success stories

Posted January 26, 2004

Want to know more about communitarianism? Then, read the following. A good summary of post modern movements and ideologies that are influencing our lives.

Catholics and the Liberal Tradition

by Michael Lacey and William M. Shea

Taken from American Catholics and Civic Engagement A Distinctive Voice
Editor and publishing company already cited on our web page.

Over the last several years, many Catholics have lamented their state of political homelessness. They want to know where they belong in today's debates over public policy and political philosophy. Those are the debates that, in John Courtney Murray's phrase, shape "the growing end of history," by giving a renewed sense of overall direction and purpose to the workings of government in society. However politically homeless Catholics may feel in today's politics, empirical snapshots show they are all over the lot. They can be found at the upper levels of all three branches of the national government. They represent a sizable presence in both political parties, with perhaps a slight tilt still lingering in favor of the Democrats, sometimes for reason of shared memories. They are prominent in the leadership of both liberal and conservative circles, and among the pundits as well. Nancy Pelosi and Henry Hyde, Ted Kennedy and Don Nickels, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Antonin Scalia, Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley, and E. J. Dionne Jr.-all are members of the same universal church.

And then there is the pluralism inside the mind. Consider the following beliefs held by the two of us and perhaps others as well, but motley enough in their contents to provoke concern and accusations of inconsistency from many quarters in today's political landscape.

Answering the Litmus Tests

We don't think taxes are too high, government is too big, the market should rule, or that the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are infallible. We are not against bureaucracy; it does big jobs that can't be done otherwise, and has a certain moral worth that we ought to think about more deeply. Among other things, public bureaucracies are tools for the pursuit of social justice and the common good. As much as we gripe about the paperwork, the public needs protection and the touch of leveling that comes with regulation, as the damage wrought by robber barons, old and new, makes plain enough. We are not for guns in the hands of citizens. We don't think the individual has a right to kill himself or help someone kill himself. We do think that abortion is a social evil as well as a sin, that no one has a right to it, and that child and spouse abuse are not private matters but sins, and should be treated as crimes. We don't think divorce is a generally good idea; it is a sadness in most cases.

We don't believe humans are perfectible, but that bit of wisdom calls for moral realism, not complacency or dropping out. Too often it is used tout court to ridicule the hopes of reformers: "Don't waste your time on politics and government," say the worldly wise, "the results will only break your hearts." We believe in the radical moral equality of human beings, each one made, as we were taught, in the image and likeness of God. We do not believe, however, in radical social equality, equality of outcome, either as an ideal or a goal in public policy. We believe that while moral and social equality are different things, they are related things, and there are limits to how much inequality in the material goods of life people should put up with. Precise discriminations may be impossible, but consider the extremes. More than one-third of the economic assets in America are held by 1 percent of house- holds, and two-thirds by the richest 10 percent. How could anyone believe that this setup is part of the providential order, not to be tampered with?

Is it still considered gauche-awash as we are in new revelations about the gargantuan scale of the "infectious greed" that spread to God knows how many boardrooms-to fret about the merits of the sky-is-the-limit executive compensation schemes or the special protections that ought to be accorded to employee pension funds? We believe that as a practical matter the "preferential option" for the poor should be kept in mind as a kind of "true north" indicator, a useful starting point for navigating the treacherous waters of public policy. It should not be dismissed as soppy altruism when the community needs altruism with teeth. We believe it is wise to work toward greater measures of social equality in education, housing, health care, and other fields of policy, and we would be happier than we are if the Bush administration thought about its slogan "to leave no child behind" with a bit more depth and imagination than it has shown so far.

We believe warmly in progress and the need for it, not the automatic kind of economic fantasy, but the hard-won kind that comes only from struggle and collaborative creativity, and always threatens to come undone unless well tended. (Only yesterday, it seems, there was growing bipartisan enthusiasm for undoing the foundations of our social policy and "privatizing" Social Security.) Making progress is the proper aim and measure of politics, and so progressivism, too, is a good thing, a useful ideal. It calls for steadiness of purpose, taking history seriously, and a constructively critical attitude toward public affairs. The late Bernard Lonergan, S,J., our top pick as the most resourceful Catholic mind grappling with the fundamental problems of modernity over the past half century or so, was always puzzled by those who thought it was easy to see through the myth of progress. His own effort to think through the subject concluded that human beings have a moral obligation, indeed, a theologically sanctioned obligation, to do everything they can to pursue progress and forestall decline, the corollary of that pursuit and the cost of failing in it. We agree.

