The Personalist Project


You live in a deranged ageā€”more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

I've never met my Facebook friend Brianne in real life. We only know each other from an online support group for caregivers for loved ones with dementia. But as soon as I heard her story I knew I needed to share it.

She begins:

The moment I feared most was most beautiful… mother was diagnosed with dementia two and a half years ago.... And from that instant I began trying to prepare for the moment when she wouldn’t know who I was. ... But when that moment finally came, it was profoundly beautiful, and with it, I saw something beyond my mother’s dementia.

It happened over the holidays. Mom was wandering the house one night, and came into the room .... I woke up, as she was turning back out. I followed her to the living room and saw fear, nervousness and sadness all over her face.

“What’s wrong, Mama?” I asked.

“This is my home,” she said, “but I don’t know who you people are.” She was on the verge of tears. 

It was The Moment I feared--but… but…in that moment, not an ounce of my consciousness was thinking about me. I was focused entirely on the scared woman in front of me.

“Oh, I see. That must be scary. Well, I can tell you we are all people who love you. We’re all here because we love you. You might not remember, but we love you a whole lot.”

“You do?” she asked, as I watched the fear slip a little.

“Yes indeed. We love you tons, that’s why we’re here.”

This is the first insight: the "theme" of that moment was to respond to the person in front of her--not, primarily, to her own reactions. Brianne was looking forward with dread to an abstract event, but the reality, when it came, was not some disembodied happening, but enmeshed in the particular person before her and the longstanding relations between them.

Next came a stroke of genius:

A sense of ease slipped into the cracks, so I thought I would take a chance.

“Do you remember you have a daughter?”


“Do you remember her name is Brianne?”


“That’s me!” I said, with the warmest smile I could ever find.

And then the fear disappeared and my mama reached out to me for the most amazing hug we have ever shared. She pulled away, looked at me with the sweetest eyes, then hugged me more. I don’t think my mother and I have ever been wrapped in a moment filled with so much love. 

Had her mother forgotten who she was? Technically, you could say so. The ability spontaneously to connect the name with the face, or the person she was looking at with the memory of her daughter, was gone. But the bond between beloved mother and beloved daughter was intact.

And that is when it hit me...the place where love resides cannot be touched by any disease. The place where connection flows is beyond any intellectual comprehension, and so a “rational” mind is not necessary to experience it. Those moments of grace like the one I had with my mom are always on offer, just beyond our ideas of what’s wrong.

Alzheimers is still a tragedy, and Brianne doesn't pretend otherwise:

I still have moments of sadness and grief when I think of the mom I might have had if dementia had not come along, but the heaviness it once carried is gone.

I've seen my grandmother and my mother pass through the stages of Alzheimer's, and I've seen how, even when it's very advanced, they will grasp a hand reached out to them. In I'm Still Here: A new philosophy of Alzheimer's care, John Zeisel tells how the sense of touch, which connects us so closely to one another, is one of the last abilities to go. We're sometimes over-hasty to equate the disappearance of reasoning power, spatial awareness, or agility with the disappearance of the person. We don't even try to reach her in other ways. 

It's also a failure of imagination: if we don't have access to the person's thoughts through speech, we assume there are no thoughts there. But I remember when my grandmother was in the final stages, confined to a bed in a nursing home. She hadn't said a word, much less a full sentence, in a long, long time. But one day she looked up at the nurse and remarked graciously, "You take care of me every day." She was "still there," all evidence to the contrary.

Brianne also rejects the idea that the person with dementia has somehow "disappeared." It might seem to make sense to talk about "the person she used to be." The experience of missing someone who's still there is real, and it comes up again and again in our online support group. But moments like the one Brianne describes are testimony to the person who is still there, outlasting so many former abilities and skills.

When we look at the disease, we find despair. But the human we love is still present. When we look at what is lost, we find heartbreak. But something more powerful always remains. When we look at what is or is not said, we find confusion and frustration. But beyond all language, life itself will carry us when we cannot carry ourselves.

This is not “looking at the bright side”, I believe this is seeing something more true than dementia.

I think she's absolutely right. And I won't presume to add anything more to Brianne's words. I just wanted them to have as wide an audience as possible.

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Don't be alarmed. I'm not ill, just older. I'm about to turn 52, so I was starting to feel funny being represented by a photo taken when I was 40. 

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Continuing our discussion of boundaries, I want to tackle the question of whether mindfulness of the boundaries between persons runs counter to the self-gift we are called to as Christians. 

I don't think boundaries, as I understand them as a Personalist and a Christian, prohibit true martyrdom. They aren't primarily about self-protection, except insofar as we are responsible for our own well-being. But other responsibilities---other *goods*---can eclipse even that very immediate and instinctual responsibility.

God, of course, has a kind of responsibility for each of us that we can't really have for each other. He creates us, holds us in being, and provides all of the created world to meet our needs. He won't violate the natural boundaries He created us to have because that would be counter to His own nature. He won't coerce us. But in the person of Christ, God sacrificed himself to be able to offer us redemption. 

