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Sample author – Course reference for Comparative Political Theory

March 12, 2009

Christianity and Civil Society

Civil society reflects the social interaction between the economy and state. Here individuals self-
organize to advance collective goals by actively resisting, affirming, interpreting and often
transforming the culture they are part of. Whether these groups manifest as trade unions,
industry associations, non governmental organizations, or faith based congregations, these
collectives of action have proven persuasive in their purpose of calling attention to the excesses
of both the state and the market.

Within this context, religion has played a central role in social and political change as society
seeks to cultivate the virtues that are essential for self-government and a healthy civil society.

There are believed to be nearly 38,000 different denominations of Christianity1 and scholars John
A. Coleman, Michael Banner and Max L. Stackhouse agree that finding a single interpretation of
the relationship between Christianity and civil society is not possible. There are other areas of
agreement among these authors including Christianity’s power as a nurturer of societal freedoms
and the ability of its classic doctrines - creation, sin and redemption/salvation, to reshape and
reflect the contemporary experiences of its environment2. These two areas are explored below
and blended with complementary perspectives from other sources to demonstrate the enduring
power of Christianity’s influential relationship with civil society.

Christianity’s power as a nurturer of societal freedoms

Christianity offers a powerful platform for promotion of a moral order that transcends society and
the culture at large. Christians believe that each person is made in the “image of God” and
therefore has a residual capacity to reason, to will, and to love as a divine bequest that we could
not achieve by our own efforts. The many Christian traditions protect an individual’s capacities to
reason, to chose, to love as integral to this gift. These capacities are applied as the believer
creates their own networks of relationships which facilitate their abilities to take actions that fulfill
their covenant with God as loving agents in the world3. These actions influence civil society to be
reflective of the prevailing cultural norms and ensure that associational life mirrors the relevant
theological tenets. In keeping with this divine covenant, John Coleman describes how Catholic
social thought resists the view of a Church becoming synonymous with the government or the
formal political system of a society. This view arose from the Church’s experiences of
authoritarian or totalitarian regimes which restricted the Church operations to schooling, social
service or medical ministries, as well as the fundamental liberties of speech, association,
conscience, press, etc.

Max Stackhouse’s observation of the natural sociability of human beings creating a bottom up
approach to solving societal challenges adds another layer to limiting state influence. A resulting
hierarchical-subsidiarity tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex
Sample author – Course reference for Comparative Political Theory
March 12, 2009

organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words,
any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. As an illustration of
this concept, Michael Banner writes of the Thomist tradition which fosters a community of
purpose, interest, and sympathy expressed by the notion of solidarity where the common good
that serves to unite its parts4. This principle is at the core of calls for limited government and
increased personal freedom.

Acknowledging this veil between the authority granted by its citizens to the sacred and that held
by the state, the Catholic Church operates numerous local and global social ministries as the
external expression of its beliefs and values. It also extends the teachings to individual Catholics
requiring them to practice corporal works of mercy including feeding the hungry, welcoming
strangers, immigrants or refugees, assisting the poor and indigent, caring for the sick and visiting
those in prison. Spiritual works require the Catholic to share knowledge, to give advice, comfort
those who suffer, have patience, forgive those who hurt them, offer correction to those who need
it, and pray for the living and the dead. This transference of theological tenets into acts of
community service links diverse groups and creates bonds by a addressing common needs while
creating a calling to fulfill that need. While serving their own purposes which are separate from
any government or state function, the association benefits and blends into the community at
large. An acceptance and tolerance grows out of these acts and other minority interests are
allowed to preserve their own way of life indirectly serving as a barrier against concentrations of
power. Coleman writes, “Religion may enter the public sphere and assume a public form only if it
accepts the sanctity of the principle of freedom of conscience for all5.”

The ability of Christianity’s classic doctrines - creation, sin and redemption/salvation, to


reframe and reflect contemporary experiences of its environment

Modernity has at its core the components of freedom of conscience and religion, human rights,
tolerance, and democracy. The irony is that these core components link it to more traditional
Catholic teaching on works of mercy in seeking solutions to the social problems of the industrial
era. The development of Catholic social teaching was the Church’s response to the need to
maintain its relevance in changing times. (The social teaching of Vatican II came out of the
refashioned medieval notions of natural law, natural rights, organic harmony, the priority of the
common good and the autonomy of intermediate association. It is cited as the inspiration of
European post-war Christian democracy which, in its early years, this movement presented itself
as a “genuine third way between capitalism and socialism6.")

The listed themes below demonstrate how the classic Christian doctrines of creation, sin and
redemption/salvation can be reshaped into solutions that help address contemporary experiences
and therefore reaching individuals outside of the faith.
Sample author – Course reference for Comparative Political Theory
March 12, 2009

The themes listed on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website
<http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/projects/socialteaching/excerpt.shtml> include:
Catholic Social Creation Sin Redemption/Salvation
Teaching Theme -
Life and Dignity of the The Catholic Church Beliefs regarding Catholic teaching also
Human Person holds human life as abortion and euthanasia calls on us to work to
sacred and upholds the avoid war. Nations must
dignity of the human Beliefs regarding protect the right to life by
person. cloning, embryonic stem finding increasingly
cell research, and the effective ways to prevent
That people are more use of the death penalty conflicts and resolve
important than things, them by peaceful
and that the measure of means.
every institution is
whether it threatens or
enhances the life and
dignity of the human
person.
Call to Family, The individual is sacred Marriage and the family We believe people have
Community, and and social. are the central social a right and a duty to
Participation institutions that must be participate in society,
How we organize our supported and seeking together the
society in economics strengthened, not common good and well-
and politics, in law and undermined. (The being of all, especially
policy directly affects negative actions of harm the poor and vulnerable
human dignity and the being sinful.)
capacity of individuals to
grow in community.

