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A Theory of Personalism (New York: Lexington Books, 2005, by Thomas and Rosita Rourke

It is refreshing to read a text that engages the political, socio-economic world from the standpoint of Catholic spiritual-ity yet does not focus exclusively on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and homosexuality, nor strives to wed faith with free market economics. Like a brisk wind, Thomas and Rosita Chazarreta Rourke’s A Theory of Personalism (Rosita is a co-author of chapter five), provides an incisive comprehensive engagement of the theological and philosophical foundations of Catholic personalism and their implications for politics, econo-mics, and the cultural order that is neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican in perspective.

At the outset, Rourke posits personalism as an alternative to the polemical divide between liberals and conservatives in the United States. Whereas he notes, liberals are prescient in their criticisms of “economic excesses,” they are blind to the moral and cultural decay, especially in personal and sexual ethics in the contemporary era. Conversely, conservatives ac-cent the moral and cultural decay, but do not challenge how contemporary military and economic power works against an authentic pursuit of the crucial relationship between the person and the common good.

Personalism derives from the deliberations of figures such as Emmanuel Mounier and Nikolai Berdyaev in France of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Rourke relates that for Mounier and the personalists, the human person is “a living center of creative activity, communication, and commitment who comes to know himself across the bridge of action” (7). Firmly rooted in a belief in the transcendent, personalism integrates individualist action with solidarity. This profuse expression of “I love, therefore I am” (8) leads Mounier, Rourke notes, to be mutually critical of capitalism, state socialism, liberal demo-cracy, bourgeois perspectives, and nationalism. Instead, Mounier emphasizes that creative persons in mutual interaction should foster social practices and institutions that “are rooted in and revolve around the person as center” (7).

As Rourke relates, the impact of the personalist movement has been considerable. Personalism is one of the key heritages inscribed into the soul of the Catholic Worker movement, initiated by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. In turn, as Rourke notes, Pope John Paul II in his academic treatise, The Acting Person, elaborates on this centrality of the person “as concrete, existential, and acting,” and this stance will later inform his papal encyclicals, Laborem Excercens and Centesimus Annus.

Before specifically addressing political, economic, and cultural issues, Rourke establishes how the relational ethos of personalism is grounded in the relational character of the Christian Holy Trinity. Just as God in three persons constitutes a community, human beings are in relation both to God and to each other. Rourke emphasizes the primary relation of the human person to the transcendent, but that in turn this relational ethos entails that we find Christ in our relationships with each other, as accented in Matthew 25. Thus, personalism is both distinct from spiritualities that simply dwell upon a vertical relationship with God – a “me and God approach” and secular approaches that make the humanity the center of all things. Rourke leaves no doubt that for personalism, one either chooses to follow “the claims of Revelation” (42), as reinforced by metaphysics, or refuses this direction and thus abandons the relational ethics intended by God.

In terms of politics, Rourke provides a very intriguing discussion of popular sovereignty and rights as grounded in this ontological freedom of the human person directed by God. Rourke contends that in the medieval period, monarchs and the state were to be subordinate to the common good as set forth in natural law. Although he notes Aquinas does not extensively develop a notion of popular sovereignty connected to the common good, Rourke illustrates how both Suarez and Bellarmine do so. In particular, they criticize the notion of the divine right of kings that will culminate not only in the authoritarianism of the English Tudors but also in subsequent social contract theories that treat human beings as being isolated from each other.

By contrast, “the regime of personalism” (87) that Rourke projects entails decentralized forms of political associations stressing creative personal interaction, as particularly cap-tured by Yves Simon’s articulation of direct democracy and Jefferson’s agrarian ward republics. As opposed to the conventional understanding of rights that dwells upon the legal guarantees that separates one from others and protects one from oppressive governments, Rourke emphasizes the ground-ing of rights in “the gift-character of existence” (100). This transcendent connection provides the foundation for protecting human dignity. In a very fascinating discussion, Rourke dwells upon in particular on how the Christocentrism of Las Casas’ theology provides a basis for both liberty of conscience and consent of the governed.

