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

Something from last Sunday's gospel struck me in a new way this time around.

The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the story of three servants who are each trusted with a different amount of gold during their master's absence, "each according to his ability." The two entrusted with the greater amounts go and invest the money and are able to offer their master a double amount when he returns.

The third servant, however, tells his master, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours." His master, outraged at his laziness and temerity, gives the single talent over to the most successful servant and casts the third servant out, "For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." 

This parable and the standard interpretation of it is so well known that we have incorporated it into our very language. Talent, once a unit of measurement, has been used to refer to natural aptitudes, abilities, and inborn potential since the 15th century. It is easy enough to recognise in the parable the truism that we waste our inborn gifts when we fail to develop them to their full potential. We can even talk about a responsibility to use our talents--the idea that God has given each of us the abilities and aptitudes we have for a purpose, and that in failing to use them we reject God's plan for us. 

The parable struck me within a slightly different context this week. A convert friend confessed that she sometimes worries that she is too attached to her pre-conversion ideas about freedom when she hears online Catholics talk about "radically slaughtering their autonomy." I felt slammed back in my seat reading that. Who is telling my friend she needs to "slaughter her autonomy"? What does that even MEAN? 

There are, of course, unhealthy ideals of autonomy--I have an entire rant about the problems with Emerson's "Self-Reliant Man"--in an absolute sense, no-one is entirely autonomous. We do not govern ourselves in many respects; we are subject to illness, the consequences of other's decisions; we are dependent on community, family, and ultimately, on God. Even then, there are many ways in which we benefit from embracing our limited autonomy within these restrictions and respecting the autonomy of others

But there is a very important respect in which we must strive for the autonomy of self-possession, and I fear this is precisely the sense in which my friend has heard autonomy spoken of as a spiritual danger--the sense in which we govern ourselves as moral creatures, making our own decisions and desiring good for ourselves.

To those who place individual autonomy in opposition to self-giving love, Katie van Shaijik replies, 

In the personalist understanding, individual autonomy has nothing to do with selfishness. On the contrary, far from being inimical to love, it is the indispensable ground of love. One cannot give what one does not have. I cannot give myself properly in love unless I realize fully my own autonomy. Without it, my self-giving is all too likely to be a dysfunctional, co-dependent self-squandering, viz. a counterfeit of love.

On this point, let me draw attention to a section of our Personalist manifesto:

"[Our concept of Personalism] rejects the ethical altruism which asserts the claims of others so forcefully that any interest in our own happiness is made to appear as selfish; against this it affirms that the moral subject is also a person and thus also one who may not simply be used, or let himself be used, for the good of others."

We are self-contained, insofar as we are selves. We are selves who are made for communion, who can never be absolutely independent or self-sustaining, but regardless of our interdependence, we retain the responsibility and inevitability of choosing for our selves.

There are Christians who think we ought not make any of our own choices. We should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit at every turn--literally, in the case of one gentleman I met who was in the habit of consulting the Holy Spirit about which direction to go at stoplights. Or they think we should submit ourselves to authority; not only the teaching authority of the Church, but self-appointed authorities of every kind. This push to abdication of self-responsibility often carries with it the whiff of spiritual abuse.

It occurred to me, discussing this with my friend, that this fear of moral autonomy is very like the fear felt by the servant with his single talent. I'm sure that servant wished many times that his master had left him instructions of what to do with his money. Left to his own devices, knowing his master to be attached to his wealth and fearing losing the treasure entrusted to him, the scared servant went and buried his talent rather than take the responsibility of investing it. He was so afraid of choosing wrongly that he tried to avoid choosing at all. 

But of course, the choice not to choose is itself a choice, and his master recognizes the cowardice in the servant's fear of acting autonomously. 

We talk about dying to self, but this is not the same as "slaughtering our autonomy." The more we act out of the core of the God-given self, the more we are free to act generously and focus our attention outwardly. When we possess ourselves, we are better able to give of ourselves. 

If we are to respond to the call to "put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness," we must reject the passivity of the cowardly servant. [Eph. 4: 20-24]

The servant's master loved wealth, and desired to see it well-invested and multiplied. God asks us for something far greater than wealth; he asks us for our love, and love can exist only in the absence of compulsion.

Have you buried your heart in the ground for fear of choosing badly and losing God's love? There's still time. Go, dig it up, dust it off, and invest it in love--for God, for your neighbour, for your self. Invest wisely so that your love is multiplied rather than diminished. Do this, and when you are face to face with the One who entrusted to you your very self, He may look at the love you bring with you and say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and enter into my joy."    

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"People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent."

