The Personalist Project

History of personalism

The history of the person, therefore, runs parallel with that of personalism.  It will not unfold itself on the plane of consciousness alone, but throughout the length and breadth of the human struggle to humanize humanity.

Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism

I went to confession on Saturday for the first time in two years. I almost walked out again when I saw that the priest was hearing confessions in the open, no confessional or screens. I have anxiety about a lot of things, but my social anxiety has often crippled me in even very enjoyable, positive interactions. It makes confession an agonizing, tearful, stammering, awkward ordeal.

I didn't turn around. Maybe I was tired enough to be a little reckless with myself, tired enough to feel the part of my exhaustion that is the weight of sin and brokenness pulling me down. I came into the church, and sat down and read over the provided examination of conscience, which was big on things like, "have I been active in addressing the injustices of our society" and "how do I show mercy to the world," and light on questions about how I treat individual people. It would be easy, I guess, to despair of "people in general" after reading a newspaper or any internet comment box. I don't always feel inclined to show mercy to the whole world, even if I knew what that meant. 

I put the useless examination down, feeling my anxiety increase, and went to the bathroom to get some water. I took an Ativan from the pill case in my purse, and saw a pad of paper--a small notebook. I pulled it and a pen out and returned to my seat, making a list of the actions and words that haunt me with regret and shame.

And when I found myself in front of our new pastor--about to make my first personal impression on him via my sins, another reason for anxiety--I took out the sheets of paper and thrust them into his hands.

"I have an anxiety disorder and this is hard. I don't know if I'll get through all of this."

As this gentle man quietly eased me through my confession, this sacrament that calls the present to reconcile the past to the hoped-for future, the grip of anxiety eased a little bit and I remembered our new puppy, Brynn, watching to see what was expected of her, unencumbered by shame over her mistakes.

I thought of our patience with her, the advice the books give to make no fuss over the puddle on the floor but lead the dog away, cleaning up out of her sight and waiting for the next chance to guide her into success. I thought of my children, and how frustrating it is for me when one of them becomes too caught up in frustration over his mistakes to start moving towards remedying them, and how badly I want to guide and comfort rather than punish and discipline, because I love my children and want good for them and from them.

"God doesn't want to hurt you or take things away from you. It can feel like that. But if you spend time with Him in prayer, listening, and watching the way He works around you each day, you'll see He wants to make you whole," the priest told me before giving me absolution.

The next day I stood in the cold with our new puppy, watching her dig around in the snow and feeling the solid ground beneath me, holding me up whether I think about it or not, as I hold up my children, as God holds us all up in existence, and I realized that even this was a gift.

Whether or not I ever learn to love all dogs--or all mankind--it is in my reach to love the one in front of me, not only because she brings my loved ones joy, but for herself and the facet of goodness and Being that shines through her.. As Hopkins wrote,

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I can see and love the expression of God's goodness in our new puppy--surely I can learn to see and love the expression of Christ in my own being.


This is my daughter, on the left, snuggling Brynn while Pascal basks in puppy kisses.

"Aetheline, what happened? I thought you said you don't like dogs."

"I don't like dogs, Mama. But I like THIS dog."

Me too, kiddo. 

Thank God.


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My concern here is not with a dictionary definition, but the meaning of "accompaniment" in the specific context of contemporary papal teaching—what the term meant to John Paul II, what it means to Pope Francis; how we, the faithful—priests and laity alike—are to receive it and live it.

It's not a pat answer, so bear with me.

I first came across the concept reading George Weigel's magisterial biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, shortly after its publication in 1999, on p.100, where Weigel is recounting the period of the Fr. Wojtyla's university chaplaincy in Krakow in the 1950s.

Previously, the chaplain's task had been to provide sacramental services to students. Wojtyla, who intensified the chaplaincy's sacramental ministry and involved students in it liturgically, thought of his chaplaincy as a ministry of "accompaniment," a way to "accompany" these students in their lives. The chaplain's presence couldn't be limited to the sanctuary and the confessional. A really effective chaplaincy, he believed, had to be present to these young lives in the world as well as in the church.

I fell in love with the idea immediately and have cherished and brooded over it ever since. That spontaneous response in me has something to do with my particular background, which is part of a larger pattern I see almost everywhere I turn in the Church and in society these days. So, at the risk of being too self-referential, let me explain a little.

The formation of my soul involved a large element of authoritarianism in various guises and modes. There was sternness and staunchness in my upbringing; many rules, demands and expectations, and too little in the way of affection, closeness, and encouragement. I grew up "good", morally and religiously, but shy and insecure, full of anxiety, self-doubt, and self-reproach.

