The Personalist Project

Society and discord

All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries.  Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy…Society, however cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.  The moment that injury begins, the moment that mutual resentment and animosity take place, all the bands of it are broke asunder, and the different members of which it consisted are, as it were, dissipated and scattered abroad by the violence and opposition of their discordant affections.

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Pope recounts all our afflictions with such deep insight and loving concern in paragraphs 39 - 56.

Our world is preoccupied with ephemera. We treat everything—even the deepest, most important things, such as affective relationships—in a consumerist, egotistical way.

I am struck—even a little surprised—by his mention (more than once) of narcissism. Lately I have come to think of narcissism as the prime spiritual antagonist of the person. It is the mode of the antichrist in our day—an entrapping, destroying mode—the antithesis of love and communion. Some days I think maybe it's just me: I'm seeing narcissism everywhere because I happen to have encountered it in my own life. Now I have papal confirmation that my experience is part of a broad trend.

In paragraph 52, he raises the problem I'd hoped he would: the scourge of violence within families:

...violence within families breeds new forms of social aggression, since “family relationships can also explain the tendency to a violent personality. This is often the case with families where communication is lacking, defensive attitudes predominate, the members are not supportive of one another, family activities that encourage participation are absent, the parental relationship is frequently conflictual and violent, and relationships between parents and children are marked by hostility. Violence within the family is a breeding-ground of resentment and hatred in the most basic human relationships”.

He notes too that violence isn't limited to the physical realm. Verbal abuse is a form of violence, so is emotional neglect and a climate of hostility. 

Immediately after, the Pope reaffirms the indispensability of marriage as the ground of civilization:

...only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life... No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.

At the same time, he takes care to distinguish the essence of marriage—as exclusive, indissoluble, and life-giving—from the old patriarchal form of marriage that has rightly been rejected in our day.

Surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence, yet this should not lead to a disparagement of marriage itself, but rather to the rediscovery of its authentic meaning and its renewal. 

I wish more traditionalists would open their hearts and minds to this aspect of modern experience. Feminism (for instance) is not reducible to a nihilistic rejection of maternity or a hatred of men. It also represents a valid protest against real injustices, and an assertion of real values, which have been affirmed as true by the Church.

If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.

The Pope makes clear that equality doesn't mean sameness. Men and women have different, complementary roles in family life, according to their respective natural gifts. What he rejects is the subordination of women to men. He also rejects unambiguously the new gender ideology that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family." 

It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift.

But these are only a sampling of the range of challenges and problems facing the family today. He mentions reproductive technologies, euthanasia and assisted suicide, addiction, economic stress, and many others. He ends Chapter 2 on a note of hope, though. We are never to lose hope.

The great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to a yearning that is part and parcel of human existence”.48 If we see any number of problems, these should be, as the Bishops of Colombia have said, a summons to “revive our hope and to make it the source of prophetic vi- sions, transformative actions and creative forms of charity”.49 

Chapter 3 is about "the vocation of the family." I'll take that up in my next post.

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Do you cringe when you hear the word compassion? How about pastoral? Or dialogue?

Ii do--or I used to. 

When I first started writing regularly, I didn't realize there was anything in particular I was longing to say. But over and over I found myself honing in on the same theme: reclaiming buzzwords, salvaging grains of truth, rescuing babies being tossed out with their bathwater. 

Here's what I mean:

When you reduce some noble reality--say, compassion--to a red-flag buzzword, then of course you've done a disservice to the reality itself. If you can get people to think it's compassionate to do away with your cancer patient's suffering by doing away with him, or to address poverty by interfering with the conception or gestation of babies in Detroit or Nicaragua, then you've reduced compassion to a caricature of itself. People who don't know any better believe that that's all compassion means.

And that's a shame.

But look what else happens. People who do know better get so weary of watching the conniving, the sleight of hand that swaps out the real thing for the caricature--that we end up turning against the real thing too. The red-flag word sets off a reaction, and pretty soon we become not only circumspect when it's mentioned--not only cynical--but we start to acknowledge only the buzzword meaning. Confronted with a question calling for genuine empathy, our first instinct is to sneer, "Don't talk to me about your 'compassion!'" No one can say a word about the real thing without drawing our attention towards the counterfeit. Real compassion gets abandoned, eclipsed. We get so we can no longer admire it or even recognize it when it's under our noses.

One persistent objection to Pope Francis is that he naively embraces reductionist baloney, the buzzword-caricatures of realities like compassion, diversity, encounter, and, most especially, dialogue. You don't dialogue with evil, people object. You attack it; you defend yourself against it. You call it by its name.   

And they have a point. You can't just take at face value everything that slaps a pleasant-sounding label on itself. You don't just declare that because dialogue is a good thing it must be engaged in incessantly and indiscriminately. 

