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How Can We Reform the Church? Personalist Revolution Starts with “I,” Not “They”

At a recent gathering of Catholics who had had several intensive reflective sessions together, the participants were asked to comment upon the impact of the meetings and how they had changed them personally or deepened their faith.

The group leaders were disappointed when they received the written comments. They were quite surprised that almost without exception the written responses completely avoided the personal reflection. They were instead rather bitter attacks on other people in the Church: “If only those people would do this or stop doing that…”

It was a shock to the leaders that participants were not touched by the experience and that their responses were framed in exactly the same attitudes with which they had begun.

Their spirituality seemed to be a spirituality of criticism and rancor. Obviously, there is a place for criticism, especially a criticism that will call us back to the Gospel. The challenge is how to get beyond criticism-some of us are very good at criticism-to a more profound living of the faith that can impact not only our lives but also our life style. Criticism is necessary for clarity and growth, but when it becomes all consuming, faith withers.

As the Catholic community becomes more and more educated and more sophisticated, it may find the embrace of the simple faith of the Gospel a challenge. While some are uncomfortable with the faith of their grandparents sitting in the rocking chair reciting the rosary for their children and grandchildren, or even make fun of their piety, the question arises of whether it has been replaced it with a deeper faith. Sometimes our lives have become trivialized by materialism. A materialistic culture dominates our consciousness, which inhibits a profound faith.

The grandchildren have grown weary of the faith or have been so influenced by prevailing ideologies and the overem-phasis on demythologization of the Scriptures and tradition that all they have left is capitalism and the State.

In much of the criticism of the Church or Church people, an opinion emerges that the Church should be more like the State, like a secular democracy, or like a business corporation. The Church is wrong, many say, because it does not do things the way a government or a business would do them. And it is hard to attempt to follow the call of the Gospel to detachment and voluntary poverty in a culture which values wealth creation, obtaining and consuming and fighting to keep the things one has acquired so much more than the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.

Recently, the Boston Globe featured a group trying to teach the Bishops that the Church should be run like a modern corporation. It is hard to imagine, especially in the current business climate, that this could even be considered. Not only have the most famous firms been engaged in falsifying their accounting records and lying to shareholders, but what is called “business ethics” and standard business practice treats workers and employees as the most unimportant element of business, unworthy of notice or consideration-the exact oppo-site of papal teaching. Church teaching is that the judgment of any economic system is the treatment of the person, the worker. The prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church taught that usury is a great sin. Any observer today might ask, What does the Church have to learn from Enron or Anderson Accounting?

The most profound problem in this approach is the error of giving the economic primacy of place in everyday life, primacy over the spiritual-an approach which places severe limitations on human freedom and divine grace and thus on human destiny and vocation.

The possession of material goods and wealth status became the landmark for respect in a culture where the economic factor reigns supreme. The poor are designated as failures.

Money is power and is a sign of God’s blessing instead of the Sign of the Cross!

How could the Bishops even consider applying these common erroneous and/or sinful practices to the Church? It would be so much better for them to help us break down the walls of materialism before they become insurmountable.

In an interview in her eightieth year Dorothy reiterated in a few words the approach to economics she and Peter recom-mended to Church leaders. Her advice did not resemble in any way that of those who recommend that the bishops and pastors to model their activities on business corporations:

“I had a chance twice to talk to the bishops. I said, ‘The first thing I would advise all bishops to do is to get rid of all their worldly advisers.’ I said, ‘this whole business of investing. It’s usury, it’s condemned in the catechism, in the same class as the seven deadly sins . . . money doesn’t breed money.’ I said, ‘Don’t invest money, except in the poor-there you might expect a return.'”

“We learn these things in the New Testament. There’s a constant tension at the spiritual foundations; it’s a matter of faith. The Lord will send you. If they want your coat, give up your coat.

“I mean, it just works. If it fails, well, that’s because it should fail. It wouldn’t matter.”

