The Personalist Project

Morality, freedom & obligation

There is no morality without freedom… Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor

Katie addressed capital punishment recently, staking out a position that falls neither in the "instrinsic evil" camp nor the "prudential matter" one. I'm not positive where I stand, but one thing I know: I wince at the thought of putting that kind of power into the hands of any politician I can think of.

What I want to address, though, is a related question: Are we going soft? I don't mean just about capital punishment, but also about war, treatment of prisoners, education, childrearing, theology--you name it.

The answer might seem obvious. In some ways, we're more squeamish and sensitive than ever before. Students are demanding the "right to be comfortable" instead of liberty or opportunity, and women at a National Union of Students meeting in the UK recently requested the use of "jazz hands" instead of applause, for fear of "triggering anxiety." (If there's some benign explanation, and the incident was not really as bizarre and ridiculous as it sounds,I'd be happy to hear it.)

And every minor insult, intentional or not, is painted as "microaggression." Nobody seems to long for robust argument half as much as they long for "safe spaces."

Many conversations I've seen about Pope Francis' words on capital punishment express a certain frustrated nostalgia for the days when, as one commentator put it, "the Magisterium had balls." In the old days, neither Church nor state seemed to flinch at war, the rough treatment of prisoners and criminals, or capital punishment. People nostalgic for those times insist that respect for human dignity was alive and well back then, and that only our ideas about what it requires have changed.

We've gone soft, they complain, and instead of seeing that human dignity requires robust enforcement of justice, we settle for indiscriminate niceness.

I'm not going to wade any further into the argument than that, but I want to make two points.

  • First, it's easy to imagine that being an armchair apologist for capital punishment, war, or torture means you haven't gone soft. But armchair apologists' opinions don't carry much weight. Have you ever gone to war, or lived in a war-torn place? Or do you only vote for politicians who send soldiers there? Have you administered or suffered torture? Would you be willing to? Have you ever met anybody on Death Row? Would you be willing to inject the poison? If the answer is No, in what sense are you "for" any of these things? Or can you even be said to know what it is you're "for"? I don't mean all opinions not born of direct experience are ipso facto invalid. I just mean it's easy to overestimate your own expertise and credibility.
  • The second point isn't about politics and doesn't even overlap with it. But it's something that comes up in the everyday life of anyone who's trying to conquer vices and build up virtues: whether it's generally preferable to choose the harshest, most difficult, most penitential option. Jacques Philippe has a passage somewhere--I've read so much Jacques Philippe, I have no idea which book it was--about how sometimes we assume that God is calling us to perform the most difficult, most dramatic, most impressive action--and we're simply mistaken. We might assume He's calling us to conquer a fault by rooting it out at every opportunity, whereas He may want us to focus on trust, or on retaining our peace despite our failure to conquer a fault. Or maybe He wants us to overcome some less obvious but more poisonous fault, like self-righteousness.

In other words, approving of severe treatment is not the same as toughness. And being less tough on yourself is not the same as going soft.

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The other day I was reading the Gospel with the kids, and we talked about the Pharisees asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

In other words, “Who counts as my neighbor?” or even, “Who can I get away with not calling my neighbor?” (It’s a little like that awful husband who asked his new bride, “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?”)

The genre of the question is all too familiar to a parent: “What counts as a clean bedroom? Do I need to put the old socks, candy wrappers and comic books where they belong? How 'bout I just pile them up in nice, neat stacks?” Or, “What counts as finishing my dinner? Do I have to eat salad even if I dipped a Dorito in that nutritious guacamole just half an hour ago ?”

It’s not the kind of question the pure of heart ask. It’s legalistic and pusillanimous.  It does have a straightforward answer, though.

But the flip side of the coin—“Who is my enemy?”—turns out to be trickier than it sounds. For example, in Matthew 12, Jesus says:

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

That makes sense: don’t settle for inertia and indifference, for being “harmless.” You have to be truly, intentionally with Him. Nothing less is enough.

