“Spirituality that assumes that the individual is a center of volitional force that is supposed to exert itself upon or against a world outside and around it can at best only perpetuate the illusory identity which no man in his right man would consent to have: that of a mythical and detached ‘subject’ existing entirely outside all ‘objective’ reality, able to understand everything by pure reason and to dominate everything by his own will.
Such an identity would not exist except as a caricature of God. And it is unfortunately true that many men have tried to solve their identity problem by this fraudulent imitation of what they imagine their Creator to be.” (Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, Image Books, 1973, 60.)
What is objectivism? Objectivism
is a particular way of thinking about and dealing with truth and reality that
assumes that truth and reality lie primarily within the abstract realm of ideas. The real world, according to objectivism, is
the world of ideas detached from subjective experience. Truth and reality are found only in that
world of ideas. It remains, therefore,
for us to discover those ideas that represent the real and the true and simply
conform our lives to them.
I believe this is a deformative and
deforming way to think about and deal with truth and reality. Not only will objectivism tend to produce
untrue and unreal conclusions, it will also tend to lock one into those untrue
and unreal conclusions. This latter
immobility comes about because objectivism forces one to think that truth and
(objective) reality are immutable, that I have found this immutable truth and
reality and therefore I am not permitted to change.
Objectivism lives and moves in an
abstract world. Human issues and
challenges and questions and doubts and wondering are dealt with, not as
concrete lived experiences but as abstractions, not in terms of the interplay
of human relationships but in terms of the interplay of ideas. When the abstractions have been thought out
or worked through rationally, then the concrete lived experience can be altered
accordingly. And that is expected to settle
the issue or question at hand.
Those who subscribe to objectivism –
and surely no one would admit to this – live in a pure world of rational
comprehension. There they are untroubled
and unchallenged – and unenlightened – by the mysterious messiness of human
experience. The subjective is viewed as
objective. The experiential becomes an
abstraction, an idea to be talked about and debated.
Objectivism, because it is
disconnected from the particular and individual, deals easily in
absolutes. It tends to be at home with clear,
all-embracing answers to even the most complex of human issues.
For obvious reasons, objectivism
suits an authoritarian system. Matters
are sorted out at the remote level as abstractions and simply imposed and
enforced. There is no need for dialogue
because the answer is clear. Actually,
objectivism prevents dialogue. Argument
perhaps, dialogue never. Objectivism has
the answer in advance, it therefore does not have to listen to this or that
experience or event or person.
Related to the authoritarian outcome, objectivism inevitably
generates a hierarchy of belonging. There
are a few at the top and they determine what is true and real. They have absolute authority. They form an elite group who hold the power.
The ultimate irony of objectivism is that it becomes, in the
end, a rather gross form of subjectivism.
The system is governed, not by objective standards or objective truth –
which must be constantly discovered in ongoing dialogue with others – but by
what the elite think and decide.
Objectivism is exemplified in André Malraux’ first novel, The Conquerors (The University of
Chicago Press, 1928/1992). The context
for the novel is the 1925 revolution in Canton,
China. The struggle is between the Kuomintang and
the Communists. Two revolutionaries –
Borodin and Garine – have come from Russia to assist. Hong is a local revolutionary. The two Russian revolutionaries are focused
on the experiences of the people and the concrete events that are unfolding
around them. They are able to address
what is really happening rather than force fit an ideology of what they think
should be happening. This brings them
into conflict with the local revolutionary who is not so engaged with the
people and events. He lives in the
abstract world of ideology and he is rigidly applying the ideas he holds dear. Borodin and Garine are pulled up short by
their own doubts and they re-think their understanding of what is happening and
their involvement in it. Hong, on the
other hand lives in the clean world of ideas, he stands above the messiness of
it all and wilfully presses on. Hong’s
world is the world of objectivism.
Anxiety and fear is probably at the basis of
objectivism. For example, individuals
new to their profession and nervous about their competence, may withdraw into
the world of objectivism. Emotionally
underdeveloped or insecure people may behave similarly. A system that runs on objectivism will be
peculiarly attractive to the emotionally immature and insecure. Individuals are also the driving force behind
a systemic objectivism, whether that system is secular or ecclesiastical.
