The Personalist Project

Morality, freedom & 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 had a funny experience this weekend on the plane home from Dallas, where we'd gone to see baby number 4 graduate from college.

With ToB talk prep on my mind, I've had several documents open on my computer for weeks, including John Crosby's "On Proposing the Truth and Not Imposing It: John Paul II's Personalism and the Teaching of Dignitatis Humanae", Familiaris Consortio and Casti Connubii.

According to (bad) habit, I read piecemeal, a few paragraphs at a time. Then I pick up something else. It takes a while for me to get through a whole article or encyclical. 

So there I was, reading Familiaris Consortio, clipping great quotes, like this one:

God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.

Then I decided I really should finish the Crosby article before anything else, so I switched to that. Lots of great quotes in there too, like this:

Everyone knows how deeply committed [John Paul II] is to the teaching of the Church on the moral disorder of contraception, as set forth in the encyclical, Humanae Vitae. But he has not tried to uphold this teaching simply by “laying down the law,” simply by demanding obedience, by threatening punishments, and the like. He thinks that that is just the approach that makes the moral law seem to people to cramp their freedom. He has throughout his pontificate taken a different approach. On one occasion he said: “it is not enough that this encyclical be faithfully and fully proposed, but it also is necessary to devote oneself to demonstrating its deepest reasons."

ToB, as we know, is exactly an extended and comprehensive papal demonstration of the deepest reasons for the Church's teaching against birth control, among other things.

Having finished that article, I went back to Familiar Consortio. As I read it, though, I started to feel uneasy. "This is unusual language for John Paul. I hadn't remembered this." It spoke of "grave sin" and abominations and offenses against nature and shamefulness and such. It took me aback. I even started thinking, "Have I been wrong?" "Do I have to revise my thesis? Could it be that John Paul's mode and rhetoric are not as far from pre-Vatican II Popes as I've been claiming so confidently." Then I came across a paragraph I recognized well:

Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.

Instantly, I knew what had happened. I was accidentally reading Casti Connubii (promulgated by Pius XI in 1930) not Familiaris Consortio. :)

My thesis is safe. Phew.

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I'm thoroughly enjoying my re-reading of great JP II documents in preparation for the ToB conference in June. All my favorite themes keep getting pinged. Take this item from Familiaris Consortio.

The education of the moral conscience, which makes every human being capable of judging and of discerning the proper ways to achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth, thus becomes a pressing requirement that cannot be renounced.

Sit with that line for a minute: "achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth".

I don't know about you, but in the conservative world I grew up in and still mostly inhabit, the idea of "self-realization" was practically derided as liberal claptrap. So was the idea that there's such a thing as "original [i.e. subjective] truth" Even today, you find flat denials that any such thing as "my truth" or "your truth" exists. I wrote about it here. Conscience is talked about as if it's nothing more and nothing other than a rational application of natural law to particular cases. Individual subjectivity is practically irrelevant.

I'll say it again: John Paul II and his great body of magisterial teaching is too often misunderstood in conservative circles, because those circles fail to duly recognize, appreciate and absorb the "turn to subjectivity" that everywhere complements and qualifies the late Pope's robust defense of objectivity. 

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Several years ago, we went to a talk by George Weigel. I think it had to do with his book the Cube and the Cathedral. My memory of the event is vague, but one thing he said is still vivid. In answer to a question about the future of the Church, Weigel said: "Be afraid; be very afraid." 

It was jarring, because it's the contrary opposite of that major exhortation given by his hero, John Paul II, at his inaugural homily as Pope and repeated often, as a theme, throughout his papacy: "Be not afraid!" 

Witness to Hope is a great book. (It features a chapter titled, "Be Not Afraid!") I read it when it first came out 20 years ago, and I've returned to it many times since. I picked it up again this week, looking for a particular quote from one of Wojtyla's letters to a young woman. I found it on page 101. In the paragraph immediately preceding, I found this. It was underlined.

Love, for Karol Wojtyla, was the truth at the very center of the human condition, and love always meant self-giving, not self-assertion.

I'm sure I marked that sentence when I first read it because it neatly captures the importance of the mystery of love for Wojtyla. Back then, I wasn't yet alive to the master/slave dynamic and its centrality in his thought. I am now, though. So this time, I got that same unpleasant jar—a "Wait. What?" experience. Because the more I read and absorb John Paul II, the more thematic self-assertion has become, exactly because of its indispensability for love.

