Gaudium et Spes: Individualism and the Individual

Susan explains her difficulty with a sense of Gaudium et Spes we’ve seen these past several days. Perhaps it’s partly because of my commentary, and partly because of a perception of a social justice sensibility amongst Catholics. Let’s see if I can explore this a bit while keeping one or both feet out of my mouth.

I suspect the Council defined individualism broadly, far beyond the social justice implications. GS has analyzed the world of the 60’s in light of increased population, advances in communications technology, and the complex international political situation of the time. (And we can concede that the world and Church of 2006 is likely in a more extreme situation with regard to these factors than it was forty years ago.) The Council bishops seem to be saying that humans are social beings, by creation. So the social nature of humankind must be taken into account when examining spiritual considerations such as morality. Emphasizing the social nature of humanity is especially important in the present day because of these “special” circumstances, it might be argued.

Susan said:

Being with Jesus (“me-and-Jesus”) or, as the Council would have it, “individualistic morality” (both of which are quite negative terms), does not mean, and never has meant tax fraud or the like. To imply that, as this passage does, is to be not only inaccurate, but insulting to the centuries of ordinary people who really WERE devoted to Jesus Christ, but who didn’t necessarily have the rah-rah social-work spirituality now in vogue.

Honestly, I don’t see the connection. I do think that most criminals have an altered (or diseased) sense of morality. It’s something that leades them apart from the mores of society, be they legal or moral or something else. Some criminals, including tax cheats, have indeed gone their own way. Their approach might be analyzed along the lines of “The laws don’t apply to me because of X, Y, and Z, so I’m going to do what I want to do.” Individualism, narcissism, selfishness, addiction, whatever you want to call it: all those pathologies put the individual at the center of the universe, and leave God and other people on the sidelines. But I don’t see it as an all-or-nothing concept when the Church teaches through GS.

I also don’t accept an automatic link between community and social gospel. Certainly we’ve had lone rangers advocate for social justice–in the Church and outside of it. Some do-gooders do good on general principle, or possibly even for selfish reasons, and never cultivate any kind of relationship with those they are assisting.

Ordinary believers who quietly follow Christ are not individualists. The extreme of me-and-Jesus spirituality would include sentiments such as: “I find God on the golf course or in nature; I don’t need to go to Church to be a Christian.” (actual quote from a relative of mine)

If the caution is against being alone with Jesus, as you imply, Todd, the end result is an easy excuse for not praying at all.

I didn’t mean to imply it. I would say that a person who cultivates personal prayer but divorces any expression of Matthew 25 in her or his life might be an individualist. But I think that’s an extreme example. It’s easy enough to take advantage of the opportunities God drops into our lap. An extreme individualist would not see it as any of his or her business to help the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, etc.. But I suspect that “ordinary” Christians are often of great help in their own quiet way.

And for the record, I don’t think homebound people or the elderly fall into this category, even if the Christian community neglects them. There is a ministry of prayer–something even introverts can do. The true test of pathological individualism in religion is not one’s involvement or lack of involvement in social justice or private prayer. The true test is how one balances all of Christ’s demands according to one’s gifts and talents.

I would like to think a mature self-awareness is in play for devoted Christians. Playing to one’s strengths and gifts is valid to a point. But perhaps God often calls us to bolster the aspects of self we are less good at or less inclined to work on. Maybe a communal liturgist needs to work on the devotional life. Maybe a social justice activist needs to go on silent retreat for a week. Maybe the person who prefers to pray at home alone can join a Bible study or a prayer group.

We need the Holy Spirit to fill and inform our works as well as the rest of our lives, or what we do comes in the end to nothing. And we aren’t going to get that help unless we are “individualisticly” moral as well as socially moral – indeed the second is impossible without the first. Unless we are at some level alone with Jesus, in fact.

I’m in agreement. The moral battleground is indeed engaged often in the interior life. And GS teaches that authentic human cultural progress is impossible without the spiritual dimension–including a moral and just approach in the living of life. But I do think that the Christian community–however one defines and adopts that in one’s life–can be a useful tool in maintaining virtue. That’s the monastic approach as I understand it: a radical expression of community. Simply put, it is easier for many people to live with others and try to be good than it is might be to go it alone. That’s not to say that some aren’t called to the eremitic life. The Church has plenty of examples of hermits. But their relative few numbers lead me to believe that approach is the exception to the rule.

In looking at the Vatican documents, I believe it is important to try to set aside our personal, cultural, and ideological biases. Try to take the document for what it says. First context might be the viewpoint of a celibate hierarchy meeting in Rome in the 60’s. Eventually we get to the here-and-now for us and our respective parishes and/or prayer lives. But I think it’s good to avoid jumping the gun or reading too much of what we love (or hate) into the texts.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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