The Personalist Project

Search for truth a moral 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

I recently read an article critical of Christian purity culture that was rather sensationally titled "I Stayed a Virgin Until Marriage, and My Virginity Caused Me to Develop Vaginismus." (It has since been re-titled, "After Staying a Virgin Until Marriage, I Couldn't Have Sex With My Husband.") 

In it, the author, Lauren Meeks, recounts her experience growing up in a Christian culture that emphasises the importance of sexual purity and of saving sexual intimacy for marriage. Embracing this ideal, Meeks and her fiancé decided to go a step further and avoid kissing until their wedding day.  

From there, Meeks recounts, “Let's just say...things didn't work out as planned. There was a problem.”

Instead of the passionate, joyful married sex she was expecting, Ms. Meeks found that her new married life dominated by the pain and embarrassment of vaginismus, a condition where a woman’s pelvic muscles contract involuntarily with attempted penetration, making sex painful or impossible. She and her doctors soon made the connection between her premarital attitudes towards sex and her current difficulties: 

I began to realise that decades of "saving myself" had subconsciously convinced me that sex was actually bad, something to be avoided and not thought about. And now that it was "good," my body didn't know what to do, because it had spent so many years not letting itself get too excited around members of the opposite sex.

She concludes that, had she known in advance what the consequences of her purity education could be, she would still have waited for sex until marriage, but “would have encouraged — and even demanded — open conversations about the many good aspects of sex and intimacy, rather than being told over and over again to simply avoid it until marriage.”

But would that have been enough?

By her own account, Ms. Meeks was already looking forward to a "hot, passionate sex life." She mentions that she experienced sexual desire for her fiancé and that there was a lot of sexual tension between them. Desire for sex was not the missing element.

A while ago, I read a book by sex educator Emily Nagoski in which she talks about the “dual-system” theory of sexual function. She says that, like other incentive-based desires, sexual feelings have an accelerator and a brake. The accelerator is responsible for interest in sex, but there is also a brake that is responsible for telling us when sex is not appropriate or safe. Any couple who has been interrupted just as things are getting interesting knows how effective and instantaneous that brake can be. 

When Christians talk about married sex, even within the context of purity-based sex education, it’s usually with the promise that it sex will be so much BETTER in marriage than it is outside of marriage. Married sex is the carrot to incentivize unmarried sexual continence. If you save yourself for marriage, you’ll have a “hot, passionate sex life,” as Ms. Meeks anticipated.

But while the carrot is there, so is the stick—and the stick is not merely directed towards the dangers of sexual promiscuity—STDs, crisis pregnancy, and the like—but at lust—which is often simplified to mean “sexual desire.” Both young women and young men are warned about the dangers of unleashed male sexuality, which is “a microwave” next to a woman’s “slow cooker,” and a powerful “Ferrari” compared to her “bicycle.” One speaker I heard as a teen cautioned against passionate kissing because, he said, “why would you choose to play on the edge of a cliff?” In this analogy, sex is the dangerous, potentially life-ending cliff.

And on go the brakes.

Secular culture does nothing to contradict this message in its desire to affirm sexuality in all its forms. It frequently skips past "vanilla" sex to celebrate kinks that many find demeaning. It accepts or tolerates pornography with a shrug even though porn tropes are almost always degrading to women. It ignores the way porn use always objectifies the user and the person/people depicted, making both objects for the viewer’s sexual pleasure rather than subjects in relationship with one another. “Sex-positivity” uses the language of feminism and equality to promote treating sex transactionally, as an exchange of pleasures rather than an exchange of persons. When it comes to sexual ethics, consent is the only standard. If everyone consents, then whatever happens is OK, regardless of context or consequences.

But, of course, there are consequences, and evidence of those consequences is all around us in broken hearts, broken lives, and broken families.

So the girl raised in a purity culture gets the message that sex is dangerous both implicitly and explicitly, from the warnings and metaphors of fellow Christians and from observation of the casualties of secular "sex-positive" culture. She sees that sex is frequently demeaning and bad for women.

