So, a comment on the thread of Vince Miller’s response to criticisms of “On All of Our Shoulders” over at America magazine confirmed a suspicion that questions of libertarianism are connected to deeper theological views. Here’s the comment:
How about a big Catholic, “So What?” to the question of Paul Ryan’s individualism. Each of our souls is individual, we sin as individuals, we love as individuals-even when we engage our families, our community, our church. Who cares if Ryan likes Ayn Rand? More Catholic bishops and intellectuals have deeper engagements with the loathesome Karl Marx and his ilk and not much attention has been brought to them. The Church is incompetent at economics, and inconsistent. The Church has always upheld the principle of private property, especially for itself. Now that the laity own property, the Church is alarmed. …We are free because limited government is not free to “take” from us. No matter what our earnings, or tax payments, we go to God alone, as individuals. Charity matters, not coercive taxes. Randian economiics influence but do not define Paul Ryan. Stop acting like this is some admission of “malum in se”. I prefer Hayak, and Friedman and Adam Smith. Does this make me or anyone an invalid Catholic?
Hmmm… “we go to God alone, as individuals.” A later post piling on this says “we are created in the image of God as individuals.” My suspicion? That lurking behind the economic and social individualism of certain CST positions is a theological/soteriological/eschatological individualism, derived straight from “God and the soul” individualist Evangelical Protestantism.
But, as Benedict XVI explains in his much-overlooked “first social encyclical,” Spe Salvi:
Is Christian hope individualistic? In the course of their history, Christians have tried to express this “knowing without knowing” by means of figures that can be represented, and they have developed images of “Heaven” which remain far removed from what, after all, can only be known negatively, via unknowing. … This type of hope has been subjected to an increasingly harsh critique in modern times: it is dismissed as pure individualism, a way of abandoning the world to its misery and taking refuge in a private form of eternal salvation. Henri de Lubac, in the introduction to his seminal book Catholicisme. Aspects sociaux du dogme, assembled some characteristic articulations of this viewpoint, one of which is worth quoting: “Should I have found joy? No … only my joy, and that is something wildly different … The joy of Jesus can be personal. It can belong to a single man and he is saved. He is at peace … now and always, but he is alone. The isolation of this joy does not trouble him. On the contrary: he is the chosen one! In his blessedness he passes through the battlefields with a rose in his hand”
Against this, drawing upon the vast range of patristic theology, de Lubac was able to demonstrate that salvation has always been considered a “social” reality. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. … This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.
Indeed, in discussing the practice of praying for the dead, Benedict explicitly contradicts the statements above:
Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse.
Moreover, Benedict goes on to note that:
While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby.
Hence, in Caritas in Veritate, Benedict’s willingness to venture:
the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.
So here we have a connection between the love that binds together all in the end with the bonds of the earthly city. In this way, the relationship with earthly authority cannot be reduced to “coercion,” and thus opposed to “charity.” This opposition is spurious even on consistency grounds – on these grounds, we should never outlaw abortion, since it “coerces” people to choose life, instead of them doing it out of personal love! But the deeper issue is that earthly authority is not simply coercive of otherwise free individuals – this is a defective, social-contract view of government, which the Catholic tradition has always questioned, at least in terms of its founding mythology of individualism. What is lacking here is any idea of participation in a social body as constitutive of the person. Consistent conservatives support making health care and maternal leave readily available, by government means, in order to “protect life.” By contrast, inconsistent individualistic conservatives almost invariably focus on the individuality and cuteness of the baby, not on the mother.
The root error seems clear to me: The person – the “soul” – is individual, and only accidently related to others. The theological error necessarily leads to a “conservative dissent” (see above: “the Church is incompetent at economics, and inconsistent”) from some Church teachings, since the image of the Church is not that of a social body, but rather (like Scripture for evangelicals) a kind of magic source for certainty for the self. And it easily leads to a moral individualism, where society should also be organized just as God has organized the universe: discrete individual souls, completely free to love or sin, work hard or be lazy, and according to what we do, we receive our paycheck… uh, heavenly reward.
Perhaps we should catechize Spe Salvi before we catechize Caritas in Veritate. Oh, and perhaps we can start with Deus Caritas Est, which of course makes the fundamental point that God is love because God is not an individual, but three persons. That’s the imago Dei.
It seems to me that this Ryan controversy has Catholics sort of just lobbing back and forth–“The importance of the individual person!” “The importance of the community!” In fact, both have deep roots in Catholic ways of thinking. (It could be argued,for example, that a sense of intimate connection between God and the single individual is funded not by certain forms of Evangelicalism, but by the language of the Psalms.)
Certain contexts, of course, prompt concern that one or the other is being overlooked. If Rand is an influence, it’s right to ask whether corporate and social realities are being ignored. if Marx is an influence, it’s right to ask whether the reality of the individual person is being ignored. (I think Matt Shadle is already gesturing at this, although I’ve not yet read his post carefully.)
At least for me, the crucial conversation waiting to be had is this: not which of these two emphases is right, but rather how the individual and larger realities are related. (Discerning their relationship and *then* creating governmental policy that best reflects the relationship is a practical task I’ll happily leave to others!)