The Personalist Project

The truth of our destiny

Each of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny.

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor

I am with the Vicar of Christ, the objective center of unity in the Church. I am with those who think Cardinal Burke and the co-signatories of the recently published "Letter of Doubt" are causing "grave scandal" among the faithful.

The Pope's recent comment to an interviewer explaining his decision not to respond to the "Dubia" by distinguishing between criticism framed to serve and criticism framed to sow discord and division was, in my view, on target.

I agree with the canon lawyer priest who says the four questions are "trick questions like the Pharisees asked Jesus." To me they sound something like clever and subtle versions of: "Holy Father: Will you admit we are right or do you reject the teaching of the Church?"

Though they say they are offering their doubts with respect and in order to help the Pope and the bewildered faithful, the substance and tone of the document are bound to have the opposite effect. Many will be stirred up against the Pope, as we already see happening.

It's possible that these Cardinals are sincere in their good intentions. But that's beside the point at hand. I'm not speaking about what they meant to do or why they did it (which is known only to God) but about what they did. I'm speaking about their public act—its content and spirit, both of which I find deeply bad.

Take this explanation of their decision to publicize the Dubia in the face of the Pope's silence:

We have interpreted his sovereign decision [not to respond] as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.

And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation.

This is disingenuous. The Pope's declining to respond cannot be justly interpreted as an "invitation" to publicize their doubts. They are disguising (perhaps even to themselves) rather than straight-forwardly owning their effort to force the Pope's hand by stirring up the faithful. They would have done better had they written something more like, "Your decision not to answer our honest questions increases our concern to such an extent that we have decided to take the unusual step of publishing it to the whole Church." That at least would have been honest.

Take this portion of the introductory note:

Following the publication of your Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, theologians and scholars have proposed interpretations that are not only divergent, but also conflicting, above all in regard to Chapter VIII. Moreover, the media have emphasized this dispute, thereby provoking uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.

Because of this, we the undersigned, but also many Bishops and Priests, have received numerous requests from the faithful of various social strata on the correct interpretation to give to Chapter VIII of the Exhortation.

Now, compelled in conscience by our pastoral responsibility and desiring to implement ever more that synodality to which Your Holiness urges us, with profound respect, we permit ourselves to ask you, Holy Father, as supreme Teacher of the faith, called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity, benevolently giving a response to the Dubia that we attach the present letter.

These paragraphs imply some falsehoods:

1) They imply that the fact that there are divergent interpretations of Amoris Laetitia means that the Pope is bound to clarify. He isn't.

There are divergent and conflicting interpretations of practically every passage of the Bible. Does it follow that the Bible is badly written, or that God is responsible to clarify what He meant, to relieve the world of confusion and doubt? No. Ambiguity—especially when it comes to high and deep matters—is sometimes the best way to express complex and delicate truth. Further, as Newman showed, ambiguity can serve the religious and pedagogical purpose of "testing the heart." Consider how Jesus often preached cryptically and using parables, so that those who heard him couldn't understand him. Consider the verse "Let him who has ears hear." Some teaching is framed to be "gotten" only by those who are inwardly receptive to it. Consider how Jesus's "hard teaching" about eating his flesh and drinking his blood brought about a winnowing of his disciples—separating out those who put their trust in him, even though they didn't always understand him, from those who walked away because not-understanding was intolerable.)

Another thing ambiguity can do is expose bad tendencies and attitudes that so easily creep into the hearts of the faithful: legalism, rigidity, arrogance and self-righteousness. 

And it can induce deeper humility, deeper study, deeper discernment, deeper faith.

In any case, if we are at all familiar with ecclesial history, we know that ambiguity on disputed issues and questions is (like passionate disagreement among theologians and bishops)  normal and not infrequently an indication of a valid development of doctrine in progress.

The Pope is responsible to teach according to his "best lights" and his charism as Successor of Peter and Pastor of the Universal Church; the rest of us (pastors and teachers above all) are responsible to receive what he teaches in in a spirit of love and faith, interpreting any ambiguous or problematic elements as best as we can and according to the hermeneutic of continuity, trusting the Holy Spirit to clear up confusions and difficulties in due course.

