Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Personalistic Norm

(5th Sunday of Lent-Year C; This homily was given on 25 March, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See John 8:1-11)

We are coming up now on the second anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, truly one of the greatest persons of our time. While it is true that most of us only knew him in his capacity as our Holy Father—in the time he served as pope—there are a few fortunate souls in the Archdiocese of Krakow in Poland who also knew him once as their simple, humble parish priest (imagine!).

During that time when he was known as Fr. Karol Wojtyla, he spent a lot of his time with young people, especially couples preparing for marriage and young families just beginning their lives together. It is from that experience that he wrote his first book, Love and Responsibility.

Love and Responsibility is basically about human relationships and human sexuality. It speaks to us about how we relate to one another as persons, and the underlying principle of that book is what Wojtyla calls the Personalistic Norm. Basically stated, it says:

The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end (Love and Responsibility, pg. 41).

In other words, persons are not objects, and cannot be treated that way. That is how we relate to machines: automobiles, cell phones, and home computers. But we never relate to persons like that. Stated positively, the Personalistic Norm confirms:

The person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love (Love and Responsibility, pg. 41).

It is the basic commandment to love, and a foundational way for us to look at life in Christ. But the Personalistic Norm can be a challenging principle to put into practice.

We can ask ourselves today, when we look at the world around us and especially the people in our lives: What do we see? Objects or people? Our gospel this weekend provides us with a great framework to answer that question.

We begin with the scribes and Pharisees, who drag before Jesus a woman caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (John 8:4). Can you imagine how embarrassing, how humiliating that must have been for her? So how do the scribes and the Pharisees see the world around them? Or, more to the point, how do they look at that woman?

Obviously the do not see her as a person. In fact, they are not even looking for justice, desiring to see things set right. We discover in that gospel that there is only one reason why they drag her before Christ: they are using her to get to Him. They are willing to manipulate her life and expose her for the sole purpose of destroying Him. It was a shameful and pathetic plot.

Thankfully we do not see such things in the United States in 2007; we do not drag people out into the streets as objects to be stoned in public. But do we ever reduce women—men, too, but most especially women—to objects in our culture? We certainly do. In fact, it happens all the time.

Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, in a letter written to his diocese in Virginia just a few short months ago, talked about what he called the plague of our culture. He called it the “Plague of pornography.” Pornography is a reality that destroys relationships, it destroys families; it is destroying the fabric of our culture.

In that letter, Bought With A Price, Bishop Loverde writes:

This plague stalks the souls of men, women and children, ravages the bonds of marriage and victimizes the most innocent among us. It obscures and destroys people's ability to see one another as unique and beautiful expressions of God's creation, instead darkening their vision, causing them to view others as objects to be used and manipulated…It is not going away.

As Christians we are called to ask God for His assistance in taking away this plague. We are to seek the grace and healing of God for all the places where our lives and our communities have been affected by the sin of pornography. We can never reduce another man, woman, or child to an object. Again, as Fr. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) writes: The person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.

Which brings us, ultimately, to the way that Jesus Christ looks at the world and the people in it. St. John tells us that Christ, after driving away the scribes and Pharisees, bent down again and wrote on the ground with His finger. He was now alone with the woman. But suddenly, he looked up and spoke directly to her, as woman!

St. Augustine has a beautiful way of describing that powerful scene. He says “He who had driven away her adversaries with the tongue of justice, now looked upon her with the eyes of gentleness and compassion” (In Ioannis Evangelium, 33, 6).

That is the way Christ looks at the world around Him. That is the way Christ looks at every single one of us: as persons. No matter what we have done, no matter what sins we have committed, or how far we have fallen from Him, He looks upon us now with the eyes of gentleness and compassion.

Turning those eyes toward the woman, He then addresses her as a person:

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10).

It is a very affectionate term: woman. We know that because He only uses it a few other times in the gospels, and one of them is when He addresses His own Mother (John 2:4)! Jesus speaks to and relates to this woman caught in the act of adultery in the very same way as He speaks to and relates to His own Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary: as a person!

Woman,” He says to her. She, in turn, responds to Him as a person. And it is finally, in this dialogue of persons, this dialogue of love, that He is able to speak directly to her situation, and challenge her to change her life.

Go, and from now on do not sin anymore (John 8:11).

Christ has spared not only her life, physically, from stoning, but He has also safeguarded and spared her spiritual life by turning her away from sin and turning her back to a true relationship with the living God. It is a tremendous scene for us to meditate on as we approach this final week of Lent before the beginning of Holy Week this coming Sunday.

We can ask ourselves:

How is Christ calling us into that same dialogue of persons, that same dialogue of love with Him at this time in our lives, confronting our sins and turning us back to God?

How is He challenging us to look at ourselves, and each other, not as objects but as persons fully capable of receiving His mercy, His love?

How are we called, in this coming week, to continue that mercy and compassion in the way that we live, and especially in the way that we look at the world around us?