Here's another passage I re-read yesterday. It's from Love and Responsibility. I had asked Jules to help me find it. (I said in my last post that I'm preparing a talk for the ToB conference in Holland in June.)

Here, too, a trait characteristic of the person becomes his whole relationship with the world, with reality, he strives to assert himself, his "I", and must act thus, since the nature of his being demands it. 

Self-assertion belongs to the nature, dignity and vocation of the human person. In this passage, Wojtyla is speaking most directly about the person as over and against the natural world. We are not just "objects in the cosmos", unfolding our essence according a pre-determined natural pattern. Rather, we are free and self-determining subjects. Hence, self-assertion is a kind of prerequisite for a properly personal existence.

But more than that, it's a prerequisite for love. I won't quite say it's half the dynamic of love, but almost. For one thing, we can't give what we don't have. So before we can make a sincere gift of self, we have to first, as it were, acquire our selves, through a gradual and continual process of conscientiously separating ourselves out from our environment and from others, learning to "own" our individuality, our acts, feelings, values and attitudes, learning to take responsibility for ourselves and fend off the domination or undue influence of others.

For another thing, the opposite of love for Wojtyla/JP II is manipulation, or the master/slave dynamic. It's the subordination of one by the other, the treating of the other not as fellow subject, a self, but as an object of use. 

To overcome this dynamic, the "master", the would-be user, has to learn to see and affirm the other as subject, a free and self-determining "I". And the "slave" has to learn to resist her objectification; she has learn to assert her selfhood. Only then are the two in a position to achieve the reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving that is the essence of love.

There are some noteworthy passages along these lines in a talk Fr. Karol Wojtyla gave to women in the 1960's, published in English under the title The Way to Christ. Take this, for example:

The first thing which strikes us is that when they approached Christ these women acquired a certain interior autonomy, even those who were “fallen women.”

"Acquiring a certain interior autonomy"—as over and against the subordinate social role assigned to them in the ancient Jewish world—is a mode of self-assertion, wouldn't you say? Then there's this:

In every Gospel episode involving meetings with women, they find their independence at Christ’s side.

They are used to being less-than and dependent. In Christ, that changes. Here's how he describes Mary, the Mother of Jesus:

Mary is a very simple person, but has great individuality and is very much herself.

When the future Pope gives a talk to young adult women at a spiritual retreat, his focus is on cultivating their sense of self, autonomy, independence, individuality.

She was not only Christ’s Mother, but also a mature, independent companion throughout his life.

Even in the 1960s, he was implicitly laying out the contrast between the master/slave dynamic and the redemptive love of the gospel.

With Christ there are no slaves, even if the social system at that time treated women as slaves, not only in Rome but also among the Jews.


It may sound paradoxical, but this independence simultaneously makes the woman free of love and open to it. It makes her free of love with a small l—love as necessity, restriction, mere occasion, or eroticism—and opens her to the Love which is the fruit of conscious choice and in which she can find her own life and vocation.

Anyway. It frustrates and distresses me to find promoters of Wojtyla's thought missing—or worse, denying— this key point, without which, the rest loses all its vitality and fruitfulness.

I can't remember now where I read an account of JP II's last illness. One of his illnesses anyway. He was at the hospital, and doctors wanted to keep him there, though he wanted to go back to the Vatican. He said to them (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "All my life I have defended the rights of man. Today I am 'man.'" In other words, he deliberately asserted himself against the pressure of the doctors' judgments, and he explicitly related this act of self-assertion to his whole body of teaching and personal witness of the dignity of the human person. For Wojtyla, the dignity of the human person practically consists in his being a self-made-from-love-and-for-love.

It might be worth adding that it's not only Wojtyla. Think of that dramatic moment in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Season's, when the Thomas More's self-assertion against peer pressure from the Duke of Norfolk serves as both a revelation of his great integrity and a prelude to his ultimate sacrifice of love.

Think, too, of that Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

We can't fulfill our vocation as persons, which is love, without self-assertion. No one understood this better or explicated it more fully, constantly and luminously than John Paul II. 