2) It implies that the Cardinals have the right and the duty to demand clarification from the Pope. They don't. They can ask for it, but they have no right to demand it. The Pope doesn't answer to them; they answer to him. (Cardinal Burke's public warning that if the Pope persists in refusing to answer the dubia, the Cardinals may formally censure him for serious error, reveals his presumption and bad faith—his attitude of "mastering" rather than service). He should know that he lacks the authority to censure the Pope. Nor has he shown that Amoris Laetitia contains any error. He's only shown that it's ambiguous. Ambiguity is not error. Neither is silence.)

In my next post, I'll take up the Dubia themselves.

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Today's post is inspired by something my friend Monica overheard and shared on Facebook. She writes:

Tonight, a woman in the craft store said to her friend:  

I don't put up a tree.  But if you noticed, there's a wreath on my door. There's always a wreath on my front door. I decorate it for Lent, then Easter. In the summer I decorate it for Ramadan. Soon it will be decorated for Hanukkah, then Christmas, then Kwaanza. 

Her friend:  Wow. That's a lot of decorating.   

She: It is. People celebrate God all year long. I mostly celebrate their celebrations.   

I mostly celebrate their celebrations. How's that for counterfeit diversity in a nutshell?

How does it feel to have somebody "celebrate your celebration" while showing no knowledge of or interest in what it's all about? I can tell you exactly how it feels. A politician recently put a menorah in his office sometime around mid-December. He called the photographers, lit all the candles at once, said a few generic, Jewish-friendly words about the courage to stand up for one's traditions, and then hurried on to his next photo op.

He probably meant well. Still, it was jarring and comical. To celebrate Chanukah, you need eight full days, some very un-generic prayers addressed to the King of the Universe in commemoration of the rededication of the Second Temple, and (at least around here), lots and lots of chocolate coins. To do it right, you also need potato latkes, which, properly prepared and ingested, will put you in a blissful food coma for hours. You gather the relatives, you light the candles, you say the prayers, you sing the songs, you eat the latkes, you slip into the food coma. They tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat.* Then repeat for seven more nights.

But what busy politician has time for such stuff? Solidarity with the Jewish community, check! Next up: Kwanzaa! Make it snappy!

The thing is,"celebrating other people's celebrations" without celebrating what they're celebrating is a hopelessly external approach to other people and and the things they love. You're not really connecting with them at all. Some of the trappings, none of the substance.

It's a nice gesture--especially if, like the lady in the craft store, you go to the trouble of "a lot of decorating"--but it's not remotely what it's pretending to be. You're not joining in their celebration; you're mimicking it. You're acknowledging that other people care about something without rising above your own indifferentism. You'd be better off diving into a vigorous celebration of whatever it is you do believe in.

It's one thing to celebrate the diversity of human religious expression. As St. Pope John Paul pondered in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, maybe that's why God allowed such fragmentation: so we could all benefit from contemplating things from so many different angles. We're enriched by, say, all the different rites within the Catholic Church, and also by the many grains of truth in non-Catholic and non-Christian religions and cultures.

But it's quite another thing to pretend that you can encompass all this diversity between your own two ears. That's not diversity; that's just chaos. 

UPDATE: My friend Moncia has pointed out that the impression she had of the Wreath Lady was that she was not really pretending to do more than she was actually doing. She was entering into other people's experience of God by honoring their own ways of honoring Him.

The politician, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. "Cultural appropriation" may be an overused term, but he, Monica points out, is guilty of just that, and for the sake of personal agrandizement, too. This is very different from the Wreath Lady's efforts.

In short, I have unintentionally been guilty of what is pretty much the cardinal sin of personalism: taking another person's experience third-hand and twisting it--or at least hastily assuming I understood it--and placing it in the service of my own preconceived narrative.


*Theme of all Jewish holidays

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A recent dustup in my little corner of cyberspace concerns whether Catholic Relief Services is complicit in distributing contraception and abortifacients to the people they're supposed to be helping. The Lepanto Institute has cast doubt on their Catholic credentials, and they've responded, in a way that sounds convincing to me. Lots of lives hang in the balance. I don't claim to know for sure who's right. But the question is: Should I donate to them, or not?

Or is it?