This resource link from the University of Michigan repeats the above statement multiple times in their answers to sexual assault misconceptions. They could say it a hundred more times and it wouldn't be too many.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Not because women dress seductively or men can't control themselves or out of sexual frustration or in response to loose sexual mores or because of the influence of alcohol or sexualized imagery or whatever else.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Sexual assault comes from the attitude that other people's bodies are objects for use. It comes from treating people as passive objects, not acting subjects.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Why do people commit sexual assault?

Why do we at the Personalist Project believe so fervently that our world needs an every-day personalism, needs examples and guides for an accessible, applied Christian personalism?

We so quickly fall into the error of treating our bodies as distinct from our selves, as vehicles for pleasure or use. From there, it's a short step to treating other people's bodies as incidental vehicles for pleasure or use, as with the young man who argued quite seriously to me a while ago that pornography use isn't objectification because it is about fantasy, not about the person who allowed their body to be photographed or filmed to create the fantasy--as though the body can be separated from the person and used without harm to the "real" person.

When we objectify the body, we objectify the person.

When we claim that desire or intoxication or sexual imagery or immodest dress or flirtatious behaviour or hormones are "causes" of sexual assault, we objectify assailants just as they objectify victims. Our bodies are us, and we act through and with our bodies as subjects, and our actions reflect us and form us.

When an assailant chooses to take what was not offered to him, his actions are his, body and soul together. He is not an object passively acted on by outside factors. He is an acting self. 

Why do people commit sexual assault? 

Because they believe other people's bodies are objects for use. Because they do not recognise or do not care about the subjectivity and autonomous self-hood of other people. 

Or, in other words: 

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

To quote from the late Terry Pratchett, from his novel Carpe Jugulum:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is. 

“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .” 

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.” 

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .” 

“But they starts with thinking about people as things...” 

We all, at one point or another, find ourselves tempted to objectify other people--for entertainment, for pleasure, as a target for our frustrations, as a scapegoat, as a caretaker, as a project. We impose our will on others--for their own good, because we know better, to make our lives easier, to attain an ulterior end, to fix a problem or to build ourselves up. 

We seek positions of power, authority, or influence, and vulnerable people, so that we can get the things we want or have an advantage against a world that feels unfeeling and scary. 

We feel entitled, and we disregard others' agency. 

Why do people commit sexual assault? 

It "starts with thinking about people as things." 

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I promise, I won't go on any more about my new workout routine. (If you'd like to hear me do that, you can always read all about it here.) But one day, when I'd been at it a few weeks, I tried to express to my husband why it's been so life-changing for me--specifically, the coach's insistence that I write down every morsel I eat. 

"He gave you a conscience," my husband guessed.

"No, that's not it at all!" I replied. "He gave me hope."

And it occurred to me: that's not just something newly minted health nuts need. It's what we all need.

The thing was, I already had a conscience. I knew perfectly well how I was supposed to regard my beloved hot pretzels and onion rings. Like any sentient American, I've been bombarded with information about such evils all my life. I was adept at feeling a powerful sense of guilt whenever I chose the french fries over the salad. It interfered with the pleasure of those french fries, but it seldom prevented me from choosing them.

What I lacked was not knowledge of the properties of french fries, but hope. I felt trapped in the cycle of feeling bad about eating the things I was going to keep on eating. The older I got, the more convinced I grew that life from here on out would be a long slide into deeper self-contempt and an ever-increasing inability to manage the simplest physical activities. 

But this week I played hopscotch with my younger kids and embarked on a nice mother-son bike-and-scooter ride. What I'd needed was not just information. What made the difference was the guidance of somebody knowledgeable, the companionship of fellow sufferers, and the momentum created by success.

Knowledge alone didn't cut it. That doesn't mean, of course, that the truth doesn't matter. I didn't want to forget about the facts about french fries, or find someone to lie to me and say that science had discovered they were good for you. I didn't want to hear that I was fine the way I was (being desperate enough to work out at 5:30 in the morning, I wouldn't have swallowed it anyway). I didn't want the false comfort of imagining that those who said potstickers would make me fat were being mean or unfair. 

Excessive objectivism is not excessive concern for the truth. There could be no such thing. It's concern for the facts--the objective state of affairs regarding, for instance, the number of carbs in a potsticker--without taking into account the personal subject.

In another context, Katie talks about: 

an insight from Newman and Wojtlya both—[...] Newman wrote of the "infinite abyss of existence" that is each individual soul, and about the mysterious subjectivity of "the illative sense"—the faculty by which we judge for ourselves what to do, what to believe, etc. Wojtyla constantly stressed personal responsibility. "You must decide." He too lived and wrote from a deep awareness of the inscrutability of God's dealings with another person, and the "impassibility" of the frontier between my will and another's.

Each of us has an "interior terrain", a zone of personal responsibility—an area "handed over to us" by God, where we're in charge.