But how to make wise distinctions? How to avoid falling for the counterfeit without dismissing what's genuine? I found some help from, of all people, Pope Francis in Chapter One of his book Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on following JesusIt addresses how to know whether and when to engage in dialogue, but it also nudges you to ask whether you yourself are acting like a person worth entering into dialogue with.

Incidentally, too, it lays to rest the caricature of the Holy Father as a simpleton who can't tell propaganda from reality.

There are three kinds of people who seek dialogue, he points out, and Christ responds to each in a particular way.

The first are those who engage in "devious dialogue": the Pharisees, for instance, asking about whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.  {"But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?"). Or the Sadducees, with their hypothetical seven-times-married woman. These He instructs, or He asks them a question in turn: He doesn't simply let them set the terms of the debate: 

This ploy is so shameful that the Lord doesn't even bother to argue with the tricksters; he responds simply by asserting the sublimity of the glorified life.

Then there are those who "want to lay down conditions." They want to learn from Him or follow Him, but only in secret (Nicodemas), or only if they can be the conversation-managers:

The Samaritan woman ...attempts to deflect her dialogue with Jesus because she wants to avoid what is crucial; she prefers to speak of theology rather than explain about her husbands.

He keeps dialogue going, but that doesn't mean He lets her get away with changing the subject.

Others agree to follow Him, but only after attending to other seemingly more urgent matters. Again, He doesn't refuse dialogue, He just declines to water things down one iota.

Finally, there are the open-hearted ones. They're not just trying to snatch something else under the guise of dialogue; they're not trying to negotiate a deal for eternal life at a reduced cost.

They put everything on the table. When people draw close to Jesus in this way, his heart overflows with joy.

Entering into dialogue, just like "having compassion" or "taking a pastoral approach," turns out not to be such a simple, all-or-nothing affair. By all means, let's dump the bathwater of reductionism and caricature. 

But let's make sure to save all the babies.

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If God can do miracles, why doesn't He just do them all the time? If curing one blind or lame or leprous man is good, wouldn't curing all of us of everything be better?

One angle, of course, is that the real point is not to relieve this or that short-term, finite, bodily suffering but to provide evidence that God is who He says He is. When the Messiah came, the blind would see, the lame would walk, and the deaf would hear. He came, they did, and the door to salvation was opened. He does wish to rescue us from this-worldly troubles, but mostly He wants to save us from something far worse. Miracles facilitate faith.

This makes sense to me, but in my own experience of miracles--examples in a minute--what's gained is not just knowledge of the proposition God exists, but something much more personal.

Here are some examples of everyday miracles I've experienced:

  • On a visit to Fatima, Portugal, pregnant, ravenous, and crabby, I trudged into the church and prayed to be in a more fitting state of mind. Immediately, I felt peace and also, entirely unexpectedly, the certainty that the baby I was carrying was a girl (she was) and that her name was Miriam Fatima (it is).
  • As a mother of seventeen young children under five (technically, three children, but that's how I remember it), I once prayed to Blessed Alvaro del Portillo to improve their behavior. He answered the prayer by not changing their behavior in the least but shifting something in me so that I suddenly saw everything they did as hilarious and endearing instead of aggravating.
  • Just the other day, (through nobody's fault but my own), I missed a flight. The agents informed me laconically that it was the last flight of the day and that there was no way to refund the hundreds of dollars in question or even to avoid paying hundreds more for a different flight. Recalling that the next day was Our Lady of Fatima's feast day, I prayed, mechanically and hopelessly, for some kind of miracle. But really, what could possibly happen? Was the same, unsympathetic ticket agent about to walk over and inform me that as a courtesy United had decided to waive all fees, and then perhaps inquire what time would be most convenient for me to fly the following day?

A few minutes later, that's just what happened.

  • A few years ago, God arranged what I could only describe as a "millenia-long, intersecting arrangement of ancient poetry, insect behavior, junk-food marketing strategy, and liturgical rhythms," just to entertain me with a silly pun and make me feel welcome (you can click on the link to read the details).
  • This last one happened not to me, but to a Lebanese priest named Fr. Antonio: He was discerning, or trying hard to avoid discerning, a vocation to be a monk. More or less reconciled to the idea, he still had one problem: he was very attached to his chicken-raising. Finally he gave in and admitted glumly that, after all, God's will was more important than a bunch of chickens. He presented himself at the Abbey, and the brother who opened the door greeted him with, "Welcome! We're putting you in charge of the chickens!" And thus he became the caretaker of a far larger flock than he'd ever had in the old days.

Do you see the common thread? 

Miracles like this are not about providing evidence for the proposition that God exists, or leading the intellect to assent to this proposition in order to gain some advantage. Instead, there's a quirky sense of humor and an enormous and very imaginative effort to customize events so that the benefactee is practically forced to admit--well, what, exactly? Not so much that Someone is up there, but that Someone up there must take a very particular interest in me and be willing to go to a lot of trouble to make sure I know it.

