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The Importance of Community

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 12, 2010

On reading the previous entry in this series, one might argue that I have “reduced” concern for the poor to charity, which would be unfortunate on two grounds. First, charity is often construed to be essentially private, and surely poverty and other forms of social marginalization are legitimate matters of public concern. Second, it seems clear that many problems of social marginalization involve important matters of social justice.

But such concerns arise only if the point of the previous essay is misconstrued. The point was that social concern “must be motivated by love for the whole person in his fundamental spiritual identity as a child of God.” This assertion is not meant to be restrictive to “private” acts of charity. Catholics do not live by choice in such an artificially bifurcated world! Charity always includes justice and is, therefore, by its nature both private and public. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in his recent social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting…. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI's words, “the minimum measure” of it. (#6)

When we sort this out we gain a new and richer understanding of authentic human development. In recognizing that love both includes and goes beyond justice, we suddenly understand the fundamental message of Catholic social teaching over the past forty years, which Benedict has so recently attempted once again to make clear. It is but a restatement of my earlier point: “Authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension” (#11). Consider:

In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity's right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. (#11)

As I suggested in the previous essay, it is exactly this task of authentic human development that massive bureaucratic programs are by their very nature incapable of fulfilling. Rather, such development is most effectively pursued within the context of a community, among people who know and feel responsible for each other. Within a true community, the needs of individual persons and families can be recognized and addressed with a deeper understanding of each problem and a more human commitment to effective, long term solutions. Similarly, within the context of (properly-motivated) smaller community businesses, the needs of weaker members of the community can be addressed creatively and in a context of solidarity.

I don’t say that this will always happen. I simply point out that when social problems are addressed at the community level, the proper conditions are present for it to be able to happen, and that wherever cultures and economies are conceived as bureaucratically-managed mass realities, with no proper local community embodiment, these favorable conditions disappear. It is precisely this concern with the conditions necessary for authentic human development that led such famous thinkers as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, not to mention modern economic theorists such as John Médaille, to favor what is commonly called distributism, which emphasizes widespread local ownership of both property and business in a richly interconnected context of community life.

But what of our real world? Big government, big business, a commuting culture which divorces work from home, mass media, extreme mobility, the absence of geographical roots, an overwhelming stress on pluralism and diversity—all these have led to the formation of a culture in which authentic community is nearly impossible. What then?

Well, it is early days yet in this discussion. But now, perhaps, we have stepped far enough back to get a clear picture of what authentic human development requires. It requires true community, an interconnected group of persons and families who genuinely care about the development of the community as an extension of themselves. This exists, most obviously, in the family and in natural groupings of families into something like old-fashioned parishes or villages or even city neighborhoods—people who take care of their own. If this is so, then our ideas about how to foster human development begin to shift. As we proceed, I hope to show how this shift in perspective—essentially a shift from bureaucratized individuals to authentic communities—changes everything.


Previous in series: The First Principle of Catholic Social Concern
Next in series: Surprised by Subsidiarity

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  • Posted by: Eagle - Jan. 13, 2010 7:38 AM ET USA

    In my village, charity spontaneously arises, whether in the form of a local food bank, fund-raisers for home fires, or serious illness, not covered by insurance, and so forth. But, the larger the town/city, the less frequent the spontaneous local charity. So, while not disagreeing with your thesis, I revert to the bed-rock principal of subsidiarity in relation to organized assistance for those in need. If it doesn't arise locally, as empirically determined, then use the larger entity.

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