The Working Catholic: Personalism
by Bill Droel
Is there a sustaining philosophy for idealistic young adults? Is there a creative path that cuts through the inanity of social media, of most TV programming, of the self-help industry? Is there a comprehensive outlook that resists cynicism and resentment? Is it possible to access a fountain of inspiration while maintaining a busy work schedule and keeping up with family obligations?
World War I ended in 1918, only to be followed by the Great Depression which began in 1929. In the wake of these major traumas, idealistic young adults seriously probed the meaning or lack thereof in the feverishness of modern progress. Could it be that the promise of plenty necessarily results in the opposite? In grappling with these and similar questions, a cadre of young adults in Paris and elsewhere constructed a philosophy they called personalism. Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) was its initial leader; the literary journal Espirit (www.espirit.presse.fr) was its main organ. In addition to Mounier, other personalists included Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) and Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). A young actor and seminarian in Poland, today known as St. John Paul II (1920-2005), contributed to Espirit. Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), sociologist and leader in the Reformed Church, can likewise be considered a personalist.
The common response to the Great Depression and to our own societal and economic disruptions is a call for more self-reliance, more unencumbered liberty. A personalist, however, knows that a hard accent on individualism only leads to worthless relativism. Today of course, relativism has taken over our culture. For example, White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, a Catholic, says there are “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani, another Catholic, says there is no truth to be found. Or there is this extreme expression of relativism from former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, also Catholic: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concepts of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.”
Liberty is a marvelous modern achievement. Personalists, however, make a distinction between a solitary individual and a relational person; between freedom from and freedom for. One’s future is not predetermined by nor subordinate to one’s family of origin or by one’s caste. But the modern celebration of autonomy cannot mean an absolute defense of individual privileges. A person naturally self-actualizes within relationships, personalists say.
There is another characteristic of personalism that appeals to today’s young adults. The plan for life “emerges from the comradeship of the road rather than the diagrams of the classroom,” Mounier writes. Abstract principles preached from on high only answer questions no young adult is really asking. Moralizing, says Mounier, only further alienates. Experience is what counts. Serious thinking alone is but one more rotation on the merry-go-round. Friendship and involvement are crucial. Then young adults process the experience with critical reading and thinking, along with deep conversation. There must be action. A book club or a rump group is good, but alone such gatherings do not adequately contain enough substance. Action is essential for a meaningful, holy life. And along the way, young adults in action/reflection improve our world.
The secret is involvement in the world absolutely combined with a spiritual element, the personalists say. Don’t expect a fully formed spiritual life to come first, however. “The first step in the spiritual revolution is the economic and political revolution,” Mounier writes. The material world has to be reformed in a way that allows distressed people “to find their way towards things spiritual.”
Personalism is not an organization with a website. There is no Personalism for Dummies workbook. So where can a young adult find this philosophy? It is a process of reading, thinking, finding friends and small collective efforts for improving one’s workplace, school, neighborhood or society.
Peter Maurin (1877-1949) brought personalism to the United States from France. He was a co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a chain of 174 hospitality communities in the United States, plus some overseas. Several publish a newspaper. The flagship publication is titled The Catholic Worker (www.catholicworker.org). The Houston Catholic Worker (www.cjd.org) is particularly good.
Some organic community organizations in our country, though maybe unaware of its influence, are promoting the basics of personalism. They stress one-to-one encounters prior to any public policy topic or any grievance. The bigness of the state and of industry is not a solution, a personalist group maintains. Action is essential. Then reflection, or what Maurin called “clarification of thought,” must follow.
Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)