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 A new book and a film have revived interest in a famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld speaking about the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.

The quotation has sometimes been criticized and even mocked. But it called to my mind the use made long before of the same threefold distinction by Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan. He appealed it to explain what is meant by the term “horizon,” much-used by existentialist philosophers, in particular Martin Heidegger.

Visual horizons are defined by a viewpoint and a field of vision, the first determining the second. On the tenth floor of the Empire State Building, a certain field is open to view until the meeting of sky and earth define one’s physical horizon, the point beyond which one cannot see. Go up to the 86th floor, and a much larger field is open to view. Move from the western to the eastern side of the observation deck and a different field of vision appears. Your viewpoint determines what you can see, how far you can see, where the horizon is beyond which you cannot see.

Lonergan proposed to consider one’s existential viewpoint as the sets of questions one is asking or could ask.

There are questions we have asked and answered, and they yield the known known, things we know and know we know. Beyond that is the far vaster field of the known unknown, determined by questions that we are asking but haven’t answered yet and by questions we know others are asking but we are not. The questions whose answers we are actively pursuing lie closer to us; others lie further out–someone, but not I, might be interested in the chemical composition of the moons of Saturn. Finally, there are questions that we not only are not asking but aren’t even aware that they could or ought to be asked, and that is the field of the unknown unknown. One’s existential horizon is the boundary between one’s known unknown and one’s unknown unknown.

One’s unknown unknown, of course, is (Duh!) unknown. You can no more know what it is than you can see what lies beyond your visual horizon. That there is much that we not only do not know but don’t know we don’t know would be a confession of modesty about one’s present achievement and the range of one’s interest. One can perhaps catch a sense of it by reflecting on one’s personal history. Are there things that one is interested in now that one was not interested in, say, ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Are there questions one is asking now that back then one didn’t even know or suspect could be asked? If so, then one is reflecting on the expansion of one’s own existential horizon over these decades, and one can hope that further expansions of horizon may occur in the future when some new experience may prompt questions undreamt of before.

Note that the questions may concern not only the world and what it is like–think of questions scientists ask today that were not being asked in previous generations–, but also one’s own self and what one is like, what one might be like, even ought to be like. It is quite possible that one’s personal growth has been accomplished because questions about oneself arose that one had not been asking before, didn’t even know could, or should, be asked. Sometimes this expansion of horizon has been accomplished by gradual, perhaps imperceptible growth–one only knows that one is asking questions today that one didn’t ask before. Sometimes the expansion occurs dramatically, when some new experience leads or forces one to ask questions unconsidered before. Lonergan spoke of the “existential gap” that may exist between the self one thinks one is and the self one really is–the latter perhaps lying beyond one’s horizon, as it lay beyond Peter’s horizon when he boasted that he would remain faithful to Christ even if all others abandoned him (Mt 26:30-35).

Lonergan borrowed from Heidegger the notion of Sorge, existential care, to describe what it is in us that determines the questions we are able or likely to ask. It is the existential orientation that defines us as presently constituted, poised between the past that has made us who we are and a future that we will choose and that will make us who we will be. (There once was considerable discussion about the “fundamental option,” which I think may refer to the same thing.)

I found this analysis very illuminating, giving some substance to the notion of “horizon,” and my students were always intrigued by it.

A request: Please, if you wish to comment on this post, don’t turn it into a discussion either of the Iraq war or of Donald Rumsfeld.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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"They say the owl was a baker's daughter.  Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be!'  Ophelia, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5.

Hi, Joe,

I wrote a LTE to Sun Magazine four years ago when this quote got some press, and again a few weeks ago to the NYTimes. I'm glad you are having more success in tracing the quote back to Lonergan. I suspect that Rumsfeld picked it up from Michael Novak, who was a few years ahead of us at the Greg, and who was sent by GW Bush to PPJPII on the fool's errant of securing a papal blessing for the invasion of Iraq. Novak is now at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jim Parker

Thiat is the clearest exposition I've ever seen of anything Benard Lonergan ever said.

Very illuminating indeed! I wonder to what extent the concept of horizion is connected to Foucault's concept of "gaze". Foucault was influenced by Nietzsche and used the term "biomedical gaze" to refer to the process by which we begin to look and interpret the body. It is the "gaze" that gives us models of intelligibility and the gaze is cultural and imposed from without.

And does our horizon expand or is it occupied by different questions that arise through critical reflection on our experience.

Was it really an issue of Peter not having an adequate horizon of himself or Peter simply being who he is. Peter's entire character is one of impulsive swings, pride, failure, bravery, and then cowardice. He is unsure and wavering sometimes he drives it out of the park as when he replies accurately to the question of who Jesus is and sometimes he gets it terribly wrong and that pattern does not seem to change when he assumes leadership of the Jerusalem community. That is just the construction of his basic character.

George D.   I agree entirely that our cultures offer us "models of intelligibility" and that, initially at least, they impose them on us. (St. Augustine spoke of a culture as a second womb.)  In the course of our lives certain experiences or encounters may cause us to ask questions that we hadn't asked before and the asking of those questions is the expansion or, it may be, the transformation of our personal horizons.

(So I do not understand the question in your second paragraph.)

As for Peter, or anyone else for that matter, I do not know how one could describe or understand a person's "basic character" without taking into account the kinds of questions he or she asks. I adduced Peter only because he illustrates someone who did not know himself and did not know he did not know himself. There was an existential gap there, and he was unaware of it. What he really was lay beyond his horizon. 



Lonergan spoke of the “existential gap” that may exist between the self one thinks one is and the self one really is–the latter perhaps lying beyond one’s horizon, as it lay beyond Peter’s horizon when he boasted that he would remain faithful to Christ even if all others abandoned him 

I become uncomfortably aware, from time to time, that others don't always see me the way that I see me.  I have blind spots in my horizon-gazing that filter out certain things about me that, apparently, are all too visible to others :-).  I recall reading once, in an article about relationships, a young woman ruefully observing that 'every guy thinks he is a nice guy.'  I can well imagine the other disciples rolling their eyes, as if to say, "there he goes again", when Peter made that boast, even though presumably he meant it from the bottom of his heart.  

