Civil Society & the State

photo of civil society action.  Rally for refugees.Catholic Social Services Australia invited me to reflect on recent developments in civil society from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching. Here’s what I said to their Leadership Forum in Canberra on 21 October 2014.

The Evolving Model of Civil Society – A Perspective from Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic Social Teaching has a lot to say about recent developments in the relationship between civil society and the state. I will comment on three matters: the notion of entitlement; what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about the role of civil society and of the state; and Benedict XVI’s thinking on the logic of gift in the market.


Treasurer Joe Hockey questions the legitimacy of the sense of entitlement of a number of Australians, particularly those receiving income support. So who do we think is entitled to what, on what basis, and from whom?

The bedrock of Catholic Social Teaching is the principle of the dignity of the human person. We believe that there are some things that every human person is entitled to on the basis of their dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God. We tend to call the demands of human dignity – what is needed to lead a dignified and fully human life in society – human rights. Major international human rights instruments signed and ratified by our government acknowledge food, education, and social security, among other things, to be human rights.

We believe that God intended the goods of creation for the use of all. This principle of the universal destination of goods is another basis of each person and each group in society’s entitlement to share in the common good.

To reject the rhetoric of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is not to reject personal responsibility. We say that responsibility is not just personal, or familial, it is also social. We are all responsible for each other. This sense of solidarity comes from being sisters and brothers, children of the one God. It is a response to Jesus’ solidarity with humanity, and his preferential care for the poor and marginalized.

Rights and responsibilities always go together. The rich and not only the poor have responsibilities, and the poor as well as the rich have rights. As Catholic organizations we pay attention to whose rights and whose responsibilities are attended to. We look for real mutuality not a lopsided and punitive imposition of obligations.

Everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the common good in some way, and as Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate, no one is so poor that they have nothing to give (n 57). However our market economy and tax transfer system don’t always value the things that people have to give. For example, those who are doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the unpaid care of children, the sick, the elderly, and those living with disabilities, are demonized as ‘leaners’ and a drain on others should they dare to feel entitled to support from the public purse. All sorts of civic participation contribute to the common good, not just paid work.

Civil Society & the State

The small government / big society stance has implications for the roles of the state and civil society.

Catholic Social Teaching holds that the state exists to serve the human person by organizing and promoting the common good. As far back as Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) the church taught that the state has a duty to intervene in economic and social life to defend the interests of those who cannot defend themselves. Political authority exists to serve people and communities.

A Catholic view centres not on the individual, but on the person in community. It recognizes the dignity, freedom and responsibility of each person, and also the intrinsically social nature of the human person.

Our capacity to fulfill personal responsibilities and to exercise personal rights can be either helped or hindered by social, economic, cultural and political structures, processes and institutions. Personal responsibility is exercised within a complex web of relationships. Our freedom can be significantly constrained and socially conditioned, with a corresponding impact on our personal responsibility. (John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paententia, n19)

Catholic Social Teaching gives great emphasis to the family as the basic unit of society but also recognizes that between families and the state there are other groups through which people cooperate to promote their interests, such as trade unions. They are sometimes called intermediate groups and make up what we now call civil society. While it can play a very positive role, civil society cannot replace the need for political authority exercised by the state. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, political society exists to serve civil society, not the other way around. (n 419)

The principle of subsidiarity should guide the organization of responsibilities. Decisions and actions are best taken as close as possible to the grassroots with those who are most directly affected playing a key role. Larger and more encompassing groups should only get involved when this is necessary to assist smaller and more local groups, and to coordinate for the sake of the common good. From this aspect of subsidium, or help, the principle takes its name. ‘Small government’ advocates often overlook it.

Civil society groups can contribute to but cannot organize the common good. They organize cooperation for particular and partial interests, which may be in conflict with those of other groups. They have no authority to coordinate or harmonize rights claims in conflict. Political society, in particular the state, provides this service.

Besides, only the state can raise taxes. A progressive tax-transfer system can foster the common good by sharing the benefits and burdens of life in society. Civil society has a role to play in fostering conversation about social and economic policy options, and demonstrating public willingness to pay for worthwhile services.

Sometimes our sense of social responsibility, solidarity and the common good are actually undermined by fearful, divisive, and de-humanizing policies that treat vulnerable, poor and marginalized groups in a punitive manner. When the state fails in its role in this way, it is important that civil society have the independence to call the state to account and to reassert the entitlement of all persons to a dignified life, and the solidarity of others in times of need.

A Catholic Social Teaching perspective suggests that government should be as small as possible – and as big as necessary. There is a lot of room for debate on practical judgments about particular situations, but it is not acceptable for the state to abdicate its role, pushing all responsibility onto individuals, families and civil society, or for the state to subsume their responsibilities.