We don't believe in individualism pure and simple. As anyone who has thought hard about the subject will agree, there is nothing simple about it. We don't think autonomy is the trumping moral ideal (authenticity and integrity are more like it), or that individual rights should be the irreducible legal category, as in arguments for assisted suicide, abortion on demand, or the legalization of psychotropic drugs. We don't believe in the claims of community pure and simple either, and for the same reason. It is a hard subject. At any given time most of us are members of many communities, each of them more or less imperfect. Group bias-be it the snobbery of families, racism, the harder forms of multiculturalism, sectarian extremism, the contempt of the academic class for conventional religion, the belief that the poor have better moral reflexes than the wealthy or vice versa-all forms of the group phenomenon are as subtle and stubborn as the individual forms. Attention has to be paid to both kinds.

We think people are called to suffer and die for one another and with one another and for the communities to which they belong, and that self transcendence in love is the basic moral and religious meaning of human life. The phrase may seem at first highfalutin, but it accurately describes the phenomenon, and the phenomenon itself is not a rare thing. It is a common, garden variety experience. We see it when things are working well in the family, on the job, and in all the larger communities in which we participate. We think that the church and the government are crucial to our humanity and its flourishing, and that both need constant watching and criticism because they are run by people like us. They are not the enemy any more than the

We are supernaturalists where we should be (there is a point to it all and we are pulled toward it) family is. and not where we don't have to be (appearances of the Virgin and devil possession). We are thoroughgoing naturalists whenever possible.

Theologically speaking, we are not "radical orthodox," any more than we are classic neo-orthodox (we leave that to Stanley Hauerwas and Michael Baxter). We think there are important overlaps in language and hope between Christians and secularists, and that we can communicate across the distinct languages we use in religious and secular communities, and between religious traditions. The choice we favor is reason and faith, not reason or faith. There need not be an essential contradiction between a divinely guided orthodox Catholic Church and the secular, sinful, lost world around it that is not a church. The "world" Johannine sense) is in the church and the church needs saving, too. Witness "the scandal"! Do we need more proof of the presence of the world in the church?

We are not antistate neoconservatives or Americanists who believe that by virtue of its political arrangements our country is closer to God than are other nations and peoples, and we don't think God smiles more broadly on us than on them. We don't think that today's free-enterprise capitalism is a stripped-down version of Christianity in disguise. We are not evangelical Christians or even evangelical Catholics who believe that for the world to work right, it must be Catholic or Christian. We do believe that the gospel must be preached, but how it is done is all important. We don't believe that religious conquest or homogeneity is part of that gospel. Catholicism and evangelicalism have both been blessings to history; both blessings have been mixed. For too long in both its Catholic and Protestant "moral majority" versions, the impossible dream of a renewed Christendom, of one true church in one just state, has distracted religious people from thinking responsibly about politics, as even popes now agree.

Liberalism and Community

But enough about who we are not. Who are we? We think of ourselves as Catholic liberals of the communitarian kind. We won't say it is a match made in heaven, but we do believe that Catholicism and liberal communitarianism as it is developing today, both in academic circles and as a fledgling political movement, have much in common and good reason to keep in touch. Communitarians want to recover the feel of real life, from which we have drifted away, in our politics. They know that the choice between an abstract individual, on the one hand, and an abstract community, on the other, is a bogus choice. While it values freedom, as all modern "isms" must, communitarianism is alert to the costs of liberty, and insists on judging the claims made for individualism against the background of the often implicit; needs of the communities that make up the fabric of social life.