At the same time, we might also observe that there are things about me that only I see, perhaps because they are too interior to be visible to others, and/or perhaps because I conceal them from others.  Men are expected to show no fear, yet I am beset by fears, and I suspect that other men are, too. 


The philosophical/religious  concept "horizon" reminds me of a line in a Bob Dylan song;  one day you'll open your eyes and you'll see where you are. And of  Alfred Hitchcock's statement that his ideal of perfect happiness is a clear horizon. That always resonated with me,i'm not sure why.I know i've expereinced the reversal of a clear  horizon in the form of a panic attack. When i first went to Europe, alone, i had just gotten off the plane and found myself in Madrid ,a bustling city ,but i could not find a hotel room and i felt exhaused and disoriented  from the flight and  the sudden culture shock made me feel  totally alone. I looked up at the sky and it looked like it was too low .I felt this panic sense of everything closing in, constricting.I wanted to head straight to the airport and get on the next flight back home.I did not ,thanks perhaps because someone approached me, a tourist like me and i  did not feel so alone and he helped me get my bearings again.Anyway this experience of anxiety and dread, like we're closed in , like my horizon is too contrained, too closed, i've experienced since. Recently on the t.v. program Cosmos ,the image of multiverses ,where the theory that we are in one universe and there exists infinite other universes ,was depicted as a sea of bubbles ,all representing universes ,made my mind real. Again i felt this constricting ,this clautrophobic sense that we lack enough perspective, a desire to be unencombered by the limits of our senses and our bodily space.                                                                                                                                                       And btw,[can't do the paragraphs] though i opposed the iraq war, .i thought that the anti war left did a diservice to the anti Iraq war cause by treating Rumsfeld's comments as nonsensical or evasive.I thought they were the coolest thing i'd heard any public person in government ever say.                                                                                                                                                                Could it be that we like music because it feels like our horizons are broadened psychically? And painting too-we intuit or experience more deepening of reality ? The rituals of the mass ,can do that too.i think. 

There are those terrible words of Jesus that we heard at Mass a Sunday or two ago:

"I came into this world to divide it: to make the sightless see, and the seeing blind." 

And, to the Pharisees: "If you were blind there would be no sin in that. But you say, 'We see." Your sin remains" (Jn 9:39, 41).

How awful, to be blind to one's blindness.

“How can you know what you're capable of if you don't embrace the unkown?” 
― Esmeralda SantiagoConquistadora

Jim Parker: Michael Novak was at AEI for a number of years, but he's no longer there. He's now at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida.

Fr K:

Thanks for the reply. With respect to consciousness, I was thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on the concept of flow. He studied what are sometimes called peak experiences or epiphanies; those moments like when a musician gets lost in music, an athlete in their sport, a writer in their craft, a theologian in his or her study (!).  Basically any activity which makes people feel like they move out of themselves and exist in a heightened state. He referred to this as "flow" and studied the psychodynamic characteristics of it. All of this with a view to better understand and replicate it in our lives. He writes:

Any activity that transforms the way we percieve reality is enjoyable, a fact that accounts for the attraction of "consicousness-expanding" drugs of all sorts, from magic mushrooms to alcohol to the current Pandora's box of halluccinogenic chemicals. But consciousness cannot be expanded; all we can do is shuffle its content, which give us the impression of having broadened it somehow. The price of most artificially induced alterations, however, is that we lose control over that very consciousness we were supposed to expand...

In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competiton, chance, or any other dimension of experience had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growith of the self lies the key to flow activities.

For Csikszentmihalyi, it is not so much a case of asking questions of unknown knowns but instead lies in the proportion between our skills and challenges. If our skill is high and the challenge low, we will experience boredom. If the challenge is to high for our skill, we experience anxiety. The "flow channel" lies between these and ever increases with our skill and challenge. So, in this context, we might ask complicated or penetrating question that challenge us, but if our skill level is such that we have the tools to address them (with some effort), this process will produce in us a sense of "flow".  But if the challenge is too great for our questions, we experience anxiety or if our skills our below the challenges provided, we experience boredom.

As for understanding somebody's character, absolutely it is important to look at the questions they ask as this orients us to their horizon for sure! But, at the same time, we can know somebody's character by observing how they live and act in the world. How they respond to challenges, how they act with others and what they actually do. With Peter, we can observe how he responds to Jesus' invitation and what he does and does not do and thereby get glimpses into his character.


George  - that notion of "flow" called to my mind the distinction that is sometimes made, in a spiritual vein, between "chronos" and "kairos".

*How* can one go beyond our present horizon or find another, new one?  ISTM that the Enlightenment,   which most recently dominated Western outlook, is crumbling.  Scientism, its last and most obnoxious child, which has limited its horizon to the material world.  It is now being rejected as a smug, know-it-all adolescent that is unaware of its own ignorance. (It doesn't know that it doesn't truly know about spirit.)  


So what might/can/should take the place of scientism to open up a new horizon? Must the new horizon be entirely new or is it possible to look further out past the old one? 


Perhaps a more immediate question is *how* to look for a new horizon?  Perhaps what we need is an entirely new method, a new sort of lens unknown in the old astronomy that sought new horizons, a lens which is quite different from the "rationality" lens which in both the Medieval Ages and the Enlightenment was a highly successful but limited tool for going beyond the limits of common knowledge.   


Maybe a new lens might/ can/  be one that revolts against the very foundation of the old intellectual thinking by accepting contradictory premises as both true -- the way mystics often cheerfully suggest that we should.  The rationalists of both the Enlightenment and the Middle Ages would scream "No, no, no!", but the existential problems of the human will, the problem of evil, and the existence of an intrinsically unknowable (?) God, and the question "what ought I to do"  have remained in spite of the best efforts of both of those two great old traditions.


In spite of the anti-rationality of such a new lens, let's push on in that direction anyway and ask:  What sort of answer(s) can at least neutralize the contradictions that seem intrinsic to human mental life? Is there some other sort of grasp of reality, some second way of discernment that will resolve, or at least quiet, those frustrating ancient questions? 


