Recovering the Christian Tradition: Self-denial & Self-fulfillment

It is time now, on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, to focus the light on the recovery of the riches of the Christian message regarding self-fulfillment and self-denial … to enrich the new culture with the old.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Alessandro Turchi

Michael Novak, of the American Enterprise Institute, recently penned an essay in First Things on his years since Vatican II. He writes: “The victorious majority (the progressives) acquired a vested interest, both in stressing new beginnings and in discrediting the leadership of the past … to their foes accrued the blame for everything wrong…” 1 He continues: “In the Church in America, at least, I was among the first purveyors of the spirit of Vatican II—to the neglect of the actual Conciliar texts, which were more balanced and exact. I deserve to be shamed for some of the extreme things I wrote…” Picking up on Novak here, in order to understand that “spirit of Vatican II,” read Xavier Rynne’s best seller at the time of the Third Session (1964) and the Fourth Session (1965) for the debate on “The Church in the Modern World.” 2 For example, on November 4, 1964, Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, spoke to the assembly about Article 22, “The Promotion of Culture,” exhorting and encouraging (as so many others did) to stop clinging to the cultural forms of the past. Bishop Elehinger (Strasbourg, France) was next and also called for abandoning all fear of modern culture, even suggesting the rehabilitation of Galileo. 3

Just as American Catholics were being encouraged to abandon fear and wholeheartedly embrace the culture of the times, the respected demographer, Daniel Yankelovich (in his 1981 work, New Rules), was urging great caution, pointing to a powerful major shift in this culture. 4 It was called the human potential movement. Yankelovich says Americans were asking themselves new questions, very different from the past: How can I grow? How can I utilize my potential? How can I find self-fulfillment? How can I best realize the duty I have to myself? This was the popularizing work of Carl Rogers, Eric Erickson, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and so many others who presented an exciting new psychological view of self-fulfillment. For Catholics, this was a stepping away from the pre-Vatican life of the immigrant Church that said: If I work hard, observe the rules, learn to keep my personal desires mostly suppressed, I will find myself well rewarded and well respected by others. Many, such as the psychologist Eugene Kennedy, and the popularizing Harvey Cox (The Secular City), advised choosing human potential goals over the goals of the immigrant Church of the past, goals of our parents and grandparents. 5 After all, those were external goals: Will I be able to make a good living? Will I be successful? Will I have a fine house? Will I raise happy, healthy, successful children? How can I be respected and looked up to in the community?

Of course, this immigrant view of American life had served our forefathers very well. The American dream was worth pursuing, even if too tight an embrace of that dream led to lots of troubles: overemphasis on money, power, status, blindness to social justice, making interpersonal growth difficult, discrimination against women and a misunderstanding of self-love. In this new view, the meaning of self-denial changed. It now involved overcoming fear of throwing off traditional restraints of all kinds. A story may help to illustrate the point. It’s about Mary, age 36, growing up in Denver with upper-middle class parents, reared to be a lady—pleasant, thoughtful, gracious. “I was trained to please people, to do what others wanted, not make personal choices or take personal risks.” She married well, successful in the eyes of others. Her husband was a doctor. As she puts it: “There were 12 years of Sam’s goals and then the children’s goals.” That was old fashioned self-denial.

Yet, she was terribly hurt when she found out about Sam’s affairs in their fifth year of marriage. She stayed for a few more years, but her discontent grew, and she decided to make a break, embarrassing her mom and dad. The couple separated more or less amicably. Sam, now a prominent specialist, agreed to generous child support, but no alimony. Mary moved out with her two young sons, went to law school, working manically hard. She made the law review, graduated, found a good job in Los Angeles “with a good firm.” She moved her boys and herself to the west coast. Of law school, she says: “Those years took their toll on me. I have even some residual guilt about my sons, and their desire for me to be a PTA mom, but I just couldn’t do it. It was my one chance for real fulfillment. I had to take it.” Of course, she worries about her boys, both of whom have been into drugs. Any regrets? “What I miss most right now is a good sex life. Shortly after I was divorced, I started to express myself sexually, through a period of one night stands, bedding with virtual strangers. Then I realized I didn’t need marriage for sex, but I do need respect and casual relationships were self-defeating.” She summarizes by saying: “Finding self-fulfillment is not easy.” Mary started to realize some of the post-Vatican II views of self-fulfillment were specious. She says, for example: “I want a happy, loving relationship, and I want a free-wheeling sex life, and I can’t have both.” You have to neglect some needs if you want to avoid becoming a blob of contradictions. It’s not easy.

It thus began to dawn on this Mary, and an entire generation, that the idea of the self as a “bundle of inner needs” calling for fulfillment, can be misleading. A new generation rose up, dismissing the fundamental premise that the “self” first develops within a family, in relationship, in community. Or as the Jesuit philosopher, Bernard Lonergan, put it: we are a “we” before we are an ” I.” 6 The self is not a vacuum-sealed container of private parts, 7nor is the self prior to, or apart from, certain central family roles. This generation is only vaguely begging to realize that affluence is not a fundamental pre-condition for fulfillment. Mary, for example, admits she has held on to a scintilla of childhood storytelling when she recalls how attractive and humanizing the lives of the saints were in her childhood. Now, she only vaguely remembers the lives of those special people, whom she knew in her youth, those “friends of God” who had next to nothing of this world’s good and, instead, discovered eternal treasures of wisdom and grace. “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt10:37-39); and again, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul.” (Mk 8:36).

