The Personalist Project

Contemporary importance of dignity of person

The Council and the Church…regard the call concerning the dignity of the human person as the most important voice of our age.

Karol Wojtyla, Person and Community

A friend linked a video rant on Facebook the other day called, "Dear Oprah Winfrey: there's no such thing as 'your truth'". It's full of snark. 

I so wish conservatives wouldn't do this! I wish we wouldn't behave as if the way to promote and defend objective truth is to deny and diminish subjective truth. 

There is such a thing as "your truth", and "speaking it" is really important. So is listening to others speak theirs. Oprah is right about that, however wrong she may be about other things. 

What is "your truth"? It's the truth of your experience, your thoughts, your feelings, your perspective, your interests, your priorities, your motivations, your interiority. It's not reducible to your opinion. For instance, "I get melancholy when I listen to Irish music" is a statement of fact, not opinion. I'm not sharing my opinion of Irish music; I'm sharing my experience of Irish music. To say, "I know what you mean when you speak of emotional neglect and abuse; I've been there," is to express a truth (or a falsehood), not an opinion.

A friend of mine recently shared that she hates her husband's habit of grabbing her out of the blue. Maybe the husband is trying to be playful. Maybe it's his way of expressing sexual desire. But his wife doesn't like it. It makes her feel disrespected in her body and in her agency. It makes her mad. That's important information for her husband, isn't it? It's important for the marriage that she "speaks her truth" and that her husband pays attention to it. 

Calling attention to subjectivity doesn't entail subjectivism any more than preaching community entails communism or emphasizing femininity entails feminism. As Karol Wojtyla wrote, long before he became JP II: "we must not forget that the subjectivity of the human person is also something objective." 

Imagine how bad it would be if a wife told her husband, "I don't like it when you grab me like that. I find it rude and off-putting," and her husband were to reply by saying, "You're wrong. It's not rude or off-putting at all. It's playful and sexy." He would be adding disrespect for his wife's feelings and preferences to disrespect of her body and agency. It would be a example of exactly the kind of egotism that ruins relationships. "My experience and feelings trump yours. Mine are reality; yours are subjective nothingness." 

It's really important that we understand that when we do that what we are communicating to the other is "I matter; you don't." It is the very opposite of love. 

Being open to the subjective reality of others is the beginning of everything good in the interpersonal realm. Without it there's no friendship, no love, no communion, no solidarity, no evangelization, so civil society. Remember that line from Pope Benedict that I've quoted before:

This is how the Apostles’ adventure began, as an encounter of people who are open to one another.  For the disciples, it was the beginning of a direct acquaintance with the Teacher, seeing where he was staying and starting to get to know him.  Indeed, they were not to proclaim an idea, but to witness to a person.

Being open to others means taking a genuine interest in them as individuals, as subjects—their thoughts, feelings, preferences, perspectives, and so on. It means, further, being willing to share truthfully about ourselves—our real, honest selves, not our false or "willed" selves, not our merely superficial or in-denial selves. Everyone who's been in a 12-step program learns this wisdom and tries to practice it. We regret when we fail to practice it. We understand it as a failure of love and truth—a failure that typically comes from fear and habit.

"Speaking my truth," for most of us, involves moral effort and virtue. It takes genuine self-knowledge (often hard-won), courage, integrity, humility, vulnerability. Until we start consciously making that effort, we typically don't realize how accustomed we've become to speaking (and hearing) platitudes or instructions or projections or evasions or half-truths or lies—things that protect or puff up egos; things that radically interfere with real communion. 

What's true on an intimate level between friends and in families is true on wider social level too. The goodness of "the marketplace of ideas"—the free exchange of real views—is one of the fundamental values of democracy. It's essentially linked to the dignity of the person. To be an individual is to have views. To respect others as individuals entails being open to and respectful of their real views.

When we stop living and acting from that fundamental truth, civil society breaks down, as we see happening all around us today.

Of course the fact that there is such a thing as "my truth" doesn't mean there's no such thing as the truth. Of course there are such things as objective facts and values. Nothing in a pregnant woman's subjectivity can alter the objective moral worth of her baby. Whether she wants the baby or not; whether or not she realizes that that baby is a person, that baby is a person, and it's not okay to kill it.

We can defend that kind of truth without pretending it's the only kind, just as we can believe in the immorality of the soul without asserting that the body is worthless.

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The other day, my husband, Max, stopped in at the T-Mobile store. It's a long, sad story of malfunctioning gadgets, transfers of service, and tech-illiterate Torreses. But listen to this.