Some, such as Pope Benedict and possibly Pope Francis too, seem to value the *heart* more than the mind for finding those new horizons.  Might "the heart" be that tool that at least can balance out the antinomies?  What does compassion/ metaphysical feeling/ heart lead us to say?  What does compassion lead us to do? 


On the other hand, why should we trust our compassion/ heart/ whatever to answer our old questions? Our ordinary feelings have never been an infallible guide!  How can "heart" go beyond the horizon and tell us what is and what ought to be done?  Can heart at least ask some new questions? 


On the third hand (!), should we be looking again into our old known knowns, but using our hearts to do it?  Or should we just look intellectually for old, unknown errors in what we have come to *think* we know?  Should we look again at our *so-called* "knowns"?

"Could it be that we like music because it feels like our horizons are broadened psychically? And painting too-we intuit or experience more deepening of reality ? The rituals of the mass ,can do that too.i think."

rose-ellen --

Sometimes I think this is true.  But if it is, then why haven't the master-musicians, like Palestrina, Bach, and Mozart, remarked on the matter?   

Sister Marion, who was my teacher in 7th and 8th grades, always used to say that the beginning of learning was to know that you don't know.

She also asked this question many, many times: "What does it mean to learn?" The expected answer was, "To make it your own." 

She had a perfectly terrifying system for calling on students in the class that was used by no other teacher I have ever known. She had a deck of cards with one student's name on each card. When she asked a question, she would pluck a card from the deck and call on the student whose name was on the card. When the student answered the question (well or poorly) she would put the card back in the deck and shuffle it. There was no guarantee that after you answered a question, your card couldn't come up again (and again). 

When she was exasperated with someone in the class, her reproach often began, "Merciful heavens, child!"

On the whole, Fr. Komonchak has posted a perceptive and lucid account and paraphrase of Lonergan's thoughts about horizons. But I have some reservations about his comments bout Peter.

Now, like some of the posters here, I like the spirit of free association.At times, free association can be a helpful step in brainstorming.

However, as Fr. Komonhak knows, and as some of the posters here may know, Lonergan wrote an admirable book titled INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDESTANDING (1957).

In it, among other things, Lonergan wries about cerain kinds of deep changes we can exerience, each of which involves a sgnficant shift in our horizons: intellectual conversion, moral conversion, and religious converson. 

Robert M. Doran, S.J., who is now at Marquette University, has written an accessible introduction to Lonergan's in the foreword to the anthology COMMUNICTION AND LONERGAN: COMMON GROUND FOR FORGING THE NEW AGE, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup (Kansa City: Sheed & Ward, 1993, pages ix-xvi). 

Doran's foreword alone is worth the price of the compatively inexpensive paperback book, which is still available (due to the extraordinarily ambitiious print run -- three times the print run I had recommended). 

Ann: Here’s a London Tablet review of Michael Hanby’s new book, No God, No Science?: Theology, Cosmology, Biology. The reviewer is David Burrell, CSC, long-time professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. (Unfortunately, the book is ridiculously over-priced.)

In 1991 John Milbank issued a provocative challenge to theologians enamoured of the potential of social science for expanding the horizons of contemporary theological enquiry.

If Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory altered the landscape 20 years ago, Michael Hanby’s penetrating and equally provocative inquiry dismantles enduring modernist boundaries to augur similar transformations in cosmology, metaphysics and philosophical reflection on science.

Once Milbank had exposed two paradigmatic “social theorists” – Freud and Marx – as crypto-theologians, he could direct us to mine our rich theological tradition in their stead. Hanby, in turn, uses a rich metaphysical tradition to expose the jejune presumptions of modernist “scientific rationality”, offering in its place a universe robustly and freely originated by one creator. Hanby’s major deconstructive effort is daunting. He offers a careful analysis of the axial figures of modernity’s “scientific and theological revolution” – Bacon, Ockham, Descartes and Newton (for starters) – with an articulate elaboration of free creation the constructive key.

He deftly shows how Darwin’s counter-theology was forged in opposition to Paley’s “unnatural theology” , a bowdlerised version of traditional teaching on Creation, with a human-sized god. This is an ambitious project, but Hanby, a professor at the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America, employs sustained philosophical critique to dissolve the opposition between “science” and “religion” which has become one of the settled conventions of modern thinking.

This sets the stage for a non-polemical inquiry into what alone can make the universe a universe. This turns out to be, Hanby argues, free creation by a God who is very different from the one science has long felt it necessary to oppose.

To be sure, the mode of reflection that will direct us to One whose very being is to “be” can only be felt as marvellously strange to a world of abstract objects, denuded of actual things.

Yet minds and hearts with a sense of wonder will welcome Hanby’s invitation to affirm the “freshness of things” that emanate from a free creator. A Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” is undoubtedly called for, but a constructed “universe” which is just a collection of items with no organic connectivity is far less welcoming – moreover, our intellectual culture has now shifted from “modern” to “post-modern”, and the closed intellectual world whose defences Hanby enjoys demolishing has given way to a world in which faith and trust are inexorably part.

The discussion on this post is reminding me of a workshop I attended years ago when self-help groups were very popular. The topic was the Johari Window.  The intent is to increase knwoledge of oneself. (Wikipedia gives an excellent description of the process so I don’t have to take up too much space.)

The participants are given a list of 56 (positive) adjectives and they are asked to pick five or six that they feel describe their own personality. Peers of the each participant are then given the same list, and each pick five or six adjectives that describe each of the other participants. These adjectives are then mapped onto a grid, which I will try to duplicate.

                                    Known to self                                    Not known to self

Known                         Arena                                                Blind spot

to others                       


Not known                  Façade                                                Unknown

to others

Adjectives that are selected by both the participant and his or her peers are placed into the Open or Arena quadrant. Adjectives selected only by subjects, but not by any of their peers, are placed into the Hidden or Façade quadrant. (The participant it free to disclose this information or not.) Adjectives that are not selected by subjects but only by their peers are placed into the Blind Spot quadrant. These represent information that the subject is not aware of, but others are. (They can decide whether and how to inform the individual about these "blind spots".) Adjectives that were not selected by either subjects or their peers remain in the Unknown quadrant, representing the participant's qualities that were not recognized by anyone participating. This may be because they do not apply. Of course, this part may indicate a person’s potential, which is unknown to each of us and others.