What do we do with that kind of radical gift? If we are to be like Christ, doesn't that mean we should also be prepared to make equally radical gifts of ourselves for the good of others? Does altruism violate the boundaries between people?

I'd like to propose a few guidelines for navigating these questions. 

The principle I've developed for myself for non-reciprocal self-gift---giving to someone who cannot be relied upon to appreciate or reciprocate my care or concern---is this: my gift must be free, unconditional, and not interfere with my ability to meet equal or greater responsibilities to myself or those in my care. 


I am not coerced. I recognize where my obligations lie and I know what I am not obligated to do. I act out of my freedom, not under compulsion or coercion. 


There are no strings attached to my gift. I am not attempting to exert control over another or make them feel obligated to me. I am not unduly attached to the hope of a particular kind of response that would serve or gratify me.

Not in conflict with my responsibilities:

I am not costing myself the ability to live out the responsibilities of my vocation. I am not giving time, energy, or money that I cannot afford to give.

I believe there are times where martyrdom can meet these conditions--when it is free, unconditional, and becomes the perfect fulfilment of vocation as an act of love that encompasses all those we are responsible to.  

Christ accepts his death freely, offering it as a gift we are free to take or refuse, and in doing so fulfils his vocation of love to us without permanently withdrawing from us. The world continued to turn and men and women continued to draw breath as God the Father held us in being even as God the Son died at human hands.

God is infinite being with infinite capacity for infinite love and therefore infinite gift. He is never lessened by His gifts. We humans, on the other hand, have finite capacity and finite being, and need to be prudent and wise caretakers of both our gifts and those in our particular care.

When your boundaries have been crossed again and again and you have finally learned where the borders around your own responsibilities lie, it can be frightening--vulnerable--to contemplate bringing down the stockade you have built to protect your heart. 

You or I may never face the extreme choice of martyrdom. But we do face smaller opportunities for self-gift every day, times and places where we can carry someone else's cross with them for a short while and lighten their load. 

Don't hesitate to embrace these opportunities when they come. The load borne freely, eagerly, that strengthens rather than competes with our closest responsibilities, gives more than it takes. This free self-gift takes some portion of our time and our love, but it gives back even more than it takes. 

"Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for himself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self"  (Gaudium et Spes 24)

Man is the creature God willed for himself. We were not created for anyone's use, but were created for the sake of the good of our existence. It is right and good that we should resist being treated as objects of use, and refuse to so treat others as objects of use. Healthy boundaries around our subjectivity are thus essential--not optional.

But as incommunicable as we are in our subjectivity, we are also made for communion. We cannot fully find ourselves without giving ourselves. We define our boundaries so that we can make this gift freely, whole-heartedly, without regrets or reservations. 

And I believe that it is here, in the freedom of our gift, that we may finally, fully find ourselves.  

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels 

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Yesterday, while working on the post below, I found two a propos items. An address given last month by Cardinal Cupich called, "Pope Francis’ Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity," and a blogpost claiming:

The new paradigm Catholic Church is the old 1970's paradigm that Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict tried to undo and is being resurrection [sic] again and with the same nasty results.

Feel free to google if you want to read it. As far as I'm concerned, that quote says it all.

I'm grateful to this blogger, whoever he is, for making explicit what I sense many conservatives think but seldom say so straight-forwardly. I suspect that it's basically what Archbishop Chaput thinks too. If he doesn't think it, many conservatives think he does, because his public words suggest it. And he, like Cardinal Burke, is widely seen as their hero—a hero for Truth against a dark force of liberalism that has taken over the Vatican.

It distresses and disturbs me, as I think (to the degree that they know about it) it must the Pope and his predecessors. It's not just that it's objectively bad and scandalous for popes to be pitted against each other and for there to be such ugly division in the Church, but the notion that Francis is in discontinuity with John Paul and Benedict is  not true. Conservatives think he is, because of their "excessive objectivism." They are so focussed on objectivity that they've missed the "turn toward subjectivity" that is the great and paradigmatic event of our time in salvation history. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were two of its prime authors and protagonists

Further, and really importantly, their misunderstanding of what's going on with this papacy is preventing conservatives from playing the vital role they ought to be playing at this moment in the Church. The Pope is calling for dialogue. Conservatives' values, insights, perspective and help is urgently needn't for the task we're facing. But it's as if, instead of bringing what we have to the table, we're scoffing at the idea that there's any need for dialogue at all. We're talking and acting as if the call for dialogue is tantamount to an assertion of relativism—as if our perspective is the same as Truth as such and other perspectives are a menace to Truth. 

In deepest theological and metaphysical fact, though, truth, like love, involves a communion of persons. We need each other to attain it. And the higher the truth in question, the stronger, deeper and broader the communion needs to be.

It happens that I've been re-reading a lot of JP II and Benedict in recent weeks, so I am freshly aware and in awe of how absolutely replete with subjectivity their works and witness are. Of course they were also great defenders of objectivity. That's the gift and the miracle.

