Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Rector of the Church of the Atonement, Chicago

THE ARCHBISHOP OF YORK writes: "The fundamental Christian social principle is that of liberty, or (to express it more pedantically) the principle of respect for personality in all men. This follows at once from the theological dogma of divine Fatherhood. A man's value is not merely his value to himself, nor is it merely his value to society; a man's value is his value to God. Every degraded wretch of whom society despairs is a soul that God created as an object of His love, and died (or eternally dies) to win to loving fellowship with Himself. A social doctrine or system which aims at being in accord with facts will deal with every human being as of unique and irreplaceable value, because he is a child of God. And this involves two consequences. First, there must be the best possible chance for the development of all gifts and faculties; or, in other words, every child is entitled to the best procurable education. Secondly, there must be the widest possible area of effective choice, for it is in actual choice that personality manifests its most distinctive features."

This, then, must be the guide of the Christian's conscience, and it must be the guide because it is the goal. The derivative behaviors in specific situations may vary as our understanding of the implications grows, but they will vary only as new light shows a better way of approximating the goal. We shall reject an old way not because it was wrong, but because it has become wrong since a better way has become possible.

That the better way appears so slowly and commands so little allegiance is merely the statement of our spiritual apathy and very largely the measure of it. We have not been without the voice of the prophet pleading with us to focus our gifts on the application of the Christian ethic to the problems created by the change to modern civilization but it is notorious that our moral discoveries have not kept pace with our technical advance. The practical abandonment of the whole field through reluctance to undergo new growing pains has resulted in the general impression that there is nothing to apply, and we live in a society that is not so much immoral as it is without morals.

The more obvious scenes of this disaster are associated with the words sex and labor. Here all the techniques of modern civilization leave the older vocabularies of morality breathless and far behind. The result has been a recrudescence of hedonism in the one field, and a new serfdom in the other. We are not concerned here with the ways in which these changes have taken place. They are dealt with elsewhere. But it may be seen immediately that the pivot on which the problem turns in each case is the sacredness of personality. The figure of speech by which a man is called a "hand" is permissible rhetorically, but the industrial system which treats him as only a hand cuts squarely across the Christian attitude toward life.

The current sexual liberties which are taken by boys and girls, men and women, without interchange of vows, enjoy a sanction which owes its prestige to cowardice and obscurantism. The unwillingness of Christians to examine the expressions of sex and the consequent taboo they have placed upon it have combined to give license a free hand. And yet a great many difficulties could be cleared up if we seek to apply here the principle of the value of personality. Consent, the inability of our elders to say anything more constructive than, "They didn't do that when we were young," the acquiescence of public opinion, and the comparative security from old time fears have no relevance at all when a man can see for himself that what he is doing is using a person for something less than a person. To turn one's self into a mere instrument of sexual gratification and to use another personality as such is to depart from that conception of human personality which emanates from the Cross, and it is not difficult to tear away the rationalizations which would attempt to disguise this attitude under the name of love. If love be merely erotic emotion, then this is it, but if love be distinctively sacrificial, self-forgetting, and self-emptying, then this is not it, and the name of love has been taken in vain.

It is a sad finding of social statistics that by far the largest number of those factors which make for the disruption of the marriage bond can be put under the head of sex antagonism. On analysis a fundamental trouble-making attitude discovered is that of "marital rights." Again we come face to face with the immorality of using a person for something less than a person. And this is of such great significance in married life because it concerns the most intimate relationships and therefore colors all other aspects. The same error can be seen in the other aspects, too. Where husbands are considered as merely providers, and where wives are merely cooks, or nurses, or even merely mothers, it is not strange to find an economic relationship in which workers are merely "hands."

This is the scene of the first attack on the integrity of the marriage bond. Where sexual maladjustment prevails, where there is a rift in the most intimate relationships, there is discouragement, resentment, hopelessness, bitterness, and little heart to go on, and even less insight. The second attack is more subtle but not dissimilar. There comes a time when a mother is practically without employment, when her children almost resent being mothered any longer. They feel independent in theory, smothered in fact. This crisis frequently finds the mother helpless and hurt. In the name of motherhood she has "sacrificed" herself for her children. Every talent has been surrendered to them, every avocation and interest has been given up for them. It is at the cost of her appearance that they have been attractively clad; they have been almost exclusively the focus of her attention. All this is not always as well meant as it appears to be or claims to be. Of that we shall treat later. But note here that, to all intents and purposes, she has come through a tunnel, the tunnel of child bearing and child rearing, and as she emerges from it she is much less a person than when she entered it. She has now only one function, that of mothering, and is in search of occupation. Happily not all mothers do this; happily circumstances force, where wisdom is lacking to dictate, another course; but a sufficient number of mothers do to make it a not untypical situation. In that situation she is apt to seek other objects of maternalization, with the same ruthless hunger than an embryo child will take lime from a mother's teeth, and to become a mystifying source of resentment to her husband, or an interfering mother-in-law or grandmother. Meanwhile the man has tended to broaden his interests, to develop his personality, and the second attack on the happiness of married life takes place in the disparity between himself and his wife at that point. He may feel she has ceased to be a mate, and be tempted to discover the missing aspects elsewhere. She may use him for a child and be hurt by his antagonism. Repelled by husband and children she may retreat into a bitterness which becomes the soil in which the seeds of conflict thrive. The woman is a human personality and the growth of that personality cannot with impunity be hindered. Child bearing (and rearing) is an incident, a major incident, to be sure, but none the less an incident in her life. Because of it she must grow, not shrink. It can and must contribute to her as well as draw from her, and should it require so much of her energy and time that it threatens to turn her into a beast of burden, it becomes the most significant duty of the husband to lighten that burden, with the labor of his own hands if necessary, so that she may fulfil the high purpose of her being. Consider the opposite situation wherein a mother, when she is no longer needed as a mother, brings to the fore those interests and avocations that she has managed to keep from being stripped of in the tunnel, proceeds to express herself through many avenues, is not emotionally dependent on her children either for something with which to keep busy or for their response. She has kept pace with her husband. She has a contribution to make to the community. Her children love her the more because they do not fear her emotional encroachment. She walks hand in hand into the evening of life with her husband, confident in his respect and affection, a whole personality.


