President's Corner

Closing Remarks at the Mazatlán Forum

By Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

I would personally like to thank Dr. Pescador and the College of Sinaloa for your collaboration with us. I wish to acknowledge Professor Luis Aguilar and Manuel Nikel-Zueger who were instrumental in the initial planning for this Forum, and in determining the topics that we would address.

At the outset of our conversation together, I expressed my hope that we might focus questions that are real questions, questions to which we do not have an answer. I will not now presume to attempt to order all of the remarks that have been made at our Forum, but will offer a brief consideration of some of the major themes that we have surfaced and propose several real questions that we might wish to pursue further. I want to thank Manuel for his assistance in organizing these remarks late into the night, while shouldering all of the blame for what will follow.

If there is one overarching theme that has emerged throughout our conversations or, perhaps better, one prism through which we can view  all of the issues that we have addressed, it is that of justice. How are we to do justice to individuals and families, to immigrants, to citizens, to the generations that will come after us?

Why justice? Because to be a human person is to be a subject-in-relation-to-others; it is not possible to conceive of a person apart from the relationships that bind him or her to others, and justice is the virtue according to which we offer to others what is their due, what is their right. Granted, we in the U.S. tend to think of the person outside of or apart from relationships as an "autonomous individual." However, no such creature exists. My family moved to Victoria, B.C, when I was 3 years old and I decided to join them because I was an autonomous individual. 

If we are to order society by offering each what is their due, then we see, immediately, why subsidiarity is such an important principle: the relationships that are most immediate to the person are the means by which he or she is first done justice. Here I wish to acknowledge a remark that Patrick Brennan made yesterday. He insisted that subsidiarity does not entail the delegation of authority from a higher jurisdiction to a lower. It had not occurred to me that anyone might make that mistake; once he made the remark I realized that it is likely that most people think of subsidiarity in that manner. Rather, subsidiarity is the principle that real authority is first vested in the community  that is most immediate to the person. 

For this reason we must regard the family as the fundamental social unit. As Fr. Anselm pointed out, it is more primitive than any state and institutionalizes justice for the spouses and children. What, then, is the relationship of the family to the city, state and nation? Does the family have rights? Do the rights of the family precede the rights of nations? Can the rights of persons be prosecuted apart from a recognition of the rights of the family?

If, for the sake of justice, authority is first vested in the family, and if the more proximate jurisdiction is to be preferred to the more remote, then the notion of the sovereignty of states must be reconciled with that fact. Here, it seems to me, we can trace an interesting trajectory: the very idea of sovereignty does not arise in the West until the claim of monarchs to divine right, Louis XIV in France and the Stuart monarchs in England. The will of the monarch became the law of the land. There was, we might say, the assertion of an absolute individualism. With the overthrow of the monarchy in the American colonies, the notion of an absolute sovereign was not overturned, but was transferred, in the thinking of Rousseau, to "the people." The will of the sovereign became the will of the people. Democratization did not change the paradigm: recently the Supreme Court determined that each citizen has the right to determine his own worldview; the absolute individualism of the monarch has now become the absolute individualism of the each person. Has the autonomous individual now replaced the absolute monarch? This trajectory, however, precisely contradicts the social reality of the person.  

How can we restore the central place of the person in public discourse, in economic relationship, in governance? This question might be regarded as applicable to the presentations of Drs. Aguilar, Blancarte, Austin, Brennan and Hirschfeld. 

Related to these considerations was the paradigm shift proposed by Professor Delbecq from a pyramidal conception of authority to shared responsibility in corporate organization. This, in turn, is in my view related to the idea of the secularization of society.

This is an idea that, I believe, might be very fruitfully pursued. What, precisely, do we mean by secularization? 

Secularization might be seen as a departure from a hierarchical ordering of society, top down, such that order in society - super-ordinate members requiring compliance from subordinate members - is thought to have divine sanction. Divine approval is necessary in order to justify all of the various secular functions. Instead, secular pursuits are seen to have their own proper competence and dignity, for which they do not require divine sanction. 

Secularism might also be seen as an attempt to codify into law relationships and activities that were previously unwritten. This would permit a new social paradigm to be asserted; society as a project. Yet only what is common to the person can be codified; what is proper to the individual person could never be codified. The customs of a family, the particular gifts and talents of a child cannot be codified because they cannot be generalized. For this reason a family can educate in the manner that a state cannot. A family will not provide an education program, but can discern, call out and form the vocation of the children.

So, a further question: how can the dimensions of human agency that elude codification be honored in a secular society which is entirely defined by rule of law (not by the common good)? How can our institutions honor the particularity of our contributions? If a new paradigm involves reliance upon the gifts of others, how is it possible to institutionalize the particularity of their contributions?

Here, again, we must pay attention to the role of subsidiary societies, such as family and Church. I would suggest that the Church has done this in the recognition of the religious orders. The Church has never institutionalized tasks or ministries, no matter how noble. Rather, it has always institutionalized charisms - gifts of the Holy Spirit. How?

If we consider the work of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta we see a very good example. She refused all government assistance and made no plans for the alleviation of poverty. She saw the dignity of the poorest of the poor (her phrase that has, unfortunately, now been abstracted because divorced from her insight and applied to every charitable organization) and moved personally to serve them in the most concrete and practical way, in such a way that she honored, we might say - restored their dignity. A charism sees a human situation and responds to it in the concrete. It is incarnate or embodied in a manner of being towards others, a gesture, that is concrete, actual, real. It is the gestures of the saints that the Church has institutionalized.

In a family, the gestures that preserve the uniqueness, the particularity of the relationship of  its members are preserved through family  customs. Christopher Dawson once defined culture in terms of the assumed and unconscious influences that are at play in human interaction - language, food, clothing. The carriers of tradition are such institutions as family and Church, best approached through the arts.

These are also the institutions that  keep us safe and civilize us.

In this sense, explore the relationship between secularization,  pluralism and subsidiarity. I do not think that they can be separately thought. Secularism, to the degree that it is an attempt to codify relationships requires pluralism so as not to be totalitarian. Pluralism cannot exist apart from subsidiarity. It is not, as is often the case in the US, the vacuousness of relativism, whereby nothing is celebrated, but must be an acknowledgement and celebration of cultures and cultures within cultures where the unique contribution of each member of society is acknowledged and made safe.

Finally, in what manner can we  put our embedded assumptions into relief?  And what are the obstacles to our doing so?  A tendency  to abstraction; the attempt to turn verbs into nouns (to sustain becomes sustainability) that ought to be avoided.

I welcome your comments and rebuttal!