The Personalist Project

Our need for love

Obviously … it does not suffice us simply to exist; we can do that ‘anyhow’. What matters to us, beyond mere existence, is the explicit confirmation: It is good that you exist; how wonderful that you are! In other words, what we need over and above sheer existence is: to be loved by another person. &… That is an astonishing fact when we consider it closely. Being created by God actually does not suffice, it would seem; the fact of creation needs continuation and and perfection by the creative power of human love.

Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love

We're in the throes of getting ready to move, but these thoughts came to me as I was making my latest to-do list, and I wanted to share them.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei and the patron saint of ordinary, everyday, workaday life. I don't have the mental wherewithal right now to explain the novelty of his whole vision--you can learn more here--but these are a few highlights: 

1. A good kind of "secularism."

In his day, the conventional wisdom was that if you wanted to give your life to God--or take religion seriously at all--that meant you had a vocation, and THAT meant you were supposed to become a priest or a nun. Laypeople were looked upon as second-class citizens, spiritually speaking. Their loftiest mission was to "pay, pray, and obey." Most people were called to squeak into Purgatory; only a chosen few were called to sainthood.

But long before the Second Vatican Council affirmed a universal call to holiness, St. Josemaria was shocking people by suggesting that all human persons were called to "sanctify their work, sanctify themselves through their work, and sanctify others through their work." And "work" didn't just mean paid employment; it was more like a shorthand for something that encompassed all of everyday life, from brushing your teeth to taking care of your insurance paperwork to changing your kid's diapers.

2. A good kind of "materialism"

Life is not supposed to be divided into a "religion compartment" and an "everything else" compartment. Everything is fair game--everything can bring you closer to God and draw down grace on you and everybody else who needs it. This is of a piece with the way St. Therese and Bl. Mother Teresa talk about how there are no little things in the eyes of God, and the point is not how impressive an action is but how much love it's done with. In one memorable snippet from one of his books, Furrow, he says:

You are writing to me in the kitchen, by the stove. It is early afternoon. It is cold. By your side, your younger sister--the last one to discover the divine folly of living her Christian vocation to the full--is peeling potatoes. To all appearances--you think--her work is the same as before. And yet, what a difference there is!

It is true: before she only peeled potatoes, now, she is sanctifying herself peeling potatoes.

The conventional wisdom of the day was that some are called to sanctify themselves and others are called to peel potatoes. Or, at most, your best bet was to get the peeling of potatoes over with so you could get on to something more "religious." This divorce between the material and the spiritual world would have been alien to the early Church, but it had come to seem unremarkable 2000 years later. 

The trouble is, for the vast majority of people who don't live in convents and monasteries, and even for many who do!--everyday, "material," life takes up an enormous chunk of their day,

and the leavings of their schedule--the time available for the important, "spiritual" kind of stuff-- is minimal at best.

3. A good kind of "anticlericalism"

(Katie's also written on this topic.) You can see how a certain downplaying of clericalism fits in with the other two, but it was much misunderstood at the time. In Spain, priests and nuns were being violently attacked and murdered, just for being priests and nuns. It must have seemed like a no-brainer to insist on honoring priests in whatever way possible. But often this honor was understood as imagining that they had a call to holiness and their congregations had a call to passivity. The priestly vocation was seen as Moses' vocation to be the only one to climb Mount Sinai and brave direct contact with God; the vocation of the laity was seen as the people of Israel's role: to cower at the foot of the mountain while the special, chosen one received God's message and instructed them on how to apply it. But the New Covenant breaks down the separation, giving all of us a priestly, kingly, and prophetic vocation, without taking anything away from the honor due to the sacramental priesthood.

So, peelers of potatoes, unite! Here's to the sanctification of the unglamorous!

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Helen Alvares sums it up beautifully in a debate over at Crux:

For Catholics, the same-sex marriage opinion is a striking rejection of Pope Francis’ beautiful invitation in Laudato Si to “joyfully accept … the work of God the Creator,” according to its own intrinsic purposes and harmonies. The union of the man and the woman is a unique beauty, and the place in creation where new life springs forth as a consequence of overflowing love. Like the rest of creation, this gift from God must be conserved and developed in service to the human person, especially the most vulnerable and the next generations. Stripping children from the definition of marriage does the opposite.

The rights and privileges that accord to marriage in society have everything to do with our duties toward the most vulnerable—children and the elderly. A strong marriage culture protects them. To abandon marriage is to abandon them.

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If the Supreme Court were to declare that there is no difference between a blessing and a curse or between idolatry and worship, would it make it so? Suppose it were to announce that to differentiate between testimony and perjury is to deny liars equal protection under the law? Suppose it were to equate, as a matter of law, a slap and a caress?

Can the court make it so that an act that deals death can form a family just as well and worthily as one that generates life? Can francium be rendered as stable as iron by judicial fiat?