We said above that the sacrifice of motherhood was not always as well meant as it appears to be. Too often it is a form of parasitism that assails the integrity of the personality of the child. It is not uncommon to find children who seem to be mainly lay figures on which a mother can expend her energy and skill in clothes making. Behold the small child arrayed for a visit to her aunt. She is not allowed to sit down until the journey is begun for fear of creases and rumpling. The entirely natural practice of jumping up and down is vetoed as threatening disarrangement, and even after the aunt has beheld the esthetic product of the mother's art the fear of soiling prevents any natural behavior. The child who almost in infancy is taught to recite what amuses elders merely because it is adult frivolity on infantile lips, the child whose talent is drawn out and developed to the point of unsocialization, the child who is denied companionship for fear of infection, physical or moral, may be seen in almost anybody's circle of acquaintance. Often the father speaks of what he is going to make of his son as if he were talking of what he was going to carve out of a piece of wood!

One father says he will put his son through the necessary schools if he will become a lawyer. Otherwise the child will have to fend for himself. Give a gardener a seed and observe his behavior. Does he decide now that the seed is his he will develop it into a rose? And yet parents use children as the channels for the expression of something they themselves have always wanted to do or be, and apparently are completely oblivious to the fact that what they are talking about and using is a human personality of supreme worth in the eyes of God. We scarcely need mention the situations where the child is frankly subservient to the life of the parents. Children who are kept out of bed and taken to the moving pictures to behold scenes altogether too violent for their hungry eyes, children whose religious education is completely subordinate to the Saturday night enjoyments of the parents, children whose education is cut short by a parental demand for economic value are too obvious instances to spend much time on. The others are too frequently regarded as instances of proper bringing up and therefore need the searchlight.

The social worker under stress of emotion has defined the home as "a tyranny ruled over by its meanest member." The domestic tyrant who, leaning on the family bond of dependence, customary respect, and affection, arbitrarily imposes his will on the other members of the household in a manner that he would not dare to practise outside the home is a grievous offender against personality. It may seem a slight thing that nobody dares to read the newspaper before father has seen it, but it can be the symbol of a despotism that is galling and it is a serious check on the growth of the individual in a great many instances. A wife may be willing to choose her clothes, or her companions, cut her hair, or play her games according as her husband commands, but the violation of her personality has taken place and his blindness to that fact has its consequences for him, even when by superior spiritual gifts there is no serious result for her.

And just as much may be said when the "meanest member" is not a parent. Homes can be and are ruled by invalid offspring or even by spoiled children; and the nub of the situation, the essence of what makes it bad and wrong, is that in these circumstances one individual is imposing his will on another, one personality is being denied existence, the Cross is negated. The word "Catholic" is highly useful in describing our religion because of its connotations; it bears a date, it tells a story, it sums up a history. But we are not limited by its derivation. As new aspects of the conflict between the Christian life and the world come to the fore, the content of the word must be seen to be, or must be understood to be, patient of the Christian side of that conflict. That time may never cease when the word "Catholic" must stand for historic continuity and for universality. But it would seem that in addition we must today stress the fact that the Catholic religion has sway over the whole of living and over the whole of life. All questions of economics, politics, race relations, and international comity are essentially religious problems, and if we are not competent to deal with them it is not the fault of our religion but of our practice. Likewise is it true that we need a re-emphasis on religion's sway over the whole of life. If it is not the occupation of pre-adolescence and old age, neither is it confined to any aspect of personality, and it affects whatever divisions we may use of a man's life--mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, intellectual, occupational, or recreative. He is God's--body, soul, and spirit. His personality is our highest value. God gave His Son for it. Life and life abundantly, the full development of the whole personality, is the goal of the responsible Christian conscience and the basis of the moral life. This is not to say that adaptation cannot be made to circumstances. By the grace of God, children have grown up under domestic tyrants and have not lost their spiritual heritage. By the grace of God, personalities have overflowed the barriers of every kind of defect, disaster, and environmental detriment. But we do not choose to break the legs or blind the eyes of children that they may reap spiritual benefit. Such things are adversities that threaten, not foods that nourish; and we are bound by God's love, as we love Him, to provide for every human being the conditions most favorable to the growth and development of his full personality, not to rest in some slothful evasion that calls attention to how well we or our fathers managed to survive, nor in some mathematical greatest good of the greatest number.


