The single greatest obstacle to the establishment of a good and just society is the belief, widespread in the Western world, that every person is an autonomous law unto him or herself.
This is a secular view which, in its purest form, sees all morality as the imposition of arbitrary social conventions by those who have power. It sees society itself as an arbitrary construction in which the individual is the basic unit. Society is necessary, in this view, only to the extent that it boosts the prosperity of individuals and otherwise ensures that all material needs are met. If society goes further than that -- say, by helping people to live by moral norms -- it is seen as an oppressive force.
Underlying this view of society is a view of the human person. It is a restricted view of a person which sees him or her as essentially a material being. What is important is that all individuals be "free" to explore and indulge their desires and wants to the extent they are able.
The exaltation of the individual is presented a great achievement of democracy. In fact, it is a form of slavery which debases the human person by treating him or her as something less than he is. The late French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain criticized modern liberalism for tending "to base everything on the individual considered as a little god, and on his caprice, on the absolute liberty of property, of commerce and of the pleasures of life" (Scholasticism and Politics, p, 80).
This debased view of the human person shows up everywhere in our society. It shows up in the greed and hoarding of the capitalist whose "right" to acquire wealth goes unchallenged while millions live in squalor. It is seen in court decisions which see the right to life as an unfair restriction on a woman's "right to choose."
It is seen in those who favour ready access to the "crack cocaine of gambling" -- the video lottery terminal -- because restricting access would amount to "imposing our morality" on others. It is seen in the campaign to make the rights of "domestic partners" equivalent in law to those of families.
How different and how truly freeing is the understanding of society and the human person which underlies the Catechism of the Catholic Church's section on the human community!
Rather than seeing society as an arbitrary creation by autonomous individuals, the Catechism sees society as something required by the nature of the person. Our very nature pulls us to move beyond ourselves, to form friendships and to form community. This inclination can be seen in associations created for mutual self-help; more basically, it can be seen in the fact that humans use language. Rooted within our souls is a deep desire to communicate -- to be in communion with other people and with God.
We reach toward true greatness, true fulfilment, when we are moving beyond ourselves to love and communicate. To focus on our own dreams and desires is to fall into a narrow, restricted way of being. To make common purpose with others and with God is to open ourselves up to the fullness of life. We can only escape the narrow, shallow pit of self by entering into relationship with others.
Society is where this happens. And the goal of society's institutions -- government, voluntary associations, business and family -- is to foster the flowering of social life in a balanced way, respecting all that is good in creation.
A good society respects the diversity of those institutions and their competence to carry out the tasks for which they are naturally responsible. It resists the tendency to have the needs of people met by an impersonal bureaucracy when they could be better met by families, friends or voluntary associations. It also ensures that people are not abandoned due to a neglectful or selfish ideology of privatization.
People are not at heart isolated, autonomous individuals. We are made to live in community. And it is in community that we can exercise our responsibility to ensure that all people can participate more fully in the gift of God's creation.
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