Rights and The Catholic tradition Therefore, every person Corresponding to these
Responsibilities teaches that human has a fundamental right rights are duties and
dignity can be protected to life and a right to responsibilities--to one
and a healthy those things required for another, to our families,
community can be human decency. and to the larger society.
achieved only if human
rights are protected and
responsibilities are met.
Option for the Poor A basic moral test is how In a society marred by In a society marred by
and Vulnerable our most vulnerable deepening divisions deepening divisions
members are faring. between rich and poor, between rich and poor,
our tradition recalls the our tradition recalls the
story of the Last story of the Last
Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)
and instructs us to put and instructs us to put
the needs of the poor the needs of the poor
and vulnerable first. and vulnerable first.
Dignity of Work and The economy must If the dignity of work is to
Workers’ Rights serve people, not the be protected, then the
other way around. Work basic rights of workers
is more than a way to must be respected--the
make a living; it is a form right to productive work,
of continuing to decent and fair
participation in God’s wages, to the
creation. organization and joining
of unions, to private
property, and to
economic initiative.
Solidarity We are one human At the core of the virtue The Gospel calls us to
Sample author – Course reference for Comparative Political Theory
March 12, 2009

Catholic Social Creation Sin Redemption/Salvation


Teaching Theme -
family whatever our of solidarity is the pursuit be peacemakers. Our
national, racial, ethnic, of justice and peace. love for all our sisters
economic, and Pope Paul VI taught that and brothers demands
ideological differences. “if you want peace, work that we promote peace
We are our brothers’ and for justice.” Loving our in a world surrounded by
sisters’ keepers, neighbor has global violence and conflict
wherever they may be.. dimensions in a
shrinking world.
Care for God’s We show our respect for This environmental Care for the earth is not
Creations the Creator by our challenge has just an Earth Day
stewardship of creation. fundamental moral and slogan, it is a
ethical dimensions that requirement of our faith.
cannot be ignored We are called to protect
people and the planet,
living our faith in
relationship with all of
God’s creation.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury sums up the Christian perspective of what


Stackhouse refers to as “law written on the heart”: Justice is not local in an exclusive sense or
limited by circumstances; there are no classes or subgroups of humanity who are entitled to less
of God’s love; and so there are no classes entitled to lower levels of human respect or
compassion or service7.

The path to the churches' influence is through forming the general ethos and the consciences of
the laity, a path that will filter what we say and assures that it connects with what the people
experience in their lives. Thus what we say should first of all seek to shape the convictions of the
people and the fabric of civil society so that political authority will be held accountable to a morally
and spiritually formed, informed and organized constituency. That will make power more
responsible to the first principles and ultimate goods that God intends8.

Another major contribution made by the presence of the Church is universalism – described as
the conviction that every human agent is involved in either creating or frustrating a common good
that relates to the whole human race. In a 2007 speech, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of
Canterbury said, “In short, the significance of the Church for civil society is in keeping alive a
concern both to honour and to justify the absolute and non-negotiable character of the human
vision of responsibility and justice that is at work in all human association for the common good.”

References

1. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Status of Global Mission, 2009, in the Context of 20th
and 21st Centuries. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2009. Retrieved
10 March 2009. <http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/globalchristianity/resources.php>
Sample author – Course reference for Comparative Political Theory
March 12, 2009

2. Coleman, John A. “Christianity and Civil Society.” Civil society and government / edited by
Nancy L. Rosenblum and Robert C. Post. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.; Oxford:
2002. Pg 224.
3. Stackhouse, Max L. Post, “Christianity, Civil Society, and the State: A Protestant Response.”
Civil society and government / edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum and Robert C. Post. Princeton
University Press, Princeton, N.J.; Oxford : 2002
4. Banner, Michael. Chrstianity and Civil Society. Ed. Simone Chambers and Will Kymlicka.
Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society. 2002.
5. Coleman, John A. Catholic Social Thought and Civil Society. Hong Kong: 18 May 2006
6. Chaplin, Jonathan. Blessed Be the Ties That Bind. Cardus. 1 January 2004. Retrieved 6
March 2009 < http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/237/>
7. Williams, R. The Archbishop of Canterbury. "Faith Communities in a Civil Society - Christian
Perspectives." Christian Muslim Forum Conference . Cambridge, 10 Sep. 2007.
8. Stackhouse, Max L. Conference on Ethical Issues Raised by Pre-Emptive War The
Churches' Center for Theology and Public Policy, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington,
D.C. 1 May 2003.
9. Mosher, Michael A. Conclusion. Are Civil Societies the Transmission Belts of Ethical
Tradition?