The Personalist Project

Authenticity as a moral ideal

Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own ‘measure’ is his way of putting it. This idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me. This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost, partly through the pressures toward outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice. And then it greatly increases the importance of this self-contact by introducing the principle of originality: each of our voices has something of its own to say. Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can only find it within.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

In my earlier post about the Dubia, I slid past the Cardinals' introductory claim that by publicizing their doubts they are acting on "a specific duty":

According to the Code of Canon Law (cc. 349) the cardinals, even taken individually, are entrusted with the task of helping the Pope to care for the universal Church.

I let that stand without looking into it, because what do I know of Canon Law? But, since several critics of my post claimed that the Cardinals were acting canonically, I followed up this morning. Reading the number they cite, I find that my impression of their disingenuousness is much increased. [Links in the original]

The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they performespecially in the daily care of the universal Church

Nothing in this item of Canon Law indicates "a specific duty" of Cardinals to publicly challenge the Pope when they judge him to be teaching ambiguously. Nothing indicates even that it's okay for them to publicly challenge the Pope on any grounds whatsoever, or to take ecclesial initiative independently of him. Nothing indicates that he is in any way accountable to them. As I read this item, it becomes much clearer that the Cardinals answer to the Pope, not vice versa. Their prime duty is to elect Popes. Their secondary duty is to assist him when they are convoked by him in college, or individually, through their appointed offices in the daily care of the Church. They are deputies. 

These four Cardinals, in publicizing their doubts, are acting neither collegially in a consistory called by the Pope, nor individually through their appointed offices. Rather, they are acting as a faction.

And let me raise this question with the defenders of the Cardinals: Assuming for a moment (what in fact I doubt) that they are genuinely confused themselves as to the meaning of that footnote in Amoris Laetitia, what good do they imagine will come from publishing their doubt and confusion among the faithful, who (be they ever so highly educated) lack the competence to weigh such matters justly? What can they hope to achieve, beyond an increase in worry and mistrust of the Pope? The laity are not the Pope's constituents; we have no right of oversight in his exercise of the Petrine ministry.  

On to the text of the Cardinals' questions:

After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?

This is not an honest question. These Cardinals cannot seriously wonder whether it's now possible to consider a fundamental moral teaching "based on Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church" invalid. They know very well it isn't. They know that the Pope cannot teach that there is no such thing as a moral absolute or an exceptionless moral norm. They know that the Pope knows this. They are not asking for information; they are setting a trap. The question is designed (consciously or not) to insinuate into the minds of readers that unless the Pope conforms to their demand for clarification and explicitly affirms (one more time) the intrinsic evil of adultery and the binding nature of the moral law, they will be justified in presuming him guilty of false teaching, discontinuity with the Tradition, and moral relativism.

After Amoris Laetitia (n. 301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God's law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (cf. Mt 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration, June 24, 2000)?

On my reading, this question is either a meaningless tautology—Is it possible to affirm that someone who is habitually contradicting the moral law is habitually contradicting the moral law?—or it poses a false alternative: Either you must claim that adultery is sometimes okay, or you must disavow Amoris Laetitia n.301. Choose.

A genuine theological question would have read something more like, "Is it correct to interpret AL n. 301 as indicating that some who are in objectively irregular conjugal relationships might not be in a state of mortal sin and hence ineligible to receive Holy Communion?"

Framing it that way, though, would make that AL footnote seem much less dubious and problematic, wouldn't it?

I have the same objection to this question:

After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (n. 302) on "circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility," does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 81, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act 'subjectively' good or defensible as a choice"?

The Cardinals know that the Pope cannot (and would not) teach that an intrinsically evil act can be justified by subjectivity. Since they know that, a more honest question might have been, "Could you clarify how pastors are to understand the distinction AL implicitly draws between 'objectively irregular' and 'intrinsically evil'?" Such a question, instead of stoking alarm, would have served to relieve the anxiety of the faithful by reminding them that there is such a distinction and that it is an all-important one in the context.