Those two intellectual giants—popes, saints, Scripture scholars and mystics both—promoted subjectivity while they defended objectivity. They showed in their words and witness that there is a dialectical (not to say conjugal) relation between these two aspects of Reality, and between modernity and the perennial tradition.

It's meant to be a fruitful union. Modernists are contracepting one way; traditionalists in another. Both are "refusing to give" and "refusing to receive" the other in full. It's not okay.

I think I might need the rest of my life to explain.


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I have no quarrel with any particular point in this interview with Archbishop Chaput. But something about it sticks in my craw, as does a lot of his writing lately—articles and public speeches wherein he seems to me to consistently, if discretely, set himself up as an opponent of the pastoral teaching and priorities of Pope Francis.

That may sound rather extreme, but I mean it sincerely, and I’m bothered enough by it to want to make my thoughts and feelings known to others. I will have more to say in future about what I see as his serious misunderstanding of "accompaniment" and his incomplete account of Veritatis Splendor. For now, I'll limit myself to the short CNA article linked above.

I’m with the Archbishop entirely when he writes about the greatness and enduring relevance of Fides et Ratio. I agree with him whole-heartedly that we urgently need to re-acquire the habit and skills of rigorous moral reasoning. Like him, I deplore the dearth of sound catechetical, philosophical and theological formation that has afflicted every Catholic generation since Vatican II, including priests. I, too, reject “faddish theology” and the downgrading of conscience to sentiment or personal opinion. (Newman called this "dispensing with conscience in the name of conscience.")

Still. When I read parts of this interview, I feel perturbed and think he’s doing a disservice. He’s not doing justice to the issues at hand or to fellow Catholics who have views different from his own. He’s leaving out too much nuance and perspective, in a way that is likely to exacerbate tensions and divisions among us at a moment when what we need above all is more openness and receptivity toward the Pope and toward one another.

Take the following paragraph, which comes in answer to this question:

If someone finds himself or herself in a cultural or ecclesial environment dominated by poor philosophy and theology, how should he or she respond?

Ignore the nonsense, read, watch and listen to good Catholic material, and live your faith in conformity with what the Church has always taught. The basics still apply on marriage, sex, honesty and everything else. There are no “new paradigms” or revolutions in Catholic thought. Using that kind of misleading language only adds confusion to a confusing age.

It sounds dismissive to me, "excessively objectivistic," and wrong. It’s true that the essential teaching of the Church doesn’t change, but it's false that there are no new paradigms. 

To my mind, Vatican II represents a quite dramatic paradigm shift in the Church, and, as Pope Francis has said, we’re still a long way from having fully assimilated it. John Paul II's Theology of the Body offered a new paradigm for understanding conjugal love and theological anthropology, didn't it?

In an important essay published in 1958, a young Josef Ratizinger wrote of the “fundamental change in the structure of the Church” that he saw as a fact of the modern world, necessitating the Council. Here is something he said much later, after he had already retired from the papacy, when he was asked what the changes we’re seeing under Pope Francis mean:

It means that the Church is flexible, dynamic and open, and that it is developing from within. That it is not frozen in old patterns, but that surprising things happen again and again. That it carries a dynamism which allows for constant renewal.

“Pattern” is another word for “paradigm.”

I don't have a reference to John Paul II using the term "revolution" at the tip of my fingers, but a line from retreats he offered to young adults in the 1960’s and '70's comes close. 

Rebellion even contains a positive element, so long as it is a struggle for authentic values and not simply unmotivated and self-centered revolt.

This insight undergirds the Solidarity Movement that brought down the Iron Curtain without war. It, like the American Civil Rights protests, was what George Weigel calls "a revolution of conscience."  

Pope Francis has been known to use the term too, e.g., when he called for “a revolution of tenderness” during the Year of Mercy. In itself, the word is not so different from "conversion" or “metanoia.”  It needn't imply any menace to fundamental doctrine. Nothing Copernicus discovered altered the operations of the universe in the slightest degree, and yet his work brought about a scientific revolution. How? By radically changing our perspective and our understanding of celestial bodies and the physical laws governing them.

A paradigm shift in the Church similarly represents not a change in doctrine or the objective moral law, but a change in our perspective and our understanding—one that yields new insights regarding their application in our day and age.

John Paul II's writings and teachings are chock full of this kind of newness. So are Pope Benedict's. The philosophical personalism of the modern period, which both great popes cite as vital to their own intellectual and spiritual development and whose influence suffuses their magisterial teaching represents nothing less than a new paradigm in Catholic thought.

As Benedict put it: "Modern thought has opened up a new dimension for moral theology."

And new dimensions in thought have practical and pastoral implications. Those are being worked out in the current papacy. It's not an easy or straight-forward task. It's made harder when, instead of lending a hand, major Catholic prelates and conservative opinion-makers treat the task itself as worse than pointless—something to be resisted rather than embraced.

I really wish they'd stop doing that.

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