In the epigraph to this reflection,
Thomas Merton speaks specifically of the formation of men who might have
entered a Cistercian monastery in the 1960s.
However, his observation has a much wider application in fact. Merton is describing a form of objectivism
found in the approach to formation that generally prevailed in seminaries and
novitiates within the Roman Catholic Church as we approached the time of the
Second Vatican Council. This is
succinctly described by the Dominican, Thomas O’Meara, in his book, Thomas Aquinas Theologian Univeristy of
Notre Dame Press, 1999):
(Teaching in the Catholic system, especially the
seminaries) identified truth and life with immutability and rationality; it
opposed being to history and ignored concreteness in human life and in the
economy of salvation. (171)
Catholic academics in fact mirrored
the very rationalists, children of the Enlightenment, they sought to defeat. There could be no place for tradition or
experience or subjectivity or intuition or feeling or history in the pursuit
and articulation of truth. Objective
criteria are all that matters. We find a
stark rendering of this objectivism in the Anti-Modernist
Oath of 1910:
first of all, I profess that God, the origin and end of all things, can be
known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world (cf.
Rom. 1:19-20), that is, from the visible works of creation, as a cause from its
effects, and that, therefore, his existence can also be demonstrated: Secondly, I accept and acknowledge the
external proofs of revelation, that is, divine acts and especially miracles and
prophecies as the surest signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion
and I hold that these same proofs are well adapted to the understanding of all
eras and all men, even of this time.
Catholic priests were required to
take this Oath until 1967.
This modus operandi led to a tragic disconnection between truth and
life. That disconnection is at the heart
of the objectivism we find governing the Catholic system in the middle of the 20th
century. It is probably fair to say that
there is still evidence of it in the Catholic Church of today.
The clergy and religious – guided
in their formation mostly by academics – then promoted that same abstracted approach
through preaching and teaching. That was
the typical channel by which objectivism became endemic to the Catholic system.
The effects of objectivism in the Catholic Church are
pervasive. It has fostered a situation
in which there is little or no encouragement for people to listen to and heed
their personal experience, no need for ongoing dialogue, no place for voicing
doubt or uncertainty and no place for disagreement or criticisms – these are
seen to be disloyal.
Moral theology tended to be
legalistic and absolutist, showing little or no serious interaction with the
actual experiences of people or with development of the human sciences; ecclesiology
tended to be ahistorical and disconnected from any sense of the Church as
people living in a particular place at a particular time shaped by particular
forces that have never been in play before; pastoral outreach tended to be
ideological and juridical, focused more by dogmas and laws than by the
interplay of the Gospel with real people in real situations.
Emotion finds a place in the world of objectivism only as an
idea. Obedience tends to be reduced to
mere conformity. The formation of
conscience is reduced to accepting as true what is taught by those in charge. This encourages moral infantilism. The mystical heart of the faith is stifled. Indeed, mysticism in the Catholic Church at
the middle of the 20th century had become a matter of grave suspicion,
except as an idea that could be studied and considered in the abstract.
The idea of searching for truth, struggling with competing
truths and maintaining integrity amidst the uncertainties and ambiguities of
life, is lost in the world of objectivism.
After all, the truth is there to be known by any reasonable person. Why would you experience confusion or
ambiguity? Louis Bouyer’s observation on
Tertullian is pertinent:
Where Tertullian’s influence has
proved most harmful is, perhaps, in the kind of polemics which he succeeded
only too well in acclimating in ecclesiastic circles: combining an abstract and
completely a priori logic with the
supposition (candid or implied) that the adversary must be a fool or else
dishonest. (Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, Volume
One, Seabury Press, 1963, 454)
What Bouyer says of the 2nd century author
Tertullian, is quite familiar to me and my generation who entered seminaries
and houses of formation in the mid-sixties.
When human sexuality is approached from the viewpoint of
objectivism, there is much room for error.
In particular, when objectivism dominates the understanding and
application of the rule of celibacy, the results can be especially sad, even
tragic. Objectivism tends to encourage a
wilful conformity, which necessarily involves a certain amount of suppression
and repression of emotion in most people.