Ditto for the following paragraph:

After Amoris Laetitia (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 56, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

Some of my critics are pointing out that some priests and bishops are sure to interpret AL in just this way—as if individual consciences are free to authorize exemptions for themselves from absolute moral norms. (Some are already doing it. One friend told of a priest who has issued a blanket invitation to cohabiting and divorced and remarried couples in his parish to receive Communion.) To that I say that the Pope is not responsible for abuses of his teaching, just as the Vatican II Council fathers were not responsible for those who used its occasion to consider themselves free to abandon orthodoxy and moral precepts according to their personal imagination of the Council's "spirit."

Popes (and ecclesial councils) are bound to teach sound doctrine. They are not bound to ensure that their teaching cannot be misconstrued by bad actors, or even misunderstood by sincere members of the faithful. That would be impossible, even for the Vicar of Christ, since human beings are free.

You can say that Popes are bound in justice and charity to minimize the likelihood of abuses and misunderstandings to the best of their ability, and I wouldn't disagree. I would only point out that we have no grounds for believing that the Pope didn't do that. My supposition to the contrary is that the Pope convened the twin Synods exactly for the purpose of helping him find the mode and formulation for the change he wanted to institute that would be as little disruptive and susceptible to confusion as possible.

The reason that a lot of confusion has arisen even so is, in my view, threefold:

1) The matter at hand is objectively extremely complex and delicate.

2) Many liberals in the Church, who have a subjectivistic tendency, will be apt to read relativism into it and celebrate it as permitting what it doesn't permit.

3) Many conservatives in the Church, who have an "excessively objectivistic" tendency (in JP II's phrase), will also be apt to read relativism into it and denounce it as permitting what it doesn't permit.

The key to a right interpretation, I am persuaded, lies in a deeper penetration of the mystery of subjectivity and its relation to the objective moral law. 

But I'm not done with my critique of the text Dubia. More when I get a chance.

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I'm a sucker for call-in radio shows. My favorite is probably "The Doctor Is In," with Dr. Ray Guarendi. I also like "More 2 Life," with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

They take very different approaches to certain things, which is fine with me. As I wrote here, not everybody who has good ideas on offer has to become your guru. There's no reason you can't pick and choose.

The disagreement is this: The Popcaks will often recommend--or at least take seriously--techniques for interacting with people that are jus that--techniques. Like using "I statements" instead of "you statements"--for instance, "I feel disrespected when you raise your voice at me," rather than "You're always yelling at me." Or trying to have a good ratio of positive to negative statements with your kids. For example, make sure there are at least four "Good job washing the dishes without causing a flood!" for every "Would you please quit sticking the scotch tape on the cat?"

Dr. Ray, on the other hand, sees such techniques as ways of complicating something very straightforward. People have been talking to each other for millennia without self-consciously employing these methodologies. A little common sense is a fine substitute for lots of this stuff.

I'm generally on Dr. Ray's side here. Sarcasm is my love language, and I have no patience for artificiality and affectation.

But I've come to take a brighter view of techniques, templates and scripts than I used to. Sometimes, in a conflict, it's both comforting and effective to not have to start from scratch. Not every word that comes out of your mouth needs to be spontaneous and "authentic." Sometimes, (especially if, like me, you don't really think well on your feet and are way more articulate in the seventh draft of a letter than you'll ever be in the heat of argument)--it's nice to have a game plan, a template--some way to move the conversation in a certain direction and help you remember not to take the bait, or get waylaid by irrelevant details or hot-button topics.

It occurs to me, too, that maybe it's not usually a question of authentic, spontaneous communication vs. rigid, artificial scripts anyway. The fact is, lots of us already revert unconsciously to our default scripts, our usual, inertia-driven patterns, whether they work or not. So maybe it's not really a question of shifting from spontaneity to script, but from one script to another.

Lack of spontaneity, then, is not necessarily a problem. 

The second misgiving I had about such techniques is that they seem manipulative. But my friend, Teresa Reimers Stringham, has helped me take a closer look at that assumption. What do I even mean by "manipulation"? Is every instance of trying to get someone to feel or do something "manipulation"? Or only when you have ulterior motives? When we use these techniques, are we inevitably acting like advertisers, trying to evoke the desired response in a person so that they hand over their money, or something else that I want to get out of them?

Teresa points out that "I statements" reflect the truth that "we can't control what others do, but we can control and own how we respond to it." Using such techniques "is manipulative in the sense that we want to affect behavior." But it need not be devious or malicious. Seeking to affect other people's emotions--or even your own--is not necessarily a bad thing.

Then, too, a conversational technique can be good for your self-knowledge. For example, if I were to decide to start aiming for four positive statements for every negative one in my conversation with my kids, I would no doubt be shocked at my current ratio. 

So I'm sure you'll still find me spontaneously telling my kids what I think of the way they put their socks in the fruit bowl. But theoretically, I've gotten very open-minded.

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I am with the Vicar of Christ, the objective center of unity in the Church. I am with those who think Cardinal Burke and the co-signatories of the recently published "Letter of Doubt" are causing "grave scandal" among the faithful.

The Pope's recent comment to an interviewer explaining his decision not to respond to the "Dubia" by distinguishing between criticism framed to serve and criticism framed to sow discord and division was, in my view, on target.

I agree with the canon lawyer priest who says the four questions are "trick questions like the Pharisees asked Jesus." To me they sound something like clever and subtle versions of: "Holy Father: Will you admit we are right or do you reject the teaching of the Church?"

Though they say they are offering their doubts with respect and in order to help the Pope and the bewildered faithful, the substance and tone of the document are bound to have the opposite effect. Many will be stirred up against the Pope, as we already see happening.

It's possible that these Cardinals are sincere in their good intentions. But that's beside the point at hand. I'm not speaking about what they meant to do or why they did it (which is known only to God) but about what they did. I'm speaking about their public act—its content and spirit, both of which I find deeply bad.

Take this explanation of their decision to publicize the Dubia in the face of the Pope's silence:

We have interpreted his sovereign decision [not to respond] as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.

And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation.

This is disingenuous. The Pope's declining to respond cannot be justly interpreted as an "invitation" to publicize their doubts. They are disguising (perhaps even to themselves) rather than straight-forwardly owning their effort to force the Pope's hand by stirring up the faithful. They would have done better had they written something more like, "Your decision not to answer our questions increases our concern to such an extent that we have decided to take the unusual step of publishing it to the whole Church." That at least would have been honest.

Take this portion of the introductory note:

Following the publication of your Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, theologians and scholars have proposed interpretations that are not only divergent, but also conflicting, above all in regard to Chapter VIII. Moreover, the media have emphasized this dispute, thereby provoking uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.

Because of this, we the undersigned, but also many Bishops and Priests, have received numerous requests from the faithful of various social strata on the correct interpretation to give to Chapter VIII of the Exhortation.

Now, compelled in conscience by our pastoral responsibility and desiring to implement ever more that synodality to which Your Holiness urges us, with profound respect, we permit ourselves to ask you, Holy Father, as supreme Teacher of the faith, called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity, benevolently giving a response to the Dubia that we attach the present letter.

These paragraphs imply some falsehoods:

1) They imply that the fact that there are divergent interpretations of Amoris Laetitia means that the Pope is bound to clarify. He isn't.

There are divergent and conflicting interpretations of practically every passage of the Bible. Does it follow that the Bible is badly written, or that God is responsible to clarify what He meant, to relieve the world of confusion and doubt? No. Ambiguity—especially when it comes to high and deep matters—is sometimes the best way to express complex and delicate truth. Further, as Newman showed, ambiguity can serve the religious and pedagogical purpose of "testing the heart." Consider how Jesus often preached cryptically and using parables, so that those who heard him couldn't understand him. Consider the verse "Let him who has ears hear." Some teaching is framed to be "gotten" only by those who are inwardly receptive to it. Consider how Jesus's "hard teaching" about eating his flesh and drinking his blood brought about a winnowing of his disciples—separating out those who put their trust in him, even though they didn't always understand him, from those who walked away because not-understanding was intolerable.)