She might be told, if she's Catholic, that the Theology of the Body warns us not to use each other, but I'm afraid even that instruction often just increases the fear of being used. If she belongs to some Protestant subcultures, she’ll notice that married women are frequently counselled that the secret to a happy marriage is sexual availability to your husband. After all, married men still have those Ferrari engines and can’t be expected to be happy in marriage if their sexual “needs” aren’t met.

And a fairly large proportion of girls (and quite a few boys), regardless of what they are taught about sex, will actually have already been used sexually in one way or another--molested or targeted for indecent exposure or suggestive harassment—long before their first purity talk or sex ed course. 

The result is that, for some people, women especially, the brakes go on, full stop, and they don't easily disengage, no matter how much we talk about the sanctity and pleasure of married sex. 

If sexual dysfunction is to be understood in the context of the interaction of psychological and physiological sexual responses, then the message that's missing is not that married sex is “good.” It's that it can be safe for the human person. And while both church and world are concerned with sexual safety, they lack the personalist’s insight into the danger of use in human relationships.

Birth control, condoms, and consent don’t protect a person from the fear of being used. Sexual continence outside of marriage doesn’t protect from sexual objectification within marriage.

Sex is sacred—this we know. But do we know that the human person—the sexual human person—is also sacred?

Do we know how to protect our own subjectivity from use without becoming closed to union?

Do we know how to teach our children to be both safe and open? 

I have some thoughts as to what a personalistic sexual education might look like, but, heck, my oldest child is 12. We’re still very early on this journey. So before I venture into giving my theories, I want to ask readers to share their experiences and thoughts. 

What can we do to guide our children safely through all of the messages about sex contained in popular culture and Christian subcultures?

How do we teach chastity and prudence without teaching fear? 


Bedsheets photo via Flickr. 

"Secret spell" by Francesca Dioni, via Flickr.

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When I thought my parents would be moving in with us, I joined a Facebook group for people caring for Alzheimers patients (like my mother). As it turned out, she had to move to a nursing home, but my father visits her twice a day (bearing fragrant, contraband fried dough from the farmers market, taking her out for ice cream, and consulting with the staff when there's trouble). I just pray from afar, and he keeps me posted. I don't really belong in the Facebook group after all.

But I linger on anyway. It opened my eyes to something I never considered before: the world is full of people giving up their jobs, homes, hobbies, friendships, social lives, vacations, and sometimes (involuntarily) marriages and relationships with extended family. Or they're putting these goods on hold indefinitely, maybe permanently, to take on the much-more-than-full-time job of caring for their relatives at home. Sometimes I learn something useful from the group--even though Alzheimers is one of those things for which there's no earthly "solution" at all. Or I devote a few seconds to writing words of encouragement to one of these brave, exhausted people. It's truly the least I can do.

But mostly I stay just to remind myself of this invisible cloud of witnesses who are up against things the rest of us have no idea of, and, worse, would just as soon never think about. A much-overused word applies here: "marginalization."

These "caregivers"--or maybe they should be called "life-givers"--get stuck with the messy details. You don't even want to know how messy. But it's not just that. They have to decipher the law, negotiate the finding and retaining of aides, respite care, hospice care, rehabilitation services, and some way to pay for it all. They have to decipher the laws about power of attorney and guardianship. They have to wrestle doctors, pharmacists, and insurance companies into submission, often with mother-of-a-newborn levels of sleep deprivation, but with none of the hope and optimism. They have to lift grown adults, call ambulances, research bed alarms and motion sensors and locks. They often get ignored or derided for not having a "real job" by the very relatives they turn to for help.

And then there are the end-of-life questions. 