This is significant because once you realize it, you realize your own responsibility to arise out of passivity--that your freedom isn't given to you just so that you can passively be conformed to the truth. But it's also significant for our dealings with other people, other selves. 

I'd had information about carbs, calories, and exercise available to me for decades. You can announce such information to people, expecting them to assimilate it the way a computer assimilates a downloaded image, making it part of a document's content. Or you can be even more disrespectful of their subjectivity by attacking them with this information, by ridiculing or being condescending. Or you can expect people to change their lives, or their bad habits, by assimilating information without a community, without a sense of responsibility, without encouragement and hope, without accountability and personal attention.

But that wouldn't be concern for truth. That would be excessive objectivism.


Image credit: Pixnio

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On Facebook today, I ran across a clipping of an article by John Rosemond, entitled, "Your kids should not be the most important in the family." You can read the article itself online here, if you like. I actually first skimmed over the clipping post yesterday, when some friends praised it. It bothered me, but I wasn't able to put my finger on why until I gave it a more in-depth look today.

In the column, Rosemond says he asked a married couple with three pre-teen children to answer the question, "Who are the most important people in your family?" He then spends the remainder of the column explaining why their answer--"our kids"--is the wrong one, with a hefty dose of nostalgia and "kids these days" grousing thrown in the mix. 

I went on to point out that many—if not most—of the problems they're having with their kids—typical stuff, these days—are the result of treating their children as if they, their marriage, and their family exist because of the kids when it is, in fact, the other way around. Their kids exist because of them and their marriage and thrive because the parents have created a stable family.

Furthermore, without them, their kids wouldn't eat well, have the nice clothing they wear, live in the nice home in which they live, enjoy the great vacations they enjoy and so on. Instead of lives that are relatively carefree (despite the drama to the contrary that they occasionally manufacture), their children would be living lives full of worry and want.

In one respect, this doesn't seem very different from the very popular oxygen mask analogy. The emergency instructions on airplanes always remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before turning to help others get theirs on. If your airplane is having difficulties and is losing cabin pressure, you can only help other people if you, yourself, are not in danger of passing out.

In a family, it's important that parents make sure our own immediate needs are met so that we can meet our children's needs without becoming incapacitated. Because children look to their parents for food, shelter, and security rather than the other way around, everyone's well-being is dependent on the well-being of the responsible adults in the family. 

The oxygen mask approaches the question of priorities from a pragmatic perspective. Caring for a caregiver's needs is a necessary pre-requisite before the caregiver can meet someone else's needs. It doesn't ask or attempt to answer Rosemond's question about who is "more important" because "importance" in the sense of pride of place, gravity, influence, significance is irrelevant to question of how to best meet the needs of the most people.

And that, I think, is why Rosemond's column irked me right from the beginning. There's a problem with the question itself.

To ask which family member is more important is arguably obscene. What if Rosemond asked, "which of your children is the most important?" Wouldn't we balk at the very question? Wouldn't we be troubled at being told that oldest children are the most important because they came first and have more to contribute, or that babies should be "second-class citizens" compared to older children or teenagers because of their greater state of dependence? 

Rosemond's error is compounded in his analogies. He says, 

The most important person in an army is the general. The most important person in a corporation is the CEO. The most important person in a classroom is the teacher. And the most important people in a family are the parents.

Rosemond wants us to believe that a parent "important" in the same way a general or CEO is "important." But the only way in which all of these people are "important" is in the sense of having a great deal of responsibility. The General is important because his or her decisions have great consequences for other people's  lives; the CEO is important because his or her decisions can impact many people's livelihoods. But are they important in the sense of their lives, decisions, or needs having more significance than the life, decisions, or needs of soldiers or shelf-stockers?

Are they--and should they be--"important" in the way Rosemond says that we treat children as "most important"?

Rosemond's complaint appears to be that children who are "most important" will feel entitled to put their own accomplishments and ambitions above the needs or good of the family and, ultimately, of their community or country. 

But if this is what it means, to Rosemond, for a person to be "most important," then he errs greatly in asserting that generals, CEOs, teachers, and--most of all--parents are and should be "more important" by virtue of their roles and responsibility. When a general, CEO, teacher, or parent puts their own accomplishments and ambitions above the needs and good of the people they each serve, it's not merely "entitlement"--it is corruption.  

The person who is "important" in the sense of their decisions having wide-ranging consequences must not be "most important" when it comes to the content of those decisions. Selfishness in a child is a flaw. Selfishness in an authority figure is an injustice.

Teach your children to serve. Teach them to value family and community. Teach them to think of others and not merely themselves. Teach them the importance of compromise and balance in life with others. Teach them to accept and understand responsibility to themselves and to others.

