinking of it as “the sacrament of maturity” also coheres with the personalist developments of the modern period, which the Church has explicitly made her own since Vatican II. Increasingly, the theological and pastoral documents of the Church stress personal dignity and responsibility. The faithful are not to understand ourselves as objects of the Church’s work in the world, but as subjects—co-responsible agents of Christ’s redemptive mission.

In a series of retreats given to young adults in the late sixties and early seventies, published in English under the title, The Way to Christ, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla indicated that he, too, understands confirmation to be connected to Christian maturity.

With the sacrament of Confirmation we become witnesses; and a witness is not simply a conventional figure but is a person who testifies to Christ. A witness is an adult Christian, adult in conviction, in experience and in fidelity to Christ.

Seven year olds can be true believers, even surpassing their elders in faith and holiness. But they are not adults. Barring exceptional cases, they lack the self-standing to make an adult choice for Christ and the Church. They are too young and too dependent on their parents and teachers.

Which brings me back to Archbishop Aquila’s letter. A prime reason he gives for preferring to do confirmation immediately before first communion is that young children are more “naturally receptive” to religious instruction than teenagers. That’s of course true, but to me it seems exactly a reason to favor the current order. Consider these lines from a short address Pope Francis gave to ecclesial movements in November, 2014 [my bold] 

A further issue concerns the way of welcoming and accompanying men and women of today, in particular, the youth (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 105-106). We are part of a wounded humanity—and we must be honest in saying this—in which all of the educational institutions, especially the most important one, the family, are experiencing grave difficulties almost everywhere in the world. Men and women today experience serious identity problems and have difficulty making proper choices; as a result, they tend to be conditioned and to delegate important decisions about their own lives to others. We need to resist the temptation of usurping individual freedom, of directing them without allowing for their growth in genuine maturity. Every person has their own time, their own path, and we must accompany this journey. Moral or spiritual prgress which manipulates a person's immaturity is only an apparent success, and one destined to fail...Christian education, rather, requires a patient accompaniment which is capable of waiting for the right moment for each person, as the Lord does with each one of us.

The temptation to usurp individual freedom and short-circuit the maturing process in religious education is real. I have more than once heard catechists openly express an aim to get as much instruction and sacramental grace into kids as possible before they become teenagers and drift away. I understand the feeling, but it strikes me as a faithless way to conceive of catechesis, and a demeaning approach to persons. Catholics aren’t supposed to be afraid of freedom. We’re not supposed to be afraid of doubts and questions and independent thinking—not even of adolescent rebellion. On the contrary, our formation programs should consciously make ample room for the kind of inquiry, questioning, and intelligent engagement that older children and young adults want and need.

I would go so far as to to propose that it should be made clear to every Catholic or would-be Catholic child and young adult that the decision about whether and when to seek confirmation is entirely theirs. No one—neither parents, priests, nor CCD teachers—will force or pressure or cajole them into it. Confirmation is a gift, not a mandate. Its graces are meant for those who want them.

In his seminal, even prophetic, work, The End of the Modern World, Romano Guardini (a theologian who profoundly influenced successive post-conciliar popes) stressed that in the irreligious conditions of contemporary society, the absolute demands of Christian dogma come more to the fore, and with them the central importance of freedom.

[M]an’s unconditional answer to the call of God assumes within that very act the unconditional quality of the demand which God makes of him and which necessitates maturity of judgment, freedom and choice.” (p.107, my emphasis)

In a pluralistic society, where young people are constantly confronted with other beliefs and with unbelief, it is all the more important to stress in word and practice the mysterious and central reality that, as Wojtyla put it, “Christianity is a religion of choice.”

Learning from evangelicals

Especially those who have experienced the phenomenon readily understand why evangelical Protestantism and the charismatic renewal have been so effective in winning converts: They have captured something largely lost in conventional Catholic life and ethos, viz., the crucial importance of that personal choice for Christ—the “altar call” moment, when we freely “invite Jesus into our heart as personal Lord and Savior.” Often that moment of decision is accompanied by a powerful influx of felt grace—an intimate assurance of God’s love and presence in our lives. We experience that that grace empowers us to live as Christians in a new way.

So potent is that central feature of evangelicalism that many Catholic youth programs have incorporated it. But, typically, when they do, it’s done in a way that is dis-integrated with parish and sacramental life. It takes place “off campus” so to speak—at a retreat or a youth conference. Why should that be so? Doesn’t so momentous a spiritual occasion naturally “belong” to the sacramental life of our parishes?

Where is the primacy of parents?

Another thing about the Archbishop’s letter bothers me. It’s an instance of a wider problem in the Church. He acknowledges more than once that parents are the primary religious educators of their children, but he seems not to draw any practical conclusion from that fact other than parents have a duty to teach their children the faith. Yet, we know through moral philosophy that duties and rights are strictly correlated. In other words, the fact that we have duties as the prime educators of our children means that we also have rights as such. Clergy and catechists owe us real deference. At a minimum, it seems to me, parents should be consulted about major changes like this before they’re instituted, and encouraged to participate in the discernment about it. Do we think it’s a good idea? What is its theological rationale? What are the practical advantages and disadvantages? How will it affect family and parish life? What problems might it entail? What if we don’t think our child is ready at age seven?, etc.

But there is nothing in the letter to indicate that there was any consultation at all with the laity about the change. On the contrary, what comes across (albeit discretely) is something more like “I’m the bishop; it’s my decision; it’s your duty to submit to my authority.” It doesn’t feel like parental primacy to me.