Most caregivers are not experts in medical ethics. Their ideas on philosophy and theology range anywhere from wise intuition born of long, hard experience to a fuzzy memory of something they read once in People magazine. They don't have the luxury of fooling themselves about the "quality of life" of somebody with rapidly worsening dementia, just maybe a vague sense of duty and reverence for life--and love of "the person someone used to be"--hampered by constant pressure to sign living wills and Do Not Resuscitate orders.*

I don't have a solution, but something I read recently in a collection of passages from Pope St. John Paul II (Words of Certitude) rang true. Sometimes we talk about "death with dignity" as if it's a question of physical circumstance at the very end of life. So maximum dignity, we imagine, is obtained when you have maximum control over those circumstances.

But listen to this: 

Even if someone does not choose his own death, still, by choosing his own form of life, he, in a certain sense, chooses in this perspective even his own death.

The kind of death we choose has less to do with whether life leaves our body when it's in a distressingly embarrassing or messy or helpless state than with the kind of life we've lived. Somebody could die by euthanasia, quietly, in perfectly hygienic surroundings, but lack dignity, because of the things he valued and the choices he made before it came to that. Someone can die with a horrifying lack of (external) dignity but experience a noble death because of the way he lived while there was still time.

So how can we ensure that our own death will be dignified? We could start by offering to babysit a friend's elderly mother for an hour.


*I'm not saying DNR's are intrinsically evil, just that most people are never given the wherewithal to approach such decisions, and even if they are, the application of principles here can be horribly tricky and difficult.

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Now the men of the city said to Eli′sha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.”  He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.  Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”  So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word which Eli′sha spoke. - 2 Kings 2:19-22


Doug Grane and LifeSiteNews would like us to believe that the consistent life ethic--the "seamless garment"--is a "vast swimming pool of almost-unrelated issues" that will dissolve "prolife sentiment like a pinch of salt." As far as I can understand his argument, Mr. Grane would have us hoard the salt of our "sentiment" so that we can keep it concentrated in the dish of political opposition to abortion.


But the gospel has some pretty harsh things to say about hoarding material or spiritual gifts. Christ has called us to be the salt that lends flavor to the world, in every time and place. The salt has value not by virtue of its concentration or outward appearance, but by virtue of its saltiness.


The crude salt of Christ's day was not refined. If extracted from the earth and left stored in warehouses exposed to the moisture of the air or ground, the sodium chloride--the source of the "salty" flavor--could slowly dissolve or sublimate. One imagines the displeasure of the owner/investor on finding his valuable investment of salt rendered worthless by his lack of care.


The only way to avoid this fate was to use the salt while it was still fresh. Salt used as a preservative would be carefully packed in barrels made as air- and water-tight as possible. Salt used for blessing, fertilization, or flavoring would be promptly distributed through the water, soil, or food as evenly as possibly, to get the most use from it.


If we are to build a culture of life, as Saint John Paul II called on us to do, we cannot hoard the life-giving truth of the God-given dignity of all persons. We cannot hoard our salt or our light. We must, like William Wilberforce and the Christian reformers of his age, throw ourselves—urgently, recklessly, passionately on fire with the Gospel--into every dark corner of the age we live in.


When Elisha throws salt into the water of a dead land, the salt dissolves, but it is in dissolving that the salt is efficacious. The entire spring is made life-giving by the prophet's blessing of salt. The efficacy of salt dissolved in water is echoed by the ritual use of salt in holy water.


Mr Grane calls prolife "sentiment" a pinch of salt in a swimming pool of social justice issues. I wonder if he has forgotten the prayer for the blessing of salt traditionally used in holy water:


“Almighty God, we ask you to bless this salt, as once you blessed the salt scattered over the water by the prophet Elisha. Wherever this salt (and water) is sprinkled drive away the power of evil, and protect us always by the presence of your Holy spirit. Grant this through Christ our Lord."

Amen, Amen, Amen.

Image credits:

Salt image via Pixabay 

Seamless garment image by Elisa Low, used by permission (Image of Malala Yousafzai by Simon Davis/DFID).

Spring water image by Gaius Cornelius via Wikimedia Commons

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A dear friend wondered aloud recently, after a prolonged illness, "What is my mission? What is my goal?"

