Catholic Social Doctrine: On Politics, Civil Society and Associations
Often, voluntary associations cause social reform or promote charitable causes in an efficient manner, without the need of cumbersome government mechanisms
"The political community is responsible for regulating its relations with civil society according to the principle of subsidiarity." (Compendium, No. 419) Government's role should be hands-off unless the various associations of which civil society is composed are unable responsibly to handle the matter, and any intervention should be one in aid, and not in replacement of, the activities of that part of civil association.
The Compendium defines civil society as the "sum of the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groupings, which are the first relationships to arise and which come about thanks to 'the creative subjectivity of the citizen.'" (Compendium, No. 185) (quoting JP II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 15).
It also defines it a little more broadly as "the sum of relationships and resources, cultural and associative, that are relatively independent from the political sphere and the economic sector." (Compendium, No. 417)
Civil society is, in a sense, an organic and therefore "messy" reality. That's why social scientists want to "rationalize" it, which usually means Statism and a loss of freedom.
"Civil society is in fact multifaceted and irregular; it does not lack its ambiguities and contradictions. It is also the arena where different interests clash with one another, with the risk that the stronger will prevail over the weaker." (Compendium, No. 418)
Civil society, the greater, more fundamental reality, should therefore be distinguished from political and economic relationships, and its influence in the life of a people is frequently referred to as the "third sector."
The Compendium states: "The activities of civil society--above all volunteer organizations and cooperative endeavors in the private-social sector, all of which are succinctly known as the "third sector," to distinguish from the State and the market--represent the most appropriate ways to develop the social dimension of the person, who finds in these activities the necessary space to express himself fully."
"The progressive expansion of social initiatives beyond the State-controlled sphere creates new areas for the active presence and direct action of citizens, integrating the functions of the State. This important phenomenon has often come about largely through informal means and has given rise to new and positive ways of exercising personal rights, which have brought about a qualitative enrichment of democratic life." (Compendium, No. 419)
In our penchant for Statist solutions to our social problems, we seem completely to neglect the possible role of the "third sector" as a more humane, less bureaucratic, more responsive, and more efficient solution. It is also a solution more in line with notions of subsidiarity.
Without some sort of ordering, civil society would proceed with an autonomy that may work at cross purposes with the common good. Hence, civil society needs a political community, a political order, ultimately formalized into a State.
The relationship between the political community and civil society (and hence the State and civil society) is threatened by two extreme ideologies, extreme individualism or atomism, on the one hand, and collectivism, on the other hand. Though their view of the relationship between the individual and civil society are at opposite poles, they lead to the same practical result: the absorption of civil society into the political community.
The Church warns us to steer clear of these two ideologies and advocates a "social pluralism" which rejects both extremes, accepts that which is true in both, to the end of "bringing about a more fitting arrangement of the common good and democracy itself, according to the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and justice." (Compendium, 417)
This area is a very broad area, and it presents a fertile area for the exercise of prudence. We rarely have clearly right or clearly wrong answers.
Several truths must be kept in mind in understanding the relationship between the political community and civil society. First, one should keep in mind that the political community "originates" from civil society. (Compendium, No. 417) Second, the "political community and civil society, although mutually connected and inter-dependent, are not equal in the hierarchy of ends." (Compendium, No. 418) In the hierarchy of ends, the political community is clearly subordinate to civil society. The political community is "at the service of civil society."
Holding a proper understanding between civil society and the individual, helps us see that "in the final analysis" the political community will be at the service of "the persons and groups of which civil society is composed." (Compendium, No. 418) Because the political community is subordinate to civil society, it is an error to see civil society as "an extension or a changing component of the political ...
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