An Opportunity to Reshape the Relationship of the Person to the Community: A Catholic Inspired Philosophical Response to the Pandemic
By now, we have all heard it before: the pandemic is the perfect chance to change society to X or Y or even Z. I still believe this to be true, but at the same time, I am sceptical that we are open to actual, tangible change. Just look at where we have put our money. The richest people have become richer. The poorest, poorer. For the most part, the response to the pandemic has reinforced the neoliberal hegemon.
It is true that the C(E)RB payments that millions of Canadians received runs contrary to neoliberal practices, but the emphasis on the economy and ensuring its survival at times at the cost of human lives is a clear indication that even with emergency payments, the government is still deeply neoliberal. This should trouble us as Catholics. It should trouble every Christian.
The Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time is from the Gospel of Luke—the gospel of the poor. This particular reading is one of my favourites (admittedly, as a product of a Catholic school, I am more familiar with Matthew’s formulation, but I am a little biased when it comes to preferring Luke’s Gospel). The reading was that of the Beatitudes.
This is a radical sermon. It most definitely is not consistent with neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism and unbridled capitalism. The Sermon on the Mount calls us to live a very different type of life. It is quite radical; it would be very difficult for many of us to adopt outright, myself included. However, we should all aim to live out the Beatitudes.
To live them out requires a drastic philosophical shift. We all have capitalist tendencies. We need to unlearn most of them. This is not an easy process, but we can find some help in the works of a twentieth century French political thinker inspired by his Catholic faith and whose works have been influential in Catholic circles. The works of Emmanuel Mounier and other personalist thinkers, such as Jacques Maritain, offer to us a new way of perceiving the relationship between the person and the community.
One that is decidedly anti-capitalist, yes, but that is not a complete capitulation to controlled economies of communism. Mounier still maintains that people should be able to consume the things that they want; it is not possible to control the things that give people pleasure. If I like expensive French wine, Mounier does not necessarily think I shouldn’t indulge or be deprived of the option to purchase it (1936:98).
What he does want to end is the primacy of money and the economy. This is where the biggest shift comes, and we can learn from the Beatitudes.
Mounier argues that for the economy, just like for everything else, the primacy should be placed on the person. But this person is not just floating around, unmoored from her circumstance. Instead, the person is embedded in a community. Here is the philosophical shift.
Currently, we tend to live in a world that is all ‘work, work, work’ that is alienating us from other persons. (Of course, right now, public health measures are keeping us from our loved ones, and this could contribute to alienation, but it is important nevertheless to continue to follow local public health measures). This mentality of ‘work, work, work’ has meant that we are funnelled into our own silos that are detached from other people. This has led to people thinking about me before everything else.
Often, some advocates of this worldview appeal to our Christian nature; they make Christ into a hyper-individualist. It is true that He has an individual relationship with each of us, but if we read closely the Gospel message, we find that Christ is not an individualist; rather he is much more of a communitarian. Just like Christ is a communitarian, Catholic social thought is predicated on a communitarian vision of society.
This is important philosophically because a communitarian outlook, like Mounier’s, suggests that there is a common good. An individualist outlook, on the other hand, means that we are only concerned with our own good and not the common good. In the communitarian outlook, we still have our own good in mind, but we also contribute to a commonly shared good. Mounier frames this in an important way: he argues that the person is unable to know herself, unable to exist, and unable to find (or realise) herself without the other (1949: 36).
The other plays a crucial role here. Unlike in Sartre, the other validates the person and lets the person to flourish fully. Herein lies the opportunity to reshape the relationship of the person to the community. We need to dialogue with the other. We need to interact with the other and discover our unique abilities and call (or vocation) on Earth and use it to contribute to a community.
Mounier is perhaps a little utopian. Indeed, his idea of the ideal community, a person of persons, is as utopic as the City of God described by St. Augustine or the Communion of Saints in which we profess belief each time we recite the Creed. Therefore, to embrace completely Mounier’s proposal is never going to happen; it would take too much effort to maintain, whether on a large or small scale.
However, the call in his work to dialogue with the other and to exist through the other would draw us nearer to our communities and strengthen the bonds between persons.
A general desire to draw nearer to our loved ones and to our own communities has rung out throughout the pandemic. Yes, of course, many of us want to go and see the world, travel, and experience what the world has to offer once we are permitted to travel freely again—I count myself amongst those people. However, it is incumbent upon us as Catholics to think about our neighbour. Pope Francis calls us to fraternity with our fellow humankind in Fratelli tutti. He writes,
Fraternity is born not only of a climate of respect for individual liberties, or even of a certain administratively guaranteed equality. Fraternity necessarily calls for something greater, which in turn enhances freedom and equality. What happens when fraternity is not consciously cultivated, when there is a lack of political will to promote it through education in fraternity, through dialogue and through the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment? Liberty becomes nothing more than a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit. This shallow understanding has little to do with the richness of a liberty directed above all to love (2020: 26).
Pope Francis is calling us to lead a communal life. He is pointing to what for Mounier was evident: individualism drives us apart, it alienates us, and we become deprived of the relationships that give us the opportunity to flourish fully.
As Catholics, we are called to live a radical lifestyle. One that runs counter to the mainstream. I hope that we are audacious enough to endeavour to change our lives, to adopt a new philosophical outlook, and to live out the Gospel.