3.4.1 Civil society and state

Back to 3.3.6

Unit 3 Contents

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We are coming to the end of Unit 3.  In this short, concluding part, we shall develop the comparison between CST and liberalism, conservatism and socialism which we began at the end of Unit 2.  We shall then take this further later in the module (especially in units 4, 5 and 8).

However, it will be helpful first to focus on what can be seen as the most distinctive element in CST’s view of what the state must do and not do.

This is CST’s vision of civil society: of a thick fabric of diverse associations and institutions which neither are created by the state nor are the projects only of individuals.  Rather, they form as people act freely together, seeking a shared good that itself extends the possibilities for human fulfilment and generates the common good.  As we saw earlier (3.2.4), each sort of civil society body – for example, businesses, schools, theatres, communities of worship, sports clubs – has its own particular ‘vocational responsibility’.  If this is discerned well and fulfilled, bodies of each kind make their particular ‘gift of service’ to society.

Understood in this way, civil society does not exist as an instrument to be used by the state for its own purpose.  On the contrary, the state encounters civil society as what is already there.  Government’s role is to recognize civil society bodies in their distinctiveness, and thereby to serve them.  The Compendium puts this as follows (in a section you are asked to read in a moment): “The State must provide an adequate legal framework for social subjects to engage freely in their different activities (#418, italics original).

As we shall see, there is nothing quite like this vision of civil society in any of liberalism, conservatism or socialism.

There is a short section in the Compendium that speaks about civil society directly.  It is appropriate to read this now.

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Reading (2pp)

Compendium, ##417-420 (chap. 8, part V)

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In one respect, the last part this reading (subsec. c.) could give a misleading impression of what ‘civil society’ refers to, or, to be more precise, what it includes and does not include.  The text almost puts across the idea that civil society is distinct both from the state and from ‘the market’, that is, from the economy.  It says this:

The activities of civil society — above all volunteer organizations and cooperative endeavours in the private-social sector, all of which are succinctly known as the “third sector”, to distinguish from the State and the market — represent the most appropriate ways to develop the social dimension of the person…

However, that would in fact be a misreading of this statement.  Among the activities of civil society, it picks out the ‘third sector’, i.e. not-for-profit bodies of all kinds, as especially important for enabling development of “the social dimension of the person”.  But it does not say that we should not see the economy, and therefore private enterprise and business, as part of civil society.  Throughout this unit I have referred to businesses as one kind of civil society body, and it is in fact a great mistake to see them as somehow a completely different realm of life from civil society.  On the contrary, as CST sees it, businesses can and should exemplify what it is to be an association in civil society.  Operating according to CST’s principle of the ‘universal destination of material goods’ (which was explained briefly in Unit 1, 1.3.6,), businesses exist, first and foremost, to supply products that really are ‘goods’ and ‘services’ for people – this is a main part of their ‘vocational responsibility’ – and in this way they contribute to the common good.

In writing about Christianity and civil society, John Coleman SJ quotes A Call to Civil Society, a prominent statement made in the United States jointly by Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, and Jewish and secular figures, a few years ago. This made that point clear:

Business, labor and economic institutions do not exist apart from the rest of civil society. That the economy is part of civil society demonstrates that is part of our moral order as well – not some extrinsic force and certainly not an end in itself but rather a major reflection of our judgments about the conditions for human flourishing and the larger meanings of our common life.1

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Reflection

To what extent has the vision of civil society which you have encountered in this unit been new to you?

What challenges does it pose, both to how business is often done, and to how government often operates?

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End of 3.4.1

Go to 3.4.2 Liberalism, conservatism and socialism: take two

Module B outline

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  1. The Council of Civil Society, A Call to Civil Society (New York: Institute for American Values, 1998), p. 11, accessible (16 January 2014) at http://americanvalues.org/search/item.php?id=2, and quoted in John A. Coleman, SJ, ‘A Limited State and a Vibrant Society: Christianity and Civil Society’, in Coleman (ed.), Christian Political Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2008 ), pp. 22-53, at p. 44. 

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