A Catholic Personality?

Yesterday I mentioned that contemporary visions of the human person are typically drawn from the findings of the social, human and natural sciences. Sociology, psychology, as well as biology, genetics, neurology and physiology, are the contemporary anthropological touchstones. While I would certainly argue for the invaluable contribution of the empirical sciences to our understanding of what it means to be human, it is important that we avoid what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as the tyranny of relativism that is often justified by appealing to empirical science.

The moral relativism that often accompanies empirical science is not intrinsic to its work. Relativism enters into the conversation when we assume the scientific method as a sufficient mean of knowing reality.

But empirical sciences works fundamentally by excluding those aspects of reality that do not lend themselves to quantification. In other words, scientists are concerned with reality insofar as it can be represented in numbers—scientists study those aspects of reality that can be measured.

In a rare sense we are all of us better off for the willingness of scientists to narrow their focus. By intentionally not looking at some aspects of reality in favor of concentrating on others, humanity has made extraordinary advances in almost all areas of life. Even the fact of this blog is the result of the methodological blindness of science. And speaking for myself, I certainly do not wish to return to premodern methods of farming or health care.

When we turn from natural phenomenon to the human person however, we discover that much of what is most distinctive and valuable about the human is precisely those aspects that cannot be measured and which cannot be excluded without sacrificing the very humanity of the subject. No where is this seen more clearly then in psychology.

There is a fairly well delineated body of research in the philosophy of science as well as from critical & theoretical psychology (where I tend to hang my hat) that argues that psychological diagnostics are inherently concerned with making moral distinctions. So, for example, we treat depression because, well, we ought not to be depressed or (if you prefer) we ought to be happy. Beyond that though, when a clinician makes a diagnosis he is also making an ethical decision that the person’s symptoms or complaints (or the complaints of others about the client) are more important than his other behaviors or thoughts about himself.

In other words, clinical work tends to see some behaviors/thought as a truer expression of the person than others—in effect, I am my symptoms.

The problem with this is many sided—not least among these is that modern psychological diagnosis is differential. Dependent as it is upon an empirical method that is both quantitative and reductionistic, psychology proceeds by looking at smaller and smaller aspects of the person. For this reason, psychology/psychiatry tends not to look at the person holistically (i.e., in a catholic manner).

To see how this might be a problem, let’s look at the example of substance abuse and recovery.

One of my professors, Adrian van Kaam, argued that substance abuse or addicition is a form of pseudo-spirituality or pseudo-religion—basically the substance or behavior is a false god. While abstaining from the substance or behavior is certainly a good thing, it is not the best thing. Not worshiping a false god is not the same as worshiping rightly the One True God.

If as Christians our concern is developing a catholic personality, of coming to wholeness of being, then addictive behavior is only one aspect of the personality that must in someway be integrated into an ever larger vision of ourself and the world in which we live, work and love.

This integration, it seems to me, is in part what we are striving for in our ascetical life—how can we purify our passions, our desires, so that they serve the person rather than define the person. The temptation in the recovery movement is that it reduces the question of the passions (and in particular addictive passions) to either merely a concern for physical or social or moral health. But, while not wishing to minimize these concerns, these dimension don’t exhaust the meaning of the person.

Up until fairly recently, there was still some appreciation that human life moved naturally toward wholeness of being. So for example, up until very recently, substance abuse was understood under the rubrics of morality; what today we call addiction was simply drunkenness. The objection to drunkenness was not an objection to the consumption of alcohol itself, but its consumption to the point of at which the person was deprived of the use of reason and freedom. The moral prohibition against intoxication was not a rejection of pleasure, but represented an application of a general moral principle: We ought not do those things that make us less then we are (in the present case, the lose of reason and reason means we have deprived ourselves of what is distinctly human).

If for example in therapy we don’t talk about all the moral implications of substance abuse, or if we focus only on lesser, more narrowly and pragmatically oriented values, this is only a matter of compassionate prudence. The concrete needs and limits of the alcoholic or drug addiction are often such that he can’t have that broader conversation AND focus on his own maladaptive behavior.

BUT this doesn’t mean he should have that conversation with someone. There is good empirical evidence suggests that therapy, and this includes recovery, is most successful with those clients who have access to a broader context of social and moral meaning within which to integrate the insights they obtain from therapy or their recovery program. The success of Alcoholics Anonymous reflects just this need for human beings to acknowledge that their behavior is never merely private but is rather part of a larger arena of moral and social concern.

I think we go wrong when we fail to realize that human life is always embedded within a world of moral values. In other words, the question of drunkenness, or if one prefers substance abuse (and for that matter recovery) is one needs to be framed in terms of the development/formation of a catholic (whole) personality.

When we fail to keep in mind our question to develop a catholic personality aspects of our personality are taken as if they where the whole of who we are. And so, for example a person’s addictive behavior becomes to be determinative of how they (and others) understand themselves (“I’m an addict in recovery”) rather than as only one aspect of the person (“I struggle with the sin of drunkenness”).