You'd almost think He was a Person.

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I heard a great talk the other day on loving your children's freedom. This sounds like a fine idea until you try to practice it. But it's worth aiming for.

The speaker, Fr. Sal,* made clear that loving their freedom doesn't mean loving their choices. Do you have to love your toddler's decision to run into traffic, or your adult child's determination to live on ramen and Netflix? Definitely not.

Nor does loving their freedom mean letting the chips fall where they may and trying (or pretending) to be happy about how things turn out. Love isn't passive. It implies the effort to educate that freedom--encouraging it, giving them opportunities to exercise it, helping them to develop it .It's obvious enough that they can earn more freedom as they get older and develop good judgment. It can be less obvious that they need opportunities to exercise it before their judgment can be trusted, so that they can get there eventually. "Only in this way," Fr. Sal pointed out, " is their growth their own." 

Squashing their freedom seems so much safer--but there are two reasons why it's a temptation worth resisting.

First, if God Himself values freedom as much as He obviously does, who are we to distrust or despise it? It's tempting to disapprove of our children's freedom, or even our own. Life can get exhausting, and sometimes we want nothing more than blind obedience, or even for somebody to just tell us what to do ourselves. Abdication is so much simpler. Still, better to take our cue from the Creator, who, as Fr. Sal points out, "prefers the apparent failure of His plan" to being a puppeteer.

But here's the second reason why it should be resisted: Freedom-squashing doesn't work. Even if you manage to produce a docile, passive, obedient child who doesn't rebel against you, what then? What good is it to send him out into the world unequipped to exercise his freedom?

And if your child does rebel agiant excessive freedom-squashing, the tragedy is not just that you've been foiled, but that you may have fostered animosity in him against precisely all the things you hold most dear.I know good families who've set their children up to have a special resistance to precisely the habits and virtues and beliefs they most want to inculcate. These are good kids, but before embracing, for example, some practice of piety, they have to get past the sense that it's "that thing that my parents always made me do." Before embracing certain music, or art, they have to overcome a resistance, a sense that it's not really their own preference, or belief, but something they were pressured or manipulated into liking.

As Katie writes about cults here, it's not just that certain organizations are full-blown cults and others are not. Cultish elements can creep into communities that aren't objectively problematic--either because of leaders' vices or because of misunderstandings among the well intentioned.

In the same way, not every family is simply freedom-affirming or freedom-squashing. Elements of manipulation, of thinking of children primarily according to how they reflect on their parents, can creep in surprisingly easily.

Fighting your children's freedom is easy. Resigning yourself to it is harder. Loving it is next to impossible, but if you can manage it, Fr. Sal pointed out, it transforms "the whole tone of the conversation."

What do you think? Where do you draw the line? If you've learned to embrace your children's freedom, how have you done it? How has it worked out? Is it possible?

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

*I'm not sure of his last name but will add it when I find it out.

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I'm grieving these days over the crack up of the Republican political party and the imminent demise of the American Experiment in self-government and the rule of law. I was rather attached to both.

A few thoughts, then a few quotes.

This reductio ad absurdism of the Enlightenment ideal of rational self-governance without reference to God has been long in the making. It is linked, spiritually, to the same forces (of industrialization, the rise of mass media and technology, the spread of atheistic materialism and its attendant evil ideologies, the sexual revolution, the break up of natural communities and customs, etc.) that impelled Pope John XXIII to convene Vatican II. 

Many years ago I read an interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger about that Council. He said (paraphrasing from memory), "The Church had been like a strong fortress, where the faithful were protected from enemies. The Council Fathers saw that the walls were about to be breached; we would have to train them for guerrilla warfare." That is to say, the cultural forces were too much—not for the Church, but for the old (paternalistic) forms of Catholic life. Now the faithful would have to learn to live their faith from within.

I'm thinking today that trying to maintain the Reagan coalition and American conservatism is maybe somewhat comparable to trying to repair those walls—a fruitless rear guard action and a waste of energy. They simply can't withstand the cultural forces now sweeping the world. 

Only God can do that. Only a return to Him will suffice on both the individual and communal levels. And it has to be focused within.

Socrates: “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Theodore Dalrymple: "Political correctness is the means by which we try to control others; decency is the means by which we try to control ourselves"

Whittaker Chambers: "Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age. The Western world does not know it, but it already possesses the answer to this problem—but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism’s faith in Man” [or, I would add, Progressivism’s faith in progress or scientism’s faith in science.]

Pope Paul VI: "...what matters is to evangelize man's culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes,[50] always taking the person as one's starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God."

It's about the interiority of the person, which is to say, our relation to God and others.

 

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