My husband wished the T-mobile guy a merry Christmas and mentioned that he had a bunch of kids waiting in the car. It came out that the guy had a toddler. Max, as he is wont to do, started singing the praises of large families and encouraged the guy to have another kid or two. Then the floodgates opened.

He couldn't imagine having another kid. His wife couldn't stand him as it was. She was perfect and he always did everything wrong. (He said this not bitterly or sarcastically, but sadly.)

At this point, my husband was overwhelmed with the sense that here was someone who needed God. You need Jesus Christ, he wanted to say, and i know where He is. I know where He lives. He broached the subject.

No, the guy wasn't a Catholic, and he had no interest in becoming one. His Salvadorian mother had tried to get him baptized, but the priest found out his father was Jewish and said no. The Church didn't want him--fine, then, he didn't want the Church.

At this point, my husband had what he calls a Pope Francis moment. Now, Max is as dubious as anybody about, say, Chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia, or the papal habit of shooting the breeze with this reporter and that (though he retains a lively respect for the Holy Father and doesn't presume to judge his heart). But he found himself saying words to this effect:

Listen, forget all that! We have a new Pope, and he's always talking about mercy. Just come! We'll find some way to straighten it out! The Church doesn't want rules getting in the way of people getting to Jesus Christ!

They talked for a long time, the conversation punctuated by various kids coming in from the car to see whether Daddy was done yet, and if not, why not. Max introduced them to the guy, and they managed to charm him.

What struck my husband was an idea he remembered from Evangelii Gaudium: that we're not arbiters of grace--not in charge of deciding whether to dispense it, or who deserves how much. It was a question of prudence: whatever this guy had done, or whatever somebody had done to him in the Church's name, it wasn't the time to evaluate all that right now. He just had to get in the door. He just needed Jesus Christ.

Two notes: one friend, on hearing this story, feels fairly sure that the priest just didn't want to baptize a baby against its father's will--to do anything that might raise the specter of the forced conversions of old. Or maybe he was just reluctant to baptize without reasonable assurance that the baby would be raised Catholic. There's no way to know, of course, but it certainly might be.

The other thing is, my husband found himself encouraging the guy to walk up to our local parish, knock on the priest's door, and tell him the whole story, the better to start enjoying God's mercy as soon as possible. Thinking it over later, it became clear that in the age of the laity maybe the thing to do is not so much to direct a lost sheep to a cleric and leave it at that, but to accompany him on the road. 

"Accompaniment" has been reduced to a buzzword for a lot of people--as if it's a mushy-minded alternative to speaking the truth. As if what matters is not your destination but having an unjudgmental buddy by your side on your journey to Wherever. But real accompaniment is precisely, and obviously, what's needed sometimes. Not just information, not just disembodied truth, but a companion on the road. We laypeople are co-responsible for the Church--we're not just supposed to function as the long arm of the clergy. 

For another thing, it's highly likely that even if the guy followed through and turned up on the priest's doorstep, he'd run into a parish secretary who saw her mission as protecting Father from his flock, not to mention somebody else's lost sheep. The guy might never have gotten past her.

Fixing the problem of laypeople with an overly narrow perception of our role and reversing the predicament of priests mired down in bureaucracy are tall orders. I doubt they're going to be settled in the T-Mobile guy's lifetime. I have no neat and tidy ending to relate.

But given our family's incompetence with electronics, I'm sure we can find some excuse to go see him again.

---

Details have been changed to protect the privacy of the guy.

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There is a story about Baroness Catherine De Heuck Doherty, Servant of God, that--if I remember it correctly--goes something like this. Catherine's ministry began as a call to truly go and be with the poor, without reservation. She went to live in the slums and worked at various menial, low-wage jobs. The story as I heard it was that at one point she got a job as a cocktail waitress alongside women who knew nothing of her past wealth or privilege. She lived in the same sort of cheap housing as her coworkers, and was known to them merely as “Katie,” the waitress.

And that’s the entire story, almost. She spends a short season of her life as a waitress, learning to know love the working poor around her, before gathering others to begin the public ministry of Friendship House.

But the person who told me this story included a (possibly apocryphal) detail that stopped me in my tracks. I was told that Catherine was so concerned with making the women she was befriending comfortable with her that, knowing they were for the most part self-conscious about their lack of education and wanting them to be at ease with her, she went so far as to avoid having any of her books out on display in her rooms.

This is a woman who loved the written word. Catherine loved to read and loved to write, and published many books herself during her lifetime. But for love of her neighbours, in order not to put herself forward and make others feel their disadvantages too keenly, in an act of modest self-abnegation, she put her beloved books aside.