This may appear simplistic, but I did observe that that the process affirmed people, since all the adjectives were postive, and group cohesion was enhanced.

Ater all, didn't the ancient Greeks say, "Know thyself"?


As I suggested above, your horizon can expand almost naturally and spontaneously when some new experience prompts new questions and where the experience and the question fit easily within the world already known. On the other hand, within your present horizon some experiences may occur that don't fit, can't be understood, and that eventually may require that one ask a new kind of question that opens up a whole new potential field of knowledge. Kuhn referred to paradigm shifts such as that from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. You speak of acquiring a new "lens," which sounds to me like what I've been talking about. 

Your questions about "heart" are also pertinent. When Augustine was trying to make a point about the reconciliation of divine grace and human freedom, he appealed at a certain point to his congregation: "Da mihi amantem"--Give me someone in love!" and he will understand! People who love look out upon a different world than that of those who don't love. The prophet spoke of God's plucking out our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh. 

It is our existential orientation in life--perhaps what Geore D. means by "flow"--that makes certain questions possible or probable. (Note that an existential orientation may include an orientation toward the most rigorous thinking whether in science, scholarship, philosophy or theology.)  I don't think that there's any substitute here for attentive self-reflection on one's progress in life--presuming there has been some! We'd all like to think that our horizons extend farther today than they did decades ago. Well, if so, how did that occur? Was it simple natural, almost organic development? Or were there some major, perhaps even dramatic (or traumatic) turn-arounds, which you can almost date? 

The most important thing is to avoid all forms of obscurantism, that is, declaring certain questions to be in principle illegitimate or meaningless, a phenomenon found even among scientists and philosophers (e.g., refusing as meaningless any question that can't be settled by appeal to the data of the senses). And, then, it is important to follow what Lonergan called the "transcendental precepts": Be attentive--that is, alert to all data. Be intelligent--ask questions that seek insights into the data. Be reasonable--don't presume your first bright ideas are correct; verify them. Be responsibe: take charge of your own choices and of the self they will create. And this could include the further injunctions: Be willing to grow and, if necessary, to change. 

Great post: On a mundane level, consider babies/toddlers/children as living examples of unknown unknowns precisely because their horizons are initially limited and only gradually enlarge. That's the experience of most parents/aunts/uncles, etc., but until Eric Erickson and D.J. Winicott pointed this out in an organized and intelligible fashion, how many parents/aunts/uncles were able to see the whole horizon of their own child, and the limits of their own horizon as parents. Let me add that, in my experience, marriage has been an eye-opener on the horizon front. Seeing things as another sees them, agree or not, is always a reminder of the questions not being asked from one's own pinnacle of perfect seeing!

I do not know enough to comment on Lonergan's thought. But, at he risk of being pedantic, let memake a few observations.

1. In "Being and Time," Heidegger says that the term 'Care' (Sorge) names Dasein's "primordial structural totality." That is, the term 'Care' expresses the fundamental unitary way in which human beings are constituted as Being-in-the- World. He gopes on to say that both what we call "theory" and what we call "practice" of any sort "are possibilities of Being for an entity whose Being must be defined as 'care'." (B&T,p. 238. ) What he calls 'anxiety' is a dimension of Care.

Accordingly, anything that a person does or undergoes is ontologically made possible by Care. As I understand him, this means, among other things, is that Care is the HORIZON  within which what we can experience in any way about ourselves, other people, and all other dimensions of Reality is made possible. [This is a far from precise encapsualtion of Heidegger's developed account of Care in B&T, but will have to do here.]

Heidegger's conception of Care owes much to Husserl's accopunt of consciousness as always consciousness of some "thing." There are multiple modes of consciousness, e.g., visual perceptual consciousness, emotional conscioousness, mathematical consciousness, etc., each with its own kind of objects. Each conscious performance, whether spontaneous or deliberate, has as its focal object some object that appears within the HORIZON that constitutes the domain of objects of that sort. Beside the focal object, other objects of that sort are "appercieved" or available to become the focal object of antoher moment of that kind of consciousness. Thus, if I have as my focus a bird on a branch, I also apperceive the visual context in which it appears. Similarly for other modes of consciousness.

Perhaps all this links usp with the Lonergan conception in the following way. One mode of consciousness is that of questioning, of inquiring in various waiy about one or more of the conscious experiences we have had. Each of these questions becomes a focus that occurs within the HORIZON constituted by inquiry. Husserl speaks of the horizon of horizons as the "world" we inhabit and within which all our experiences occur. He sometimes speaks of each particular horizon as a world. Thus, a song, e.g., 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' is an object that appears within the horizon or world of music. This horizon or world is one of many horizons or worlds, all of which come to be within the "horizon fo horizons" or the "world of worlds."

Could it be that Lonergan's talk of the set of questions one asks or could ask can be xonstrued as a particular instance of one of the horizons that Husserl talks about and that is a constituent of the overall Husserlian horizon of horizons?

There is so much more to bge said about all this to do justicde to either Husserl's or Heidegger's conceptions, but I've taxed your patience enough now.

At one time, Lonergan delivered a series of lectures on existentialism. His lectures were tape recorded.

Bob Doran has made audio-recordings of those lectures available at the Lonergan website he has etablished at Marquette.

You can access those recordings there free of charge, but you may have to register first to use the website.

Here is the website where the Lonergan archives are being made available on-line.

His lectures on existentialism were published in volume 18 of his Collected Works.