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Yesterday's second reading, from Acts, was about the early Christian church. The disciples were one in heart and mind. No one kept anything for himself; they all held everything in common. People would sell their property and put the proceeds at the disposal of the Apostles, who would then distribute the money according to need. There was perfect harmony among them.

The homily was about the importance of unity in our Christian witness. Since we are human, the priest said, conflicts are inevitable. But we must never let the sun go down on our anger. He quoted a line he'd heard somewhere, "Ninety percent of conflict is tone of voice, ten percent is disagreement." Therefore, he proposed, the way to live in peace is to moderate our tone of voice and put up with differences.

All well and good, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far, in my opinion. It even risks being counter-productive in many cases, because it doesn't account for the master/slave dynamic, which is where the real threat to unity lies. Notice that the term disagreement practically assumes peerage. We have an impasse exactly because neither is over the other. The "power" in the relation is evenly distributed. I see it one way; you see it another. Now what do we do? In such cases, the solution lies in discussion or negotiation. We hear each other out; we tolerate our differences; we put up with weaknesses and imperfections in each other. It's how families are meant to operate—as communities where each member is loved and respected and given his due.

But what about abuse? Should we tolerate abuse? 

The kind of conflict that really destroys social harmony is the kind that involves abuse, aggression and boundary violations, big and small. They involve one person or group asserting in practice a right or prerogative not held in justice. Picture a bully grabbing a smaller kid's lunch money. Would that scenario be rightly characterized as a disagreement? Would we do well in such a case to instruct the child to watch his tone of voice and refrain from getting angry? I'm sure the bully would approve if we did.

Picture a white man in the Jim Crow south telling a black woman to go to the back of the bus. What's the moral theme of that moment? What's her Christian responsibility? To be patient and uncomplaining? No doubt the whites on the bus would like her to think so. I've read that antebellum era preachers loved the verses, "Slaves obey your masters" and "spare the rod, spoil the child."

Picture a husband telling his wife to shut up when she voices her opinion. Recall that scene from the old movie Giant, where the Rock Hudson character orders his wife to leave the room while the men discuss politics. Think of a mother wheedling and nagging and guilting her adult son into spending his day off with her instead of with his own family. Suppose I find a friend lying to me? Or spreading gossip about me? Suppose my boss suggests I undo the top button on my blouse if I want that promotion? What if my priest or bishop responds to a question or an objection of mine by saying, "How dare you challenge my authority?" Picture any occurrence of seduction or slander or bribery or false witness. Picture neglect. Picture intimidation, arm-twisting and belligerence. Picturing moralizing.

These are all instances of interpersonal conflict that have nothing to do with "disagreement." They have everything to do with the master/slave dynamic, with a disorder in the mode of relating, conscious and deliberate or not. In such cases, instructing the "slave" to be tolerant and not to let the sun go down on her anger makes matters worse, not better. What she needs is encouragement to be firm, strong, and fearless. She needs others to recognize and defend her right not to be abused, not to be treated as less-than. The master in the conflict should be rebuked and set back, plus instructed to make amends.

Once we have the master/slave dynamic in mind, the whole Bible reads differently. We see Jesus being merciful with the poor and the oppressed. We notice him "emptying himself" to become one with us. We see him breaching social barriers to spend time with sinners, with gentiles, with the poor, with women. And we see him being harsh, even angry-sounding, toward the Pharisees, those in power.

We read Acts differently too. The economic equity held up as the ideal, and which came through the rich members freely selling their property and putting it at the disposal of the Apostles, reflects a spiritual ideal too. Those in positions of power, of whatever kind, are challenged to freely "cash in" their excesses with the aim of empowering those in subordinate positions, according to need. Social harmony, true unity, comes about when equality and reciprocity are established between and among persons.

The gospel impels an end to (or at least a relativizing of) all power-driven social hierarchies, which are at odds with the dignity of persons as persons, and the dignity of Christians as baptized, redeemed, and called to full and intimate communion with the Most High God.

"In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, man nor woman, for all are one."

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The term mansplaining was coined following the publication of a book called Men Explain Things to Meby Rebecca Solnit. It captures well the maddening experience many women share of men (not all men, but lots of them) habitually presuming superior knowledge—men coming at them, as it were, not as peers, not with respect, openness and interest in learning, but condescendingly, with a presumption of social and intellectual superiority. "Here is a boon for you: my expertise, freely given to supply your ignorance...You're welcome."