Another thing ambiguity can do is expose bad tendencies and attitudes that so easily creep into the hearts of the faithful: legalism, rigidity, arrogance and self-righteousness. 

And it can induce deeper humility, deeper study, deeper discernment, deeper faith.

In any case, if we are at all familiar with ecclesial history, we know that ambiguity on disputed issues and questions is (like passionate disagreement among theologians and bishops)  normal and not infrequently an indication of a valid development of doctrine in progress.

The Pope is responsible to teach according to his "best lights" and his charism as Successor of Peter and Pastor of the Universal Church; the rest of us (pastors and teachers above all) are responsible to receive what he teaches in in a spirit of love and faith, interpreting any ambiguous or problematic elements as best as we can and according to the hermeneutic of continuity, trusting the Holy Spirit to clear up confusions and difficulties in due course.

2) It implies that the Cardinals have the right and the duty to demand clarification from the Pope. They don't. They can ask for it, but they have no right to demand it. The Pope doesn't answer to them; they answer to him. (Cardinal Burke's public warning that if the Pope persists in refusing to answer the dubia, the Cardinals may formally censure him for serious error, reveals his presumption and bad faith—his attitude of "mastering" rather than service). He should know that he lacks the authority to censure the Pope. Nor has he shown that Amoris Laetitia contains any error. He's only shown that it's ambiguous. Ambiguity is not error. Neither is silence.)

In my next post, I'll take up the Dubia themselves.

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Today's post is inspired by something my friend Monica overheard and shared on Facebook. She writes:

Tonight, a woman in the craft store said to her friend:  

I don't put up a tree.  But if you noticed, there's a wreath on my door. There's always a wreath on my front door. I decorate it for Lent, then Easter. In the summer I decorate it for Ramadan. Soon it will be decorated for Hanukkah, then Christmas, then Kwaanza. 

Her friend:  Wow. That's a lot of decorating.   

She: It is. People celebrate God all year long. I mostly celebrate their celebrations.   

I mostly celebrate their celebrations. How's that for counterfeit diversity in a nutshell?

How does it feel to have somebody "celebrate your celebration" while showing no knowledge of or interest in what it's all about? I can tell you exactly how it feels. A politician recently put a menorah in his office sometime around mid-December. He called the photographers, lit all the candles at once, said a few generic, Jewish-friendly words about the courage to stand up for one's traditions, and then hurried on to his next photo op.

He probably meant well. Still, it was jarring and comical. To celebrate Chanukah, you need eight full days, some very un-generic prayers addressed to the King of the Universe in commemoration of the rededication of the Second Temple, and (at least around here), lots and lots of chocolate coins. To do it right, you also need potato latkes, which, properly prepared and ingested, will put you in a blissful food coma for hours. You gather the relatives, you light the candles, you say the prayers, you sing the songs, you eat the latkes, you slip into the food coma. They tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat.* Then repeat for seven more nights.

But what busy politician has time for such stuff? Solidarity with the Jewish community, check! Next up: Kwanzaa! Make it snappy!

The thing is,"celebrating other people's celebrations" without celebrating what they're celebrating is a hopelessly external approach to other people and and the things they love. You're not really connecting with them at all. Some of the trappings, none of the substance.

It's a nice gesture--especially if, like the lady in the craft store, you go to the trouble of "a lot of decorating"--but it's not remotely what it's pretending to be. You're not joining in their celebration; you're mimicking it. You're acknowledging that other people care about something without rising above your own indifferentism. You'd be better off diving into a vigorous celebration of whatever it is you do believe in.

