The Personalist Project

Round table discussions

We need round-table discussions to keep trained minds from becoming academic. We need round-table discussions to keep untrained minds from becoming superficial. We need round-table discussions to learn from scholars how things would be, if they were as they should be. We need round-table discussions to learn from scholars how a path can be made from things as they are to things as they should be.

Peter Maurin, unknown

In his 1995 Letter to Women, John Paul II writes about the special contribution that women make to humanizing the world.

Progress usually tends to be measured according to the criteria of science and technology. Nor from this point of view has the contribution of women been negligible. Even so, this is not the only measure of progress, nor in fact is it the principal one. Much more important is the social and ethical dimension, which deals with human relations and spiritual values. In this area … society certainly owes much to the "genius of women".

Jane Jacobs (pictured below) whose 100th birthday would have been yesterday, is a great case in point. 

She was a major inspiration behind the New Urbanist movement which promotes walkable and livable cities and neighborhoods. Unlike Robert Moses, her main rival in New York who thought that "cities are created by and for [automobile] traffic", Jacobs insisted that cities are created by and for the people who live there. City planning should be community-centered not car-centered. Cars (for now) are necessary but they are not the main point of a city.

When, in the 1950s, Moses proposed to build a highway right through the middle of Washington Square Park, it was especially the mothers living nearby who opposed the plan. They saw and valued the park as a place where children biked and ran, grown-ups walked and played chess, families picnicked, etc.

These mothers were unwilling to sacrifice their quality of life, and that of their neighborhood, to a more efficient traffic pattern. So, led by Shirley Hayes, they started a grassroots protest movement against the plan. Seven years later, after Jane Jacobs had joined the movement, they succeeded not only in defeating Moses' plan, but in banning all traffic from the square. Moses' reaction is priceless, and reminded me of JPII's Letter to Women.

At a meeting about the fate of the park, he stood up, gripped the railing, and bellowed, "There is nobody against this — NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS!" Then he stomped out.

There is another passage in the Letter that is illustrated in the life of Jane Jacobs. In paragraph 6, John Paul II expresses his admiration for women of good will who have demonstrated

…courageous initiative at a time when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of femininity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin!

In a very good article on modesty, Rebecca Bratten Weiss makes a similar point:

…morality sometimes stands in opposition to manners: when working for justice, especially, it is sometimes necessary to kick over the traces of respectability, even if this makes for bad etiquette.

Jane Jacobs found this out during her efforts to thwart Moses' plan to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX).

This project, now almost universally despised, was designed to streamline traffic between Long Island and New Jersey by means of a 10-lane highway through lower Manhattan, and would have destroyed several vibrant, historic neighborhoods like Little Italy and SOHO. But the usual respectable tactics of letter writing, signature gathering, and so on, proved ineffective. Those in charge paid little attention to concerns of affected parties and tried to force the plan through the necessary hoops and regulations. Then Jacobs, accidentally it seems, hit upon the only strategy that worked: she got herself arrested and jailed for disorderly conduct at a public hearing. The next day she was all over the newspapers and had drawn widespread public attention to her cause. Ignoring objections to it was no longer possible and soon afterwards the LOMEX project was dead.

Jane Jacobs was a mother and activist. She also wrote many books in which she analyzes what makes a city tick and lays down principles for building humane, sustainable and thriving cities. Her most important and influential work, long but easy to read, is The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Want to get your feet wet first? Then check out this collection of brief essays celebrating her life and legacy.

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My last post, "The Limits of 'Identifying As,'" left me with a nagging feeling of loose ends unaddressed.

(Here's a link to the video that inspired it, in which a series of mild-mannered college students are asked whether a shortish Caucasian man who "identifies as" a tall Chinese woman is "wrong." None of them can bring themselves to say he is.)

I set out to locate the grain of truth in treating "I identify as" like a magical veto power over objective reality. I recalled how Pope St. John Paul II used to invite us to embark on the adventure of "becoming who you are"--of employing the gift of freedom to become the person you are meant to be, not some lesser version thereof. I said:

We possess the gift of freedom and the capacity for initiating actions that are truly our own: not just performed by instinct or blind habit, nor in the teeth of pressure or manipulation, but really ours. By such an exercise of freedom, we can be transformed--not just modified, or adjusted, but transformed. We can "become who we are"--or fail to. We're not altogether at the mercy of instinct, upbringing, culture, moods, wiring.

Because if we really grasped the grandeur of that, we wouldn't keep hankering after "becoming who we aren't." We would be more content with developing our free personhood within given realities like "male" and "shortish" and "Caucasian." Jules objected:  

I think it is not enough in this context to say that we are free to "become who we are" or not. That sounds as if our freedom is limited to just two choices: accept God's ready-made plan for us or reject it. In reality our freedom is much more creative than that. It's not just a matter of accepting God's choice for us, but also of making our own choices.

He referred me to an earlier post of his, worth reading in full, with insights from John Crosby, John Courtney Murray, Romano Guardini, and Nicolai Berdyaev. Freedom is not a matter of locating the correct path and mechanically following it, or the correct kind of behavior, and passively adopting it. That leaves no room for creativity.

Or, as C.S. Lewis' puts it in Mere Christianity: "We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort." The focus is on interior reality, not external option-selecting.

We've addressed the way this plays out in the context of discerning a vocation or other large life decision ("God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life, But What If He Won't Tell You What It Is?") Providence is something bigger than some exceedingly particular path you ought to take. Swerving to the right or to the left doesn't cancel out your ability to live the life you were supposed to live. It doesn't render Him helpless to do anything about it. 

For example: say you were "supposed to" attend College X, settle in City Y, and practice Profession Z. But the Tigers won the World Series your senior year of high school and distracted you from your test prep. You bombed your SAT and never got admitted to College X. Therefore, God's plan for you was foiled and you could never "become who you are."

Is that the way it works?

I used to think so.

Certainly God has a plan, and our choices have genuine consequences. They open up and cut off real possibilities. And of course we're commanded to do good and avoid evil. We are to "stay on the path" in that sense--though even there, if Providence wasn't foiled by Adam's "happy fault," neither is God powerless in the face of our lesser infractions.

Our external actions are part of the picture; they're certainly not irrelevant. But external actions aren't at the heart of anybody's life-project.

Here's what opened my eyes: 

A few years ago, I was agonizing over whether we were "meant to" move to a place I really didn't want to move to. We were in church, and, unfortunately (I thought) we'd just opened our hymnals to a song with the refrain "Lord, we will go / Wherever you send us." I waned to be detached enough from my own preferences to sing that line honestly, but I wasn't so sure I could.

And then it occurred to me that God probably didn't care half so much about where I moved as what kind of a person I would be--what kind of life I lived--when we got there. Something in my mindset shifted, and suddenly I couldn't worry so much about whether we ended up in this city or that. I didn't have to live in fear of being called to go places I didn't prefer to go or live under circumstances I didn't prefer to navigate. That wasn't really the point at all. I saw that Providence was quite capable of working with my freedom, and I found I was a lot more willing to work with Providence. 

Maybe the students in the video are groping for that kind of freedom. They want to be creative, not constrained by facts they never chose in the first place. Maybe they sense that there's something deeper than those facts, and they think they can "identify" their way out of their predicament.

Or maybe they're just crazy.

What do you think?

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The personalist emphasis continues in paragraph 38. The Pope points to the example of Jesus, who held up "a demanding ideal" ["Be perfect!"] and yet "never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery."  We see again what we have seen all along with this Pope: he is not about changing the moral law; he's about changing hearts, our hearts. 

[It occurs to me here that Jesus didn't generally show warmth and compassion and understanding toward the Pharisees. Toward them, he could be rather severe, no? "You snakes!" He was hard on his disciples sometimes. "Get behind me, Satan!" Why? Because he loved them less? No. Because he is responsive to the inward condition and needs of each individual. The "righteous" are inclined to forget inwardly their utter reliance on grace; they are tempted to think well of themselves and to look down on sinners and dissidents (i.e. to become "masters"). They need to be "brought low." "Sinners" are more inclined to feel ashamed, unclean, and hopeless about themselves (i.e. enslaved). They need to be "lifted up."]

I ask myself: How do "sinners" who know me experience me? What do they feel emanating, spiritually, from me? Is it tenderness? Closeness? Compassion? Care? Hope for themselves? Or do they rather feel judged and ashamed in front of me? Am I more like the father or the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son? In the language of recovery rooms, "Do I seem like a safe person for the vulnerable? or do they want to hide themselves from me?"

Clearly, I have work to do. I'm glad and grateful that the Pope has helped me see it. [Also, I'm going to worry less about whether "the righteous" approve of me. Their approval and disapproval are modes of "mastery;" they measure others outwardly, by performance, prestige, conformity to the law, "success." They relish social hierarchies. Love affirms the person; it levels mountains and fills in the valleys, establishing the conditions for true communion.]

For the first time since I began "live blogging" my reading of this exhortation, I've read some commentary. I've read Cardinal Schönborn's introduction to it, which gives me joy and reassures me I am interpreting rightly as I go. He (who reportedly collaborated on its articulation) reads it as I do.

