Smoking marijuana in one’s room, watching pornography secretly, cheating a tax system… how do these actions affect community? To what extent I am called to participate in community and how a community relates to ethics are topics that fall under one of the seven pillars of Catholic social teaching—the call to family, community, and participation.
The seven pillars of Catholic social teaching are the foundations of a defense of our faith; without a thorough understanding of these pillars, our work as missionary evangelizers would collapse. Let’s delve into why we as Catholics believe there is a fundamental call to family, community, and participation that affects every human person, and what the implications are of this call.
#1. There’s a Scriptural Call to Participation
In deepening our understanding of the call to participation, one area we can turn to is Sacred Scripture, because the call to family, community, and participation is well-documented in Scripture. If we flip to the story of Adam and Eve in the very first pages of the Bible, we find that man is not called to stand in isolation; Adam and Eve are called to choose communion. Later on in Genesis, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The implied answer is “Yes!” God replied to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4: 8-15) Then, in the New Testament, Christ ups the ante, saying, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:12).
The point is not to negate the identity of the individual; we could also go through Scripture and find quotations to show the importance of each individual. Rather, the message of Sacred Scripture is that we are not just in the world for ourselves; we are called to communion with the rest of the human family, especially those immediately around us.
The Scriptural call to participation makes it impossible to say that participation in the Church is merely a social contract. Rather, it is something deeper, a belonging to the family of humanity, which can be dramatically helped or hindered by social structures and policies. As a question for reflection, it would be good to ask ourselves: How do I distinguish between these two ideas— belonging to the human family or being merely bound by a social contract— and how do I feel the weight of each in my own life?
#2. There’s a Rational Call to Participation
That’s Scripture, but how about reason? Reason also reveals that there are laws of social life written into our nature. Consider how we are each born as individual members of a family. We are born into a natural society! Because we are tied by birth, friendship, proximity, and a myriad of other factors to other human persons, even the choices we make behind locked doors have some impact on others. They shape who we are, and serve to tear down or build up the structures of society and how well we can relate to those we are connected to around us.
Aristotle once said that a person who lives in solitude must be like a wild beast or a god, like a devil or an angel. What he is indicating is that our rational experience is that individuals cannot really exist, or at least thrive, without society. We are born into a family, and then, through our free will, we choose additional social ties… friendships, groups, affiliations, and so on. So, the rational argument for a call to family, community, and participation suggests that, since I belong to a community by my very nature, I will be happier and flourish to the degree that I engage with community well.
#3. Start with Participation in Family
A third point to emphasize about the call to family, community, and participation is the special role that marriage and family life play in society. Marriage and family life are fundamental social structures that we are called to protect and participate in. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic and social policies as well as organization of the work world should be continually evaluated in light of their impact on the strength and stability of family life.”
This makes sense: The family is the basic building block of society. The economic, spiritual, and cultural strength of the family we are born into has a huge impact on who we become and what we can contribute to those around us. For this reason, the Church always places an emphasis on the family structure and works to protect it from those who would strip it of its effectiveness in society.
#4. We Need the Common Good and Political Prudence
A fourth insight to realize about the call to family, community, and participation is the necessity of political prudence in interpreting how that call is lived out.
Living the call to participation is tough because there is often a legitimate tension between solidarity and subsidiarity, between the health of the community and the unique identity of the individual. As one example of this, consider the topic of immigration. Catholic social teaching says that everyone has a right to every place on earth. But, the Church continues, countries have a right to immigration policies and procedures that facilitate immigration in an orderly way and that do not create economic disequilibrium. What does the proper state of affairs that balances these two truths and needs look like?
Finding the proper balance hinges on the common good and the virtue of prudence. The call to community isn’t about socialism; rather, it is about the common good. The common good is the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment. The common good is not based on emotion but on practicality. When there seems to be conflict between the good of an individual and the common good, we need to find balance with the virtue of prudence. With political prudence, we can evaluate how the conditions of social life touch on the common good.
#5. Recognize Attacks against Participation
Finally, we need to recognize attacks against the call to family, community, and participation.
What distracts us from the call to communion, which is actually so integral to our human happiness? One threat to the call to communion is an inordinate focus on individualism, becoming absorbed with self-centered needs. Such a focus may see the individual’s good as wholly distinct from the good of the community, rather than necessarily intertwined. Bolstered by an extreme focus on individualism, we can become distracted from how we need community, not only for the healthy functioning of society, but for our own happiness.
On the other side of the spectrum, the individual person’s capacity to freely choose communion is threatened when there is excessive intervention from the government. When a state micromanages and takes away the possibility for individuals to freely choose to work together, the call to community and participation suffers.
Dignity and the Call to Participation
Also worth pointing out is that the call to participation rests on another principle of Catholic social teaching, recognition of the dignity of each person: seeing each person as inherently worthy of love and respect. When the value of the human person is denigrated, when we begin seeing other people merely as objects for our use or pleasure, it becomes harder to choose communion with others.
When faced with any of these threats in our society, let’s remember the wisdom of Pope John XXIII’s words in Pacem in Terris:
Human society must primarily be considered something pertaining to the spiritual. Through it, in the bright light of truth, men should share their knowledge, be able to exercise their rights and fulfill their obligations, be inspired to seek spiritual values; mutually derive genuine pleasure from the beautiful, of whatever order it be; always be readily disposed to pass on to others the best of their own cultural heritage; and eagerly strive to make their own the spiritual achievements of others.
What areas of your life are you avoiding communion in? You are called to family, community, and participation. Choose it!