By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, June 2003
Mid-May was a big week for Personalism in Kitchener-Waterloo. The Record ran a feature story that included a two paragraph description of personalism as a run up to the St. Jerome’s University Conference on the Hidden Pierre Trudeau—his spirituality, his faith, his life, his times. Later in the week, a copy of the latest edition of the Catholic Worker from New York arrived. It featured a letter on the front page, written in 1938 by Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, who concluded with the resolve to “continue to recruit members for the Unpopular Front for Personalist Democracy.” At the St. Jerome’s conference a full debate broke out on whether Personalism was responsible for the decline of church attendance in Quebec society.
Personalism does not normally receive so much attention. Ask anyone to define it and you’re guaranteed a blank look. The St. Jerome’s conference reflected on a period of time in Canadian history where Trudeau and many of his colleagues shared an unspoken but deeply rooted understanding of the human spirit. The conference attempted to sift out the Trudeau government’s commitment to enhance the welfare and common good of all from the bruising reality of daily political life.
Peter Maurin had no illusions of what that bruising reality was about. That’s why he advocated for the Unpopular Front for Personalist Democracy. He was sceptical of the state’s ability to implement the common good. Maurin lived his personalism by living poor so as to leave more for the other, rejected status in order that all may be equal, and worked his whole life to serve others.
Peter Maurin helped to craft the Ways and Means of the Catholic Worker that describes personalism as, “a philosophy which regards the freedom and dignity of each person as the basis, focus and goal of all metaphysics and morals. In following such wisdom, we move away from self-centered individualism toward the good of the other. This is done by taking personal responsibility for changing the conditions, rather than looking to the state or other institutions to provide impersonal charity.”
The Catholic Worker does not spend much time defining the meaning of personalism when the work of justice, peace and charity is so encompassing. Kassy Temple, who recently died of cancer, was a Canadian woman of great faith and possessed of deep biblical knowledge. After studying in Hamilton under George Grant in 1977, she dedicated her life to living and working at the Catholic Worker. Her insights into personalism were in the day to day serving of those who came to the Worker. In the May 1987 edition of Catholic Worker newspaper she wrote: “Whenever we try to write down our Aims and Means, they smite us with our inadequacies and our complicity in the very forces we decry the loudest. Far from being able to say, ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is for the brethren to dwell together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1), more to the point is the reproach: Does not your practical life continually give lie to your theory?”
And so it does. All the work for peace and justice, rooted in the Unpopular Front for Personalist Democracy, is hard and unending. The Unpopular Front is at its best when it reflects the present day experiences and realities of people. It then searches out social analysis combined with moral judgement to understand the circumstances and moves to creative action. At The Working Centre we call this “the pastoral circle.” Personalists like Trudeau and his colleagues called it See, Judge, and Act. It is the recognition that the freedom and dignity of each person comes through conscious efforts working for long-term social change. Defined in such a way, Personalism is a long and winding path that, through daily right action, seeks justice for all.