Pope Francis has succeeded in speaking about all situations without cataloguing them, without categorising, with that outlook of fundamental benevolence that is associated with the heart of God, with the eyes of Jesus that exclude no-one (cf. AL 297), that welcome all and grant the “joy of the Gospel” to all. This is why reading Amoris Laetitia is so comforting. No-one must feel condemned, no-one is scorned. In this climate of welcome, the discourse on the Christian vision of marriage and the family becomes an invitation, an encouragement, to the joy of love in which we can believe and which excludes no-one, truly and sincerely no-one.

The Cardinal speaks of a "change" that happened over the year between the Synods that prepared this document. Was it a change in doctrine? No. Rather, it was a change in discourse, in tone, in the inward attitude of the Synod fathers. It was "a pastoral conversion."

Between the two Synods of October 2014 and October 2015, it may clearly be seen how the tone became richer in esteem, as if the different situations in life had simply been accepted, without being immediately judged or condemned. In Amoris Laetitia this tone of language continues. Before this there is obviously not only a linguistic choice, but rather a profound respect when faced with every person who is never firstly a “problematic case” in a “category”, but rather a unique person, with his story and his journey with and towards God.

We have been given a very great gift in this Pope, in this exhortation.

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I'd like to back up a bit and begin again at Chapter Two: The Experience and Challenges of Families.

[NB: As I'm "live-blogging" my slow and sporadic reading of the exhortation, I am refraining from reading any other commentary on it. I've only seen headlines.]

The focus on experience can't be overstressed; it is key to understanding Francis. It accounts for his much-lamented "unclarity." Real experience is messy and opaque; it resists facile analysis and simple answers. It requires attention, listening, patience, receptivity, sensitivity, care, and strong faith. Many of us (in a perennial temptation) prefer to concentrate on "the law"—something strictly objective that can be readily mastered by anyone with time and a certain level of intellectual ability. 

But we can't really grasp life—or anything personalexcept through experience. And it is through experience that “the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family.”

Francis is quoting John Paul II here. He is determined to contend with concrete reality—however painful and challenging—because he trusts that through it the Church will be guided to a more profound understanding of the human person and of the practical exigencies of her own teachings.

It is the opposite of what he is often suspected and accused of—the opposite of the dissident habit of mind. Dissidents dwell on hard cases to insinuate that the doctrines of our faith are untenable in practice and therefore need to be adjusted. The Pope (as I read him), rather, is so confidently rooted in Truth that he has no fear of hard cases. Pastoral practices may need to be adjusted; our understanding may need to develop; but, if so, it's only because the previous practice and understanding has (on closer examination) proven to be inadequate to the fullness of truth. 

In paragraphs 33-36, the Pope goes into various cultural conditions that "militate against permanent decisions." He doesn't mean permanent decisions are impossible; only that they are harder to achieve in our day and age. I receive this as typical of his kindly, humble, and generous spirit. He's not heaping condemnation on our generation; he's sympathetically entering into our difficulties. Nor does he lay all the blame on those who fail or abandon the ideal; committed Catholics have too often presented the ideal badly—in a way that repels, discourages, or acts as a stumbling block. Specifically, he says:

1. We have exaggerated the procreative end of marriage to the neglect of its unitive meaning.

2. We have failed to teach Natural Family Planning, leaving couples too vulnerable to the temptations of birth control.

3. We have presented marriage in an abstract, idealized way, far removed from the real concerns and circumstances of normal people.

As someone who has lived in intensely Catholic circles for all my 50 years and been married (and studying marriage) for more than half of those, I say yes to all these. It's true. And it contributes to the crisis we're in. I could list examples from experience all day, but I won't.

I'm going to quote paragraph 37 in full, because it strikes me as more than vital. I'm guessing it can be taken as a kind of summary of the pastoral thrust of the document and of the Pope's thinking on these questions.

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Every line of this paragraph is important enough for a post of its own. I am turning mental cartwheels of joy over it. This is the Pope fearlessly appropriating the gift and ethos of Vatican II. It is him exposing and opposing the residual legalism, paternalism and clericalism that are still weighing down the faithful, preventing us from achieving the abundant life that we are meant to live. It is him expressing the same holy boldness of faith that impelled Peter to walk on water.

He is challenging all of us to a much more radical faith in the efficacy of grace in the ordinary layman, and in the sacrament of marriage. We have to put away the kind of moral protectionism that is animated more by fear of sin than by confidence in the freedom we have in Christ.

I'm thinking of Augustine: "Love, and do what you will." 

I know some will see this as inviting laxity. I don't, any more than Peter's stepping out of the boat was inviting drowning. He wasn't tempting fate; he was trusting Jesus to give him the power to do what was naturally beyond him.