"As my energy returns, every decision on how to spend my time feels laden. It's all potential energy. All choices on spending my energy feel like a gamble."

I replied:

I think...the good we produce with our time and energy and attention often comes out of the small choices and incidental encounters even more than our initial intentional choices. And there is room in every path for those fruits.  The HOW we do what we do moves the world as much or even more than the WHAT. The world needs the person you are. You give that by acting, but it is the acting person that is the gift.

And that's all true enough, as far as it goes. But there's more to this anxiety over choices than just worry about going down the wrong path.

It's comforting to an extent to know that God can bring good out of evil, and that there is no road that can take us out of his reach. 

The real dilemma though is the finite quantity of life here on earth. Every decision we make uses time and energy that could have been used elsewhere. Every choice involves the choice NOT to pursue other options.

If you choose the left-hand fork on a path, you may someday find yourself back at the same intersection, free to try to right-hand fork. But when you do, YOU won't be the same. You will be older, with different hopes, different challenges, different capabilities. The path may look different--perhaps more overgrown, less accessible. 

So my friend has put her finger on a real difficulty. When we choose, we don't only choose the positive good we are moving towards. We also choose not to pursue any of the goods that lie in other directions. We are finite, and that bears its own kind of grief, because we will never know what could have waited for us down the path not taken.

This is the root of decision paralysis.

When I was a student, we called young men and women who waffled for years over the choice between religious life and the vocation of marriage the Brothers (and Sisters) of Perpetual Discernment.

These earnest young men and women were well-meant and sincere, but their lengthy state of discernment and hesitant attempts to test one path without giving up the option of the other led to more than one broken heart or frustrated vocations director.

It turns out that a sweetheart wants to be more than an "option," and a religious calling needs to be more than a flirtation. 

I don't mean to denigrate the process of discernment. A wise gardener will put some thought into the best place to plant an apple sapling, considering the sun, the wind, the potential for pollination, the quality and depth of the soil. We all need slightly different conditions to bloom, and what is good for one may not be as good for another.

But sometimes there is no obvious best choice. There are only good choices, each good in its own way. We have to choose, and place our roots in the soil, and get on with bearing whatever fruit we can. 

Sometimes we face a choice where we can sample more than one path. We can be torn between two or more good endeavours, knowing that we are only giving part of ourselves to our tasks, that we aren't doing as much as we could. 

I think women express this often when they talk about the difficulty of combining different callings--mother, homemaker, employee, wife, volunteer, etc. We say, "I feel like I'm doing too many things, and I'm not doing any of them well."

When caught between competing tasks and roles, the temptation, I think, is often to gravitate towards the calling or the work that produces the most positive feedback--the promotion at work, the gratitude of those you serve as a volunteer, the plaudits and praise of peers. 

These things seem like measures of success, and thus measures of the worth of our choices.

But what if we used a different measure altogether?

Early last week, I saw a smattering of articles marking the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. These retrospectives were respectful and reflective, and seeing them, I started keeping my eyes open for similar pieces to mark the twenty year anniversary of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who had died the same week in one of those remarkable confluences that would make for great fiction if they weren't real.

They didn't materialize. 

But maybe this is fitting for the woman who said of herself, "I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness." She began her work in obscurity, and the world-wide attention it eventually attracted changed little about how she understood her task--to love Christ in a personal, concrete way through loving the person in front of her.

Saint Teresa has been criticised for not using her fame or her ability to raise donations to fund foundations and initiatives to address systemic issues. These critics allege that she failed to make a large enough difference by choosing to focus on simple acts of care towards the poor rather than working to change the world the poor live in. They judged her by the standard by which we often judge ourselves--am I making an impact? Will my actions have lasting effects? Will my accomplishments be recognized and respected by important people?

Saint Teresa of Calcutta used a different measure.

"It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters."

When she encountered volunteers and visitors with dreams of grand, ambitious works, Teresa counselled them to start with small, hidden acts of love in their own homes.

It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.