When a human court says that slaves count as two fifths of a person, do they? 

If it decreed a universal right for adults to devour children, would we have it? No.

What we would have is an evil government. A government at odds with natural law and with God—a kind of anti-government. 

The Supreme Court doesn't create reality, but it can unleash chaos by pretending to, by defying the given in preference for the willed—by putting itself in the place of God. We are witnessing the reductio ad absurdum of the American experiment. Self government has become collaboration in our demise.

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Nicholas Frankovich sets up a maddening false alternative in a post in the Corner yesterday about criticizing the Pope.

Catholics disagree among themselves over whether it is right to criticize the Holy Father in public. Loyalty to the pope is a traditional Catholic virtue. Those who criticize critics of the pope often argue that of course we can disagree with him but that we must do so always with civility, respect, and delicacy. That’s hard to square with Francis’s call for the faithful to make a mess and practice parrhesia, or frank talk. And his symbolic gestures toward humility — the Ford Focus, the decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace, etc. — suggest that he does not want us to kneel and kiss his ring.

"Loyalty" is not the issue. Catholics don't owe loyalty to the Pope—as if we should defend his words and acts (or at least refrain from opposing them publicly), whether or not we agree with them.

Nor is the "parrhesia" of faith rightly identified with frank talk. It's not boldness as such that's wanted, but the boldness that comes from faith. Some boldness comes from arrogance or shamelessness or value-blindness or recklessness. Zealots have it in spades, for instance. So do charlatans and conmen (speaking of which, watch The Imposter for a stunning example.) Fools are famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread.

What Catholics owe the Pope, as Vicar of Christ, is a disposition of reverent receptivity, informed by a lively faith in the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit over the Church. We should be looking to him for leadership in responding to grace in our day and time; we should be listening and watching carefully and with open hearts and minds to what he says and does. We should be interpreting him as he is—a moral and spiritual leader, not a politician. He is about stirring hearts and forming consciences, not crafting public policy.

If we find ourselves upset or perplexed by something he says or does, we should pause and consider carefully before we speak—not from loyalty, but from humility. We are not the Vicar of Christ. It did not please God to make us Pope. We have neither his view of the world, his experience, nor his charism of office. We know that our own view is partial and limited and likely to be infected with all manner of impurities; we know that he sees many things we don't see. 

We also know (or should know) that it is altogether unfitting for us to dispute or expostulate with the Pope as if he were nothing more and nothing other than a colleague in the theology department or a political representative, or an op-ed columnist. Papal encyclicals are not position papers, and we are not peers. To scoff at him or belittle him or pick him apart is not boldness, but brazenness and faithlessness. It's ugly and damaging.

None of which is to say it's never okay to criticize the Pope, even in public. I can think of several sorts of occasions when it would be in order (nor do I imagine the list is exhaustive.)

1) When we feel a definite interior call from God to speak, as Catherine of Sienna did vis a vis Pope Gregory XI. (The letter she writes him is conspicuously animated by a holy boldness and at the same time pervaded with profound reverence for the Pope as Pope, despite his manifest personal weakness and failings.)

2) If the Pope were to betray his office by living immorally, say, or being corrupt and selling positions in the Church for money or influence.

3) If the Pope were to overreach—maybe commanding obedience outside the area of faith and morals—for instance, calling on Catholic Americans to vote for a particular politician.

4) If the Pope is obviously wrong on a point of fact outside the area of faith and morals and in the area of our competence. If, say, (making something up here) the Pope were to call for an end to the use of this or that chemical because it causes cancer, there would be nothing wrong with a scientist pointing out that the study on which he based his opinion has been discredited. Or if he denounced a particular book, there would be nothing wrong with its author (or his defenders) pointing out that the translation the Pope had read of his work was erroneous.

5) If we think the Pope's sources are questionable, there is nothing wrong with saying so and showing why.

6) If the Pope were (practically impossible to imagine, given the promise we have) to teach heresy.

But even in such cases, our mode and manner of criticizing should be fundamentally different than it would be if we were addressing anyone other than the Pope. The reverence we owe to him is not to be compared with the respect we owe to an office (the US Presidency, for instance.) In the case of the papacy, it's not the office, but the person of the Pope who is Vicar of Christ on earth.

Even if we privately think he's not a good Pope, if we're not showing loving, filial deference in our manner of address, we're being bad Catholics and hurting the Church.

Truth and goodness in the spiritual realm are all about right relations among persons. You can't serve the Church by dissing the Pope.

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Devra has drawn my attention to this paragraph of Laudato Si.

81. Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.

You see? I was right.

Note, too, that it's not just subjectivity that transcends the material cosmos, but intersubjectivity. To be a person is to dwell in I/Thou relations. It is to be dialogically engaged with all of reality.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, my teachers! Thank you, above all, John Crosby.

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