Not having your teeth straightened and not having the proper diet as a child may have serious results in after life, the one emotional mainly, the other physical mainly, but in both cases results that affect the personality. The early attitudes are all important, and where an un-Catholic view of life fails to develop right attitudes toward sex, toward fear, toward self-subordination, toward sickness, toward death, the sin is the sin against the worth of personality. This has its ramifications in worship where an attitude toward the senses that considers them practically unbaptized prevents a prostration before God with every aspect of the personality, and makes a barren, unattractive intellectual approach to God that leaves His children cold and hungry.

Among the many relationships that are found in the home, covering, with a disguise of love and affection, a profoundly immoral violation of personality is the parasitic attachment of parent for older son or daughter. Typical of this is the frequent situation in which a widowed mother and an unmarried daughter live together. The daughter has seen the brothers and sisters married off or at least out of the home, has seen the bloom taken off her own youth, and senses rather than sees (for most often she is afraid to face it) the overpowering, possessive attitude of the mother. The jealousy of anything or anybody with the potentiality of taking the daughter away, the tentacles that are extended to fasten the daughter more securely, evidenced by various disabilities and infirmities that are at their height when the danger to security is most high, and even by loud and extravagant praises that make rebellion seem the more shameful, are shackles which are sometimes torture. Here, if ever, a personality is being used--sucked dry is not too strong a term.

And on the other hand the sin against personality is evident in the treatment of the aged. To be put on the shelf, however gracefully, is a heartbreaking experience. Sons and daughters, however, do just that. Their dear mother is not going to do any more work! She has earned her rest. And so under a fine cashmere shawl she is placed in a corner of life and deprived of the one thing that is the very breath of her life--a sense of usefulness. A less worthy motive is seen where pride in a son or daughter prevents a parent from being engaged in some useful work. And another tragedy of ruthlessly trampled personality is when under the guise of filial duty and affection a son or daughter will refuse to permit an aged person to be institutionalized when that would be far the wisest and most just solution of the problem for all concerned.


We have tried to confine our treatment to personal problems but there is no personal problem that is not social. And there is no social problem that is not personal. This principle which we have taken as the basis of moral life would apply with equal fruitfulness to any other aspect of life, to any other problem of person or group. Our attitude and behavior toward the legal offender, as embodied in our legal codes and manner (not to say purpose) of punishment would be considerably clarified if we started with the fact that we were dealing with personalities valued by God. Our treatment of all forms of delinquency, of the mentally afflicted and of the defective, would sear our consciences were they to be judged by the Christian standard.

And the assumption of such a standard, the activity of such a conscience, calls for a new priority of values. The world is full of unhappy people, and a good many of them with religious professions, whose satisfaction is derived from their position in the social grouping, based on money, education, culture, the ability to wear clothes, physical well-being, or mere conformity to the customs, styles, and fads of the group. These very precarious footings are continually being lost. Somebody with more money, or more widely traveled, with greater chic, or bigger muscles, or a more glib patter of the day's shibboleths appears, and a sense of inferiority results. Out of that come fundamentally anti-social and personally detrimental behavior and attitudes. It is a notorious finding that so-called religious doubt often comes into being when one's personal universe has gone awry. Because I cannot have what I want I am angry at life. This I dignify into agnosticism, because it puts me in a better light in my own eyes. My trouble is apt to be really that I do not know enough to want what I have. I do not count myself for what I am, a child of the Infinite God, marked with a price by the sign of the Cross. I do not start with the right value, and so my false standards lead me astray, in my own strivings and in my attitude toward others.

I believe in God. I believe that He made me, that He poured forth His love for me in the costly act of redemption. Viewed from the Cross I am of inestimable love in His sight. Nothing can separate me from His love and my destiny is to be merged with Him in eternal glory. Nothing can derogate from that supreme dignity of mine, nothing can be of greater worth than my potentiality as His child. And this is equally true of every other human being. That truth dictates our growth and our behavior toward each other. In that truth I can abase myself to Him as having no health in me, and I can do it without servility. In that truth I can order myself lowly before others without crippling inferiority. And in that truth I can rejoice before God without arrogance, and look upon the infirmities of others without pride. Because of that truth I must respect the divinely wrought personality in every other and work toward its fulfillment. And as I do it, without sentimentality and stripping myself of every false value, I shall be working also for the fulfillment of that same divine capacity in myself. This is a triangular relationship, God and myself and my neighbor, in which for me the reality of life consists. John Scotus Erigena said, "We are not bidden to love God with one love, and our neighbor with another, neither are we instructed to cleave to the Creator with one part of our love, and to creation with another part; but in one and the same undivided love should we embrace both God and our neighbor."

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