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Civil Society and Social Reconstruction

 September 5 - November 10, 1995                                   Washington, D.C.



The Problem


On approaching the new century, we learn daily how deeply we have been conditioned by the extremes of the last 50 years. As with any war, it worked in two directions. In vast regions one ideology, in order to affirm the totality, laid waste to all intermediate levels of association, reducing people to anonymous masses. In reaction, contrary ideologies so stressed individual autonomy and rights as progressively to dissolve the bonds of community, neighborhood, and even family, thereby projecting ever greater responsibilities upon the state. Whether out of allegiance to the state or to the individual, to the whole or to the part, there emerged a world of faceless communes and lonely crowds overshadowed by an equally faceless but increasingly autocratic and bureaucratic state.
Upon reflection it is not so surprising that the new initiatives since '89 have generated new problems. But it is truly frightening to find that the responses reflect a return to old solutions. This does violence to the emerging personalist aspirations and threatens to compound the tragedies of the XXth century in the next. On one level, a reductivist focus on individual rights tends to sweep away shared traditional standards of human decency and with them the social bonding they reflect. As a result new market expressions of individual initiative give rise to irresponsible greed and corruption. Instead of working to develop a moral sense proportionate to the new acquired freedom, however, the technology of government control is expanded. Hence, individual corruption threatens ultimately to be extrapolated into a battle of commercial interests at the national level where corruption is joined power to trammel humans and their needs.

On another level, new affirmations of the ethnic or national identity of peoples are responded to, not with a creative integration of diversity, but with means ranging from legal restrictions on the liberties of all to ruthless military suppression. Both these approaches lead back to a world divided between explored masses and an ever more powerfully autocratic or dictatorial state.


The Challenge


This creates an urgent need for now a new examination of what has been termed "civil society": it is social rather than individual, for it is the more immediate context required for personal growth, interaction and fulfillment. It is civil, rather than state, to suggest its personal and humanizing character. It goes beyond any one dimension -- economic, educational, or religious -- but by including all of these is concerned to provide the integrated context without which none of them could truly thrive.
This complements in an essential manner the two great awakenings of our times regarding, namely, the dignity of the person and the importance of human solidarity. In order for these to be implemented, that is, for personal dignity to be exercised in society and for this to be personal in character, subsidiarity is required as a third and integrating element.

This means, first, a reconstition of the structures of association and cooperation which implement human solidarity and cooperation. In each field -- neighborhood, education, health, business and religion -- the forms of interpersonal social life must be rearticulated and promoted.
Second, in contrast to a rationalist and univocal ordering of all according to a masterplan imposed from above, these patterns of human community must define from below their natural hierarchy and interaction. In this the key factors will be the concrete spatial and temporal character of human needs and the practical, cultural and religious patterns of human interests.
Indeed, modes of concrete personal cooperation would seem to emerge less from massive ideologies, than from concrete needs. If so, the needy, long pressed by the exigencies of daily survival under harsh and oppressive economic or political pressures, may have much to share regarding non formal structures and the working of civil society.

This seminar will bring together representatives of different regions and multiple disciplines in an attempt to rediscover the nature of civil society and the structures, order and dynamics of subsidiarity which this implies.





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