As I read the previous posts I am amazed at the insight and intellect that graces this site.  I am a newcomer here and come humbly into sharing my simple yet hopefully insightful thoughts.  I am always impressed with the community of believers and the chord that binds us in His Presence.  I have reflected on the comments that have been posted in regards to Horizons and the shifts in perspectives as we move from unknowns to knowns and sometimes vice versa.  As a teacher I have watched as my students go from places where they are confronted with unknowns and then through time and perseverance develop proficiency and skill as they enter into a realm of “known”.  Through the process there is often a need for a direct guidance; a teacher’s ability to help the transformation.  Over time this direct approach is scaffold to a place where there is a gradual release of responsibility of the teacher and an ownership of the student.   Throughout the transformation, the student depends on the guidance of the teacher.  In the presence of the unknown, the student relies most upon her mentor.  Perhaps as Christians, God calls us most into his Presence when we are at our most unknown state.  It is then that we are like children/students and rely upon Him; it is then we are at our most faithful, and in the presence of His Grace.  It is only in the realm of the unknown that we can truly demonstrate faith.   Lifehouse;  a contemporary Christian music group uses these lyrics: 

I am falling into grace to the unknown
to where You are and faith
makes everybody scared
it's the unknown the don't know
that keeps me hanging on and on and on to You

I believe God calls us into the unknown so that as our perspectives change and our horizons broaden our faith strengthens.

Welcome to the conversation, Michelle.

JAK --  Does Hanby talk about the role of faith as such in expanding our horizons?  Does he have, say, any criteria for deciding when faith is warranted?  Odd how some of the secularists have always bought Plato's notion of "warranted belief" for themselves but don't permit religious belief. But I think the secularists are right in saying that we shouldn't swallow whole anything we're just strongly inclined to.


About Lonergan's "self-reflection in one's progress in life".  One of the things people who live alone learn is that when there isn't anyone else in the house to help us correct our self-reflections, the reflections often aren't worth very much.  It's a spiritual problem for single people, but the Church is no help.  It seems the Church always has ignored us. Have you ever even heard of a theology of single people?  I'm convinced, by the way, that one of the groups that is leaving the Church is composed of people in the ever-larger single segment of the population, and one of the reasons is that the single, never-married are of no particular interest to the Church.  The Church provides lots of help for the young singles and for the married, and the Church even blesses the animals, but it never even notices the single, never-marrieds, not even with an occational prayer.

 "in my experience, marriage has been an eye-opener on the horizon front. Seeing things as another sees them, agree or not, is always a reminder of the questions not being asked from one's own pinnacle of perfect seeing!"

Ms. S. --

ISTM that this confirms a point I just made to JAK -- another person in the house is a great help in expanding one's horizons, especially about how limited one's horizons often are. There is nothing like criticism from someone we know loves us anyway.

Ann:   I haven't read Hanby's book, only Burrell's review. But I trust David and will get the book on his recommendation.

As for attention to Catholic singles, there are many groups and ministries devoted to them. Here's one example:  Maybe other people know of others.

When you type "Catholic singles groups--or ministries" into a search-engine, you get a lot of hits, and not all of them are dating services! 

As for the alleged failure of "the Church" to attend to singles, the perception of a need is an invitation (maybe even a call) to do something about it. One could talk to one's parish ministers and ask them if they can't do something about it. One could declare one's willingness to share in the work. One could ask friends and acquaintances if they would have any interest in starting a group for whatever purpoes, conversation, discussion, instruction, social outreach, etc. If people did something like this, then "the Church" in their area would be soind something for singles.

When I was in Australia a decade or so ago, after one of my lectures someone complained about the new ecclesial movements in the Church, that they're all so conservative. I replied, "If you don't like the movements that already exist, start your own. How do you think these movements got started? It was by a committed person or small group taking the initiative and it grew from there. Consider starting your own movement. You don't have to wait for the clergy to do it for you. The Code of Canon Law lits among the rights of Christians that of freely founding and directing associations for charitable or religious purposes or for fostering the Christian life in the world  (c. 215).

(I think of the group of retired university professors in my sister's town. They didn't wait for "the University" *(capital U) to do something for them. They started their own group and it's going strong.)

Sometimes the expansion occurs dramatically, when some new experience leads or forces one to ask questions unconsidered before.

This morning at Mass there was a new missalette for Holy Week, with a text by Paul Turner on the back cover. The first paragraph was about our reaction to the death of a loved one, and ended with, if I remember correctly, "their death bestows on us a deeper understanding of the meaning of life".

JAK --

Thanks for the good advice, but I'm much too frail physically to take it.  And I don't think an internet blog is what I"m after.  I checked the net for groups near me, but there aren't any.  There are groups for celibate gays, one for singles  which includes divorcess and widowed people, but their interests and problem are quite different fromt the single-never marrieds.  

I wasn't thinking about meeting people either (we do have friends already).  I was thinking about our spitirual needs and the need for a theology of never-married singlehood that would be part of that.  I'm also thinking about the de facto isolation of single people in parishes.  It's not done consciously, I'm sure, but there it is.  We just aren't encouraged to join in general groups, and, face it, there is some prejudice about the value of single people as such.  Even Pope Francis recently told some nuns who were questioning their relevance, "Don't worry.  You aren't old maids".  (That's a quote.)  With attitudes like that even at the top you surely you can see that we have our special problems within the Church itself.  And that's why we need a singles' theology.  


Catholicism is so centered on community that if there is a role for single people, it has to be within a community. Not the couple, and not a religious community for those who are not vowed religious. Perhaps what characterizes single people is that they have not taken vows, not made promises. That gives them the greatest freedom, flexibility to adapt to the needs of the time and even of the day. Without long-term commitments, they are in standby, ready to serve at short notice, in whatever way happens to be needed. It is the opposite of a stable life. They go forward in the unknown, adventurors who meet new people, go to new places, try new ways of being. They are the "extras" among the restaurant staff, the surplus: they provide the extra help when needed, and are content to just be there if not needed at the time. Of course they are under pressure to conform - people would like to put them in a box instead of facing the discomfort of seeing people who live with no pre-set path. At least isn't that a possibility? 


Ann:  The reference to the Internet site was simply an indication that things might not be as bleak as you implied with regard to "the Church's" attention to singles.

I would like to know what sorts of things you think should go into "a theology of never-married singlehood." What sorts of questions should it address? What spiritual needs?  If you are too frail to think of starting a group of never-married singles, could you at least outline what a possible theology for them would be like?  You're a trained philosopher and a committed Catholic, what do you have to say towards such a theology? Perhaps you don't have to wait for churchmen and theologians to take up the challenge.