We've gotten much better about this as a society, thanks in part to the popular spread of the clever term. I still come across it occasionally, but there's no question there's less of it on the whole. Men have gotten better about not doing it, and women have gotten better about not putting up with it.

Let me draw out that last point a bit. As with any instance, however big or small, of the master/slave dynamic in human relations, overcoming it involves two distinct moral tasks: one for the "master," another for the "slave." The master has to learn to stand down; the slave has to learn to stand up. 

Each has his task regardless of whether the other proves willing to do hers.

The master ought to humble himself, whether or not his slave demands it. Apart from certain objective (plus limited and conditional) relations, such as that between teacher and student or parent and child or boss and employee, it's always bad and unfitting for a person to adopt a stance of superiority over another. To do so is to operate in the master/slave mode, and hence to thwart the reciprocity that is the sin qua non of authentic interpersonal communion. [Just yesterday, I came across a line from an interview Jorge Bergoglio gave in the days surrounding the consistory that elevated him to Cardinal. He stood out from his fellows for the way he kept a low profile, staying in simple guest rooms, going to and from the Vatican on foot, wearing hand-me-down clerical garb. “In Gospel terms, every elevation implies a descent; you have to abase yourself in order to serve better.”]

Similarly, I propose, every degradation implies an ascent. The "slave" has to learn to assert herself, whether or not her right and call to do so is acknowledged by the "master." When she does, even if she does it badly, she not only cultivates her own dignity, she helps establish the conditions for healthy, fruitful communion. Typically, he won't like it. He'll find fault with her for overreacting or causing needless tension or being rude or rebellious or whatever. He might rebuke her and otherwise pressure her to get back down, so to speak—back to her proper place. But, if he does, he'll be in the wrong, and he'll be intensifying the exigency of her resistance. 

Generally speaking, when it comes to a longstanding master/slave personal or cultural tendency, change starts with the "slave" (who isn't used to taking initiative and may be clumsy or worse about it.) It's a psychological fact of the dynamic that the master is comfortable and attached to his position. He typically thinks it's the way things ought to be. He will tend to think of his basic moral tasks in terms of being a better master—kinder maybe, more patient, more generous with his time, etc. While the slave, on the other hand, gradually grows more pinched, frustrated and restive. She begins to resent, question, and reject as illegitimate the traditional moral tasks assigned to her position: obey, be humble, submissive and docile. 

Eventually, a point of crisis arrives. Something's gotta give. It's a fraught moment, ripe for either fruitfulness or violence, sometimes both.

If the "slave" is thoughtful and courageous at that moment, and takes care to conscientiously aim at the common good, rather than lashing out in revenge, there's hope of renewal. Not a return to the way things were, but a new, better way of being, allowing for fresh grace and vitality. If the "master" refuses to stand down, though, there may be violence anyway, as in the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, or the American Revolution for that matter.

The same is true on the personal level. Think of Nora in A Doll's House. Once her eyes were opened to her state of subjection, her travesty of a marriage collapsed, and there were only two practical possibilities remaining: Her husband would have to learn to stop regarding her as his little doll, his feather-brained subordinate, so their marriage could become a true communion of persons, or they would divorce. What was permanently off the table was a return to the status quo ante.

Similarly, there comes a moment, typically in adolescence, when a child begins to assert his right of self-governance as a person as over and against his parents. It's a delicate, dangerous moment. If the parents respond by doubling down on their natural authoritarian habits, they will frustrate their child's maturing, or they will lose him, or some mix of both.

In my opinion, we are reaching one of these crisis moments in the Church, with respect to relations between the laity and the clergy. As I said in an earlier post, thanks to the sex abuse scandals, the scales have fallen from the eyes of the laity. As a group, we are at least beginning to wake up to the fact of our wretched passivity, dependency and subordination—to the master/slave quality of the clericalist status quo.  [N.B. It's not all of the laity, of course. Most of us are still asleep. Nor is it laity exclusively. Many priests, including—thanks be to God—our present Pope and his two great predecessors, are acutely aware of the problem. Nor do I suggest that that bad dynamic is all that's going on in the Church. Rather, I claim that the good in the Church is infected with and badly hobbled by that spiritual toxin.]

