Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Among Jean Elshtain's many fine pieces engaging the Catholic social tradition (most written before she became a Catholic herself in 2011) was a reflection on subsidiarity and related themes in "Catholic Social Thought, the City, and Liberal America," in R. Bruce Douglass and David Hollenbach, eds., Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 1994), 151-71. A bit:
Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a distinction to be made between how we are compelled to talk, given the dominant rhetoric of individualism, and how, in fact, we act as members of families, communities, churches, neighborhoods. Perhaps. But surely it is the case that our social practices are under extraordinary pressure. What might be called the unbearable lightness of liberalism in fact disguises a heavy hand that swats back more robust notions of an explicitly social construction of the self. I have in mind here not an antinomy that poses individualism against a strong collective notion of the good, but a less stark, less dichotomous set of possibilities. Tocquevillians and Catholic social thinkers indebted to the principle of subsidiarity offer conceptual possibilities not locked into binary opposites. They allow us to pose such questions as: Is there any longer the possibility for the existence of multiple civitates not wholly dependent upon, or brought into being by, the state? What are the possibilities for reanimating these civic entities, including the city as a home for citizenship and solidarity, in order to stem the individualist-market tide? Is there available to us an understanding of rights tied to a social rather than atomistic theory of the self? Does this understanding really have any purchase on our current self-understandings and social practices?
Catholic social thought does not offer a “third way,” as if it were simply a matter of hacking off bits and pieces of the individualist-collectivist options and melding them into a palatable compromise. Rather, it begins from a fundamentally different ontology from that assumed and required by individualism, on the one hand, and statist collectivism, on the other. The assumptions of Catholic social thought provide for individuality and rights as the goods of persons in community, together with the claims of social obligation.