The friendship of evangelicals in my adolescence—the consciously personal and affective character of their spirituality—and then later, the warmth and liveliness of the religious atmosphere of my alma mater, saved me. Most importantly, I learned, slowly and spastically, to cultivate the interior life. I grew to understand that holiness was much more about intimacy with God, about love and self-giving, than obeying the law or living up to an ideal.

But that was not the only thing I learned at my alma mater, alas. Mixed in with all the warmth and joy and genuineness of the religious atmosphere of the Franciscan University in the late 80's was a regrettable and damaging element of authoritarian control, which came through its association with the Covenant Communities of that day. There was a lot of sincerity in the communities' attempts to embody in policies and customs a way of life grounded in the experience of grace they'd received through the charismatic renewal. But, it went off the rails somewhere along the line, and eventually bishops had to intervene and force reforms. 

That story is for another time and place. Here I will only zero in on one central element, for the sake of the light it throws on the meaning of "accompaniment" in contemporary Catholic life and thought.

In those communities and on our campus—no doubt in reaction to the laxity and relativism then sweeping the wider culture—the role of authority and obedience was stressed excessively. While there was much preaching and teaching about God's love for us personally, very little was said or taught about the prime importance of conscience and self-determination in the moral life. Conscience was viewed as something suspect and dangerous; we students were deliberately "formed" to "submit to authority." "God always blesses obedience." And by that was meant not only obedience to the objective moral law or the positive obligations of our Faith, but obedience to a spiritual director, your "pastoral leader" (who was typically another layman in the community), the residence hall director, your household coordinator, the student life staff, and to the rules that constantly proliferated, both spoken and unspoken. There were rules regarding how to dress, whether and whom to date, how much money you needed to be earning before it was okay to propose to your girlfriend, how children should address adults, how wives should speak to their husbands, whether men should change diapers, and on and on. We weren't punished for breaking the rules. It wasn't like that. It was a matter of indicating how serious we were about wanting to please God. 

We were taught to mistrust ourselves and our own powers of discernment. The path to holiness lay in handing over more and more of our decisions to someone else—someone "holier" and above us in the communal hierarchy. And meanwhile, the "leaders"—those in positions of authority—were taught to believe that it was their role to control others' lives. That was how they served God and the community.

Most of us meant well, but we were under a sort of spell. The encounter with personalist philosophy snapped me out of it, though the bad habits of externalism, judgmentalism, and self-doubt I'd acquired took many years to unlearn.

More soon.

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Last week, in a depressing turn of events, I decided to do a little investigation of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger's hopes and dreams. I don't have the stomach to continue with that, but I do want to take a look at how she (and so many others of her time) came to believe such outlandish things, things that even her defenders now concede are "unsettling to modern sensibilities." Yeah, the way a Taco Bell binge with a six-pack of Bud Light for dessert might be "unsettling." But let that go.

By her own account, she hoped to subject "fifteen or twenty millions" of "unfit" Americans to segregation, sterilization, or both. The "morons," "mental defectives," and "epileptics" would be just plain sterilized; the "illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, [and] dope-fiends" would be farmed out (literally) to "farmlands and homesteads where these segregated persons would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives."

At this point, most 21st-century people, for all our faults, find that an obvious question starts screaming out for an answer. As my sister Sarah puts it:

Just to take one small point, her solution to illiteracy is to quarantine illiterate people till they develop moral character. Wouldn't it actually be easier to teach them to read?

Good point. Were they just plain irrational, or is there some other explanation?

In keeping with my determination to give credit where credit is due and to acknowledge grains of truth in unlikely places, I sought out the defense that her admirers offer for these ideas. At the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, I found the assertion that she wasn't really that interested in eugenics--that her driving passion lay with helping women reclaim their lives and health from "uncontrolled fertility." She just found it convenient, since she wanted to grow her audience, to hitch that ideological wagon to the then-current enthusiasm for big-picture "improvement" of the human race.

I found that awfully unconvincing, given the documents on their own website in which she divulges her hopes for controlling the destinies of all those "millions"--not because she had found them, one by one, distressed by their fertility, but just because they fit into some gigantic and crudely defined category like "feeble-minded." But you can read the defense for yourself here, such as it is.

It's true that eugenics, with all its ugly progeny of forced sterilization, dangerous and unreliable methods of birth control, and abortion, was embraced by the most powerful and influential business moguls and politicians at the time. It took the Holocaust to make the ugliness seem less acceptable in polite company. But Sanger was clearly not just one more person who breathed in whatever toxins were floating around in the sociological air at the time. Her grand-scale plans are too detailed to make that plausible.