It's one thing to celebrate the diversity of human religious expression. As St. Pope John Paul pondered in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, maybe that's why God allowed such fragmentation: so we could all benefit from contemplating things from so many different angles. We're enriched by, say, all the different rites within the Catholic Church, and also by the many grains of truth in non-Catholic and non-Christian religions and cultures.

But it's quite another thing to pretend that you can encompass all this diversity between your own two ears. That's not diversity; that's just chaos. 

UPDATE: My friend Moncia has pointed out that the impression she had of the Wreath Lady was that she was not really pretending to do more than she was actually doing. She was entering into other people's experience of God by honoring their own ways of honoring Him.

The politician, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. "Cultural appropriation" may be an overused term, but he, Monica points out, is guilty of just that, and for the sake of personal agrandizement, too. This is very different from the Wreath Lady's efforts.

In short, I have unintentionally been guilty of what is pretty much the cardinal sin of personalism: taking another person's experience third-hand and twisting it--or at least hastily assuming I understood it--and placing it in the service of my own preconceived narrative.


*Theme of all Jewish holidays

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A recent dustup in my little corner of cyberspace concerns whether Catholic Relief Services is complicit in distributing contraception and abortifacients to the people they're supposed to be helping. The Lepanto Institute has cast doubt on their Catholic credentials, and they've responded, in a way that sounds convincing to me. Lots of lives hang in the balance. I don't claim to know for sure who's right. But the question is: Should I donate to them, or not?

Or is it?

Here's another one: Should I give money to the homeless guy at the freeway entrance, knowing that he might spend it on the drugs or alcohol that have contributed to his present misery? Or is it kinder to drive on by? That is the question.

Or is it?

Finally, the world is full of migrants in desperate circumstances, but by opening our borders to them we risk putting our country in danger. Given the danger to law-abiding citizens,  do we let them in, or do we keep them out? That's what we need to ask ourselves. 

Or is it?

Donate to this charity, or not? Help this homeless man, or not? Open our doors to migrants, or not? 

But it's a trap. There's something fatally wrong with the question, which in each case comes down to: Should I do this particular work of charity, or should I do no work of charity at all?

And if I decide on no work of charity at all precisely because my conscience won't allow it--isn't that even worse than neglecting the needy out of sheer sloth and self-centeredness? Not only am I doing nothing, I'm appealing to my own moral purity, weighing myself down with self-righteous pride on top of who knows how many sins of omission. I'd like to help, but what can I do? My conscience won't let me!

Well and good, but then what are we supposed to do? Naively finance abortion, addiction, and terrorism, out of ignorance, or willful blindness?

No, of course not! Please keep reading!

Here's what my pastor used to do when he was supposed to take up a collection for a charity which he (after serious research) had his doubts about. He would announce the collection (he wasn't a bishop, and he had no authority to simply cancel it), explain his doubts, and then set up means for people to contribute to it or to other, specific good causes that there were no doubts about.

Here's what my friend Clare did when she was pondering the question of how to help the homeless. She decided she wanted neither to give cash nor to do nothing, so she arranged for a bunch of local families to get together and create kits for the homeless: food, shaving cream, warm socks, and so on. Again, this was after diligent research into what would actually help.

And then there's the refugee question. Well, you and I have no power to singlehandedly shape the nation's immigration policy. But we can be honest about admitting there are two sides to the question, and we can look for ways to help immigrants that don't even remotely involve aiding and abetting terrorism. My friend organized a coat drive for Syrian refugee children. My brother is looking into getting certified as a medical interpreter. And on an institutional level, too, there are plenty of charities that help refugees with immediate needs and aren't trying to influence foreign policy one way or the other. Your conscience can't possibly object.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict puts it in his encyclical on hope, the point is to go from the "informative" to the "performative"--to get beyond gathering information and on to acting on the truth.

Again and again and again, it comes down to: What's the good that's in my hands to do?

"You're doing it wrong" may be perfectly true, but it's never supposed to be the end of the story.

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