He’s No de Tocqueville


Whether right or wrong or a bit of both, thoughtful foreign views of the American scene have a lot to contribute to our national self-understanding. Clifford Longley, a veteran columnist for the London weekly the Tablet, a journal of “progressive” Catholic opinion, is no de Tocqueville, but he’s an intelligent man who, despite his ingrained liberal bias, often says sensible things. It was therefore with interest that I recently sat down to read a Longley column on America and Catholic social doctrine.

In a way, I wasn’t disappointed. The column gave me something to think about and disagree with. How much more can you ask? But Longley missed the point about some central matters well worth discussing. Two especially stand out.

The first was his contention that a surge of “anti-collectivism” in America had lately made solidarity “a dirty word — a threat to American freedom.”

That misstates the case. Americans, so far as I can tell, haven’t turned against solidarity but against the notion that the federal government is solidarity’s best, perhaps only, guardian. The fact is that government intervention may sometimes be required to protect collective interests, and sometimes it may not. In particular cases, those interests can best be served by the private sector and/or local action. It’s a typical liberal fallacy, repeated by Longley, to leave subsidiarity out of the picture.

Regarding our English cousin’s underlying view of an America engulfed by individualistic anti-collectivism, it’s fair to reply: How about Great Britain? Are we to suppose that the austerity budget of the coalition government signals the collapse of solidarity there?

Some people, of course, would say it does, although college students rioting in the streets of London because their tuition is going up don’t make a persuasive case for that. But others would say austerity signals that Britain, even more than America, faces the fate of Greece and Ireland unless it cuts back post haste on government borrowing and spending. (There is a lesson here that most members of the American political class haven’t yet been brave enough to grasp.)

As for the anti-government sentiment that undoubtedly does exist in America, it’s important to understand that what most Americans really loathe and fear isn’t so much government itself but government bungling. The federal responses to Hurricane Katrina and to the early stages of the Gulf oil spill are cases in point. In both instances, people were infuriated by government floundering in the face of disaster. When big government works, Americans don’t complain. The argument about Social Security, after all, isn’t over how to get rid of it but how to keep it going.


Longley’s second questionable assertion is that the Church’s social doctrine holds the key to remedying American anti-collectivism, because “in striking a balance between the individual and the collective, Catholic social teaching leans towards the latter. Solidarity comes before freedom.”

No doubt it’s possible to lift proof texts from papal encyclicals in support of this claim — and also in support of its contrary. In one place the emphasis is on the individual, in another on community. But proof texts aside, and taking a reasonable view of the matter, it’s clear that the individual does, necessarily, enjoy a certain priority. Communities and their institutions, including government, exist for the sake of individuals, not the other way around. Totalitarian systems are based on the belief that the individual exists for the state — which is why, at bottom, totalitarianism is horribly wrong.

Furthermore, as I’ve remarked here before, the focus of social policy and social action, according to the teaching of the Church, is, or at least ought to be, the integral development of the person — the fullest possible flourishing of each individual in respect to all the fundamental goods that go together to make up his or her personhood. (This point is made by Pope Benedict XVI.) In the nature of things, integral development is something that happens, or fails to happen, in individuals rather than in collective entities as such.

Obviously, however, individual and community can’t be separated or set in opposition as a matter of principle. A fundamentally unjust community or one lacking in basic human and material resources will be unable to serve the integral development of each of its members. But that’s the point: In the final analysis, it’s the individual members, not precisely the community as such, that take priority.

Excesses in either direction are possible. The perception of overreaching by Obama and the Democrats in the name of supposed common interests — as, for example, in the case of health-care reform — undoubtedly provoked a reaction that’s lately been visible on the American political scene. Now, too, this reaction sometimes expresses itself in the confusion of libertarian individualism with authentic liberty. Banal as it may sound, the best approach is a golden mean between individual and community — and finding and embracing it is a fundamental raison d’être of a healthy political order.

But just here, in what appears to be systemic inability to agree on and work for fundamental political goals, is what makes the present polarization of American political life so threatening. Several years ago, the liberal sociologist Alan Wolfe called a book about America One Nation, After All. At the moment, and especially in the wake of the midterm elections, that sounds more like wishful thinking than sober analysis. And it’s what Clifford Longley should be worrying about.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Marthe L

    After reading Mr. Shaw’s article, I happened to turn to one of the links to Vox Nova shown in the right-hand column of to-day’s Inside Catholic and found the following that seems to apply, written by someone who is eminently more qualified than myself:
    Quote of the Week: Jacques Maritain on the State and Social Justice
    From the last period of the XIXth Century on, state intervention has been needed to compensate for the general disregard for justice and human solidarity that prevailed during the early phases of the industrial revolution. State legislation with regard to employment and labor is in itself a requirement of the common good. And without the power of the State

  • Christopher Manion

    “Communities and their institutions, including government, exist for the sake of individuals.”

    Here Mr. Shaw makes the proper distinction – government is one of many social institutions. Its powers are limited not only by the Constitution, but by metaphysics: the state cannot save your soul, and yet that is man’s highest calling.

    Helping man fulfill that calling is the task of the Church, not the state. So the powers of the state to enforce “social justice” are also limited by metaphysics, not mere human whim or power, not even by elections.

    Moreover, when the state interferes with the task of salvation, rather than providing the modicum of peace, justice, and order that any community requires, it is no longer “enforcing social justice,” but manifesting its libido dominandi and superbia vitae, and interfering with, even annihilating, justice, emptying it of its content and using the label to authorize intrinsic evils.

