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Intermediary Institutions Represent, Preserve and Shape a Robust Culture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 10, 2012

Those who read After Liberalism, the Deluge? will see that once again I call for the formation and strengthening of culture through “intermediary institutions”. Some might say: “This sounds grand and noble, but what does it really mean? What can we concretely do to form and strengthen culture through intermediary institutions?”

As a social being, the human person flourishes to the highest degree in a cultural environment in which a wide range of legitimate human interests and ends are pursued cooperatively to achieve a higher level of perfection than the individual can typically achieve on his own, and to influence and enrich the larger culture as a whole. Typically, such cooperative efforts give rise to what we call intermediary institutions, cooperative agencies of human organization which—through their own particular excellence, effectiveness and earned respect in a particular field of human endeavor—exercise a powerful influence on how individual persons pursue certain goals, the boundaries and standards applicable to those pursuits, and the responsibilities inherent in them.

It is often said that this cooperative spirit, and the number of intermediary institutions it generates, is substantially greater in the United States than in other Western nations. Nonetheless, it grows more difficult with every passing year to undertake cooperative activities even in the United States because of the increasing burden of laws and regulations which demand that such activities adhere to a particular blueprint for approval by the State. It is far harder now than fifty years ago, for example, to do everything from establishing a social service organization to constructing a playground for local youngsters.

Moreover, throughout the West, many “blueprinted” organizations are actually no longer cooperative, but operate with State funding derived from enforced taxes. Those who wish to establish alternative organizations (whether to recover the heightened personalism of truly voluntary service or to escape the prevailing ideology) must make extreme sacrifices. They must double both their financial burden (paying taxes plus funding their own independent establishments) and their burden of effort (meeting regulations while focusing on their own central purposes). Lacking State subsidies, they must also charge more for any services they provide (either direct charges or donations). This creates an unfairly competitive conflict between robust cultural institutions and the coercive ideological power of the State.

Under what we call “hard” totalitarianism, the establishment of authentic independent intermediary institutions is all but impossible, except insofar as they are kept secret. In the more typical “soft” totalitarianism of the West, however, there is still some room for the creation of robust institutions which, though they may be small and beleaguered now, are likely to be the foundation for positive human development and social organization as more and more people seek a life apart from the State, or as the State grows less effective, or as the State collapses, in the end, under its own weight.

What, then, are some of these actual and potential intermediary institutions?

  • Churches: Whatever may be said of other religious associations, it must be clear from the outset that the Catholic Church is not an intermediary institution in the same sense as the other institutions on this list. The Church is the ultimate spiritual authority, without peer in her own sphere, and operating in an important sense from the top down. But with respect to the social order as a whole, the Catholic Church—along with all other churches which authentically interpret the ways of God to men—is the most important intermediary institution of all. Churches are voluntary associations in which men and women learn about human ends and values, find great encouragement to live responsibly, enjoy mutual assistance, and receive the grace that enables them to purify and elevate all of their interests and endeavors. Every effort to strengthen an individual parish, local church or religious community—including all outreach programs designed to bring more people within the orbit of a church’s beneficent influence—is a signal contribution to human culture at the deepest and most pervasive level, and one which also forms a substantial bulwark against the usurpations of the modern State.
  • Schools: Next to churches, independent schools are probably the most important intermediary institutions in modern society. After the family and the church, schools do more to form, educate and provide a basis for further development and achievement than any other institution. For exactly this reason, the need for both independence from the State and commitment to religious values is critical in schools. Education should be motivated by love and guided by our understanding of the nature and ends of man, as learned from both natural law and Divine Revelation. Ideally, schools serve as a legitimate extension of the parental role in forming children, drawing standards and goals from the values and commitment of well-formed and well-educated parents, and providing this same richness to children of parents who, perceiving that they lack some elements of this formation and education, desire it for their children. In developing schools, provision of financial aid to poorer families is a signal service.
  • Hospitals and Clinics: As the long history of Catholic hospital care demonstrates, there is tremendous value in medical care provided in a spirit of loving service according to the full range of moral and spiritual values which ought to serve the whole person. This is an area now much-threatened by government regulations, including regulations arising from ideology, and threatened as well by the overwhelming costs of medical care in an age of rapid technological advancement. As the threats increase, however, the need only grows.
  • Social Service Organizations: There is scarcely a human need that does not call to mind the immense benefit of having some voluntary, cooperative agency to address it. Problems may arise from disability, unemployment, sickness, poor or non-existent housing, unfair business practices, opportunity limitations, extreme poverty, crime, abuse, divorce, other family problems, and more. There is still a tremendous range of options available for cooperative efforts in these areas, which will again be most often inspired by the self-sacrificing love and essential values demanded of Christians by the gospel.
  • Professional Associations: Animated by a proper understanding of the nature and ends of man, a profound respect for morality, and a desire for the highest excellence of a particular field of endeavor, such associations not only address common problems and improve the work and achievement of their members but also more widely extend the benefits of their field of work to society as a whole, thereby further enriching the culture at large.
  • Cultural Organizations: Using the term in its narrower sense, cultural organizations are oriented to the exploration and dissemination of the works of man’s higher faculties with respect to the transcendentals: truth, goodness and beauty. One thinks here of organizations devoted to music and the arts, lectures and discussions, literature, readings and performances, which both foster attention to these transcendental goods and enrich culture through exposure to achievement in these areas. Once again, when infused with a deeper vision of reality, often with a specifically religious inspiration, these endeavors frequently rise to greater heights.
  • Recreational Initiatives: The promotion of wholesome forms of recreation, again often formed or inspired in part by the desire to glorify the God from whom we receive every good gift, also performs an important cultural role, both negatively and positively. On the one hand, these initiatives reduce the temptation for people to use their spare time destructively; on the other, they provide refreshment, entertainment and a sense of camaraderie which leads to cooperative success.

There are other types of intermediary institutions as well. Also notably absent from this discussion are three important topics: (1) The way in which a variety of such institutions, all inspired in part by a common Christian vision, combine to shape a larger culture; (2) A consideration of various forms of local government, in which citizens genuinely participate, as intermediary institutions which can counter-balance the usurpations of higher levels of government; and (3) The importance of the family which, as the fundamental cell of a healthy society, is critical to the success of all other endeavors and which, when injured or broken, virtually guarantees the collapse of culture.

But for now I have provided some background and the beginning of a specific list of the kinds of possible intermediary institutions, knowing that in each category, the specific purposes and forms of these institutions can be many and varied. If readers will comment on specific intermediate institutions with which they have experience, I would be glad to flesh out this discussion with case studies.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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