Arts and Culture

Respecting the Dignity of the Person

by Father Robert Lauder

I recently read an essay in the Houston Catholic Worker (2013) that brought up a surprising number of pleasant memories. The essay, titled “The Personalism of the Catholic Worker Movement,” was written by Edmund Miller.

I first met Dorothy Day in 1955 when I was a seminarian. A priest-professor at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, L.I., Father James Coffey, encouraged some of us to visit centers of Catholic Action. A few of my classmates and I went over to the Catholic Worker House on the Bowery to hear one of the Friday night lectures which were a regular event at the house. The evening we went, a priest from France gave an inspiring talk about his experience of working with the poor in France.

After the lecture, there was a question-and-answer period. I recall one of the questioners. His lengthy question made no sense. As he rambled on, I looked over at Day. She listened as attentively as though she was hearing St. Thomas Aquinas speak. Her manner of listening and the respect she showed summed up my understanding of the apostolate of the Catholic Worker movement.

Though the questioner made no sense, Day did not dismiss him. She respected his dignity as a person and treated him with the kindness and encouragement which should be the way we treat everyone.

Edmund Miller is the eighth and last child of the late Professor William D. Miller of Marquette University. When I was studying at Marquette for my doctorate in philosophy, I would often meet Professor Miller at breakfast in the student cafeteria. At that time he was working on a book about Day and the Catholic Worker movement. I was greatly interested in his experience of the Catholic Worker and his research. We shared anecdotes. A few years later, Bill’s book came out and I reviewed it for the National Catholic Reporter.

About 20 years ago, I created a philosophy course on personalism at St. John’s University in Jamiaca. I knew Day was greatly interested in the philosophy of personalism and was influenced by the writings of the French Catholic personalist, Emmanuel Mounier. All the personalist thinkers whom I discuss with the students, such as Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, John Macmurray and Mounier were all theists. In fact, I don’t know of any personalist thinkers who were not theists.

When I proposed the course to the priest who was dean of St. John’s College at that time, he thought the course was theology rather than philosophy. I udnerstand the confusion. In the course we talk a great deal about God but we talk from a philosophical, rather than a theological perspective. Over the years I have learned that I have to begin the course by explaining the difference between philosophy and theology so the students understand we are doing philosophy, not theology.

In his essay, Edmund Miller mentions that he often traveled with his dad while Professor Miller was doing research for his writing about Day and the Catholic Worker. Edmund did not understand a great deal of what his father spoke about while he was doing the research, but eventually his father’s insights and Day’s commitment had a profound influence on him. Edmund is now deeply involved in battling the evil of abortion.

Referring to Father Zossima’s words, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Edmund writes the following:

“Always, always I was attracted to those words. Christ was in them – but the Cross, too, and therefore the plenitude of divine love. … because it is only for a person that another person will give his life. It is only in a person that another person can see that for which the offering of life is worthy. Only in another person does one see the truth, the beauty of God Himself … Accordingly, Christ gave us Himself – not Himself in some static or passive mode, but Himself as love in action. In other words he gave us His Passover self, his self as the lamb which, taking on all the impediments in our desire for freedom, would then carry them to their end, to death. … We graft onto his sacrifice, his death, but then are part of all that follows – resurrection…”

I picture Day and Bill Miller rejoicing in heaven.[hr] Father Robert Lauder is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica.

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