Ultimately, love is the heart of vocation, and the measure of our lives. Whatever course our lives take, we will never lack opportunities to love those closest to us. 

Love can call you to leave everything, like Agnes Gonxhe did when she joined the missionary Sisters of Loreto, and as she did a second time when love called her out of the convent school and into the streets of Calcutta to serve the poorest of the poor as Mother Teresa.

Or love can call you to drop your plans and projects and open your home to a friend or family member in crisis.

Love can call a man to leave behind his job search and care for his children while his wife earns an income, because that is what best serves his family. 

Love can move you to share your passions and talents for art, for music, for ideas, for a craft--as a performer, a volunteer, a mentor, an academic, or an entrepreneur. 

Love isn't limiting. But it is clarifying, because it is personal. The question in our discernment between good things becomes not, "what will have the biggest impact?" but "where does my love lead me?" 

The call to love is immediate. It is always before us. 

"Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin."

By Manfredo Ferrari (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Doors image via Pixabay

Love quote image by BK via Flickr

Image of Mother Teresa by Manfredo Ferrari (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

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This summer I got to spend some quality time with a beloved friend of 30+ years. 

We had gone to college and graduate school together. She is godmother to our first two children, and she and Jules defended their dissertations on the same day high up in the alps of Liechtenstein.

Life going the way it goes, though, and living many states apart, we've been very little together in the last 10 or 15 years. Even telephone conversations are few and far between. But we found it easy to pick up where we'd left off, as if time and distance are of no account at all between true friends.

My thinking has changed in rather fundamental ways over the last decade, alienating me from many people and groups I used to be close to. Sometimes it seems to have gone so far that I feel a little alarmed at myself. Am I still myself with so much changed? In strong, healthy moments, I see that only what was false and unreal about me has been stripped, while the deepest truths and commitments have become clearer and stronger, with new insights and experiences seamlessly woven in. In sicklier moments, though, I can worry that maybe I'm just undergoing a gradual dissolution of the self.

So it was deeply reassuring to notice how much her thinking has changed and developed along lines similar to mine. What makes it particularly reassuring is that many of her personal excellences coincide exactly with my worst shortcomings. She is highly disciplined in her prayer life, for instance—in all areas of her life, really—while I am wretchedly indolent and disorderly. So, nothing about the changes in her thinking can be attributed to lack of prayer or faith or discipline. And on point after point, issue after issue, principle after principle, we were of one mind. 

In a few places, though, I was disconcerted to discover how radical I seem to be becoming. 

One of those places is the issue of modesty. In recent years (see here and here for more) I have found in myself an increasingly strong reaction against the very word and concept—not the virtue itself (who can be against a virtue?), but against the travesty that is everywhere (among Christians) preached and taught in its place. I notice myself resisting practically all attempts to establish it by way of clothing rules for girls, no matter how comparatively moderate. Such rules now strike me as inescapably demeaning and controlling. They are (as I see it) bound up with the subordination of women to men. And they (practically always) do more harm in terms of a girl's developing sense of self than they do good in terms of protecting her from objectification by others.

My friend's obvious intention to follow my reasoning carefully and sympathetically was clear and beautiful. (If only we all had friends like that around us every day!) Even so, I struggled to communicate my thoughts, and to express the "why" of my intense internal resistance to even very modest "modesty rules."

Today, re-reading a book by Kay Bruner called As Soon As I Fell, I came upon a section that helped me understand myself better. The book is about her life and the painful midlife crisis (not completely unlike my own) that involved bitter disillusionment, profound changes in her thinking, and then a better, freer, happier, fuller way of living her faith and her relationships.

Kay Bruner and her husband were Protestant evangelical missionaries sent as Bible translators to the Solomon Islands. (Both had been raised by strict evangelical parents, in whose footsteps they were following with zeal.) The onsite training they and other missionaries underwent involved some "cultural sensitivity" instruction. They would be living and working in a highly sex-segregated society.