This is fertile ground for compensatory and defensive behaviours of one
kind or another.
One of the major historical influences that began to
acclimatize the Catholic Church to objectivism occurred in the 12th
century with the development of the Schools, the forerunners to our modern
The twelfth century saw the birth of a more scientific theology which
was to reach its highest point in the thirteenth. De facto if not de jure, the new
science leaned more to reason and dialectic, than to faith, the Word of God,
truth received without discussion as coming from the Truth. …
Theology henceforward claimed to be a science, and according to the
Aristotelian ideal took on a speculative and even deductive character. Like all sciences it was disinterested; it
was no longer concerned with nourishing the spiritual life, as the monastic
theologians would have it do. The Scriptures
were read, studied and taught with the view of the mind rather than the heart
acquiring knowledge, and theological activity assumed a more purely
intellectual character, less contemplative, less dependent on the atmosphere
created by the liturgy. (François
Vandenbroucke, “New Milieux, New Problems: From the Twelfth to the Sixteenth
Century” in Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, Volume II:
The Spirituality of the Middle Ages, Seabury Press, 1968, 225.)
With particular reference
to the technique of arranging “sentences” from the Fathers and theologians
around “questions” put by the “master”, Vandenbroucke observes:
danger of this rigidly technical work was that henceforth it would come between
the churchman and the Gospel. The
theologian would forget the Word of God and rely for his whole spirituality on
the Sentences. Clearly there had
to be some sort of systematization in the twelfth century: the new sources and
the new methods of research were bound to end in a new synthesis. But there was a real danger that the Word of
God would no longer be given to souls who longed to hear and live by it. (Vandenbroucke, op cit, 228-29).
By the middle of the twentieth
century, the right order between theology and spirituality had been
reversed. Academic theology had
separated itself from spirituality and even displaced spirituality. Instead of the theology being born of and
feeding back into spirituality, theology became the primary discipline to which
we all referred for guidance in living the spiritual life. A contemporary author reflects the thought of
von Balthasar – one of a number of 20th century theologians who
lamented this development:
(von Balthasar) holds, is contemplation brought to conceptualization, issuing
from prayer and leading to prayer. Not
only does von Balthasar deprecate the rift, developing over centuries, between
theology and spirituality; his work marks the most sustained effort by a
twentieth-century Catholic theologian to repair it, by the impassioned
placement at the heart of that work, of the living Object of prayer. Moreover, and in complete harmony with this
sensitivity, the only truly convincing verification of Christianity and its
theological vision is, for von Balthasar, the saint. (Robert Imbelli, “Surpassing Depth in a One‑Dimensional
Day”, Commonweal, November 4, 1983, 592.)
I believe objectivism is at the heart of the situation von
Balthasar is trying to address. That
objectivism and it manifestation in the disjunction between study and life was
not an exception but the norm in seminaries and houses of formation for
religious within the Catholic Church in the middle of the 20th
century. In the Catholic Church’s
theological endeavour, a widening gap developed between what went on in the
halls of learning and what went on in the market place. This flowed on to the Church’s
self-perception and the way governance was enacted within the Church. At the heart of this was the influence held
by academics. It was assumed, for
example, that because you were competent to teach theology you were therefore
competent as a spiritual director. This
helped to hold generation after generation of the Catholic clergy and religious
within the realm of objectivism.
The day to day governance of the Catholic
Church, normally in the hands of academics and former academics, manifested
this same objectivism. Papal statements,
in particular, bore its marks. For
example, in 1832, Pope Gregory XVI wrote in his encyclical, Mirari Vos (On Liberalism and Religious
To use the words of the fathers of Trent, it is certain that
the Church ‘was instructed by Jesus Christ and His Apostles and that all truth
was daily taught it by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore, it is obviously absurd and
injurious to propose a certain ‘restoration and regeneration’ for her as though
necessary for her safety and growth, as if she could be considered subject to
defect or obscuration or other misfortune.
This kind of disconnected, abstract
thinking was evident in a number of the senior cardinals at the Second Vatican
Council. It emerged most especially, for
example, in the debates over the schemas of the Pastoral Constitution on the
Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et
Spes) and the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).
