The Personalist Project

The power of the true and the good

Should we always presume that to human thoughts and works the same applies as to the basket in which one rotten fruit is enough to spoil the whole bunch? Why should the faulty element in a thought always be the dominant and virulant one, which tomorrow will draw all others in its direction? Why don't we ever believe in the power of the true and the good, in a possible restoration, indeed, in the profound transformation and "conversion" that the lesser parts may undergo under the influence of the better? Francis de Sales stated: "All the defects of a good work cannot vitiate its essential goodness."

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

The other day on NPR I heard a really unusual story. I’ve grown used to expecting a heavily ideological message from them, but I was happily surprised this time. There wasn’t really a positive ideological message, either; the characters—an Iranian couple and their two American-born daughters—were just allowed to tell their stories.

The couple’s arranged marriage began promisingly enough. The two liked each other and were excited to begin their adult lives together. But the transition from girl who had never­ so much as held hands with a boy to wife was difficult. So was her husband’s explosive temper.

They moved to America, where, eventually she became so disgusted with her husband’s slightly tyrannical style and arbitrary dismissal of her opinions that she began secretly planning a divorce. He was oblivious. There had been no divorce on either side of the family for 125 years. His treatment of her was normal by Iranian standards, but it was making her miserable. She waited until their daughters were grown and then presented him with the papers.

He took it hard, but the girls, thoroughly Americanized by now, were happy and excited for their mother, though also concerned for their father. They pictured her relaxing with a glass of wine after a fulfilling day’s work. She’d have boyfriends; she’d date; she’d be liberated.

She did sit in a café with a newspaper, twice, enjoying the leisure of having nobody to answer to. But that was the extent of her liberated lifestyle. She never went on a single date.

The father, meanwhile, was miserable. He called his daughters at work, sobbing. He tried to become an American bachelor, dating, eating out. When his daughters came to visit they’d see a completely empty refrigerator.

Over the next three years, the mother grew more and more unhappy. She reached a breaking point one day when she called a relative, wanting to celebrate her own birthday, and was told that the relative couldn’t fit her into her schedule, and that what she really needed was to get a boyfriend.

Meanwhile, the husband was delving into “that most American of genres”: self-help books. He read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. (The NPR host could hardly bring herself to spit the title out.) He began to reflect on foreign-to-him ideas like considering a wife’s feelings, asking her opinion.

His daughters had gone from being American enough to think this reading normal to being so American that they were embarrassed by it.

The mother, disillusioned with the life of an American divorcee, decided, in her words “to give that old man a call.” He was shocked to hear from her. He was also engaged to marry someone else, but told her she was his real wife and cancelled the wedding. They went on their first date, and he tried to put into practice the American pop psychology he had been immersed in. They remarried, and everybody was overjoyed for them—except the two daughters, who were disgusted to see the whole cycle starting up again.

But the story had a happy ending. He continued to work on the trite, obvious principles he had learned from his American self-helpism, and had enough success that even his daughters began to believe this was a good thing.

So the moral of the story is—what, exactly? Read John Gray and live happily ever after? Modern, western marriages are better than old-fashioned, patriarchal ones? Sort of, but usually the story line would be woman divorces man, finds herself, lives happily ever after. Or woman divorces man, finds better man, lives happily ever after.

The daughters point out that if they had stayed in Iran none of this would have happened—she would not have been able to divorce him in the first place, nor would it have occurred to her. Only in American (or in the West, anyway) would they have broken up, and only in America would they have been reunited through the ministrations of pop psychology.

There was something else incongruous, too—at least if, like me, you had been expecting a politically correct fable with a politically correct moral. The girls said that at first they would have described the storyline as simply: My dad learned to control his temper, and then everything got better. But their mother objected to this reading. She found that once he was gone she was plagued by the same character defects as ever: it was just that she could no longer reflexively blame them on him. She showed an endearing ability to laugh at herself—to take neither her own earlier suffering nor the apparently miraculous powers of American self-help tracts too seriously. Her delivery was more along the lines of “Here’s something strange that happened to me; make of it what you will.”

What do you make of it?

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Social sites this weekend were alive with links to a comment the Pope made in a recent interview.

“Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits – but no,” he said, adding the Church promoted “responsible parenthood”.

Some took offense, but I don't see why they should. The thing about rabbits is not so much that they have a lot of offspring, as that they're animals, not persons. They reproduce instinctively, without the freedom and responsibility that should characterize human sexuality.

As I read him, the Pope was making mild fun of two things:

  1. A secular caricature of Catholic teaching, according to which the prohibition on artificial birth control is all about the Church trying to grow its numbers, regardless of the wellbeing of women and families.
  2. A rigorist interpretation of Catholic teaching, not unknown in traditionalist circles, according to which NFP is only licit in grave circumstances (i.e. "dire straits"), and really committed Catholics will mostly avoid it, because it's holier to "let God decide" how many children we're going to have.

As someone whose been butting heads with Catholic providentialists for many years, I'm glad the Pope has made the point in such an eye-catching way.

Liberals aren't the only ones who think that the Church frowns on family planning; many faithful Catholics do too.

They don't realize that Humanae Vitae didn't just prohibit artificial birth control; it endorsed natural family planning. And it endorsed it not grudgingly and hesitantly, but warmly and sympathetically, as a good for marriage.

That's not to say it's necessarily wrong not to use it. It's perfectly possible to make a free and responsible choice to be open to as many children as God sends.

But it's also possible to be irresponsible in our "reproductive choices"—to fail to discern properly what is best for our marriage, for our spouse, for our children, for our society—to fail to make good use of the tools available by God's design out of selfishness or laziness or pride.

Too many Catholics still live and teach as if all the moral danger is on one side of this issue, viz., using NFP without sufficiently grave reasons. I'm glad the Pope has reminded us all that that's not true.

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To add my tribute to Katie's below, and because a Facebook friend reminded me of it, I just reread Martin Luther King’s great Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Unlike his Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, this is not an essay in which MLK sets forth his ideas. It is rather a direct and personal response to criticisms made by his “Fellow Clergymen.” It gives us a glimpse into the peculiar sufferings he endured at the hands of sincere, well meaning people that were, or should have been, on his side but who kept on urging more patience, caution, and delay in the fight for civil rights. In some ways, such people were a worse trial for him than the most outright enemies of his cause and person. 

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In another passage, MLK describes how cowardly inaction is covered up by unreal religious reasoning or justified by unclean theologizing:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I think we do well today to think on these experiences of MLK, and of his admirable response to them, and to examine our own situation and conduct in that light.

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At least not pacifism as it is generally understood as opposition to violence of any kind, including self-defense, no matter what.

The theory of nonviolent resistance developed, preached and lived by Martin Luther King, Jr., is much greater and deeper than that. 

Pacifism offers no answer to the problem of aggression; nonviolent resistance does. It is a practical program for the elimination of social evil. Pacifism stands down; nonviolent resistance stands up. 

Pacifiism rejects all violence, without regard to the question of justice. Nonviolent resistance is a method for overcoming injustice for the sake of establishing a just order.

Here are some good links for more:

The Power of Non-Violence

I have a dream

Pilgrimage to Nonviolence

Vaclav Havel's The Power of the Powerless

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