The theological rationale

It goes without saying that experiential and intuitive reasons in favor of thinking of confirmation as a coming-of-age sacrament don’t suffice if the theological reasons for the original order are compelling. But are they?

Archbishop Aquila writes: “Even though it is closely related to Baptism, Confirmation is more than an appendix of Baptism. It is a sacrament in its own right. In Baptism the Holy Spirit is truly given, yet in Confirmation he is given in a way that completes the graces of Baptism and imparts special strength upon the recipient.”

This statement only raises more questions. How and why is baptism incomplete? Why is it not enough in itself? What is the spiritual need that makes sense of there being two separate and distinct sacraments of initiation? And if it’s all about getting as much objective grace as possible as soon as possible in life, regardless of personal subjectivity, why wait till the age of reason? Why not confirm infants immediately after baptism? I fear the question sounds facetious, but I’m asking it sincerely: Why not also give them the sacrament of the sick, so that the healing graces are present even before sickness begins?

Isn’t it so that there is a “natural ordination” of the sacraments to the human need at hand? Infants need the grace of baptism to be cleansed of original sin and welcomed into the family of God. Small children need the sense of belonging, participation and spiritual nourishment that comes with holy communion. When we commit to a specific adult vocation—marriage or priesthood—we get particular grace for that too. Doesn’t it seem fitting and right that the grace of individual empowerment be offered at the moment we, personally, are ready to take up adult responsibility for ourselves and in the Church?

Perhaps the most persuasive reason in favor of the original order that I have seen has to do with the mystery of the Eucharist as the summit and consummation of our faith. As such, it seems right that Christians be fully initiated before they receive it. But even there, I wonder.  Might it not be—as Pope Francis’ seem to suggest—that we have allowed that truth of Eucharist to overwhelm (in our thinking and ethos) its aspect as spiritual nourishment and sacred medicine? Is it impossible to believe that its wider availability today is not simply down to the carelessness of our too-lax age, but a further unfolding of the depth of the riches of God’s mercy and condescension in offering Himself unreservedly to a broken world?

In any case, while I see that it makes good religious sense for adult converts to receive confirmation before they receive holy communion, I also think it makes good sense for children being raised in Catholic families to receive communion even well before they are mature enough for confirmation, because it fosters and nourishes their still-developing religious life.

The Archbishop says that the change has borne good fruit in dioceses where it’s been implemented, but he doesn’t say what fruit, nor does he offer any real evidence for the claim. We’re left to take it on faith.

There may well be convincing answers to concerns and arguments like mine, but I haven’t seen them. It seems to me the real views and experiences of laymen like me aren’t being engaged at all, which is disturbing.

A different possibility

Here is what I wish we as a Church would consider as an alternative to “restoring the order.” I wish each parish would hold an annual Confirmation Mass, celebrated by the bishop, in which anyone over the age of, say, 12 or 13, is welcome to participate if he or she chooses to and prepares adequately.

Doing it this way would have several key advantages:

1)   It would emphasize the theme of personal responsibility and the reality that Christianity is “a religion of choice,” not merely a way of life we inherit from our parents. We are not passive. We are not just children doing as we’re told, but self-standing individuals stepping forward to profess publicly “what we ourselves have heard and believed.” We make a choice for Christ and His Church, in our own name, when we feel ready to do it. And the moment we do it is recognized and celebrated by the surrounding community as a great occasion for the parish and in our lives as Catholics—the moment we become witnesses, co-responsible for the local church, and the moment we are given the supernatural power to boldly live what we profess.

2)   It would revitalize religious instruction in the parish, since now that instruction would have to be adapted to the needs of individuals at various ages and stages of maturity and experience, rather than a class of children of the same age. I think we could expect that many more parishioners would get actively involved in serving as lay catechists and “fellow travelers.” Small group preparatory study and prayer initiatives would spring up naturally surrounding the sacrament, and continue beyond it—because the faithful would experience them as personally enriching, enjoyable and edifying. Sacramental preparation would be a more organic and integrated component of parish life, rather than a sort of department on the side. Catholic adults would learn experientially that ongoing study and formation is a natural part of the life of faith, as is sharing with others “the reasons for our hope.”

3)   It would ameliorate the age-segregation problem typical of parish life today. I recently heard a talk by a veteran youth minister in which he laments the way youth ministry has tended to isolate teens too much from their parents, and the way parents tend to be too disconnected from the religious lives of their kids.

4)   Youth ministry and sacramental preparation would be better integrated.

5)   It would better accommodate modern family life, including frequent relocations.

6)   It would be a way of responding to the Pope’s call for the Church make a fundamental shift from “maintenance” to “mission.” If we fully respond to that call, it should be increasingly normal for parishes to have to accommodate new believers of all ages.

Of course it would be messy, especially at first. It might even necessitate a pretty thorough overhaul of parish life. But isn’t such an overhaul already long overdue?

By way of summary and conclusion, I propose that Christian experience in the modern period—particularly since Vatican II— gives us good reason to believe that the current order of the sacraments should be received not as an accident of history, but rather a development, under grace, of Catholic understanding and ethos. I have in mind our understanding and cultural incorporation of especially three things: 

1)   The dignity of persons

2)   The lay vocation

3)   The centrality of freedom in Christianity

I hope to expand on those three and their relation to the sacrament of confirmation in a follow-up post. 

show more

  • share
  • tweet
  • 6 cmts
  • print