    Social justice is a relatively new term in Catholic thought (see The Church and Social Justice, Calvez, S.J., and Perrin, S.J., Regnery, 1961), and it is thus easily hijacked, especially in the sixty years since the appearance of Maritain’s classic work (my copy is (c) 1952, U of Chicago Press).

    That hijacking has done considerable damage, in some cases with the acquiescence of the American Church. Consider how charity has been virtually conceded to the government, funded by mandatory taxes, which in turn fund Catholic charities and schools to the tune of several billion taxpayer dollars a year. Somehow “voluntary” charity has become an anachronism, and Catholic institutions have embraced the new rules of charity that require every project to conform to the particulars of a government grant program.

    Regarding Maritain, I wish Ralph McInerny were here to limn the course of later views on the subject, all the way to The Peasant Of The Garonne. It is a fascinating journey.

  • RB2

    Vox Nova is a pro-Obama, liberal Catholic site. They never disagreed with a Social Justice option they think the govt. should embrace.

  • BenK

    Not everything serves the individual. The individuals have the purpose of serving God through the church (here is where protestants draw a distinction; serving the church vs serving God; while Catholics see it as only proper to serve God through serving the church – with some nods to Rahner, et al, who see that even non-Christians can serve God in many ways, even unknowingly, and to certain liberals who see potential for service in society serving God even when divorced from the church,… anyway, this is not the main point here).

    So, it isn’t a question of collective vs individual, viewed properly; both the Christian view and the totalitarian view place the individual ultimately in service of something larger. They both ultimately clash with the libertarian view that places all value on the individual and guts the state, the family, the community, the tribe, the clan, the church, etc. Totalitarians (socialists, fascists) place all service in the hands of the state. Capitalists sometimes put individuals in service of the markets, or the markets as the main service of society to the individual.

    Christians put everything in the service of God. This can never be compatible with any of the others, properly, and will eventually always devolve to a theocracy – but perhaps only at the second coming.

  • Iyke Manus

    You made a great point in saying that there is no opposition between the individual and the collective. But you fell to one of the biggest problems in the US today- that of an unhealthy dichotomous thinking which holds that one person has to be right and the other wrong, an either/or way of thinking characteristic of ideologues. I am not sure how much you can push the argument that the individual necessarily takes priority over the collective. The belief that the individual takes priority over the collective easily gives way to the belief that whenever the individual disagrees with what the Church teaches, then it is necessarily the former that takes priority! After all, the Church exists for the individual, and so cannot set itself over the individual and what s/he wants!

  • TeaPot562

    Government-enforced Social Justice is not necessarily moral, nor practical. Consider some details of the Health Reform enacted in 2010. As interpreted by Secretary Sibelius, all hospitals must allow abortion, even Catholic hospitals. Is this a good, or a bad, consequence of “Social Justice”?
    Another fact is that Government action may have unexpected practical consequences. The push by means of regulation to reduce the cost of prescription drugs is an example. Lowering the cost of flu shots and other vaccinations by government edict has proved to discourage some manufacturers from continuing to provide this product. An unexpected result is a shortage of this vaccine compared to the number of people who wanted to get these shots.

    The Community Reinvestment Act in the USA had the desirable goal of encouraging home ownership among those who were considered too poor w/o govt action to buy homes. By-products of the CRA, and penalties and rewards for banking institutions that complied with the CRA led to many banking institutions abandoning sound financial underwriting (Does the applicant for a home loan have some savings to qualify for a reasonable down payment? Can the applicant afford to pay, from his/her current income, reasonable instalments on the loan?) The result of this government-driven quest to extend homeownership was the boom in home values from the mid-1990s to about 2006; then the crash in home values and the boom in foreclosures, and many banking institutions failing or requiring bailouts in recent years. How many of those questing for “Social Justice” realize that many bank failures of the last several years were a result of the quest for Social Justice?
    Surprisingly, many bishops, even the USCCB, sometimes express support for government legislation attempting to force justice w/o regard to how individual human beings are likely to react to newly adopted laws.

  • Marthe L

    RB2 said: “Vox Nova is a pro-Obama, liberal Catholic site. They never disagreed with a Social Justice option they think the govt. should embrace.”
    Does that mean that nobody who writes for Vox Nova is capable of any rational and/or moral thinking? Since my own country has a history of “voting out” an incumbent party instead of choosing to “elect” a party, I cannot help wondering if being “pro-Obama” might possibly mean (at least in some cases) being “anti-GOP” while having no other choice in your 2-party system. At least in Canada we have a couple of other parties to choose from, which, although still relatively small, do have some realistic standing and offer the possibility of directing our votes elsewhere if we want to express discontent.

  • RB2

    Vox Nova is pro-democrat, they view the democratic party as most embracing the ideals of Christianity. Morevoer, every anti-Catholic philosophy has a seat at the table of the Democratic Party and gets its chance at enacting it particular legistlative agenda when the time is ripe. The pro-abortion group has a seat. As do the atheists, secularists, gay agenda & gay marriage, even looser laws toward marriage than simply gay marriage will have its time, euthanasia, those who want to suppress the religious rights of those in the public sphere(medical workers not being able to obey conscious). The same can barely be said for the Republican party, except that it serves as a faulty doorstop of a door that is swinging towards full-wide open. In fact, the Democratic Party is the enemy of our religion.

    We have as Roman Catholics a 2,000 year history of battling against opposing philosophies and movements who would restrict our faith, sieze our property, kill our Pope,Bishops and priests and reduce our influence to nil if they had their way.