The Image of God in Our Turning Techno-logical Moment

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

“Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead (no. 357. Emphasis added — SH.).

Are We “Personalists”? The New Oxford Review

In our October symposium, Thomas Molnar, an authority on all things French, threw out the intriguing morsel that the New Oxford Review seems to be following in the footsteps of Esprit, the French Catholic review founded in 1932 by Emmanuel Mounier (who lived from 1905 to 1950). Although we would quarrel with the terms in which Molnar phrased his observation, he raised a point well worth discussing here.

Curiously, the outlook or “philosophy” associated with Mounier is one called personalism, and, in the same symposium, James G. Hanink noted, correctly, that personalism is also associated with the outlooks of two NOR icons, Dorothy Day and Pope John Paul II, and he suggested that the NOR consider embroidering the term “personalist” on its banner. This is a brave suggestion, given the NOR’s aversion to labels and ideologies, but it may be an apt suggestion inasmuch as personalism is not a rigid outlook, is clearer about what it is against than what it is for, and can be defined, in Jean Lacroix’s term, as an “anti-ideology.”

Mounier’s influence on the Polish intellectual circles in which the future Pope John Paul II traveled is well documented, and, interestingly, Mounier’s programmatic advocacy of “the priority of labor over capital” shows up in the same words in John Paul’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens and forms a central theme of that encyclical. And the foremost influence on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin was that of Mounier; indeed, Day appropriated Mounier’s concept, “the primacy of the spiritual” in all action for social justice, as her own. And like the Catholic Worker paper, Mounier’s Esprit was simultaneously ecumenical in tone, traditional in its Catholicism, and radical in its social critique.

What, then, may be said of personalism and Mounier? Certainly, Mounier’s Christian faith was central to his thought. Just prior to his premature death, he wrote to an associate: “I know that there is no paradise on earth. I consider dangerous the tendency of many of our contemporaries to want to find an absolute in a political regime. I am a Christian, and therefore consider the Church more important than all political regimes.” And while Mounier’s thought could take dubious twists and turns, his Catholicism was “determinedly orthodox,” according to his biographer John Hellman. For example, Mounier indicted theological optimism for removing “the sense of tragedy from our condition” and hiding from us “the abysses of sin and grace.”

The key emphasis of Mounier’s thought was probably his abhorrence of what might be called “bourgeois Christianity” – whether the lukewarm and insipid Christianity of the comfortable and self-contented, the triumphalist and holy-war Christianity of generals and military chaplains, or the compromised Christianity which bestows its blessing upon unjust or decadent social arrangements. Said Mounier in 1949:

“Whoever seeks the continuity of the Kingdom [of God] had better turn his attention away from…the epaulettes of Franco and from the prestige of Cardinal Spellman in the Reader’s Digest. He will find…three priests living in community, in shabby clothes, and around them an obscure, stammering and shocking reality…. The Church of the year three-thousand will place these solitaries on pedestals when Franco…will not even leave a trace in the pitiless books of History.”

Mounier was searching for a muscular Christianity, but not that perversion of it which lauds Catholic generals who lop off the heads of infidels. No, not that. Rather, he was seeking the genuine article: the saint, the passionately committed man of love who patiently endures hardship and suffering for the sake of God and neighbor. Hence: the “primacy of the spiritual.”

It is a fake heroism that magnifies the self by “bravely” confronting the “enemy” so as to thrust the lance through his ribs. The genuine hero is one who bravely gives of himself, who forgets himself, to the point of pain, sometimes even death. This is a high standard, one to which Mounier did not always himself adhere, but there can be no doubt that he would have found a stooped and wrinkled Mother Teresa a more muscular Christian than a much-decorated and “born-again” Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Personalism posits the absolute value of the human person, not in splendid isolation, but in community. It defends the person against all impersonal forces that threaten his integrity, be they the State, the Market, Profit, Consumption, History, or other immanentalist deities. Mounier saw Western capitalism and Eastern communism – both being forms of one-dimensional materialism – as the prime threats to the dignity of the person, and he was ever searching for a “third way,” which turned out to be quite elusive.

Primacy of Person Over Machines

Mounier sought a social order that would guarantee the primacy of the person over machines, and over the things and possessions those machines produce, whether those machines and things carry the “socialist” or “capitalist” label. Christopher Lasch’s outline of a good society in last month’s symposium – a place where there is “a respect for limits, a sense of place, a recognition of mutual dependence, a rejection of material abundance as the only requirement of a good life” – was in essence Mounier’s ideal. Endowed with a sense of simplicity, modesty, interdependence, and an indifference to material things, the person of personalism is quite at odds with the predatory individualist often extolled by capitalism or the technocratic collectivist usually lionized by various socialisms.

Personalism is not to be confused with individualism: it is not about the acquisitiveness or self-indulgence of the atomic “me.” Rather, personalism speaks of the person who is enlivened by the spiritual and revealed in community. The person referred to by personalism is not necessarily “me,” but rather, as Mounier put it, “the presence and the unity of an eternal vocation in me, which calls me to surpass myself indefinitely….” The most “authentic person” is the saint.

As an incarnationalist, Mounier affirmed the material as well as the spiritual, and sought to incarnate the spiritual in the temporal, but while he, much like John Paul in Laborem Exercens, called for elevation of labor to positions of initiative and authority, and for what could be called economic democracy, he could never be content with the mere transformation of social structures. Persons, not structures, are primary, and so, persons must be spiritually transformed. Moreover, a communitarian social order will never work if people remain self-centered, greedy, and unanimated by spiritual imperatives. The primacy of the spiritual person, the fraternal person, the person as the incarnate Christ revealed his essence to be – this is what personalism is about.

Much as the True Man, Jesus Christ, was scorned and crucified, the personalist ideal is a fragile and fugitive one. Personalism does not translate well into party platforms or national constitutions. For the most part, Mounier was clear about this, as when he recommended that our actions be centered “on witnessing and not on success.” —–1987, The New Oxford Review