The Personalist Project

Two upcoming events:

A public lecture

Knowledge of the Heart in John Henry Newman

by John F. Crosby

  • When:3:00 - 4:30 p.m., Friday Feb. 6
  • Where:Eastern University
  • Cost:free

Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University and author of the recently-published book The Personalism of John Henry Newman, John F. Crosby, will discuss how Newman overcomes both rationalism and relativism in religion, by examining the role of subjectivity in our apprehension of truth.

This lecture at Eastern University in St. David's, PA, is free and open to the public. But kindly register here if you intend to come, so we know how many to expect.

Log in or register above to reserve seat(s) for this event.

An open house

My walk with Newman

a conversation with John Crosby

  • When:8:00 - 10:00 p.m., Friday Feb. 6
  • Where:Our home, 519 N High St, West Chester, PA
  • Cost:free

John Crosby discovered Newman when he was 15 and has been learning from him ever since. His latest book, The Personalism of John Henry Newman, was published last fall. We'll be hosting a formal lecture earlier in the day (see the ad above). In the evening, he will share with us more personally and conversationally about Newman's influence on his own life and thought.

Bring questions, reflections, favorite Newman passages or insights to share. Or just come and listen, if you like that better. Either way, please do let us now if you plan to join us, so we know how many to expect.

Log in or register above to reserve seat(s) for this event.

One reason many people are either more enthusiastic or more upset about Pope Francis than the reality of the man justifies, is, I propose, because they conflate two different kinds of liberalism: liberalism as a kind of personal sensibility and liberalism in the realm of truth.

Oversimplifying and limiting myself to the contemporary context for brevity's sake, liberals of the former kind tend to be concerned about the poor, about social justice, about inequality. They favor "collective action" and government intervention more than conservatives do. They express sympathy and solidarity with the underprivileged, the marginalized and the outcast. They're typically more attuned to mercy than justice.

I think there's no doubt that Pope Francis is a liberal of this kind. So have been many saints and other moral heroes of modern times, including Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain, Charles Peguy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Whittaker Chambers, among others. 

But the term liberal commonly indicates something else too, viz. a practical denial of the objectivity of truth in matters of faith and morals. No one articulates the concept better than Newman, who saw liberalism in religion as "the great mischief" of his day and dedicated his life to opposing it.  

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Elsewhere he expressed the same idea this way:

That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true; that it may be a gain to succeed, and can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intellect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide,—this is the principle of philosophies and heresies, which is very weakness.

Because these kinds of liberalism so often go together, many people see evidence that the Pope is a liberal in mode and temper and leap (either with joy or dismay) to the conclusion that he must secretly want to change Church teaching in the area of morals.

I think the conclusion is unwarranted. 

1) We know by faith that the teachings of the Church in the areas of faith and morals are immutable.

2) We know by many concrete examples, such as the ones listed above, that liberal sensibilities can and often do go together with doctrinal orthodoxy.

3) The Pope has repeatedly affirmed and consistently displayed across a long priesthood his commitment to the teaching tradition of the Church.

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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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