Again, it is important to bear in the distinction between what is practically necessary for a short period of time with a person in relative crisis, with what is a necessary and sufficient foundation of the whole of human life. St Gregory Nyssa tells us

The path, that leads human nature to heaven, is nothing more than separation from the evils of this world. … Becoming like God means becoming just, holy and good. … If therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), ‘God is in heaven’ and if, according to the prophet (Psalm 72:28) you ‘belong to God,’ it necessarily follows that you must be there where God is, from the moment that you are united to him. Because he has commanded that, when you pray, you call God Father, he tells you to become like your heavenly Father, with a life worthy of God, as the Lord commands us more explicitly in other passages, saying: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48) (“De oratione dominica” 2: PG 44,1145ac).

To be human to ascend, to always move towards heaven and, in so doing, live a life that is every more able to embrace all that human. As part of this, there is the ability to integrate, to heal and forgive, even those aspects of the human personality that have become pathological because of their dis-location within from their proper place in human life.

With this life of increasing transcendence and integration is precisely what we are striving for in our ascetical disciplines. The ascetical life, grounded in the sacraments, is the work of gradually helping us integrate the disparate elements of our life so that the image of God is evermore clearly revealed in our own life. This integration in turn makes it possible for us recognize evermore clearly the face of Christ in our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


2 Responses to “A Catholic Personality?”

  1. Chrys Says:

    I can do no better than to provide a copy of text posted by Dr. Anthony Esolen on the Mere Comments blog. Writing about the sufferings of Mother Theresa, he stated:

    “The structure of love, then, is not what the pagans took it to be in Paul’s day, and not what pagans take it to be now in our own. It is also not exactly what too many Christians take it to be. Granted, the soaring visions of Plato in the Phaedrus and the Symposium touch the unsuspected truth, here and there: Love is not merely desire for a good that you do not have, but also, more mysteriously, the outpouring of the soul, which entails a healing of that soul. Plato’s myth assigns to Love the parentage of both Plenty and Poverty — and he comes breathtakingly near the heart of the matter.

    “We assume, without thinking too hard about it, that Love is either the desire for a good thing you lack, or the noblesse we show when we shower some good thing upon somebody else who lacks it. But if Being Himself is Love, then such a definition falls far short of the mark; it is at best what a not too generous adolescent might think. To love as God loves must be to be for what is not oneself, radically. In God, this love is so radical that it calls things into existence from nothing. He does not simply love what He has made: He loves them into being.

    “But if God is who we say He is, then why should we expect that He will always play the lesser part, as for a dim and self-absorbed child? If He gave us the sweets we demand, even if those sweets are in themselves good for us, how could we learn in the end to love as He loves? For God needs no joy from us; He gets nothing from our delight that He Himself does not already eminently enjoy. He does not love us for the good that such love might bring to Him. Then we, if we are to be perfected in love — which is another way of saying, if we are to be made one with Christ — must learn to love God not for the delight that derives from that love, not for the sweets and the plenty, but for the poverty. I mean that radical poverty wherein all is taken away, and only God remains, dark with excess of light.

    “These are not theological word-games here. It really could be no other way, given the inner structure of love. God, Himself a relationship of Love even had He not created the universe, poured Himself out upon the nothing, and there was light. Christ abandoned Himself to the darkness of the Cross. Man, growing in love, growing like God, partakes of that love. At the highest pitch of grace, he does not love God for what God brings him. Indeed he loves God when He seems to bring him nothing — a spiritual desert that is like the deep, before the heavens and the earth. That is not cruel. We cannot logically say, “A God who behaves this way does not truly love us,” when He shows by it that He loves us so much — so fearfully much — that He would have us also love with the love that brought light out of darkness. Or, we might say, with a love so plentiful that it emptied itself for poverty, for the things — and the sinners — that were naught.

    “I wish Christians would recall this way of speaking of God’s love; it’s to be found in Gregory of Nyssa, in Bernard of Clairvaux, in Dante and Thomas — really, everywhere. In it lies true comfort for souls who are entering the desert. For the desire for God — by the very nature of God and of love — is more fulfilling in emptiness than is any pleasure.”

    This may give insight into why sanctity is so hard for so many of us. We resist the death that is the cost of becoming truly loving.
    We begin to sense the flame and we fall back:

    “For love is as strong as death; ardent love is as unrelenting as Sheol.” (Song of Solomon 8:6)

    What the Saints know, have embraced, and encouraged us to embrace is that the Cross is Love and REAL Love is always cruciform.
    Which means that both Nietzsche and our natural inclinations are dead wrong. What kills us give us life.

    The road to Love is the True epic journey. Prayer is the only weapon. How fervently we avoid it.
    “Lord, help my unbelief.”

  2. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:


    In light of Esolen’s comments: I’m reading the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast from Mount Athos. What is striking to me is how very little difference there is between what Elder Joseph says and what, for example, St John of the Cross says.

    And for you fans of St Bernard, he says somewhere that the highest degree of love is this, that I love myself because I have been first loved by.

    In Christ


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