But then in another spot, He says

He who is not against me is with me.

The Apostle John had run into someone who was casting out demons in His name, but without following in their company. John had rebuked him, but Jesus rebuked John.

You can see the sense in that, too. We shouldn’t write off people who fail to practice the faith exactly the way we think they should. Not everyone who isn’t, strictly speaking, one of us is The Enemy.

So what about the contradiction? I'm not sure. I’m not about to explain it away. The context was different, for one thing. But clearly we can see the truth in both formulations.

Figuring out who is for and who against us becomes more and more pressing as political conversation becomes more uncivil and combative.

People who agree 100% with anything you might call traditional morality are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Refusing to ally yourself with those who disagree on arcane matters of theology and ethics begins to seem like a luxury of the past.

Still, there are some shortcuts to discernment that should be avoided.  Most recently, when Italian fashion designers Dolce and Gabanna came out against gay marriage, a lot of people took a “whoever is not against us is for us” line. No, Dolce and Gabanna are not exactly “one of us,” but we’ll take whatever allies we can get, and in fact we’re glad for the opportunity to show that we don’t reject anybody just because they identify as gay.

And yet there are those sour notes: their very disturbing ad which (no exaggeration) glamorizes gang rape, and the way they label babies conceived by IVF as “synthetic children.” Just how fully are we willing to embrace what they stand for? Not all our allies have to be altogether ideologically pure, but is there no cutoff point at all?

And remember "Je suis Charlie"? How was that for an overeager, overhasty embrace? I'm in favor of freedom of expression and against terrorist murder, but no, I'm not Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is a cesspool of obscenity and other nastiness. I don't disagree with Charlie about every single thing, but neither do I identify with him.

Vladimir Putin is another case in point. Some people, yearning for a self-confident leader who makes "family values" noises, misguidedly imagined Putin to be some kind of hero. His bloodthirsty, thuggish side is more in evidence these days, but even when it's not, we can't be content with just assuming that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. 

So as I have these discussions with my children, I try to teach them there's no substitute for looking head-on at reality and walking in the truth. Raising the next generation to settle for intellectual shortcuts is bound to end badly.

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The National Catholic Register has published an essay of mine on the meaning of the Pope's question, "Who am I to judge?" It was inspired by a frustrating conversation with fellow Catholic conservatives about capital punishment. 

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If you're like me, you have a long list of great and profound books that you're beginning to suspect you'll never actually read. It takes too long, and they're too difficult to grasp fully without a teacher and comrades-in-reading.

Wanting to do our part to address this broad existential crisis of post-Christian culture, plus wanting extra motivation to pick up those books ourselves, we've begun offering what we will hope will become a series.

Starting with Berdyaev's The Meaning of the Creative Act (suggested by one of our members), Jules is reading and pod-casting about it chapter by chapter on our member page. 

It's like audio spark notes, but better, because you can give feedback, add insights, and raise questions or objections.

You can find the first installment here. If you like it, please let us know! Feedback keeps us going.

And if you have suggestions or requests for future readings and recordings, let us know that too.

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If you doubt that the way we live and act, the way we dress and carry ourselves, the tone of our voice, the expressions of our face, bespeak our sense of self and others—our convictions (conscious or not) about what is and isn't important, watch this remarkable video (hat tip daughter Rose).

Broken, lost dolls are rescued and transformed from anonymous sex objects into unique personalities, ready to love and be loved.

I saw it and thought of the phrase attributed (rightly or not) to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words." How much is communicated without words!

Not only that, but the video manages to capture the love between the husband and wife, and between the designer and her mother. It captures authentic femininity (which is intelligent and creative, plus tender and receptive) and the attractions of motherhood and domesticity combined with professional expertise. I am blown away.

I also thought of Joseph Ratzinger's talking about the Church becoming smaller and its remaining communities of faith attracting numbers through the loveliness of their life in common.

The world is starving for sweetness, goodness, beauty, modesty. When it finds them, it can't resist.

See more images of doll conversions here.

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