As a tendency in academic philosophy and political theory, the "communitarian turn," of which we speak, began to take shape in the 1980s. While it was hardly a Catholic project (most of its leading figures-Michael Sandel, Amatai Etzioni, Philip Selznick, Robert Bellah, William Galston, Benjamin Barber, Alan Wolfe, and Jean Bethke Elsthain, for example, are not Catholic), Catholic thinkers, such as Charles Taylor, Mary Ann Glendon, Alasdair Maclntyre, and E. J. Dionne Jr., have been prominent in its development from the beginning. All of these writers have been engaged in an attempt to reevaluate our many-stranded liberal tradition, and to reinvigorate its most important insights.

The communitarian project is not a conservative movement, though most of its adversaries would frame it that way. For some critics, left and right, the fusion of commitments to both the individual and the community, which is characteristic of communitarian thought, is a basic contradiction. For liberals such as Patricia Ireland or Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, or for Libertarians such as Milton Friedman, Charles Murray, or members of the debate teams at Washington's Cato Institute, for example, the choice is not bogus, but genuine and forced by the way things really are. We think otherwise. When American Catholics signed onto the modern liberal tradition in a big way in the 1930s, it was the communitarian elements of the tradition that caught their attention and earned their loyalty. The old siren song of laissez- faire economics and rugged individualism made no sense to them. The nation-building ethos of solidarity that lay behind the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act (with its encouragements to unionism and protection against the exploitation of management) along with many other proposals, then and since, seemed the proper kind of liberalism to the Catholic ethnic and laboring communities. Free-market capitalism, as Andrew Greeley has shown on many occasions, has never been attractive to most American Catholics, and it still isn't, despite the migration of many into the Republican Party.

Much has happened to the liberal tradition since the communitarian shaping given to it by progressivism and the New Deal -- from the antiwar and Civil Rights movements to reparations and multiculturalism, the women's movement, free love and gay liberation, the pro-choice crusade, modern environmentalism, animal rights, and many other new causes (how quickly they come to feel old!), all of them championed more or less skillfully by academic spokespersons. The two of us are old enough to have lived through all these different cross currents and eddies of public thought and feeling, and at times it has seemed very confusing, sometimes even objectionable. Looking back, however, this much seems clear: a fight was going on over the proper meaning and grounds of the liberal tradition. The political and intellectual community that made up mid century American liberalism gradually succumbed to factionalism, was splintered and pulled in various directions. This happened not only politically in the Democratic Party but also philosophically, in tandem with changes of fashion and argument (too complicated for brief summary here, even of the polemical kind) that arose and were given expression in academic life.

The most recent stratum of communitarian thinking arose from these political and academic changes. The quarrels between liberal communitarians and liberals of other persuasions over the true bearings of the liberal tradition itself have been bitter, as only arguments en famille can be. Nonetheless, the proponents of communitarian ideas have sought not to repudiate the liberal tradition (it is much too complex and valuable a thing for that), but to prune it, correct its abuses, and provide amendments where they are necessary. Like the neo-orthodox theologians of the middle of the last century (Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, for example) in relation to the theological liberalism of that day, communitarianism aims at revitalizing a tired movement. As the neo-orthodox writers reminded liberal Protestants of Original Sin and the need for redemption, so communitarians remind their fellow liberals that the world is a community of communities and not simply the backdrop for individual achievement and its satisfactions. Communitarians do not want to turn the clock back on the Civil Rights movement or the women's movement, but they have not been afraid to tally up the costs to the moral commonwealth of apparently never ending waves of liberation so intent on overcoming various establishments that they have lost any hope of a broad and genuine community of mind and spirit. They are sharply critical of doctrines of moral relativism as corrosive of the foundations of political order and justice. They have been vigorous in their opposition to the hard forms of multiculturalism and the absolutist ideas that sometimes color the politics of gender. They are not against rights, but insist on distinguishing rights from wants and grounding them in credit-worthy public reasoning. They have chided the unexpected reticence of those who fancy

themselves liberal spokesmen but who can't quite muster all three cheers for the common good, fearing that something ugly and repressive might be imposed in its name. Communitarians believe that a good argument might end in an even better conversation about strengthening the community's ties, and that conversation itself is the bond that is threatened by ideologies, including some forms of contemporary liberalism, such as take-it-or-leave-it free-choice politics, or hardheaded, single-issue politics of the right-to-life type, or extreme versions of free-speech doctrines whose advocates cannot in conscience preclude shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, much less banning child pornography from the Internet.