Claire --


I agree that the roles we're talking about are as members of communities, and thank you for being willing to make room for us single never-marrieds.  I agree that SNMs do have a certain flexibility that married people and religious do not.  But that, it seems to me, can make it just as easy -- or easier -- for SNMs to have roles in communities (and not just in the Church) which can use more flexibility than married folks have, at least when their children are little.  In other words, why would you limited SNMs to stand-by roles?  And the freedom of choice of SNMs also gives them the freedom to be stable when then choose to be, e.g., to refuse a promotions rather than leave aged parent who need their care.  


I just don't see freedom as necessarily being a role determinant, nor as any sort of impediment to most roles in the Church.  And, frankly, being regarded as "surplus" is somehow rather insulting because it implies that we are intrinsically less capable of performing all the roles that the married folks perform.  Obviously, as single people we can't produce children , but in which other ways are we so intrinsically limited by our role/state in life that our roles must be back-ups?  It seems to me that spinsters and bachelors can perform whatever roles the community has need for, except, of course, for having children and for such professions as marriage counsellors and other roles requiring a close experience of matrimony.


Or do you think that SNMs abilities and horizons are intrinsically more limited than those who marry?



JAK --


ISTM a theology of single-never-marrieds would include questions analogous to questions considered in theologies of religious and married folks, e.g., what  are SNMs for in God's eternal scheme of things? What, if anything, are SNMs NOT for, beyond not being spouses and parents? Or, given that SNMs are identified negatively (they're the "never married"), can generalizations even be made about what all SNMs are for?  


On a practical level, do the SNMs have opportunities to make contributions to the common good that the marrieds and religious are unable or typicallfind difficult to make? Do SNMs have special responsibilities to others in their various communities that the marrieds and religious do not have?  


How are SNMs' spiritual needs the same as those of other people?  In what ways are their spiritual needs specifically different from those of others?  What Scriptural and traditional teachings back up the answers to these questions? 



I meant to emphasize the positive roles of "SNM"s, as you call them, that is, to focus on the things that they can do and that others cannot do: in particular, go on short notice to wherever some need suddenly emerges. I meant that others tend to have a fairly fixed role, and are relatively constrained. Once they are in a particular position, it is hard for them to move. There is a lot of inertia. (Even for married couples without children, a person cannot make a big move without consulting with their spouse.) Instead, SNMs can be called upon when the need arises, and it is much easier for them to act quickly. They can provide emergency response (think "Doctors without borders"). I agree that the term "surplus" is not the best choice. I meant it positively, actually: they are there when extra help is needed, in case of disaster for example. They are the necessary surplus that enables us to cross difficult times.

Of course they can take on stable roles, but that can also be done by couples or religious, so it's not special to them. You were asking about the "value of single people as such"... What they can typically do better than others are the unstable, temporary, sudden, shifting tasks. I note that they are valued in companies because they can easily be sent right and left, wherever the need is greatest, and they are more ready to take risks than people with children. They are also valued in politics because they can put in lots of hours.

I bet that within the church, most new movements and communities, some of which later became religious, were started by single people. Maybe SNMs are more daring, more concretely creative, more active in society.



Your comments have made me reflect on my own preaching and to ask whether I ever address single Catholics in particular. The answer is No, but that is because I don’t think of addressing groups. Except at children’s Masses, I aim my homilies at adults. I know, of course, that they can be grouped: the married, the unmarried, the widowed, the divorced; the young, the old, the sick, the healthy; the poor, the rich; etc. But I tend to think and preach about what they all have in common: the basic business of human living; of freedom and constraint; of sin and grace; of death and life; etc. I tend not to make specific moral or practical applications, which would often require distinguishing the groups and their respective situations and challenges; I tend to leave all that to the reflection and decisions of the individuals I’m addressing. So I’d like to think that, even though I don’t mention them, I am ignoring or neglecting the life-long unmarried people in the congregation.

But I can see how it is important for work to be done, as it has been done on other groups, on a spirituality for single Catholics that would address your questions, for which I thank you.

Claire --


Thanks for listening.  It's true that many singles have more time than most marrieds, but it doesn't always happen, especially when they're all middle-aged and the children of the married ones are independent.  When the kids of a family are gone, then the spouses usually have more time for themselves individually than the singles do because the spouses share the house and business chores.  Ask a widow if she has as much free time as her still-married sister.

Also when they're middle-aged, it seems that the SNMs are more likely to end up caring for aged parents and being tied down by them.  In fact, I have known singles who were quite bitter about their siblings not helping with their parents.  I didn't have that problem, but I have seen it happen:  some married siblings do not have the foggiest notion of the demands made on the single sibling who cares for their parents, so the marrieds don't do much to lift the burden.

It just isn't safe to make any assumptions about all singles -- or all marrieds, or all any group.  But I think stereotypical thinking about single-never-marrieds is more common than it is about marrieds.  Consider that in English there are only two terms for single-never-married women ("spinster" and "old maid"), and they are both quite negative ones.  They're so negative that Pope Francis even apologized for using the Italian equivalent.


JAK --


Thank you for listening.  Since I know you're paying attention, I'll say some more about the subject and include a few comments about widows and divorcees :-)

I'm sure you do address subjects in your sermons of interest to all, and I don't think there are any generic spiritual problems which belong to just one group, but some topics are of more relevance to some groups than others.  For instance,you preach on impatience, that will probably be of much greater interest to the marrieds than to the single-live-alones for the simple reason that there's nobody in the single's house to get impatient with.  In other words, our temptations and needs often differ, so some topics are more relevant to some groups than others. 

I suspect that no matter what you preach about you're going to lose some of your listeners, and that's not a bad thing, so long as you get around to all of their special needs sometimes. Question:  do you ever use SNMs as examples to illustrate your point?  It's nice to know that you've noticed we're there even if the examples aren't flattering.  

I certainly don't object to preaching to particular groups explicitly.  As Christians we want our brethren to get all the help they need.  I suspect that one of the reasons that some of the mega-churches do  so well is because the preachers refer often to marriage and financial concerns.  So why not preach about hard work and its relationship to financial security for their families?  Single people (widows and divorcees included) often have the same financial problems, many times even worse.  t would be a good thing, I think, if Catholic preachers followed the meta-churches' lead in addressing those issues.  By the way, I recently read an article by an Evangelical divorcee' who said that at Church functions she was expected to wait on the married members of the Church.  That is how extreme some in our culture are about the place of non-marrieds in the culture.  She switched churches.  At least Catholics just ignore singles. 