The Logic of Gift in the Market

How then do we judge emerging models for funding and delivering sustainable social services?

Responding to people and communities in need, and working to transform the causes of injustice and suffering, is part of working for the Reign of God. It is a non-negotiable part of the identity and purpose of the church – we would not be the church if we were not involved in social services. So the questions are really about how we are involved.

Through Catholic organizations a substantial amount of money and labour are in fact donated to this work, but many of our social service programs and organizations rely to a significant extent on government funding. It is not wrong to expect the state to proactively organize the common good by providing resources for social services. Only the state can mandate the equitable sharing of the costs among all members of the community.

Civil society groups often understand local or particular needs better than larger, more remote or less specialized entities. Tailored and person centred services that are wholistic require a personal accompaniment that is difficult for large bureaucracies to deliver. The principle of subsidiarity would suggest that it is appropriate for civil society to work in partnership with the state for the identification of needs and the delivery of services. But if contracts prevent civil society from advocating the interests of those whom it serves, the state suppresses the very people and groups it ought to serve. If government contracts skew priorities and ways of operating, civil society groups can be reduced to being functionaries of the state – we can be dragged off mission and lose our identity.

The contracting out of services previously provided directly by the state also holds dangers to our mission and identity as faith based organizations and part of civil society. In competing with for profit entities we can end up operating just like them. For example, the financial pressure on services to scale up and consolidate can be at odds with a commitment to small, local and personal services, pressure to reduce costs can contribute to unreasonable workloads and poor pay.

But that is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from for profit economic actors, or that they can’t possibly play a role in social services.

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI stressed that our lives are marked by gratuitousness in many ways. We are not the sole authors of our own lives – all that we are and all that we have is the gift of God. As human beings we are made for gift and the logic of gift must find a place within all human activity, including economic activity. (n 34 – 36)

Benedict noted that not all social problems can be solved by the application of commercial logic – such logic needs to be directed to the common good, and the state in particular has a role to play in this. But Benedict rejected the idea of markets creating wealth and then the state redistributing it to achieve social justice, insisting that justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity:
“… authentically human relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be conducted in an ethical manner.” ( n 36)

Benedict called for space within the market for
“economic activity carried out by subjects who freely choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit”
adding that:
“The many economic entities that draw their origin from religious or lay initiatives demonstrate that this is concretely possible.” (n 37)
Certainly there are plenty of faith based not for profits providing health and educational services in Australia, and a number of CSSA members are operating social enterprises.

This seems to be what Benedict XVI was encouraging when he said:
“What is needed … is a market that permits the free operation, in conditions of equal opportunity, of enterprises in pursuit of different institutional ends. Alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and the various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursing social ends to take root and express themselves.” ( n 38)

Benedict said that the market-plus-state model is “corrosive of society” because we need more than the logic of the market in which giving is in order to acquire, and the logic of public obligation imposed by the state in which giving is a duty. For authentically human development we need the logic of gift as well. (n 40)

He acknowledged that “the market of gratuitousness does not exist” and cannot be legislated – it is a task for us to achieve. (n 40)

By grappling with these developments in the relationship of civil society and the state we are engaging in this task. We are feeling our way, and this is what Benedict encouraged us to do. He suggested that from “reciprocal encounter in the marketplace” among different forms of economic actors
“one may expect hybrid forms of commercial behavior to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy.” (n 38)


Three things are clear:
1. Catholic organizations must resist attempts to delegitimize the idea that each person is entitled to the things necessary to live a dignified human life in our society.
2. We need to retain our own voice and be able to call governments to account.
3. Our role is in civil society not as functionaries of the state, or simply part of the market, so we need to find sustainable ways of delivering the services that we believe are needed in ways that we believe are appropriate.

Much more is unclear. We are challenged to be discerning organizations, attentive to ways of following God’s call in economic activity. We have a role in seeking to help new forms of economic activity to emerge. We bring to the task some experiences of our own, and can examine the experience of others. Our research and evaluation agenda need to include theological and ethical reflection on this, and other data, along with empirical research. Empirical research is also a theological imperative because it is through the people, places and events of history that God continues to reveal Godself.

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  1. Carmel - Oct 24, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for this. It is timely. I have often wondered where the voice of the Church was and is on the “fly in fly out” approach in the mining industry especially. It certainly isn’t helpful for relationships (marriages) and children.
    The families are affected big time and the effects on the children and spouses are enormous. After the extended living in a dorm and working 12 hour shifts the workers return with some very unmet needs and certainly have a deficit in understanding parental responsibilities, let alone relationship ones.
    These are some of the issues being dealt with in a number of families at the moment and are not being addressed in the local parish or the mine site.

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