The need for responsibility in a rights-mad, individualist culture has been the leading theme in communitarian thinking, and the lack of any workable theory of responsibility within much of today's popular liberalism (and popular conservatism, too, it must be said) is what drew communitarians together in the first place. When the communitarian network was established in 1990 by Etzioni, Galston, Glendon, and others, they created its quarterly journal and made a point of giving it the title: The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities. They speak of theirs as a "centrist" philosophy, intended "to restore social responsibilities and a commitment to community, without Puritanism or authoritarianism." While the movement disclaims any ties to party politics and the network includes some conservatives and Republicans in its number, most communitarians are Democrats and have been prominent in the effort to pull the party back to the center and away from the allure of fringe politics and ideological purity.

Despite the great and obvious gains for humanity that modernity ushered into history (democratic government and unconstrained scientific inquiry chief among them), the moral environment of modernity has been hard on all the bonds of traditional community on family ties, on ethnic and religious affiliations, even on social class and the norms of the learned professions. Communitarian policy thinking aims to shore up the fraying bonds of community. Those bonds include not only shared outlooks and values, but shared institutions as well, among them the institutions of government. These are counted as assets of community, not the outposts of alien tribes, and they are to be used for the solution of a special class of problems, those which cannot reasonably be handled by individuals or private associations alone.

Communitarians stress the importance of doing whatever is possible to maintain a thriving civil sector, meaning the whole kit and caboodle of non-governmental human associations, from families and bowling leagues, to churches, unions, and corporations. But they don't accept perspectives that pit government and civil society against one another as natural enemies, the way conservatives like to do. They are the same at the source: people like us. Thus liberal communitarians seek a certain kind of competence in the public sector. They look for responsiveness, cooperation, and the closer integration of government and society, not their separation. If the common good requires new roles to be played by government, such as making qualified daycare widely available, for example, so be it. If a dose of privatization of what was previously public makes sense, such as turning over the provision of government services to private corporations operating on contract, in trash collection, for example, or, to give the idea a different and more controversial twist, the use of tax dollars to provide vouchers for children to attend religious schools, then try it and find out. But do find out, and don't make a fetish or a cure-all out of the term itself: What counts is the quality of the modern way of life taken as a whole, and for this to be good we need knowledgeable and responsive governance, a communitarian ideal. You can't get either without public oversight and well-informed political discussion about the ways we actually live and work.

The liberal communitarians have had little to say as yet about problems of religious identity and tradition, but Catholics who take seriously the social teachings of the church (the natural-law tradition on family and social justice, subsidiarity, public responsibility for the social and economic safety net) are likely to find their concerns and general way of talking congenial. The great religious traditions are alike at least in this: All of them would find the ideal of untethered individualism and the idolatry of personal choice wide of the mark of righteousness, if not repellant. For this reason they have been the main vessels of communitarian values throughout history, and are likely to remain so. As we well know, religious communities can be tribal in their focus and narrow in their intellectual and spiritual horizons. Getting over this without losing the faith is the challenge of modernity. The religions have been ill at ease with one another, but even less comfortable with the ramifications of the ideas that gave rise to modern secular culture, which sometimes appeared to be all selfishness, hustle, and impiety. Gregory XVI and Pius IX condemned the modern world for putting unbearable pressure on the church, and Pope Pius X could speak of Catholic modernism as "the synthesis of all the heresies." The same kind of thought has crossed the minds of clerics in the other traditions. Popes haven't thought or talked that way for a long time. Mater et Magistra, Pacem in terris, and the Post-Vatican II social encyclicals have returned time and again to the need tor both solidarity and subsidiarity if we are to achieve a genuinely responsible political order. Indeed, the interplay of solidarity and subsidiarity -- both themes being mainstays in the church’s natural law tradition -- makes up the idiom that gives Catholic social thought its distinctive communitarian cast. Subsidiarity is a way of thinking about the ideal of responsiveness in the social order. It speaks to the morality of giving and receiving help. It points to the complex requirements of cooperation among the "higher" and "lower" associations of life in society, and the need to provide help without harm up and down the line -- to furnish welfare support for those who need it, for example, without financing a caste system and undermining fulfillment of the obligation to look after ourselves and out own. Finding and holding that line can be difficult, and subsidiarity asks a lot from each of us. It can be understood minimally to say: Ask for help when you need it, give when asked, but don't spoil yourself (or anyone else), take care of your own business, and don't be an intrusive busy body.