Do preach occasionally about the common problems -- and faults -- of singles, e.g., the way we tend to become self-focused.  Not that we're the only ones who do, but this happens almost by necessity -- there usually aren't others around to distract us.  And I'm sure you've noticed how we old singles tend to become focused on our health and bore others to death talking about our little ailments?  Then there is the singles' problem which I mentioned above of not having a loving critic in the house.  And so on.  Ask around.  Ask some other singles -- including the widowed and divorced.  We share some issues.  Ask the men too.  And young single mothers are another huge group.


a loving critic



That is quite the euphemism. Loving critic....hmmmm  ...So that it what it has been all these years....loving critic....LOL..You are going to have to patent that one! 

But I do understand what you mean and your point is so well taken. I think part of the problem with talking about the vocation of the SNM is that it is a vocation that is so individual and unique. It is hard to put in a box as each SNM lives out his or her vocation in a way unique to them. Simone Weil, Catherine of Sienna, even Edith Stein pre-St. Theresa Benedict of the Cross, Dorothy Day...Ann Olivier.....


You should add that to your famous dictionary on Vatican speak!!

some married siblings do not have the foggiest notion of the demands made on the single sibling who cares for their parents, so the marrieds don't do much to lift the burden.

I bet that's true. Similarly, I've also heard, time and again, friends and students telling me, once they had children, that they had never before realized just how much work was involved in parenting. Maybe such tasks are largely invisible, and you cannot really understand them without experiencing them.

But I don't like the idea that the role of single people is to take care of aging parents, or maybe babysit on occasion, or maybe come and help around the house when there is a new birth, etc. It puts them in maybe a subservient, side, unimportant position, while the married with children have the noble role of bringing forth the main family project of raising the next generation. It's like saying that the important task belongs to married couples, and singles are just there to pick up the bits, the leftover tasks in the family circle. That's kind of depressing. But I don't see it that way. Instead, I think that couples often suffer from being centered on their nuclear family. Quite often, they pay so much attention and give so much time to their kids and, in good cases, to each other, that they have no time nor will left to develop other interests. Many are exclusively family-focused, in a closed system. They care for their kids, for one another, and (measured by how they spend their time) that's pretty much it. Instead, singles can be, much more than couples, focused outwards, and find their place in a broader, more open community. 

But I have lived in a number of suburban areas with lots of families and, in church, I have never ever heard anything against families that are closed onto themselves. Lots of sentimental praise heaped on how mothers and fathers love their children, as if that was the ideal way to live, but never the merest hint of a suggestion that that's not enough for a Christian (well, except for asking families to give money - they can buy off whatever guilt they might feel from being exclusively focused on themselves). On the contrary, "defending the family" is a frequent topic. There's a idolization of the family. "Criticizing the family"? Never!


Ann:  I hardly ever preach about moral problems of the sort that you mention. I have no idea, for example, of what I would say were I to preach, as you suggest, "about hard work and its relationship to financial security for their families." I don't know what I could say that wouldn't be simply banal: It's important to work hard for your family's financial security. Is this what people want from their priests? 

I think one of the main problems we, and many other Churches, face is the reduction of Christianity to ethics. Christian imperatives flow out of Christian indicatives, what we are to do from what God has done for us in Christ. My homilies are always about the biblical readings and focus on the good news and not on problems, financial or otherwise, individual or common. 

Fr. K - a single person in our parish once told me, very nicely, that I preached frequently about family life, and that as a single person she felt somewhat excluded.  I should add that, during our formation, we were urged to preach homilies that would be distinctively different than "priests' homilies" by focusing on such areas of life as the workplace and family for which (it was thought) deacons have insight.

Ann - when I was in formation, a standard component of our formation was a "marriage encounter weekend" for the deacon candidates and their wives.  It's a fine idea, with just one drawback: two of our classmates were unmarried.  (The opportunities for the church to exhibit a tin ear are virtually inexhaustible :-)).   The solution they devised was to combine the "marriage encounter weekend" with a "single life weekend", and subject all of us to both components.  Much of the weekend format consisted of facilitators giving extended reflections to which we sat and listened.  And so, in the combined format, first a married couple would give an extended reflection on, say, romance and intimacy in marriage.  It was fine for those of us who were married, but I'm sure it was somewhat irritating for the singles, in the way that being subjected to something irrelevant from which one can't escape always is irritating.  This would be followed by an extended relection by a priest on, say, celibacy.  Possibly that was of interest to the two single guys, but then it was the turn of the rest of us to be irritated.  

The overall experience was, by turns, something to enjoy and something to endure.  Which actually turns out to be true of many aspects of life, not excluding life in the church, of course.


George D. -

I tend to agree with you that SNMs have no one primary role in society.  But we do seem to fill oddball slots as needed and that, no doubt, leads to some of us being quirky, oddball characters,  The dotty old aunt stereotype isn't always just a stereotype. 

Claire --

ISTM that often it is the reasonable thing for the single sibling to care for parents if they need help.  What becomes a problem is when the marrieds don't appreciate just how much time and effort the caretaker gives and so the marrieds don't offer relief from the sometimes burdensome duties.  Not all marrieds are so insensitive, of course, aand many of them do take up that duty when there are no single siblings.  

About some parents being too centered on their families, it seems to me that "helicopter" parents have become a particular threat to many children.  Some kids are so cosseted that they never become independent, are extremely unsure of themselves, and are lost when Mommy isn't around to make decisions for them.  It is not loving to raise a child like that.  Maybe the blog some threads about it.  Another problem:  kids can be raised to be very self-centered and indifferent to the concerns and needs of people outside of the tribe.  Yes, tribal thinking is a real threat to a good life! 