It is time now, on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, to focus the light on the recovery of the riches of the Christian message regarding self-fulfillment and self-denial. It is time to enrich the new culture with the old. Christianity has proposed a self-denial that differs from the narcissistic self-fulfillment of the human potential movement, and even from the excesses of the old immigrants striving, denying themselves, to gain power and wealth. I find it interesting that the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises have been taken out of the dusty attic and, today, found vital for this re-assessment. Christianity clearly teaches that the goal of human life for all of us is this: union with God and other in him. Christianity says we must come to know that success, and status, and the esteem of the world are not to be the center of our attention; that God is; and that our putting these things first (and denying ourselves to attain them) is a false idol. It is a false idol to put oneself, also, at the center of everything. Whereas the Greeks taught how each should “know thyself,” the Church understands this adage as a call to know how one is a gift from God, and to others. For the Christian, to “know thyself” means a sense of repentance, conversion, specifically a religious knowing of God’s love, no matter what, and our lack of openness to the creative and redemptive energies of God calling for a complete turn-around. We are “we” before we are an “I.”

This yields the following rule: all self-seeking that leads to union with God, and others in God, is good and praiseworthy. All self-seeking that does not lead to union with God, and others in him, is bad, and worthy of blame and reprobation. This is Christian self-denial. Christianity proposes a self-fulfillment that is different from the ethic of self-fulfillment of the human potential movement. In the Christian view, self-fulfillment is the by-product of union with God, and others in God. We are not the center of the universe. God is. Putting ourselves first is a false idol. True self-fulfillment for the Christian comes from union with God and neighbor. Self-fulfillment is possible because of God’s love for us, no matter what. It happens when we allow that love to flood our hearts. Let us think of self-fulfillment that Christianity proposes in terms of self-transcendence. The self-fulfillment described earlier in this paper is a “me-first” self-fulfillment. The Christian does not see himself as the center of the universe. The goal is union with God, and others, and the way to that goal is the way of the cross, dying to oneself through the way of Easter, by rising to a new relationship and a new Spirit.

The human potential movement has much to commend it, but is too often narcissistic. We are not at all afraid to reach out to others, but too often we are tempted to reach out to others to control them, to manipulate them, so that they do our will. It is God’s love that empowers us to break the bonds of this egocentric control, and domination of others. Christianity says: let God’s love into your lives. Let God’s love take you out of yourself so that you do not need others only for yourself, for your ego. This kind of self-transcendence involves the risk of giving up being in-charge. You are no longer then in charge; God is. You have truly put your life and destiny in God’s hands. You are no longer in control and no longer the center of life.

Many now realize that it is a great deception to think of yourself as the center of things. You did not make this world; you have it only to use and enjoy for a time. It is God’s world; finding our place in his love, letting him create us and redeem us, day by day, is what brings us true self-fulfillment that this world cannot give. Only when we begin to achieve this kind of Christian self transcendence do we then also begin to let such things as money, power, status, and sex reveal their true and real (and important) place in the whole of reality. Until this happens, these things occupy an unreal place in human life—for they are only bits and pieces of the world which we have confused with the whole of life.

The result (the by-product of God’s love flooding into our hearts) is a transcendence of self such that the self is not dissipated or eliminated or despoiled or degraded. The self is enabled, exalted, enlightened, embraced, and fulfilled. The self is united with God, and others in God. Our deepest yearnings to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, are fulfilled and even surpassed with this great beauty. As Henry Nouwen said so well, there is an existential loneliness at the core of our being, a loneliness that no human being can forever fill up. “When we forget that, and expect from others more than they can give, we will be quickly disillusioned.” 8 This kind of self-fulfillment (transcendence of self) can only happen in and through the community of whom we are a part, the community of our origin (family), and the community of our commitments. The self is not solitary, and neither is salvation, or self-fulfillment. We are a “we” before we are an “I.”

Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, has endeavored to show in this Year of Faith that the basic thrust of Vatican II is an authentic embracing of the Lord Jesus, his mission and his message, ever ancient, ever new. We are called to enrich the old with the new, part of which is the recovery of authentic Christian self-fulfillment in its richest forms. This authenticity is called holiness.
  1. Michael Novak, “The Holy Spirit Did Preside” in First Things (August-September 2012) 21-23.
  2. Xavier Rynne, The Third Session (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).
  3. Ibid., 173.
  4. Daniel Yankelovich. New Rules (New York: Random House, 1981).
  5. Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
  6. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972) 57.
  7. Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns Press, 1994).
  8. Clowning in Rome (Garden City: Image Press, 1979) 40-41.
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avatar About Fr. Val J. Peter

Father Val Peter, a priest of the Omaha Archdiocese, served for 20 years as head of Boys Town, and 13 years as tenured professor at Creighton University.

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