I learned that as a woman, I could not look a man in the eye during a conversation. I was required to wear dresses that covered my knees, and the skirt needed to be full and flowing, so that I wouldn’t expose my legs. That first day, we learned how to hold our skirts so that we would never accidentally flash anyone while getting up from the floor, where everyone sat. I could not step over anything that a man might afterward handle, because I might contaminate things with my menstrual blood, even if I wasn’t currently menstruating. If I went to the produce market, where food would be lying on the ground, I needed to hold my skirt close to my body, because even my skirt floating in the air over the food would contaminate it. I would swim in long shorts down to my knees and I would hike in long skirts down over my calves.

She was no feminist, and so accepted all of it.

On a surface level, I could go along cheerfully with these cultural norms. It was required, and I was going to succeed. Besides, I was a guest in this culture, so it seemed respectful and appropriate to do what the locals did. Wearing a skirt, wearing a pair of shorts over my bathing suit, these were small sacrifices to make in light of the important task we were called to do. It really shouldn’t matter that much.

But still, it affected her.

Deep down, though, these extra rules for women became a subtle reinforcement of the self-condemning framework I already lived in. Every time I had to remind myself not to look someone in the eye, every time I was worried about where my skirt was, or if my shorts were long enough, it whispered in my head that I was not an acceptable person, that there was something inherently offensive about me, and that it was up to me to protect other people from me. [my bold]

I hope it comes through that the issue isn't the excessive strictness of the rules (this is a country where women normally go topless). It's the underlying attitude toward women. And it's the subtle effect of those rules on an individual woman's personal subjectivity. It has an effect on men too—inducing or reinforcing a sense of entitlement when it comes to women's dress. "We are entitled not to be disturbed by women's bodies. If we are disturbed, the woman is at fault."

In Islamist societies, this general principle goes so far that the victims of rape are considered responsible for the lust the sight of them incited in their attackers. So the victim has to be lashed or killed or given in marriage to her rapist.

I don't think we fully escape this violent mode of inter-sex relations unless we recognize that it is nothing other than an extreme manifestation of the evil effects of the fall in Eden. I mean to say: that same tendency to blame and shame women for male lust is in us too.

I have come around to the opinion that much of the "modesty talk" in the Christian counter culture springs from that evil tendency, and girls feel it, even if they don't know how to articulate those feelings. They experience themselves as being illegitimately controlled by other people's rules, which were written for other people's convenience, and they resent it. I even think at least some of the in-your-face immodesty of today's fashions represents a valid protest against that control. "You have no right to tell me how to dress, and to prove it, I'm going to dress in exactly the way you say I can't."

I don't mean there's no such phenomenon as girls or women deliberately or thoughtlessly provoking lust in men. I mean, rather, that when it comes to what we could call the subjectivity of immodest dressing, the issue is highly complex and delicate and can't be addressed—or rather, gets aggravated by—the application of modesty rules-for-girls.

Of course, the most important reason for dressing modestly is self-respect. But two key things about self-respect:

1) It has to come from the self. We can't induce it in others by establishing rules for them to live by. On the contrary, pressing others to conform to rules they don't understand and don't agree with almost always causes deep injury to their self-respect.

2) It will take radically different outward forms, according to individual cases. So, for instance, for a young woman raised in a household with authoritarian parents who insisted she always where skirts below her knees and sleeves below the elbows, a choice one day to wear a short, sleeveless dress to a college dance may be exactly a brave act of self-assertion and self-respect. "I am my own person. I don't have to live by my parents' rules. I can make choices for myself." Meanwhile, for another woman—like Wendy Shallit—who grew up absorbing the libertine mores of the surrounding secular culture, and who had become accustomed to feeling like a sex object—the choice to wear longer sleeves and hemlines was a courageous act of self-empowerment.

The point is, it was self-empowerment.

If we want to heal the culture—this culture, the one we actually live in—we have to begin by understanding that. And we have to conscientiously rid ourselves of our long-standing habits of disempowering self and others. It was those habits, I claim, that led to the mess we're in now.

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