Still, why not teach, reform, assist, or rescue people, rather than pushing them to the margins, there to remain invisible to the fortunate "fit" until their generation died out? Why move straight to elimination? 

Here the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has a more plausible explanation. Part of the problem was biological determinism. It was thought at the time that all sorts of negative traits were heritable. but also that "selective breeding" was the no-brainer solution, since Sanger and others "believed scientific studies that concluded that those with mental or physical challenges included criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. and that these groups were incapable of resisting their sexual urges."

You get the sense that the problem in those days was not so much faulty or primitive science, but science wed to an anti-personalist mindset. These days, we idolize science, but we do so because it seems to promise the power to change us--not just the means to aid collectivist megalomaniacs in organizing society for maximum efficiency. We might fall for "better living through science," but we look to it to give individuals abilities that we lack.

People no longer talk openly about segregating the marginalized into farms and camps (not that our rhetoric about inclusion necessarily leads to anything better). We might look to science to alter the bodies and mental health of those who need help--but not  just to alter the ratio of fit to unfit. We're confident about our powers, even believing there's such a thing as turning a man into a women, but you don't hear much about abolishing entire classes to usher in an age of higher intelligence and impeccable mental health. When we do push genetic engineering, we at least feel the need to offer the pretext of helping individuals flee suffering.

Sanger's sadly static view of the human person, with its pessimism about possibilities for development and its utter lack of supernatural hope, is the kind of thing collectivism spawns. Ideas for enhancing the lives or abilities or happiness of actual persons are replaced by schemes for eliminating this "kind" or that. People are divided into high- or low-quality specimens, frozen in their present state. All the considerable--even in those days--resources of science are marshalled to manipulate the big picture: to improve not the lot of the individual, but the status of the stock.

But enough. Next week I fully intend to return to some more pleasant subject.

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Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. Why are we still celebrating her? That's the title of an article by John J. Conley I ran across in America Magazine the other day. Her views on the desirability of a "race of thoroughbreds" and the dangers of being "overrun with human weeds" are well known, at least in the circles I frequent. But a couple new things struck me this time.

One was this: How controlling can you get?

I think a sensitivity to the evils of being "controlling" is a genuine modern (and very personalist) insight. The idea is that it's not just wrong to bend people to your will by coercion and violence. It's also wrong to manipulate, pressure, and gaslight them into submission, so that they see things the way you do, and act in ways convenient to yourself.* The arrogance of blithely micromanaging, or simply vetoing, the lives of others is obvious to us in a way it apparently wasn't in Sanger's day.

What, after all, could be more "controlling" than to set yourself up as an authority on who gets to exist and who doesn't? More striking yet is the way Sanger makes such decisions not on a case-by-case basis, but according to the broadest and crudest of categories, and on the grandest of scales. Listen to this (keeping in mind that I've taken pains to choose quotations the authenticity of which is not in dispute. They're pulled from a pro-Sanger website, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project). In a speech entitled "My Way to Peace," she proposes a Population Congress, the aims of which include the following:

[A]pply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.

[T]o insure the country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous offspring as may be born of feeble-minded parents, the government would pension all persons with transmissible diseases who voluntarily consent to sterilization.

Note the disingenuous use of "voluntary"

The whole dysgenic population would have its choice of segregation or sterilization.

I hope the word "choice," too, rings false to modern sensibilities, even if it didn't to many at the time.

And then there is this: 

There would be farmlands and homesteads where these segregated persons would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives.

The first step would thus be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, and epileptics.

The second step would be to take an inventory of the secondary group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct.

There follows an impressive block of doublespeak:

Having corralled this enormous part of our population and placed it on a basis of health not punishment, it is safe to say that about fifteen or twenty millions of our population would then be organized into soldiers of defense--defending the unborn against their own disabilities. [emphasis mine]

Say what you like about the way words like "morons," "idiots," "mental defectives" and "dope fiends" were considered conventional medical terminology at the time; the speech still tells you something about the speaker. Especially when the speaker's not just lobbing random insults but is proposing a wide-reaching program to be implemented at the federal level. Say what you like about the popularity of eugenicist assumptions and rhetoric at the time, and how it was embraced by other influential and still-admired figures like Winston Churchill. What emerges here is not the portrait of a benevolent woman caught up in the spirit of the age but the soul of an engineer who aspired to make that spirit the wellspring of the treatment of "this enormous part of our population" for "the period of their entire lives, " as well as the blueprint for the future.