But I'm getting way ahead myself. My original aim was only to offer examples of the clericalist equivalent of mansplaining—priests (not all priests, but lots of them) coming at the laity with condescension, with gratuitous instruction, with a (sometimes discreet, sometimes flagrant) presumption of social and religious superiority. It's constant and it's maddening, and it's not okay, even if it's entirely understandable, given their formation and the habits of centuries. 

I'm deliberate in focussing on small, "innocent" examples here. I'm not talking about priests who violate their vows or seek power for its own sake or consciously lord it over the laity. Rather, I mean to expose a subtle, pervasive pattern—one that reveals a deep disorder in the status quo, and one that afflicts laity and clergy alike, including even the very sincere and devout. Ibsen's play didn't depict a case of blatant spousal abuse, rather he uncovered a toxic dynamic in an apparently happy marriage.

A week or two ago, after morning mass, I asked a young priest what had happened to communion under both species (something I cherish about daily mass at our parish.) He replied that it had been suspended during flu season, but would be back. I said, "Oh good, that's what I was hoping. I miss it when it's gone." Then he threw in in a little catechetical instruction for good measure: "Theologically, you receive both with the host." 

This priest doesn't know that I was a theology major in college, but that's partly my point. He doesn't know me personally at all, but he assumed I would benefit from a little catechetical lesson from him. He does know that I'm about 20 years older than he is and that I'm frequently at daily mass and weekly benediction. He might have noted, too, that I had used the technical phrase "communion under both species," plainly indicating that I'm not a theological ignoramus. But none of those facts had any force against his natural presumption of superiority. He is a priest; I am a layman. Therefore, he is the teacher; I am one of his students.

Here's another and (for me at least) more maddening example. Our pastor has a practice of standing outside the church after Sunday masses, greeting his flock as they exit, saying a light, humorous word to one and all. It's irritatingly superficial and fake-sounding, but I do my best to endure it patiently, because I understand it must be challenging to be a father to a congregation of thousands, and what else is he supposed to do? 

One day, though, in a spirit of sincerity and genuine gratitude, I tried to break through the wall of facetiousness and make a small personal connection. I said, "Thank you for the scholarship that allows you to give us such substantive homilies." He responded by ratcheting up the facetiousness: "Oh, well! Thank you! Wow! I should make you my press secretary!"

He clearly meant it to be complimentary. I guess he assumed I would be flattered by the idea that he finds me verbally deft enough to serve as his public mouthpiece. Maybe he thought that would be a dream job for me? Evidently, it didn't enter his head at that moment that I might prefer to use my rhetorical skills to express my own ideas to the press—that I might even already be someone who thinks and writes and publishes in her own name. 

And—jumping back to mansplaining for a sec—can anyone imagine a priest making such a comment to a 50-something man?

Anyway, I found it galling and depressing, plus completely typical [not of him personally, but of the problem of clericalism]. With far too few exceptions, our priests don't know us (i.e. the laity); they don't defer to us, and they have no idea that they should.

Maybe some readers will judge me hypersensitive, plus arrogant. Go right ahead. It proves my point. It intensifies the exigency of my resistance.

JP II publicly apologized to and thanked the early feminists, who had had to suffer the pain of being deemed "unfeminine" because they stood up for themselves and asserted their equal dignity with men. It's part of the cross of any "slave" who refuses to keep slaving to have those still enmeshed in the dynamic find moral fault with her, especially to find her haughty and arrogant. Blacks of the civil rights era were often deemed "uppity" by Jim Crow whites.

In truth, I am prickly on this point because I am, by temperament and training, plus long personal experience, more attuned to it than most. But I'm an outlier only in the sense of being on the crest of a wave. I am a prophet of sorts, and a canary in the coal mine of the Church. So, I really hope I'm heard when I say this: clericalism will end, and for two reasons:

1) It is opposed to the gospel, 

2) It has become intolerable.

Whether and to what degree its end is fruitful or violent or both is up to us, our generation of Catholics. "I set before you life or death." If we want to avoid violence and establish an ecclesial culture of harmonious and fruitful conjugality between clergy and their congregations, laity will have to learn to come forward, and priests will have to learn to step back. 

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