Rourke’s analysis is at its best in assessing the implications of personalism for economics. Beyond simply acknowledging the longstanding contention of Catholic social teaching that the economy should be for the people, not the other way around, he provides a thorough critique of how economic globalization is culminating in oligarchies of wealth that preclude the dignity of human labor and work as a personal undertaking, as emphasized by John Paul II in Laborem Excercens. As opposed to market efficiency that objectifies human efficiency, Rourke draws upon Wendell Berry’s notion of real efficiency that focuses on long-term productivity that emphasizes “workmanship that is durable and of high quality” (116).

In addition to showing how globalization is destroying small communities and eroding the creative capacity of many workers, Rourke advocates not just subsidiarity in the political sector, but in the economic sector. In terms of the common good, he implores that we need to consider corporations not as legal persons – a caricature of the personalist ethos, but as organizations accountable to popular sovereignty under law. In addition to standard references to Aristotle, Jefferson, and Chesterson to articulate the merit of decentralized agrarianism, Rourke also illustrates through examples such as Kelso’s employee stock ownership plan how to effect a personalist economics empha-sizing subsidiarity and not the capitalist or socialist concentration of economic resources in a very few people.

Finally, in their consideration of cultural issues, the Rourkes bemoans how the matieralism, consumerism, and utilitarianism of globalization have led to a pervasive sense of homelessness and fragmentation. Compounding the situation in academic circles, they feel, is the hyperpluralism of multiculturalism and postmodernism that do not acknowledge a universal sense of truth and reject any notion of human solidarity. In contrast to this highly protean but incoherent world, the Rourkes maintain that per-sonalism moves in-between the universal and particulars. Again claiming the medieval roots of democracy, rights, and now the arts, the Rourkes project the need for decentralized institutions “through which the universality of the person can be expressed” (167). Their integration of religion and culture, in particular draws upon the work of both Gutierrez and Elizondo who accent that given God’s deep presence in the poor and suffering, we can break institutional structures of sin by pursuing solidarity with those on the margin – the impact of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe being exemplary.

Overall, Rourke provides a very successful systematic treatment of personalism. The ontology steeped in Catholic theology and metaphysics he communicates in detail provides a solid foundation for his subsequent consideration of political, economic, and cultural matters. In turn, the inclusion of thinkers such as Jefferson, Berry, and Kelso provides new angles to personalism that readers already well versed in this heritage will find engaging.

As much as Rourke revitalizes personalism, his assessment of contemporary challenges emphasizes authors that target what Rourke claims are our social ills and do not sufficiently engage the authors who are the perpetrators of these presumed ills. For instance, in their consideration of multiculturalism and postmodernism, the Rourkes never engage at length a work that would defend these perspectives. Rourke is well known for his thorough critique of the work of the economist, Michael Novak. The critiques in the current work need this same probing exactness. As much as Rourke captures the relational ethos of personalism, the stark contrasts drawn between personalism and other perspectives at times in the texts seem to leave little room for relational “border crossings.”

In turn, personalism was at the center of the French intellectual debates six to seven decades ago. Personalism, in the eyes of many thinkers, Catholic or otherwise, was considered a serious alternative to what Mounier termed “the established disorder” of the day. Unfortunately, today personalism does not have the same vibrant presence. The question for any of us enamored with personalism is how to realize a radical reformulation of “the established disorder.”

Indeed, Mounier distinguished between the prophetic and the political poles of action. The prophetic pole accents “meditation and spiritual valor” while the political pole accents “arrangements and compromises” (Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, trans. Philip Mairet, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1952, 91). Rourke provides a superb comprehensive grounding of the personalist movement and what an alternative personalist politics, economics, and culture would look like – the prophetic pole. What the Rourke text does not show is how we can effect this transformation – the political pole – and for Mounier, “integral action is always dialectical” (Mounier 1952, 94).

Nevertheless, the Rourkes in this volume have made a very salient contribution to the contemporary debates over the “values divide” and the perils of globalization. Consequently, this work will be of interest to many theologians, philosophers, political theorists, economists, educated readers, and social justice activists. At the very least, it deserves a better fate than to be relegated by its $75 price tag to the shelves of academic libraries.
Editors’ Note: Author Thomas Rourke was once a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego and is currently Professor of Political Science, University of St. Thomas, Houston.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 7, November-December 2005.