The limitations placed on human freedom and divine grace by giving primacy of place to the economic are paralleled in giving to the State the authority to form all of one’s basic values and granting it unquestioning obedience. Dorothy and Peter and the great thinkers of their time wondered why some questioned the Church so much at the same time as they gave all their loyalty to the State, which might have very different values than their faith professed. After observing the unswerving, un-questioning obedience of many people to the State in an overblown patriotism, Dorothy pointed out with Simone Weil that this was a strange modern phenomenon. She could not accept the idea of giving one’s first obedience to what she ironically called ‘Holy Mother the State.’ The modern State was not her idea of the ideal: “Every new development of the last three centuries has brought men closer to the state of affairs in which absolutely nothing would be recognized in the whole world as possessing a claim to obedience except the authority of the State.”

In his encyclical Centesimus Annus John Paul II gave some explanation about why it might be a mistaken priority to give one’s first and best unques-tioning obedience even to the modern democratic State. Noting that the Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, a serious question confronts democracy:

“There is a tendency to see intellectual relativism as the necessary corollary of democratic forms of political life. In such a view, truth is determined by the majority and varies in accordance with passing cultural and political trends. From this point of view, those who are convinced that certain truths are absolute and immutable are considered unreasonable and unreliable. On the other hand, as Christians we firmly believe that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (n. 46)

In an attempt to understand the negative response of the group members that seemed to be lacking a sense of personal responsibility and engagement and how to go from criticism to an embrace of the Gospel, the authors turned to Peter Maurin, who originally introduced us to the concept of announcing instead of denouncing (Of course Peter criticized strongly where he knew it was necessary, but his basic message was very positive.)

Peter was able to see that embracing the Sermon on the Mount, the concept of the common good, and assuming personal responsibility for bringing the Gospel to our world was an alternative to despair over the condition of Church and world.

Peter and Dorothy found profound freedom in the Church, freedom to live the Gospel and to bring the message of hope and love (as opposed to individualism) to the world. The expression of their faith was centered in the Mass. Peter wrote in an Easy Essay that the only way we can imitate the sacrifice of Jesus is by giving all we can rather than by trying to get all we can

William Miller pointed out that unlike many critics of the Church, it was there that Peter looked for his new synthesis: “It is perhaps because he was free and so full of his program that Maurin seemed never to have found it necessary to expend any of his energy as a critic of the Church. Personalist radicalism found the idea of the Church no obstacle to its philosophy or methods; to the contrary, it was only through personalist radicalism that the dynamite of the Church could be ignited. Maurin thus united orthodoxy with radicalism, and this principle was understood and has been faithfully followed by Dorothy Day.” (Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love, 25)

Some people admired the work of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, but could not understand how she could stand to be a member of the Catholic Church. Dorothy tried to explain to those who asked about her allegiance to the Church. Ironically, it was there that she found freedom, the freedom to be a personalist, to engage the whole world with her faith, to address persons in an impersonal, fragmented world and especially to meet Christ in the persons who came to her.

Often Catholics do not seem to know that they possess such tremendous freedom to do good in living out the Gospel. Speaking of people who have not yet come to a conversion or second conversion, “which binds them with a more profound, a more mature love and obedience to the Church,” Dorothy noted that many may rebel against Church authority or resent it, without realizing their great freedom. Her own commitment came from her love of God: “Even seeing through a glass darkly makes one want to obey, to do all the Beloved wishes, to follow Him to Siberia, to antarctic wastes, to the desert, to prison, to give up one’s life for one’s brothers since He said, ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.'”

To those who could not understand giving one’s allegiance to God and to the Church, Nicholas Berdyaev explained that it is the nature of the Church that makes all the difference: “Only an integral conception of the Church which regards it as the Christianized cosmos, as the heavenly and eternal Church, as opposed to a merely temporal and historic body, can free me from a sense of being oppressed by it or can prevent me from exercising my critical faculty in relation to it. To come into the Church is to enter upon the eternal and divine order of the world. This does not mean that we have to make a break with the world or with history, but rather that we participate in their transfiguration.” (Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 338)

One reason people have problems is that their faith is defined according to what is wrong with Catholics and the Church. The difficulty and the challenge is developing a positive stance and a meaningful role for Catholics.

The competition between the culture of belief and the materialistic culture that sur-rounds us creates a gulf, a chasm, which is very difficult to surmount. To overcome the oppositional forces whose numbers are legion requires more than registration in a parish where membership may only mean people gathering who live in the same area.