Claire --

ISTM that often it is the reasonable thing for the single sibling to care for parents if they need help.  What becomes a problem is when the marrieds don't appreciate just how much time and effort the caretaker gives and so the marrieds don't offer relief from the sometimes burdensome duties.  Not all marrieds are so insensitive, of course, aand many of them do take up that duty when there are no single siblings.  

About some parents being too centered on their families, it seems to me that "helicopter" parents have become a particular threat to many children.  Some kids are so cosseted that they never become independent, are extremely unsure of themselves, and are lost when Mommy isn't around to make decisions for them.  It is not loving to raise a child like that.  Maybe the blog some threads about it.  Another problem:  kids can be raised to be very self-centered and indifferent to the concerns and needs of people outside of the tribe.  Yes, tribal thinking is a real threat to a good life! 

JAK --

Maybe one of the reasons that the laity complains so loudly about most sermons is that the sermons do not relate closely enough to the common problems and discouragements of our lives.  

It is all very well to talk about "love" but that is an particularly abstract concept, and we need guidance about its specifics in our lives.  Generic considerations of love don't help us to live instantiations of it when we don't know what it is truly loving in real-life circumstances,   "Justice" is also a very, very abstract subject. Further, when we're wondering about what is the loving or just  thing to do it is at those times that we we *are* thinking about ethics, and it's at those times we need to be reminded of the ethical principles we've already heard if we're lucky enough to have had instruction in ethics as such -- unfortunately, many people have not.  

It's fine to talk about the theological virtue of "hope", but what a lot of people need is hope in the kindness of God in the face of being unemployed, hope in the face of divorce, hope in the face of illness or betrayal or disappointment, hope in the face of all sorts of common discouragements.  It is my understanding that Protestant preachers do get specific about such things, and I suspect that that is a main reason their preaching is appreciated.

It's fine to talk about "faith", but that too is a huge abstraction.  What many people need is more talk about retaining faith even in the face of the unanswered religious questions that plague many people, faith when prayers seem to go unanswered.  I could go on and on.

Yes, we need the abstractions, but we need the applications just as much.  I suppose I have to say this here:   If you don't know what those applications should be, then that probably the fault of our having an exclusively celibate clergy.  More married priests would make those needed applications clearer to the rest of you.  Yes, it's a matter of broadening the Catholic priests' horizons.  

Ann:  I hope you didn't take what I've said in the last couple of comments to mean that I am simply preaching "abstractions." I don't think the Gospel is very abstract, as were not Jesus' parables, not to mention his death and resurrection.


Jim P. = 

I think preachers are bound to lose their audiences sometimes.  I guess the trick is finding common aspects of their hearers' lives.  There used to be so many more marrieds than singles that it was inevitable that the concerns of the married got a lot of attention.  But there are very many more SNMS than there used to be, many more than you'd think --  I read somewhere that in the over-40 cohort singles are now 1 in 10, and of course, in the under 40s the number of unmarrieds it is much larger.  I also read that over 50% of Americans, including the divorced and widowed, are now single, i.e., over half your congregation.  So may be you need to preach sort of specifially for them more often.  

Oops?  The 2012 U. S. Census says that only 44.1% of Americans of over 18 are single.  Here's more than you want to know about it from the Census Bureau:Facts for

Features: Unmarried and Single Americans Week ...

Oops?  The 2012 U. S. Census says that only 44.1% of Americans of over 18 are single.  Here's more than you want to know about it from the Census Bureau:Facts for

Features: Unmarried and Single Americans Week ...

ISTM that often it is the reasonable thing for the single sibling to care for parents if they need help.

Actually that makes sense: people who have been taken care of by their parents when they were children return the service, in the case of people who have children, by taking care of their own children, and, in the case of people who do not have children, by taking care of their parents when they age.

The business of who cares for the aging parents deserves a thread of its own.  I have seen the single children get "stuck" with it.  In the cases where the adult children have become scattered all over the country or all over the world, I have seen the geographically-closest child (married or not) get "stuck" with it.  

It seems to me that women rather than men generally get "stuck" with it.  In the years when our children were young and my wife was staying home, she predicted that if anything happened to one of *my* parents, she would be the one who would be "stuck" with caring for the other one.  

In the world of deacons, a widowed or divorced deacon generally is not able to remarry and remain a deacon; the expectation is that if he remarries, he leaves the diaconate.  But there is an exception: he may remarry if his ministry is considered indispensible to the community, if his children are young, and if his parents need care.  Thus even church law expects the woman to be "stuck" with it.

I have to say that, in my limited observation, I've never seen an adult child relish the care of his/her elderly parents.  Young adults invest a lot of hope, a lot of emotion, into having children of their own and then sacrifice and rearrange their lives around their children.  But caring for parents seems to be universally considered to be drudgery.  Maybe it's just that we're not cute when we're old.


Going back to the original topic: I know that having children opens new horizons. We experience the parent-child relationship from the other side, it reminds one of early childhood experiences, lost memories come back unbidden, and suddenly we understand things about our parents and about ourselves that we never knew before - including now-obvious answers to questions we had never even thought of asking. For me it was one of the most extraordinary and completely unexpected aspects of parenting.

Does caring for an aging parent also bring its own share of new horizons?


Jim P. ==

I think there are two big reasons why care of aged parent these days is considered drudgery.  First, it is added work, and the caregiver is now middle-aged, not the young person who had loads of energy when caring for children.  I cared for my parents and disabled brother, but it wasn't drudgery because we had a maid who was devoted to my parents, and we also had a part-time maid to do the heavy cleaning for the old maid.  Plus both of my parents were very easy-going old people, and I knew that my younger brother would take them if need be. So we all were lucky.  These days few families have maids, so there is always a good deal of physical work involved.  That is where I think that the non-caretaker siblings need to offer some part-time help, even if they have to pool some money to get a maid every once and a while for the caretaker.  It's only fair.  All children owe their parents care, at least some care. Not to mention that if they are remiss in heping their parents that will just teach their kids that they needn't help either.

These days it's the Boomers who are called on to be caretakes, and they typically seem to have ambivent feelings towards their parents.  They're the ones who said "Don't trust anyone over 30", and I think a lot of that still lingers.  So while they do care, they also don't have the same respect that earlier generations seemed to have. Maybe it's time for reconcilition.

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