Here's another one: Should I give money to the homeless guy at the freeway entrance, knowing that he might spend it on the drugs or alcohol that have contributed to his present misery? Or is it kinder to drive on by? That is the question.

Or is it?

Finally, the world is full of migrants in desperate circumstances, but by opening our borders to them we risk putting our country in danger. Given the danger to law-abiding citizens,  do we let them in, or do we keep them out? That's what we need to ask ourselves. 

Or is it?

Donate to this charity, or not? Help this homeless man, or not? Open our doors to migrants, or not? 

But it's a trap. There's something fatally wrong with the question, which in each case comes down to: Should I do this particular work of charity, or should I do no work of charity at all?

And if I decide on no work of charity at all precisely because my conscience won't allow it--isn't that even worse than neglecting the needy out of sheer sloth and self-centeredness? Not only am I doing nothing, I'm appealing to my own moral purity, weighing myself down with self-righteous pride on top of who knows how many sins of omission. I'd like to help, but what can I do? My conscience won't let me!

Well and good, but then what are we supposed to do? Naively finance abortion, addiction, and terrorism, out of ignorance, or willful blindness?

No, of course not! Please keep reading!

Here's what my pastor used to do when he was supposed to take up a collection for a charity which he (after serious research) had his doubts about. He would announce the collection (he wasn't a bishop, and he had no authority to simply cancel it), explain his doubts, and then set up means for people to contribute to it or to other, specific good causes that there were no doubts about.

Here's what my friend Clare did when she was pondering the question of how to help the homeless. She decided she wanted neither to give cash nor to do nothing, so she arranged for a bunch of local families to get together and create kits for the homeless: food, shaving cream, warm socks, and so on. Again, this was after diligent research into what would actually help.

And then there's the refugee question. Well, you and I have no power to singlehandedly shape the nation's immigration policy. But we can be honest about admitting there are two sides to the question, and we can look for ways to help immigrants that don't even remotely involve aiding and abetting terrorism. My friend organized a coat drive for Syrian refugee children. My brother is looking into getting certified as a medical interpreter. And on an institutional level, too, there are plenty of charities that help refugees with immediate needs and aren't trying to influence foreign policy one way or the other. Your conscience can't possibly object.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict puts it in his encyclical on hope, the point is to go from the "informative" to the "performative"--to get beyond gathering information and on to acting on the truth.

Again and again and again, it comes down to: What's the good that's in my hands to do?

"You're doing it wrong" may be perfectly true, but it's never supposed to be the end of the story.

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To round out my case in favor of belief in soulmates (begun here), I'll add three more closely-related ways in which the concept is truer and richer than the alternative. Then I'll return to my long-neglected post about the problem of idealization in marriage. After that, it's on to the rest of Amoris Laetitia.

5. It highlights the gift character of conjugal love.

Those who have had a chance to study John Paul II's theology of the body are familiar with the terms "hermeneutics of the gift" and "the nuptial meaning of the body." It's no exaggeration to say that the key to grasping the deep truth about human sexuality and marriage, as he has revealed it to us, is to understand both as gifts of God's love. We are made from love and for love. Though we are created "for our own sake," we are yet incomplete in ourselves, and ordained toward communion with another, by making a gift of ourselves and receiving the other as a gift. Our bodies as male or female bespeak our incompleteness—our being destined for and called into a union and communion of life-giving love. And that visible reality of the body incorporates—incarnates—the still deeper and more important spiritual complementarity of man and woman. 

But it's not only true on the general level; it's even more true on the personal and individual level. If we have even a little bit of of self-awareness, we feel the incompleteness and made-for-otherness not only of our body, but of our specific personality. We want companionship; we feel our need for it. And not just any companionship, but a true partnership of heart and mind and soul—a spouse who "gets us", who helps us be ourselves, who keeps us centered and grounded, who can draw out our individual potential make us fruitful in the world. And when we actually find someone who does all that, we are amazed—stunned with gratitude that he (or she) exists and has come into our life, and "wonder-of-wonders, miracle of miracles" feels the same about us!

Those who fall deeply in love in that distinct "soulmate" way profoundly experience their love as a gift. We could almost say that amazement-at-the-gift is the essence of the soulmate experience.

It's very different with the alternative conception of courtship and marriage, where rational "compatibility discernment" is the focus, and where the search for a spouse is approached as a prudential undertaking—a process we "master," rather than a mystery we enter. It's less a gift we receive than a task we assign ourselves—a goal we set out to achieve.

6. It highlights the reality of the divine in our lives.

In his little gem of a book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper talks about certain moments in life that lift us out of the workaday world and allow us to experience ourselves as the quasi-divine beings we are—immortal souls capable of dwelling among the gods. He is riffing off Plato, who distinguishes two types of madness: the madness of the insane and "divine" or holy madness. Falling in love is the latter kind—a kind where normal human experience is transcended, and we feel ourselves taken up to a higher plane of existence. Like a profound religious experience, it is at once humbling and exalting. We feel simultaneously that our life is in our hands and that it utterly beyond us. We understand, however inarticulately, that we come from God and belong to Him, and that His provision for us is greater than we can ask or imagine.

If we conceive of courtship as a rational "mate selection process," though, all of that glory is missed. .

7. It highlights the importance of affectivity.

Somewhere along the way in western experience (was it Aquinas? was it the Enlightenment? Was it Kant?), Christians developed a terrible tendency to denigrate the emotions, treating them as if they are essentially irrational and needing to be strictly controlled by reason. It's gone so far that some actually pride themselves on a lack of affectivity.  This is bad for human life generally, but when it comes to courtship, it's disastrous. I have heard priests teach, "Feelings don't really matter; feelings come and go." I once heard a young woman say in a talk to college students about how to find a spouse: "We girls tend to be emotional, but It's not about emotion; it's about logic." This is a grotesque misunderstanding, for which von Hildebrand's book on The Heart is a great corrective. In it he distinguishes among different types and levels of emotions, and shows that the heart is a "spiritual center" in the person, fully on par with the intellect and the will.

To have the soulmate experience is to immediately and intuitively grasp the centrality of the affective sphere in human life. We realize effortlessly and spontaneously that love is the whole meaning and purpose of everything. And to realize that is to aspire to live it, which is the beginning actually living it.

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Long, long ago, in my ninth-grade English class, our longsuffering teacher, Ms. Whatshername, did a unit on Study Habits, or some such topic. There were time-management tips, like remembering that when you sit down to study it can take half an hour just to get settled in and gain a little focus and momentum. There was also an intriguing point about the sense of hearing: that by honing in on, say, your teacher's voice or the construction crew outside, you can actually change the way the sound waves enter your ear. I wouldn't be able to explain the physics of it, but it was striking. More things than we realize are under our control.

And then there was this: Learn how to separate out what's being said from the person who's saying it. Don't make yourself unable to hear or understand a truth just because it comes to you via somebody with a funny accent, a tacky wardrobe, or a squeaky voice. Don't invest the message with the superficial qualities of the messenger.

It was like a precursor to the motto of the International Academy of Philosophy, where I'd go eight years later: Love all truth, and love it in all things. Don't cut yourself off from truths that come from unlikely sources, in unexpected packages.

I thought of that the other day. A priest I know is not especially impressive-looking. He has allergies, I think, and sometimes his voice breaks, or he's interrupted by a cough. He speaks softly, in a tentative, inoffensive kind of voice. He's not inflammatory, not a yeller.

But if you listen to him, you might do a double take. His words are invariably unflinching. Life is about getting ready to die! Untiring faithfulness, no matter what! The world is going to end one day, you know!

it would be easy to let the sound of his voice go in one ear and out the other, taking for granted that his words must be as innocuous as his appearance. To sit there, feeling comfortably superior, a critic rather than a student, falling for the illogical assumption that the strength of an idea ought to be judged by the superficial features of its spokesman.

I think we're especially prone to such illogic because of the images we see in videos every day. Not just violent or pornographic video, but nearly all video. It all has one thing in common: the attractive and appealing ones are the heroes, and the ugly or forgettable-looking ones are evil or inconsequential. This happens not only in blatant propaganda but in the telling of wholesome and noble stories, too. No matter how we go on about getting beyond appearances, it never seems to happen.

So thank you, Mrs. Whatever-Your-Name-Was! I'm sure you'd be shocked to find that unpromising-looking freshman was paying attention.

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