Mediating Structures: American Praxis — Catholic Theory

It is an opportune moment for Catholic social theory to make a contribution to American public policy practice. As Campaign 84 begins, the argument about how to best structure our social policy so that real human needs are met will get louder.

The liberal approach to human services relies on programs designed and administered through the State. This is as true in their recent proposal to deal with unemployment as it is true for their education, health or welfare proposals. Even when liberals insist on citizen participation in social policy, they burden the delivery mechanisms with an extra layer of bureaucracy and frustrating governmental regulations.

The conservative approach to human services relies too much on the initiative of the individual. Allowing for the minimum of a thread-bare safety net, they think each American ought to be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If business prospers, they think, the benefits of society will trickle down to all. Even when conservatives insist on the concept of volunteerism, government is actually relieved of its rightful responsibility; while impossible tasks are imposed on people of conscience.

It is as if both the liberals and the conservatives were unaware of the American praxis of mediating structures. Their emphasis on bureaucracy and individualism contradicts the common tradition of America. It is precisely the Catholic perspective on pluralism, subsidiarity, local community and personalism that could now unlock the horns of this public policy dilemma.

While America is often characterized as a rootless, mobile society, we are in fact (and have always been) a nation of families, communities, groups, associations. Whenever there is a problem to solve, a need to be addressed or a cause to be promoted Americans form a mediating structure. “The number of associations to which many citizens belong is quite staggering. Organizations as diverse as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Lions Club, Parent-Teacher Associations, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, athletic leagues, and all the multitude of voluntary associations embraced under the United Way and all the committees, organizations and activities promoted by a multitude of churches, keep many Americans almost as busy attending meetings after school or work as they are during the average work week.” To take the health field as an example, there is currently a national voluntary organization for each of the 200 most common major diseases. In addition there are over 50,000 unaffiliated local self-help health organizations in this country; for a total of well over 1/2 million groups. By one estimate, over 14 million Americans participate in such voluntary health groups.

Our Founding Fathers foresaw this plurality of volunteer groups. They recognized from the beginning that such pluralism was essential for establishing the American brand of liberty.

The classic statement of the principle of mediating structures is given in James Madison’s Tenth Federalist Paper addressed to the people of New York State.

Madison was worried about the legitimation of power in the newly established government. He wanted the government to be able to defend the interests of citizens. At the same time Madison did not want the government to become an oppressive State. He hit upon the idea of mediating structures as the best preserver of liberty.

“In identifying the mediating structures in society, Madison used a variety of terms, often synonymously: parties, factions, interests, classes, sects, and institutions. In Federalist, No. 51, he gave special attention to noneconomic and religious groups. In Federalist, No. 10, he dealt with economic groups . . . Madison also listed occupational groups that cut across distinctions of wealth. He mentioned ‘regular branches of manufacturing and mechanical industry,’ as well as “civil professions of more elevated pretentions, the merchant, the lawyer, the physician, the philosopher and the divine’.”

It was Madison’s opinion that a plurality of such mediating structures would guarantee that no one faction would come to dominate the national agenda and thus personal liberty would not be threatened by any one interest.

The practice of mediating structures was noted by a famous French visitor to America 150 years ago.

“In the United States, political associations are only one small part of the immense number of different types of associations found there. Americans of all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America)

Alex de Tocqueville saw how pluralism was a great asset to liberty. In a characteristically American way people work for the common good not out of a high sense of virtue but in their own pragmatic self-interest.

Another French visitor made this same observation about America more recently.

“There is in this country a swarming multiplicity of particular communities — self-organized group¬ings, associations, unions, sodalities, vocational or religious brotherhoods, in which men join forces with one another at an elementary level of their everyday concerns and interests.” (Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America)

Jacques Maritain likewise appreciated how the American practice of liberty does not take place on some high plane or through an appeal to a great moral sense. Liberty occurs on a daily basis in every sector of American society. Maritain used the example of Saul Alinsky’s Back of the Yards Council as one of these grass roots liberation movements. De Tocqueville too could have been referring to one of the concerns of the Back of the Yards Council:

“It is difficult to force a man out of himself and get him to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state . . . But if it is a question of taking a road past his property, he sees at once that this small public matter has a bearing on his greatest private interests . . . Local liberties, then, which induce a great number of citizens to value the affection of their kindred and neighbors, bring men constantly into contact, despite the instincts which separate them, and force them to help one another.”

The idea of freedom, de Tocqueville concludes, is thus institutionally supported. American citizens have a constant reminder of their freedom and their obligations to the free society. The fostering of mediating structures is the best counter to selfish individualism and to repressive collectivism.

America’s own political philosopher, John Dewey, was troubled by the fact that his country lacked a theory to describe its practice. He made note of the multiplicity of mediating structures: “Associations, tightly or loosely organized, more and more define the opportunities, the choices and the actions of individuals.” Surely, he concluded, “individualism” was not the word to explain the American experience. Quite the contrary, “we are in for some kind of socialism, call it by whatever name we please.” The tentative names that Dewey used were corporateness” and “new individualism”.

More recently, Michael Novak has taken-up the search for an American theory. He too notices the plurality of mediating structures in this country. Novak then concludes: “The secret to the psychology of Americans is that they are neither individualists nor collectivists; their strong suit is association, and they freely organize themselves, cooperate, and work together in superb teamwork”.9 Call it by whatever name, “there is in America a third way”. The name that Novak has choosen to use is “The communitarian individual.”

There is, then, a need for a theory that corresponds to the actual American praxis. One source of that theory may well be the Catholic social tradition. For there does seem to be a resemblance between the American praxis of mediating structures and Catholic political philosophy.

The Catholic principles of personalism, pluralism and subsidiarity have long been trying to envision a third way between individualism and collectivism. A serious consideration of Catholic patrimony may be very beneficial at this juncture in American public policy debate.


At the time this article was written, William Droel was a journalist who frequently wrote for Catholic periodicals.

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