I think of that and look at the shelves of books I have carted from state to state and between countries, the friends whose appearance on my shelves marks the point a new habitation becomes “home,” and my mind boggles.

I thought of this story again today when I ran across this definition of modesty from CatholicCulture.org:

“The virtue that moderates all the internal and external movements and appearance of a person according to his or her endowments, possessions, and station in life. Four virtues are commonly included under modesty: humility, studiousness, and two kinds of external modesty, namely in dress and general behavior.”

I was looking for definitions of modesty for a discussion I’d come across on Facebook. The complete context and content of the discussion is not terribly important, except that it was instigated, as so many discussion of modesty are, by people publicly calling women at an event out for their “immodesty,” explicitly making a connection between immodesty and sexual sin.

But if you read over the definition of “modesty” at the above link, you’ll notice something it doesn’t do. It doesn’t mention sex at all.

And it is a definition of modesty that is larger than the realm of clothing. The virtue of modesty, says this definition, can be expressed through humility, studiousness, and moderation in dress and behavior. All four of these are concerned with what is appropriate for a person’s station, responsibilities, standing, and community. All are expressed through moderation.

From a personalist vantage point, I noticed another commonality. All of these sub-virtues have the effect of setting a person on equitable footing with those they most often interact with. You should know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, and not be preoccupied with desires to stand out and be special (humility). You should know what you need to and be as educated as befits your abilities and responsibilities---but without nosiness or meddling in things that aren’t your business or are outside your competence (studiousness). You should dress appropriately and moderately for your occupation, setting, and company, avoiding not only what will be actively offensive, but also what would just be superfluous and attention-seeking. And you should behave with moderation the same way, not seeking to cause offense, but also not seeking acclaim or undue attention.

This is all about being conscious and considerate of the value of the people around you and not seeking to set yourself apart from your peers as more important or worthy of attention.

It's about not trying so hard to be special. 


And all that made me think of Catherine the Baroness, who became Katie the waitress because God told her to be one with the poor, setting aside whatever might divide her from them. Setting aside her books for love of them. Desiring more to know her companions than to be known by them--a strange thought in this era of over-sharing.

I am sure Katie the waitress was a witness to Jesus’ love among her new friends. I imagine she laughed and cried with their victories and sorrows. I know she gave sound advice and encouraged her coworkers to seek virtue—in dress and in other things--and to recognize the counterfeits the world offers in place of God’s love. There was nothing that could have made Catherine stay silent about the love of Christ for his poor.

But first, she shared their lives.

First, she loved.

I read so many words about modesty and clothing and what other people should or shouldn’t do on Facebook today. 

Sooooo many words. 

And I can’t imagine the Baroness, for all she loved words, having much patience with it.

What use is modesty, if it is not love? Not abstract love, but love-in-action, the love that is patient and kind, that does not boast and is not rude.

What is any of it for, if we are not loving our neighbors, the real actual people before us, in our homes and in our neighborhoods, in our streets and in our inboxes?

I don’t want to settle for a pale, preachy imitation of modesty. I don’t want to settle for loving mankind at a distance, setting myself above and apart from my neighbors.

I want to love like Katie did.

 

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you..

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love... love... love, never counting the cost

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour's feet. Go without fear into the depth of men's hearts. I shall be with you. Pray always.

I will be your rest.

—The Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty

Image credits:

Old Books by Tom Woodward from Richmond, VA, US (IMG_9792) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Yonge Street, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

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What am I talking about? Let me explain.

First of all, on December 6th, we have St. Nicholas. As Wikipedia tells it:

In his most famous exploit, Nicholas aided a poor man who had three daughters, but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Even if they did not, unmarried women in those days would be assumed to be prostitutes. Hearing of the girls' plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.

St. Nicholas stands as a lasting sign of the dignity of every person, boy or girl, rich or poor. Instead of just accepting--even reluctantly--the assumptions that trying to rise above your station is uppity, he came to the rescue. Instead of imagining that social order requires forcing anyone into prostitution, or that morality justifies jumping to conclusions about anyone based solely on marital status (or lack thereof), he made a change of status possible. And the part where he neither wants to draw attention to himself nor humiliate his beneficiaries--this shows not just a willingness to do a helpful thing, but to do it with the dignity of the beneficiary firmly in mind.

Then on the 8th there's the Immaculate Conception: Mary was conceived without sin, and it's true, she had nothing to do with that. She was the recipient of a unique grace, not the initiator of anything. But then her free will comes into play: the Angel Gabriel doesn't order her to bear the Christ Child but waits on her fiat. Once she bestows it, he leaves immediately. She was free from original sin, but then, so were Adam and Eve. The Incarnation still hinged on her free response to what she received.

And what was she consenting to? Not just a function, or a role. Not just a temp job--"ISO woman to serve as vessel for God's human nature for nine months"--but the Mother of a Person. Catholics honor her not just for being the "container" of God's human nature--a mere functionary-- but as the Mother of God the Son. Two real persons, two real body-and-soul beings, not a trick, or a disguise, or an assignment.

On the next day, December 9th, we have the feast of St. Juan Diego, and on the 12th, Our Lady of Guadalupe. According to the standards of his time and place, peasants had no business receiving private revelations from the Mother of God, much less coming into a Bishop's presence with a message from her. We celebrate a God who is "no respecter of persons"--a misleading way of saying "no respecter of the trappings of social position."

And then--Christmas! God becomes a human person. He doesn't come disguised as one, or take on the role of acting like one for a few decades and then cast off His human nature, or His human body, going back to being True God but no longer True Man. It's not a trick or a deception; it's not just that He had a job to do, a function to perform, before getting "back to normal." Describing what, exactly, it was that He did instead would require more theological expertise than I have, but whatever it was, it was a real Incarnation as a real human person, nothing less.

So happy Holydays! Happy season of extravagant divine confirmations of the dignity of the human person! Happy 4th day of Christmas!

-----------------

Image credits: St. Nicholas, by Jacopo Tintoretto, via Wikimedia Commons

Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, via Wikimedia Commons.

Author's photo of statue of St. Juan Diego at St. Mark the Evangelist, Hyattsville, MD

Ukranian, Adoration of the Shepherds, Wikipedia Signpost, public domain.

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 In the cold of winter, Christmas draws us to gather together in the warmth of family and friends. There’s a surplus of goodwill and cheer, enough it seems to make every bowl brim over.

But the absence of a single loved one can leave the season feeling empty and cold despite all the comfort and efforts of those surrounding us.

My husband’s maternal grandfather passed away this week. He lived a good life, a long life, and had a good death by almost any measure. “I’m not sad for him,” my husband told me this morning. “But I’m sad for the world that doesn’t have this good man in it.”

I could have said that there are other good men in the world, or reminded my husband that he can honor his grandfather by emulating his virtues. I’ve seen people respond to similar sentiments in that manner. But I think that would miss the point—not merely of my husband’s grief, but of Christmas itself.

The Church calls this “The Feast of the Incarnation.”  God became flesh. We celebrate Christ’s birth because he became, not just “man,” but a man, one with particular parents, born in a particular time, in a particular place, known and recognized by particular people.  

The Gospels themselves pull us towards this mystery of particularity by placing Jesus’s birth in the context of the family and world he was born into—the Christ came into this lineage, in this land, under this rule.

C.S. Lewis wrote:

 After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.

 

This “scandal of particularity” has a particular significance for the Christian personalist. Could personalism have come to be without the development of the idea of “persons” caused by the early Church’s attempts to understand the Incarnation?

Christ became man, and man was raised with Him. The person of Christ assumed human nature as this particular man who was born, lived, and died in this particular way—and subsequently each and every human life assumes a remarkable significance.

If God chooses to work through the choices and and consent of individual persons, forming covenants and building bonds with individuals in the scriptures right down to the fiat of Mary that opened the door to Christ, then no person can be considered irrelevant or replaceable. It truly is something to grieve that the world no longer has the opportunity to know my grandfather-in-law, or my own Oma and Opa, or my sister-in-law’s mother,  or a friend’s miscarried children.

Each person who passes, even those who are never named, leave an empty space in the world that belongs to them only, that cannot be simply filled by the next child. Do not doubt  it is so, in this season when we celebrate the God who became a man like us so that we could know Him, however imperfectly, person to person.

I don’t think there are easy words of comfort for the grieving at Christmas. “Rachel is weeping for her children, and there is no consoling her.”  At most, there is perhaps this: that loss coexists with gain, wheat and tares grow together.

When the magi came to the child Jesus, after their long journey to find him, they brought gifts—gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity…and myrrh for his death. There is Good Friday in Epiphany, and Easter in Christmas. Grief doesn’t contradict the “Christmas spirit.” The child born in Bethlehem was carried into Egypt to escape a massacre; he lived and knew loss and suffered and died.

He is God-With-Us, whether we weep or rejoice.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”  (Rev. 21:1-5)

Candle image via PublicDomainImages, CC0.

Headstone and Wreath via MaxPixel, CC0. 

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