Objectivism is evident in talk about the Church as a “perfect society,”
assertions that “only truth has a right to freedom” (generally couched in the
negative form, “error has no rights”), arguments that “freedom of conscience”
is an expression introduced to promote religious indifferentism, claims that the
metaphysical principles of Thomism are immutable and unassailable and
statements to the effect that true religious liberty cannot be achieved except
by embracing the truth and the Catholic Church possesses the truth. (These and many other references may be found
in John O’Malley, What Happened at
Vatican II, Harvard University Press, 2008.
See especially Chapters 6 & 7.)
Cardinal Ruffini perhaps summarizes
this objectivism with its strangely disconnected thinking in his intervention
on the schema for the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis
Redintegration). John O’Malley notes
that Ruffini spoke against the document as a whole at the very beginning of the
debate. He was more outspoken later:
(Ruffini) made five points. They are important because, except for the
last, they are a neat summary of standard Catholic apologetics found at the
time in every seminary textbook: (1) Christ founded only one church, the Roman
Catholic. (2) Faults cannot be
attributed to the Church as such but only to its members. (3) To leave the Church because of its sinful
members is itself a sin. (4) The one
true Church fervently hopes for the return of the Protestants. (5) Dialogue with non-Catholics is good only
if done according to the guidelines the Holy See will publish. (John O’Malley, op cit, 197.)
Both process and content are
significant here. The reasonableness of
the ideas – the content – in the apologetics outlined by Ruffini and the content
of the ideas in the other statements above, are not without their flaws. Like many others within the Catholic Church,
I am happy to leave that content behind us.
The point I am making here is with regard to the process of
thinking. Objectivism has led to some
untrue and unreal conclusions within the Catholic Church and that same
objectivism makes it impossible to find a way beyond those untrue
conclusions. Unless there is a
fundamental shift in the way we think, we will remain stuck.
My argument against objectivism is not an argument against
ideas or abstractions or principles as such.
It is certainly not an argument against the use of reason in service of
the faith. My argument is with thinking
that the truth is found only in ideas and abstractions and principles, that the
truth is a fixed objective thing that is only accessed through rational thought
and objective criteria. Just as moralism
masquerades as authentic morality – and is the very antithesis of it – so
objectivism masquerades as a reasonable pursuit and presentation of the truth,
and it is the very opposite of that.
Objectivism has prevailed for too long within the Roman
Catholic Church and continues to hold sway in many respects. The alternative to objectivism is not
subjectivism. The alternative is a
serious and rigorous commitment to dialogue at all levels and in all matters. This will include a comparable commitment to
developing a truly collegial structure of governance in which the principle of
subsidiarity is persistently and consistently implemented at all levels.
Seeking the truth is a lifelong journey involving the whole
person. To reduce the truth – especially
the great truths of the faith – to propositions that can be clearly known and
articulated is to trivialise the human journey as well as the truth. At any and every given moment, we stand
before the inexhaustible intelligibility of truth. We are variously challenged, daunted,
delighted, confused, always summoned and invited and drawn by that inexhaustible
intelligibility. Yes, by all means say
something. But don’t think what you say
has somehow or other captured truth. A
slither of light has for a moment caught your inner eye, a spark has burned
your soul, the silence has beckoned you.
Words, like the rest of reality, point.
We must humbly turn our gaze in the direction of the pointing –
Human beings seek Truth as such. We’re made that way. Yes, we are all geniuses at
self-deception. We need the guidance of
the Holy Spirit and that guidance I believe is normally given in the context of
the ekklesia, the people gathered by
Word and Sacrament. We need each other
in this human pilgrimage. Truth will
always remain more than we can adequately name, more than we can even begin to comprehend
and definitely more than we can control.
The Roman Catholic Church is at its best when it is an
effective sign of God’s love in and for the world. In practical terms, we could say the Catholic
Church’s role is to enable people to become part of what Pope Paul VI has
called colloquium salutis (“the
dialogue of salvation”). The Catholic
Church is called to be the home of dialogue in and for the world.
The first three reflections in this
series are as follows: