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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

4/11/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Often, voluntary associations cause social reform or promote charitable causes in an efficient manner, without the need of cumbersome government mechanisms

"The political community is responsible for regulating its relations with civil society according to the principle of subsidiarity." (Compendium, No. 419)  Government's role should be hands-off unless the various associations of which civil society is composed are unable responsibly to handle the matter, and any intervention should be one in aid, and not in replacement of, the activities of that part of civil association.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

4/11/2012 (3 years ago)

Published in Politics & Policy

Keywords: Common Good, social doctrine, State, Statism, colectivism, conservative, liberal, Andrew Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The political life is not all there is.  The political community finds itself within a greater reality, what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls "civil society."

The Compendium defines civil society as the "sum of the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groupings, which are the first relationships to arise and which come about thanks to 'the creative subjectivity of the citizen.'" (Compendium, No. 185) (quoting JP II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 15). 

It also defines it a little more broadly as "the sum of relationships and resources, cultural and associative, that are relatively independent from the political sphere and the economic sector." (Compendium, No. 417) 

Civil society is, in a sense, an organic and therefore "messy" reality. That's why social scientists want to "rationalize" it, which usually means Statism and a loss of freedom.

"Civil society is in fact multifaceted and irregular; it does not lack its ambiguities and contradictions.  It is also the arena where different interests clash with one another, with the risk that the stronger will prevail over the weaker." (Compendium, No. 418)

Civil society, the greater, more fundamental reality, should therefore be distinguished from political and economic relationships, and its influence in the life of a people is frequently referred to as the "third sector."

The Compendium states: "The activities of civil society--above all volunteer organizations and cooperative endeavors 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, who finds in these activities the necessary space to express himself fully." 

"The progressive expansion of social initiatives beyond the State-controlled sphere creates new areas for the active presence and direct action of citizens, integrating the functions of the State.  This important phenomenon has often come about largely through informal means and has given rise to new and positive ways of exercising personal rights, which have brought about a qualitative enrichment of democratic life." (Compendium, No. 419)

In our penchant for Statist solutions to our social problems, we seem completely to neglect the possible role of the "third sector" as a more humane, less bureaucratic, more responsive, and more efficient solution.  It is also a solution more in line with notions of subsidiarity.

Without some sort of ordering, civil society would proceed with an autonomy that may work at cross purposes with the common good.  Hence, civil society needs a political community, a political order, ultimately formalized into a State. 

The relationship between the political community and civil society (and hence the State and civil society) is threatened by two extreme ideologies, extreme individualism or atomism, on the one hand, and collectivism, on the other hand.  Though their view of the relationship between the individual and civil society are at opposite poles, they lead to the same practical result: the absorption of civil society into the political community.

The Church warns us to steer clear of these two ideologies and advocates a "social pluralism" which rejects both extremes, accepts that which is true in both, to the end of "bringing about a more fitting arrangement of the common good and democracy itself, according to the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and justice." (Compendium, 417)

This area is a very broad area, and it presents a fertile area for the exercise of prudence.  We rarely have clearly right or clearly wrong answers.

Several truths must be kept in mind in understanding the relationship between the political community and civil society.  First, one should keep in mind that the political community "originates" from civil society. (Compendium, No. 417)  Second, the "political community and civil society, although mutually connected and inter-dependent, are not equal in the hierarchy of ends." (Compendium, No. 418)  In the hierarchy of ends, the political community is clearly subordinate to civil society.  The political community is "at the service of civil society."

Holding a proper understanding between civil society and the individual, helps us see that "in the final analysis" the political community will be at the service of "the persons and groups of which civil society is composed." (Compendium, No. 418)  Because the political community is subordinate to civil society, it is an error to see civil society as "an extension or a changing component of the political community."  To the contrary, it is civil society that "has priority" over the political community, "because it is in civil society itself that the political community finds its justification." (Compendium, No. 418)

The State is the formal expression of the political community, and it is charged with the task of providing an "adequate legal framework for social subjects," what we call its citizens, "to engage freely in their different activities."  The State and its agencies "must be ready to intervene, when necessary and with respect for the principal of subsidiary, so that the interplay between free associations and democratic life may be directed to the common good." (Compendium, No. 418).  To this degree, one might view the state as a "night watchman state," but, as we shall see, it is more than a "night watchman state" since it should promote the virtue of its citizens.

"The political community is responsible for regulating its relations with civil society according to the principle of subsidiarity." (Compendium, No. 419)  Government's role should be hands-off unless the various associations of which civil society is composed are unable responsibly to handle the matter, and any intervention should be one in aid, and not in replacement of, the activities of that part of civil association.

The Church discourages Statism, insists on the principle of subsidiarity, and its social doctrine actively supports and encourages the role of the "third sector" as the means of humanizing, de-bureaucratizing, de-politicizing and advancing the needs of persons within civil society.  It sees the third sector as the means also of removing the plague of extreme individualistic competition (dog-eat-dog) too often found in a disordered economic sector, and replacing it with more personalist notions of cooperation and solidarity.

"Cooperation, even in its less structured forms, shows itself to be one of the most effective responses to a mentality of conflict and unlimited competition that seems so prevalent today."  (Compendium, No. 420) 

In a special way, voluntary associations seem to "overcome ideological divisions, prompting people to seek out what unites them rather than what divides them."  Anyone who has had experience with voluntary associations knows how these tend to promote dialogue, cooperation, and bonds of solidarity.  (Compendium, No. 420) 

Often, voluntary associations cause social reform or promote charitable causes in an efficient manner, without the need of cumbersome government mechanisms.  For that reason the Church asks that we "look with confidence to the potentialities that thus present themselves" in such voluntary alliances, "and to lend their own personal efforts for the good of the community in general and, in particular, for the good of the weakest and the neediest.  In this way, the principle of the "subjectivity of society" is also affirmed." (Compendium, No. 420)


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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