Catholics cannot be expected to counter and transform the culture that surrounds us unless they are geared to a very profound faith. Catholicism lite will not only not do it, but may also lead us to adapt our faith to a secular culture and to flee the scandal of the Gospel.

In reflecting on various trends in biblical scholarship which discredit Jesus the Christ in favor of a simple sage from history, Luke Timothy Johnson makes a commentary which is just as relevant for critics who ask the Church to conform to our present age, an age in which the ‘wisdom of the world’ is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition. As Johnson puts it, “the ‘wisdom of the cross’ is the most profoundly countercultural message of all. Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the Gospel.”

The thinkers who influenced the Catholic Worker such as Jacques Maritain and fellow traveler Frank Sheed recommended daily reading of the New Testament. They meant, of course, reading the sacred book with the eyes of faith, not just as archaeology.

The Gospels ask us to go beyond individualism and per-sonally respond to Christ, follow him, imitate him, and become engaged in a positive way in our communities and in the world. The imitation of Jesus Christ places Christian love at the foundation of social existence. It is a radical doctrine that implies an abandonment of materialism, and a renunciation of violence. Love, rather than individualism, is the key.

Emmanuel Mounier, French personalist who influenced the Catholic Worker very much, like Peter and Dorothy did not expect the complete realization of the Kingdom of God in time and on earth, but believed that the fullness of community has some kind of limited existence during this life. Peter Maurin expressed the starting point in building such a community in one of his Easy Essays, so different from the critical point of view of those who are not so engaged:

They and We
People say:
“They don’t do this,
They don’t do that,
They ought to do this,
They ought to do that.”
Always “They”
and never “I.”
The Communitarian
is basically
a personal revolution.
It starts with I,
not with They.
One I plus one I
makes two I’s
and two I’s make We.
We is a community,
while “they” is a crowd.

In The Personalist Manifesto Mounier described what a personalist community (thus the “communitarian” aspect) would be like, a description which sounds remarkably like the doctrine of the common good or a prescription for the civilization of love spoken of by modern Popes:

“If we were to describe its ideal realization, we should describe it as a community in which each person would at all times be able to achieve his fruitful vocation in the totality and in which the communion of all in the totality would be the living outcome of the efforts of each one. Each one would have a place of his own in the whole which no one else could fill, but which would harmonize well with the whole. Love would be the primary tie and not any constraint or any economic or ‘vital’ interest or any extrinsic apparatus. Each person would there find, in the common values transcending each one’s own limitations of place and time, the tie that binds all members in the whole.”

How could this community in the Church be built? Or as many would put it, how can the Church be reformed to be ever more like the New Testament?

Don Divo Barsotti, confessor to recent popes, has said it is through lives of saints, witnesses to the Gospel:

“Witnesses are needed to make sure that there is a living reality-the living reality created by the saint. Without the saints the Church becomes a despotic power (I say this with a shiver), as in the frightening image of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Only holiness justifies the Church’s teaching; otherwise all the documents and statements of the Magisterium become empty words. There are men and women who are evident signs of a reality that is not of this world. That differentness is thrust upon one; it is like finding oneself in front of a miracle. This is not because they are not subject to nature (they are wretches, like all others); but nature cannot explain this.

“Salvation is not an assent to a generic moral code, or to the values of peace, of humanism, but to the person of Christ and to one’s own person. It is a passionate love for Christ that moves the people who meet the saints.”

More than anything, we need to be people of prayer. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to not only enlighten us but to strengthen us to make faith-filled decisions. As Pope Paul VI said, “We have asked ourselves on several occasions what are the greatest needs of the Church … The Church needs the Holy Spirit within us, in each of us, and in all of us together, in us the Church … So let all of you ever say to him “Come!”

As members of the Body of Christ we must speak up to defend those who are despised and rejected and mistreated and offer them practical help. We have to seek truth and find ways to bring God’s message of love and peace to our devastated world. And we all want to help to reform our Church (as Paul IV also said, “semper reformandi”) and call it back to the Gospel as the saints have done for so many centuries. As we attempt to do so, even among disagreements, the words of St. Paul in chapter four of his Letter to the Christian community at Ephesus might be our guide:

“Never let evil talk pass your lips; say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them. Do nothing to sadden the Holy Spirit with whom you were sealed against the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 3, May-June 2005.