Catholics Shouldn’t Say “I”
It’s possible I mean this hyperbolically, but as Winnie the Pooh might say while hovering under a honey tree, you never can tell with me. So what am I, who says I shouldn’t say “I,” really saying? This: the definitive pronoun for Catholics is not “I,” but rather “we,” and we’d do ourselves and others much better by thinking more in terms of “we” than “I.”
Being Catholic involves more than an affiliation with an institution, an affirmation of doctrines, teachings and creeds, or a faithful participation in the sacramental life. To be Catholic is to have a peculiar disposition, a particularly Catholic way of being disposed to the world, and that disposition emphasizes a communal and social understanding of the human person over an individualistic conception. Humanity is one and many, same and other, collective and individual, and yet a Catholic conception of humanity in many ways stresses the former over the latter. God is Trinity, and we are made in God’s image and likeness.
When we Catholics say there is no salvation outside the Church, we mean that there is no salvation apart from the community of believers, the Body of Christ. No one is saved as an autonomous, isolated individual, even if it appears that way. Salvation come to us as a we, as a community, not to me as an I, as a sinner alone before God, even if I am physically alone before God.
I cannot really even say “I” without implying the plural pronoun, for who I am is bound up with who others are. I cannot tell my story without telling the story of others. I have no self apart from those whose stories have woven threads into mine. I am not I. I am only I because we are we.
This bit of Catholic metaphysics and play with pronouns has practical consequence for how a Catholic ought to conceive the moral life, in particular responsibility and obligation. While we obviously have obligations as individuals—it’s my responsibility to love my wife as a husband, for example—most of our obligations have a social or communal aspect; they’re not merely the responsibility of individuals or entirely the responsibility of society. If a Catholic disposition bends me toward conceiving human persons chiefly as “we,” as opposed to a loose collection of individuals, then it may not make sense to conceptualize obligation and responsibility as existing primarily in the sphere of the individual. At the very least, a Catholic disposition denotes a recognition and appreciation for our social obligations and the societal means and structures we use in response to them.
So, for example, from the Catholic standpoint, we shouldn’t respond to poverty or pollution or health or education simply as individuals, or even as groups comprised of individuals, but also and especially as a whole society—politically free, of course, but also guided by rightful and lawful public authority. Government may be a necessary evil, so to speak, but it is not, for the Catholic, an enemy to be conquered or a danger to be avoided. It is a tool to be used prudently, if cautiously and with an eye toward the temptations of power.
None of this is to say that Catholics shouldn’t value individuality. We’re not the Borg collective, after all. And you don’t have to be my therapist to know I have an obsession with alterity—with otherness and difference. Whereas I said above that we cannot say “I” without implying “we,” the pronoun “we” implies a plurality of others, a union of those who are not the same. In short: an emphasis on the “we” shouldn’t entail a forgetfulness of the “I.” To say “we” is, in fact, to say “I.”
Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer and editor with a background in literature, language, and philosophy.