What does the Pope mean when he says that marriage is "a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment"? I take him to be emphasizing the same element of personal life that John Paul II continually emphasized: To be a person is to be self-determining. We don't simply conform to the law (or fail to conform to it); we "pro-create" ourselves and our marriages, under grace. (Jules reminded me yesterday of a post of his on Berdyaev that develops this point beautifully.) And we do that creative work from the materials and circumstance we have at hand, including the limits on our abilities and understanding.

The ideal presented us by the Gospel and by the Church isn't meant to be a burden—as if every moment we're not living up to it is a moment we're failing. Rather, it's meant to be a source of hope and joy: "There's where grace can bring us, if we only turn to God and rely on Him."

As I'm writing I'm experiencing the difficulty of communicating these things. I feel the truth of what the Pope writes, but I remember that I didn't always feel it. I used to have exactly the mentality he is here challenging. 

A final point on forming consciences rather than replacing them.

There's a scene in the excellent, heart-wrenching Iranian movie, A Separation. A pious Muslim woman is hired to do housework and watch an elderly man with dementia while his son is at work. The first day there, the old man wets himself. She is distressed. She knows he needs to be cleaned and changed, but she's afraid, because it's forbidden for her to see a strange man undressed. So she calls her imam to ask permission.  In effect, his authority is substituting for her conscience.

In Islam, this is normal. In Catholicism, it isn't. In the Catholic understanding, the moral life has to be lived from within. But religious authorities are tempted to take the place of conscience, and we are tempted to give it to them, because the responsibility entailed in freedom frightens us. But unless we take it up, we will remain morally immature and unable to fulfill our vocation as persons.

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In this brief video from the Family Policy Institute of Washington, a series of fairly pleasant, fairly articulate American college students can't be persuaded that Joseph Backholm, a short Caucasian man who tells them he "identifies as" a 6'5"Chinese woman, is not a 6'5" Chinese woman. What are they thinking? How did it come to this?

First, a couple caveats: whenever I see man-on-the-street videos proving the utter imbecility of said man, I hold out a feeble but fervent hope that they've been doctored beyond recognition . Maybe the interviewer ran into six people who DID know which country America was fighting in the Revolutionary War but chose to show only the seventh and eighth, who though it was China or Australia. Maybe the videographer knew he'd snag more outrage clicks if he deleted everybody else.

The other caveat is pretty feeble, too, but it's this: Backholm keeps asking them whether he's "wrong"--not whether his statements are "false"--and I think the word trips a switch in today's students that causes them to spew gibberish. "Wrong" has moral connotations, and any halfway impressionable teenager with working eardrums has imbibed the conviction that moral judgment about somebody else's behavior and beliefs is a no-no. (There's an exception of course, for certain unacceptable beliefs which don't ever come up anyhow, right-thinking people being unanimous about them).

Also, when he says, "Am I wrong?" they seem to be hearing, "Are you a mean person who wants to make me feel bad?" so they hasten to prove they're not.

So semantics is part of the problem. Maybe.

But however you slice it, "identifying as" is running amok these days.

So where's the grain of truth? Every crazy or evil idea has one, though some take more digging than others.

In this case, the grain is very near and dear to my personalist heart: the insight that we really do have the power to make of ourselves "somebody" or "somebody else." We possess the gift of freedom and the capacity for initiating actions that are truly our own: not just performed by instinct or blind habit, nor in the teeth of pressure or manipulation, but really ours. By such an exercise of freedom, we can be transformed--not just modified, or adjusted, but transformed. We can "become who we are"--or fail to. We're not altogether at the mercy of instinct, upbringing, culture, moods, wiring.

But, for one thing, you don't effect such a transformation by "identifying as" a person who has attained his telos. You have to do something about it. You can neither simply feel deep down that that's who you are, nor simply announce it. The project of becoming who you are, of gradually bringing the heart, the intellect, and the will into harmony and developing them to the utmost, can't be reduced to something that simple, or that silly. Nor is it attainable without plenty of grace.

Another difference, of course, is that you can't become something you're not, no matter how much natural virtue or supernatural assistance you have going for you. You either have these ancestors, or that height, or those chromosomes, or you don't.

We can argue, I guess, about whether I'm doing you any favors by pretending you are what you're not. We can, like Bruce Jenner, alter our birth certificates after the fact, and we can change the signs on all the bathroom doors in North Carolina, but none of that rises above an elaborate game of make-believe.

More useful would be for us who value both transformation and rationality to do a better job of conveying that it's plenty astounding and freedom-affirming to become who you are, not to mention being transformed into children of God and transfigured into his likeness. That if we're looking for good adventure, it's already waiting for us.

Then maybe even nice American college students wouldn't be taken in by the incoherent make-believe their elders feed them.

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