The Individual, the Family and Catholic Corporate Society
Modern man is easily confused regarding the proper relationship of the individual, the family, and society in general. This is understandable, given that contemporary civilization is primarily the product of a revolutionary naturalism that seeks to understand life apart from God and God’s law. While appearing to respect the inherent value of the world and its wonders, modernity rejects the Christian teachings that gave men the ability to deal harmoniously and positively with nature’s rich and complex character in the first place. This tragic “dropping of the pilot” has made its supposedly nature-friendly order of things a many-headed beast, a house divided against itself, with its various elements in total and constant war with one another. Only an opening to Catholic Truth can once again join together all the aspects of nature that modern naturalist civilization has torn asunder. What does this have to tell us?
Membership in Christ
Sacred History and Catholic Tradition both emphasize the primary significance of the human person in God’s plan. It is clear from the account of Creation in Genesis that it is through Adam that all of nature is marshaled to fulfill the divine will. So important is the individual in the teaching of Christ that “every hair on his head is numbered,” and the Good Shepherd leaves His flock in order to find one sheep who has gone astray. The Church Fathers, grasping the full significance of a salvation that comes through the Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity in one sole God-Man, Jesus Christ, marvel at the ultimate “divinization” that this offers to the individual who faithfully lives his life in union with his Savior. The Canon of the Mass makes the same point. It was in defense of the supreme value of the individual, immortal soul that the great scholastics of the Middle Ages fought their battles against the impersonal, fatalistic vision of Averroes. It was in recognition of the centrality of each distinct human person in the ultimate scheme of things that Dante, in the Paradiso, shows the individual in heaven shining forth with a clarity and distinction much greater than he possessed while still alive.
But it is equally clear that even if the individual human person is the “apple of God’s eye” he can only be saved as a social being. His salvation and divinization come through membership in Christ—a Christ whose corrective and transforming authority, teaching, and grace is essential in a universe where human freedom led not merely to an Original Sin weakening all of mankind, but the constant possibility of further error and evil behavior. And that membership in a corrective and transforming Christ is made palpable until the end of time through membership in His Mystical Body; His supernatural continuation in the natural realm after His own death and Resurrection; His Church.
It is precisely in discussing the individual’s salvation through membership in a jointly supernatural and natural Christ and Mystical Body that we enter into the realm of social theory. For Catholic Tradition, building upon what emerges from the message of the Sacred Scriptures, has insisted that all of nature has its crucial part to play in this work of raising the individual to eternal life with God. Everything in nature, as St. Ignatius of Antioch teaches, has been “recapitulated” and redeemed in Christ. Nothing that God has created is superfluous to His plan, and nothing somehow becomes superannuated as the centuries advance. Everything thought, written, painted, sculpted, and sung to the greater glory of God under the corrective and transforming grace of Christ and His Church is of crucial importance in the work of personal salvation and divinization. And anything done for the benefit of a man’s final end reverberates back on his temporal existence, illuminating its purpose and enhancing its character as well.
Highest on the list of natural aids to the individual’s path to heaven with positive temporal effects are earthly social institutions. The Greeks already understood society’s secular benefits, with Solon the Lawgiver (c. 638-558 B.C.), the first great western political thinker—and, instructively, a poet to boot—demonstrating that individuals, left to their own devices, destroy not only their neighbors but themselves in the process. They needed guidance through the authoritative, coordinating power of the Greek “polis” or State. For man, as Aristotle magisterially summarizes Solon’s point, is essentially a social, political animal.
Greeks and Romans gave to the social authority of a monolithic State too exclusive an importance. What Catholic Christianity did—with a bit of practical historical aid from the Germanic and Slavic disruption of the ancient order of things—was threefold in character: it made it clear that the State required the corrective and transforming guidance of the supernatural authority of the Church; that other natural, non-governmental social institutions, equally subject to the teachings of the Mystical Body, were involved in the enterprise of chaining the individual’s destructive tendencies; and that all of these societies, together, were ultimately intended for the positive benefit of distinct human persons and their divinization in Christ.
It is the family that is undoubtedly the first and most basic of these crucial, natural, authoritative societies aiding the attainment of the individual’s supernatural end. Only through the union of a man and a woman can a human person exist. That union gives him the basic natural building blocks with which he must operate for the rest of his life. What happens to him in the bosom of his family, especially in the earliest years of his own existence as well as those in which he shapes the growth of his offspring, is more significant than anything else in his development of an understanding of individual needs, flaws to be corrected, and talents and virtues that can and must be cultivated. In other words, when considering things in the order of nature, “it takes a family,” first and foremost, to set a creature of God on that proper path to eternal life that aids him temporally also.