Solidarity, on the other hand, cautions against complacency and getting lost in your own business. Pope John Paul II speaks of it as a virtue to be cultivated through reflective participation in society and politics. He describes solidarity as an overriding will to community in keeping with our intuitions of the divine will. "It is not," he says, "a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good." Thus understood, solidarity is an open-ended sense of moral obligation that helps us to see the "other" as one of us, and works to prevent communities, including religious communities, from closing in on themselves. The post-Vatican II papacy has carefully championed the sacred dignity of all human persons, not just Catholics in good standing. The new tone and the cautious apologies evident in the Vatican's attempts to repair rifts with the world's Jewish communities, to reopen talks with other Christian groups and with secularists, to dispel some of the old biases against science-these are public exercises of the virtue of solidarity.

We think Catholics could learn a good deal from liberal communitarians, and that Catholics have something to offer communitarians also. In their thinking about the linkage between rights and responsibilities, about the role of commitment in forming it, about the importance of particulars in trying to live up to universal values, about social justice as a distinctive kind of political virtue that requires more than simply treating people fairly, the communitarians are reviving questions and approaches to them that were once on the agenda of Catholic scholars and activists working in the natural law tradition prior to Vatican II. (On treating people fairly historically speaking, many white persons treated black persons fairly in face-to-face relations, without making a dent in the structure of race relations, and the problem lingers in the distinction between personal and "institutional" racism, the latter showing up not face to face but only at the level of statistical inquiry.) Such communitarian ideas have also been on the agenda of Commonweal since its inception. As understood all along by these Catholics, the natural law tradition held that universal values were real, that there is a kind of innate moral knowledge in all human beings, whatever their culture or condition, and that despite all the variations of customs and mores that history or travel reveal, true standards of justice exist and are not merely made up. They are accessible to everyone through the responsible exercise of their minds. In the olden days of Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, and lesser lights, Catholics called for others in secular society to join them in the search for shared answers to shared problems along these natural law lines. No one of great stature on the secular side of things seems to have paid much attention, perhaps because the natural law style of thinking was suspect as too denominational and merely Catholic. The communitarians represent another chance at serious collaboration with non-Catholic thinkers, a process that can begin only by getting better acquainted. For those who want to do so, we would suggest reading Philip Selznick's recent little book The Communitarian Persuasion (Woodrow Wilson Press), a concise but comprehensive, accessible overview of liberal communitarian thought on all the big questions at stake in public philosophy. We would also recommend clicking on the Communitarian Network and their journal, The Responsive Community, at their Web site (www .gwu.edu/-ccps/ rcq/index.html) . Beyond the affinities of the social teaching of the church and the outlook of the communitarians, Catholicism offers a few more things that only the church can offer. It recognizes and celebrates publicly the sacramentality of human life in community and nature. It distinguishes the sacred from the profane, the really real from the deceptively real. The church promotes the moral and religious conversion of citizens and leaders, encouraging everyone to keep heads up and focused on the big picture. It prizes life, cradle-to-grave, something the government and culture, given their secularity, tend to fudge. Finally, while the state cannot and should not recognize the grace and call of God in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth (theocracy and even establishment are not options anywhere anymore), at least the church can literally and metaphorically keep the crucifix in the air before it. It reminds us that both setback and failure in the quest for the just society are only moments in which we learn again what we knew all along, that the reign of God is a gift, not an achievement.