Moral Fibre deftly weaves a civil society

May 22, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 417-420

When I began my current term as editor of the WCR 15 years ago, I was clear in my mind that I wanted our local coverage to be people oriented, to tell the stories of how faith was transforming the lives of Catholics in the archdiocese. At the time, I saw this solely as good journalism, as a way of developing a newspaper that would most interest our readers.

I still see it that way. But it has now also become a philosophical commitment too. By holding up examples of selfless individuals, the WCR can encourage more people to be like them.

British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was the one who, through his work, raised Mother Teresa of Calcutta to world prominence. At the WCR, we are constantly on the lookout for local Mother Teresas who are worthy of imitation. We often find them too.


The Church is one part of civil society, which the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines as "the sum of relationships and resources . . . that are relatively independent from the political sphere and the economic sector" (n. 417).

Other "relationships" that make up civil society include voluntary associations and activities, sports groups, family, friendships and informal communities. The biggest resource for civil society is virtue. Civil society is really the glue that holds all of society together; it is the basis of culture.

Not all social thinking pays much heed to the role of civil society. In the eyes of many, the real action in determining society's future lies in politics and economic development. These spheres are what will guarantee people's ability to access "the good things of life" – from decent housing and education to a never-ending supply of new playthings.

What civil society builds are virtues such as solidarity, compassion, self-sacrifice and initiative. When democracy and civil society collapse, the people fall into consumerism or dependency.


The responsibilities and opportunities in democracies with a large space for civil society bring out unsuspected qualities in ordinary people. People stretch toward their potential when they move from being passive consumers to active contributors. Virtues are developed, vices eroded.

Democracy cannot flourish unless people have the moral wherewithal to take an active role. An economy will crumble if workers do not have a strong work ethic and virtues such as honesty, initiative and integrity. Civil society is the catalyst for the proper functioning of the more high profile sectors of society.

Yet, North American society is drifting away from the volunteer involvement and Church commitment that nurtures virtues such as self-denial and solidarity. We are well on the road to becoming a society of passive consumers where immediate gratification is the watchword.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the predominance of the family farm and small private enterprise nurtured responsibility and civic virtue. Today, there is no such greenhouse in the economic structure of society that will help those virtues begin to grow. We have to look elsewhere.

I spent three years working in Winnipeg's inner city and one group that impressed me were the volunteers provided to various agencies by the Mennonite Central Committee. The volunteers – usually young people – made a two-year commitment to serve either in the Third World or in troubled situations in Canada.

Large numbers of young Christians took part in this program. Presumably, many of them left with their lives more clearly focused on service than on building careers for themselves.

This is a direction in which we should be steering more young people. The Government of Alberta, for example, could partner with one or more African nations to provide development aid, technical expertise and young volunteers. With the right planning, Alberta could help a poor nation begin to prosper and help our province overcome its inward focus. Virtues of solidarity and service would be nurtured in our own population.

In any event, we need to think creatively about how to nurture civil society and the virtues it requires. It is fine to be wealthy and free. But even that won't last unless the moral underpinning of society is continually strengthened.