On the other hand, it takes more than a family to do so. It does, indeed “take a village.” Families are as subject to error and sin as anything else that is human. In fact, it was in recognition of the selfishness and trampling of the just demands of others on the part of powerful Greek families that men like Solon contemplated the need for political reform to begin with. A Roman or Confucianist paterfamilias could be a monstrous tyrant crushing the true dignity of the individual members of the family unit in their temporal pilgrimage to God. Hence, the need for the family’s correction by other social authorities: those of Church and State together.
Society of Societies
Still, it takes more than a village represented by a monolithic Church and State alone to complete nature’s social influence in assisting attainment of the individual’s supernatural end and simultaneously improving his temporal existence. It takes every other kind of authoritative social institution dedicated to a valid, natural or supernatural human activity involving more than one individual: varied religious organizations within the Mystical Body, diverse organs for the exercise of communal political power, fraternal and charitable associations, economic guilds, schools and universities, and many others beside them.
All of these “corporations”—the traditional word for any authoritative society, taken from the Latin for a “body”—together produced that Catholic “society of societies” or “corporate order” that thrived in the Middle Ages. All, together with the family, the most basic corporate society, under the coordinating authority of the manifold organs of Church and State, not only gave practical assistance to individuals but also helped to reveal to them their flaws and develop their talents and virtues in different, unique, and irreplaceable manners. All, therefore, were God-given aids to personal natural benefits as well as personal salvation and divinization in Christ. In short, corporate social authorities, beginning with that of the family, in union with Church and State authority, are a blessing for the individual and his temporal freedom, rights, and dignity, making for a fruitful passage through nature to eternal life with God. As the Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, repeatedly noted in its development of Catholic Social Doctrine in the nineteenth century, the fullness of liberty and the fullness of life only exist in union with the fullness of social authority of all kinds. Without the latter, the willful strong oppress the weak, to the ultimate physical and spiritual detriment of both.
Society without Christ Cannot Accomplish Its Task
Catholic Christendom gave to natural social authorities and to the individual an exalted sense of their importance and their role in life. But what this also meant, should an institution or a human person sinfully rebel against the overriding need for the correction, coordination, and transformation of all things in Christ—as they often did, even in the best of times—was an enhanced, exaggerated sense of their autonomous value. It is this rebellion and exaggeration that eventually, by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gave birth to modern naturalism. And modern naturalism, as intimated at the beginning of my article, claimed to be able to maintain the Catholic validation of all aspects of nature for the benefit of the individual human person—but without the aid of Christ.
It has amply demonstrated that it simply cannot accomplish this task. Naturalists have disagreed intensely over what “nature” actually teaches us. One branch of the naturalist family has insisted that the universe is a realm of infinite diversity, and has therefore emphasized the supremacy of the individual’s freedom, his “natural rights,” and his “dignity,” with no concern for his potential sinfulness. Another has argued that the universe is a machine, guided by inexorable “natural laws.” For the former, law, order, society, and authority are not only subordinate to the will of endlessly diverse individuals, but their innate and dangerous enemies as well. For the latter, the individual human person is nothing more than an automaton; one piece of equipment among many in a well-oiled cosmic engine. There is no such thing as individual freedom, with peculiarities of the human person but kinks in the machinery that must, if necessary, ruthlessly be suppressed for the sake of order, and by whichever social institution it thinks most suitable for doing so—to the detriment of the work of all the others.
Both of these forms of naturalism have by now committed suicide, at least on the rational level—the mechanists because of endless debate over what, exactly, makes their machine of the universe tick, and the atomists because their position ultimately finds any meaningful definition of truth an assault on personal “choice.” Historically, their varied supporters have arbitrarily demanded an unqualified belief in what it is that they teach. This they back by reference to the “will” of forces ranging from the leaders of revolutionary movements to that of the Founding Fathers.
Only an opening to the full message of the Faith can repair the naturalist damage. Alas, Catholics themselves generally fail to give the lead in this much-needed enterprise. They, also, have fallen prey to the naturalist temptation, at least in their practical, day-to-day lives. Although some do seem to view nature as though it were driven by one or the other mechanical force whose gears need to be oiled by one favored social institution and authority, most believing American Catholics have pitched their tents in the other naturalist camp. They talk as though the individual, left purely to his own devices, is entrusted with the fulfillment of God’s plan in nature. If they are willing to make concessions to some social guidance, it is only to that given by the family. Involvement of any other authoritative institution beyond the family—the State in particular–is anathema to them.
This is not a Catholic position, but a development of modern naturalism, destructive on the natural as well as the supernatural level. Salvation is individual. Individuals primarily concerned to gain eternal life are given a holistic grasp of existence that enables them to create a better natural world than those who are not. But individuals are social beings. It takes a family to save them supernaturally and guide them temporally. It takes a village. It takes a complex corporate society. It takes coordination by the State. And, above all else, it takes obedience to a Church that recognizes the role and relationship of all of these together.