But please don't teach them that marriage and parenthood is a competition for a limited pool of "importance." 

"Importance" just isn't all that important where there is love.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Image credits: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Mrs. Edwin Stephenson family portrait by Snyder, Frank R. Flickr: Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Vacation Family picture via MaxPixel [CC0]. 


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Few things are more disconcerting than finding that your support group for people caring for Alzheimers sufferers is heavily pro-euthanasia. I'm staying in this (online) group, for various reasons (even though my mother is now in a faraway nursing home and I'm only her caregiver in the most remote kind of sense). It's full of useful information and opportunities to speak an encouraging word to people who have nowhere else to turn, but a friend and I are also hoping to start a new group for pro-life caregivers. 

Still, it made me wonder: How could this be? What hope is there if the very people who are supposed to be caring for the vulnerable to the bitter end are falling for "death with dignity" propaganda? And I've come to think it's less surprising, and perhaps less ominous, than it seems at first. Let me explain.

For one thing, very few of them seem focused on euthanasia for their own loved ones--it's themselves they're thinking of. They're determined not to put anybody else, especially their own children, through the long-drawn-out nightmare many of them are enduring. They have, besides, a thousand-percent more lucid idea than most of us about just what-all caring for someone with dementia at the end of life entails, and they're not susceptible to sentimentalism. Well-meaning platitudes from the lips of people who have no bitter experience themselves carry no weight for them.

Besides, this online support group, like most, represents simply a cross-section of the population--guided largely by pop culture, pop psychology, and pop spirituality. (As I've written here, there are more grains of truth in such sources than I used to realize, but there's plenty of banality and incoherence, too!) There are certainly more prayer requests than you'd usually run into in a random cross-section, but that may stem more from desperation than from traditional morality.

You might expect an outsized proportion of compassionate altruists--after all, those who are avoiding caring for the infirm, as well as those who don't even have such a thing on their radar, have self-selected out. On the other hand, no matter how compassionate somebody is, if there's a void, or a caricature, where their moral formation ought to be, that compassion is more likely to express itself in euthanasia advocacy than in the spontaneous embrace of a life-affirming ethic.

The members of this group are mostly devoting 24 hours a day to their relatives, through a haze of anxiety and sleep deprivation, with no hope of a cure, an improvement, or an hour's break. When they confront the specter of euthanasia, they're doing so with the tools they have on hand--the assumptions they've taken in by osmosis for four or five or six decades, which are generally:

  • Self-sufficiency and control = dignity
  • Suffering is the worst evil and cannot coexist with dignity.
  • It's bad taste to talk about killing instead of "death with dignity," "aid in dying," or "assisted suicide."
  • Where euthanasia is illegal, it shouldn't be attempted. If you want to move to where it's legal, though, or if you long for it to become legal, that's fine.
  • Insisting on extraordinary means to prolong the dying process and actively "putting the patient out of her misery" are one and the same. People who object to these are either overly religious or understandably but misguidedly unwilling to "let go," to the detriment of the sufferer.
  • There's such a thing as "legal safeguards" and "stringent regulations," which will prevent a slippery slope.

A good number of members do have some sort of faith: some instinct which tells them that since "the Lord giveth," it's up to Him to arrange about the "taketh away" part also. Usually, this is expressed apologetically, as in, "I understand how you feel; I know it seems awful and irrational, but because of my faith I just believe we should leave it up to God." This kind of thing reinforces prejudice.

I once knew a lady, an RN, who pretty much accepted all the usual assumptions. She wasn't Catholic at the time, but at my mother's urging she read the relevant Church teaching and was impressed by the compassion and the nuanced distinctions between actively killing, refusing to prolong the dying process, and allowing a fitting level of pain control even if it shortened life as a side effect. Not surprisingly, she also changed her mind about abortion. She'd been pro-choice because of the suffering she'd witnessed as a visiting nurse, but she had the integrity to change her mind when ultrasound technology made the truth undeniable.

That was my Nana, about whom more here and here. I'm not saying she's typical: she certainly wasn't. Nor am I denying that we're proceeding down the slippery slope at breakneck speed. If you have a loved one in any kind of institution, or under the protection of even the most well-meaning caregiver, please be vigilant! But as we contend against the evil of killing the helpless, we need to "translate" our arguments into a language that can be heard by the ones we're talking to. And we need to fight for the dignity of the patient without leaping to conclusions about the motivations of the ones who swallow the poisonous propaganda.


Photos are from my personal collection. The first two show Thelma Oguss (Nana), my maternal grandmother, working as a visiting nurse in Brooklyn, NY. The third shows her with my grandfather and my firstborn daughter. Nana died of Alzheimer's on All Saints Day in 2008.

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