Whatever you think of birth control, and whatever you think of the present state of Sanger's brainchild, Planned Parenthood, I bet her words ring false to you.

                                            *                    *                     *

The second thing that struck me is this: What's with this penchant for treating anything and everything as an immutable characteristic? As my sister Sarah Johnson points out, 

Just to take one small point, her solution to illiteracy is to quarantine illiterate people till they develop moral character. Wouldn't it actually be easier to teach them to read?

And my friend Sarah Eliot adds:

Interesting that being illiterate qualifies one for moral retraining.

Strangely enough, there's a clear explanation for this. Tune in next week to find out what it might be, and let me know me how convincing it sounds to you.


*Of course, when the evils of being "controlling" are misunderstood, you get the kind of thing that of course never, ever happens in my house: Daddy says, "No, Child X, you can't take the car to go to the movies, because I need it to go to work," and Child X retorts, "Oh, Daddy, don't be so controlling."


Image credit: Wikipedia

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It's not difficult to see what makes intentional community attractive for young families. There's something very good and natural about desiring the company and community of those who share a faith and an identity. Yet my own experiences with second-generation members of these intentional communities suggests that there are particular challenges that come with raising children to adulthood in an intentional community. 

(I don't want to come across as condemning these communities or the people who have chosen to invest their lives in them. However, I think that if they are to continue in a manner that respects the individual person, it's important to look at characteristic failings to address them or at the very least become aware of them.)

Intentional communities are nothing new. Religious orders are all intentional communities, and some, like the Augustinians, date back well over a millennia. Obviously, there is nothing fundamentally unstable about intentional community life. 

Religious communities differ from newer forms of intentional community, however, in that they persist by attracting new adult members. These communities are founded on a charism that attracts people whose identity is already congruent with the community's mission and charism.

Even then, with time, a healthy religious order will see changes in how mission is understood and pursued over the lifetime of its members, and if there are real conflicts you'll see people leave or start new households or new orders. 

This points to a weakness in the modern intentional community phenomenon, one common both to secular intentional communities--like The Farm in Tennessee--and "covenant communities" like Sword of the Spirit. While the first generation of any intentional community is composed of adults who are drawn to the mission statement or values of the community, things get complicated with the inclusion of children.

Personal identity normally changes and shifts in response to marriage and childbearing--and growing children have to be allowed to form their own sense of self. The strong sense of identity of the intentional or covenant community becomes a barrier to this normal process of family and individual growth.

This conflict is especially difficult on young adults growing up in the community, since the normal adolescent process of differentiation can look like a dangerous challenge to the community identity. Parents wind up in the position of either opposing the community's assertion of its identity--which at this point is very strongly tied to their own personal identities--or opposing their children's growth.

Older intentional communities, like the Amish, resolve this tension with the inclusion of points of choice--times when young men and women are given the chance to see and explore the world outside the community and choose to come home to full adult membership and conformity with community values, or leave to live elsewhere. (There's still some question about how free such a choice can be when leaving still means estrangement from friends and family, and when young people are sent out without the skills to make their way outside the community. That's too complex a question for this post, though!)

Of course, this conflict between individual, family, and community identity isn't unique to intentional communities. Organic communities, such as the ones that grow up around geographical areas or ethnic neighbourhoods, also develop strong senses of "who we are" that can be alienating or burdensome to young adults. The perennial popularity of the "coming of age" tale speaks to the universality of this process of individuation. 

But if the community has organic roots that extend past the identity of values or lifestyle, it can withstand the shifts of generational change and growth by hearkening to more basic shared foundations--and relationships. In healthy organic communities and families, identity is always an expression of the actual persons within the community/family, arising out of similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses, needs and gifts, as they interact with one another. 

Fiddler on the Roof illustrates this with Tevye's slow acceptance of his daughters' increasing variance from the expected path laid out for young women in his community--from "tradition," that word for the accumulated expression and transmission of organic identity. In the end, not only does Tevye come to accept his daughters' choices--representative of their individual values and identities--but he--and his relationship with his wife, Golda--are also changed by them.

(And in the end, do these changes, this internalized sense of priorities that places relationships above tradition prepare Tevye and his family for the loss of their home, for the diaspora to come? We don't see how it plays out, but we are allowed to hope that this is the case.) 

The challenge facing intentional communities is this: to give young men and women growing up within the community the room to be who they are without threatening their primary relationships. Will those who grow up within the community will be given a voice in shaping the mission and identity of the community? Is there room for them to have one foot in community and one foot in the wider world, as they explore their own potential and come to know themselves as individual persons? 

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