Why Catholics Should be Communitarians

Modern communitarian political thought began as an academic reaction to the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971, which sought to establish liberal philosophical assumptions as universally valid. Since then communitarianism has developed as a more penetrating critique of liberalism, though it has in turn been criticized for failing to develop a coherent alternative to it. Obviously, liberalism as a political philosophy should not be confused with the platform of the Democratic Party in the United States, for it only articulates one form of liberalism at best; economic liberalism is still alive and well in both the Republican and Libertarian parties.
In response to liberalism, the communitarians seek to re-emphasize the Aristotelian conception of man as a ‘social being,’ and in doing so reaffirm the social basis of morality, citizenship, and personal responsibility. For that reason, communitarianism is often considered one of the ‘third way’ projects that try to find a balance between the market and the state, avoiding both extreme individualism and collectivism.
One of the most prominent communitarians, Amitai Etzioni, outlined the basic differences between contemporary liberal philosophy and communitarianism in his 1990 article “Liberals and Communitarians.” According to Etzioni, “liberals continue to hold that individual liberty, protected by individual rights, takes priority over any and all common good, rather than treating individual and community as moral equals.” The communitarian emphasis by contrast is on duties. Etzioni quotes communitarian philosopher Philip Sleznick who argued “rights do not define the political community,” nor do they provide reasons for acting. Duties, on the other hand, “summon us to action.”
Liberals and libertarians on one side and communitarians on the other have tried to find a compromise between the two schools of thought, but progress has been slow. That’s why Etzioni’s approach is so promising: He represents a new crop of communitarian thinkers which argues for the equal value of the individual and the community.
If these themes and disputes don’t sound familiar by now, they should: They play a foundational role in Catholic social thought as it has developed since the time of Pope Leo XIII. Before communitarianism arrived on the scene, the Church was insisting that both liberalism and individualism, as well as socialist or communist collectivism, were unacceptable social orders, and that a more balanced approach was necessary.
In Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI warned about the “twin rocks of shipwreck,” individualism and collectivism, and reaffirmed Pope Leo’s condemnation of liberalism applied to the economy (25, 30, 46, 88).
Likewise, in Mater et Magistra, John XXIII set down “the fundamental principle” of Catholic social thought:
The permanent validity of the Catholic Church’s social teaching admits of no doubt. This teaching rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings (218-19).
More recently John Paul II in Centesimus Annus warned us that the individual may become “suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace” (49), while Pope Benedict XVI, in his Urbi et Orbi message of Christmas 2008, simply declared “If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart.”
Finally the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church states:
The sphere of friendship, [contrasted with the sphere of rights], is that selflessness, detachment from material goods, giving freely and inner acceptance of the needs of others. Civil friendship understood in this way is the most genuine actualization of the principle of fraternity, which is inseparable from that of freedom and equality. In large part, this principle has not been put into practice in the concrete circumstances of modern political society, above all because of the influence of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies . . . . The Christian vision of political society places paramount importance on the value of community, both as a model for organizing life in society and as a style of everyday living (390-92, emphasis in the original).
It should be clear then that the Church has been outspoken against both individualism and collectivism out of her respect for the individual person as a social being. Moreover, like the communitarians, the Church moves beyond a simple discussion of rights to instead address “the concrete circumstances of modern society.”
One could even argue that the pontiffs were the original communitarians.
So why has Catholic social thought had an easier time than secular political theory in synthesizing rights and responsibilities, individual liberties, and the integrity of communities? Part of the reason can be found in Christian theology, which provides a comprehensive picture of man as both an individual with dignity and inherent value, and a moral being who has responsibilities to others. In the modern era, the Church’s unwavering support of the right to private property — and its consistent exhortation to find ways to spread it to as many of its members as possible — has allowed it to harmonize the rights and social responsibilities of the individual. As Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum:
We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners (46).
This core idea was rearticulated and expanded upon by subsequent popes who took up the same issues (see my blog entry at American Catholic for details).
Clearly the pontiffs saw no contradiction between support for private property rights and a strong condemnation of economic liberalism (just as they condemned the obscene concentrations of wealth and power which we sometimes call plutocracy). When Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno argued that liberalism was the father of socialism, he didn’t mean it in a purely intellectual sense; rather, he argued that the great imbalances caused by an abuse of property rights — justified and enabled by the ideology of economic liberalism — had ended up threatening the actual property of all individuals. This is no less true today than it was in 1931.
The Church’s defense of private property, her preference for more widespread ownership, her condemnation of both liberalism and plutocracy, and the ‘paramount importance’ she places on community, add up to a social vision that rests upon what I call “communities of ownership.”
For while communitarians have argued that individuals are always ‘situated’ within the context of a specific community, and liberals in turn respond that ‘community’ is a vague term, the Church situates the individual within the community not merely as an individual, but ideally as a co-owner and relatively equal partner. Both the individual and the community are respected and protected when property owners have a true understanding of both the rights and duties of ownership.
The rightto property is an individual right, and is the secular foundation of all other rights. Indeed, the most basic democratic freedom, the right to vote, was originally limited to property owners. This was not merely elitist contempt for the lower classes, but came from a reasonable belief that people have greater motivation and incentive to care for things as owners as opposed to tenants.
However, the use of property is limited and directed by social responsibilities to serve the common good. Property rights are neither absolute nor unlimited anywhere in Catholic social teaching; they are always conditioned on their responsible social use. This will necessarily entail regulation with an eye to the welfare of the community and the common good of society. To return to Pius XI once again, such regulation “does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them” (49).
It was a tragic mistake to assume that human freedom could be had by expanding abstract rights without doing the same with property ownership. Through the application of Catholic social principles, however, the two can be joined together so that true human freedom may yet flourish.

Joe Hargrave writes from Phoenix. He blogs at A New Catholic Paradigm, Vox Nova, and American Catholic.


  • Joe Hargrave

    Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

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