Polis, Character, Localism

June 18, 2009

Like Nathan, I’m also curious what the next encyclical will have to say… Undoubtedly it’ll make some demands for a return to a more moral economy, but I’ll be curious if the Church’s longstanding interest in subsidiarity and community translates into a more explicit localism or if the spatial side of things won’t enter into it much. My guess is not, but we’ll have to wait and see.

On that note, America has a piece up this morning about the end of consumerism and Catholic political life.  Some of it’s policy prescriptions sound rather 1972 (full employment? srsly?) but at least its a start in the right direction, particularly on connecting the excesses of consumerism with environmental destruction.  Nonetheless, this part gave me pause:

7. The church and subsidiarity. A principal objective of publicly proclaimed laws and regulations is to stigmatize certain types of behavior and to reward other types, thereby influencing individual values and behavior codes. Aristotle understood this: “Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating habits in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure. It is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.” While families, peer groups, churches and schools play the most important role in shaping behavior and inculcating values, public laws have a role to play as well. While civil law, for example, cannot make people stop holding racist beliefs, it can stop them from engaging in certain types of racist behavior. Over time that behavior (refusing service in a restaurant, for example) becomes delegitimized in public opinion.

Though this certainly isn’t my area of expertise, I think this does abuse to both subsidiarity and Aristotelian constitutionalism.  In Aristotle’s case, the task of cultivating good behavior is directly tied to the polis‘s immediacy. To quote from Barker’s introduction to the Politics,

It [the polis] is a small and intimate society: it is a church as well as a state: it makes no distinction between the province of the state and hat of society; it is, in a word, an integrated system of social ethics, which realizes to the full the capacity of its members and therefore claims their full allegiance. A limit of size is imposed upon it by its very nature and purpose; being a church and a system of social ethics, it cannot be a Babylon.

Clearly these are not the conditions under which we live; the functions of church, state, city, and locality are divided for us along completely different lines, and so the state’s attempts to establish mores (either left or right) does not posses the intimacy necessary to shape the character of the people. It can, and should, protect the rights of individuals to be free of undue persecution, but without the support from those other pillars of civic life, the outcome will not be the better public character: it will be culture war.

Now this shouldn’t turn us away from trying to address questions of civic character; it merely means that they must be addressed at whatever level best approximates the dynamics of the polis, specifically, at the level of the town, the church, and the neighborhood. This is why the biggest flaw in Wilbur’s policy outline, and in the Vatican’s current stance, is the lack of a fully articulated localism which recognizes that the polis, and the law, requires more than the institution of the state, more even than the legal recognition of groups in abstract: it requires that our ways of life be actually intertwined with those of others, something possible only when our commitment to place and community is central to our outlook.


2 Responses to “Polis, Character, Localism”

  1. Tom said


    You raise a very good point. While the principle of subsidiarity hints at localism, I am not aware of any papal teachings that specifically recognize or call out the value of the local “place” as a key component of community. You are probably right in assuming that the new encyclical will stop short of this as well.

    However, it seems to me that there is as much value in localism where faith life is concerned, as there is to economic life. While localists tend by nature to focus on the economic & social aspects of place, they seldom examine the spiritual aspect of it. As previous discussions of the MegaChurch, and Consumer Christianity have hinted at, it is difficult to experience God in a faceless mass of people. Only when we can begin to connect with the world on the individual level can we begin to recognize that inherent divinity in the other.


  2. […] (Cross-posted at The Other Right) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: