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Civil Society: Who Belongs?

September 10 - November. 15, 1996                                Washington, D.C.



The Problem             

It seems characteristic of these years to say that the age of big government is passed. This could refer tothe communist utopia of state planning which assured work for all, or to the "New Deal" vision, born of the great economic Depression, that it was the task of the government to assure the basic needs of all, especially the needliest. In contrast, these years seem to be characterized by a general rejection of the sense of inclusive responsibility for the welfare of a every citizen.

Some, such as Hannah Arendt, would say that the failure of the great modern revolutions lay in their taking up the insoluble social questions of the distribution of wealth, rather than focusing simply upon assuring participation in decision-making regarding the commonweal. But, for essentially social beings, civil participation and basic well being appear to be so intricately interwoven that present trends toward the exclusion of many groups--in contrast to the inclusion of all--bear the most ominous implications.

The phenomenon appears pervasive in our times. Genocide, which had been thought to have been put behind us at the end of the second World War, has come back to haunt middle Europe, as well as ethnicities and tribes in other regions of the world. Immigration has become massive in scale, leaving everywhere both residues of the problem of assimilation similar to that generated by slavery in the past and a corresponding threatened sense of homeland. In the technologically and economically most advanced regions populations become increasingly divided between an ever smaller technically sophisticated group which is able to benefit from technical and economic development and the large majority which is being moved to the service sector. An increasing number is becoming less able sufficiently to share in the benefits of progress to be able to endow their offspring with the abilities required to partake in the new opportunities.

Whether from pride in one's culture or from fear of others whether, from poverty or from wealth, the matter of belonging has emerged as a central issue of our times.

The Challenge


Seen in the above terms the challenge is not only a matter of political structures and economic dynamisms; more broadly it concerns the basic social sense of a people as a whole. The political structures will not be adjusted unless there is a sense that they need to include groups presently excluded. Nor will the economic structures be improved while those they exploit are viewed as less than full members of society, indeed, as less than fully human, complete persons or respected human groups. Political and economic change require a broader social sense of others not simply as alien, but in their full human dignity as persons and groups who rightly should participate in society with its responsibilities and benefits. This is the basis for civil society and a civil culture.

This broader reality of civil society is characterized both by solidarity within groups and by a subsidiary relation between the groups. This maximizes freedom by leaving local decisions to local groups, rather than transferring their responsibility to higher, less involved, "decision making" bodies. But if solidarity is not to mean exclusiveness and if subsidiarity is not to mean subjection and exploitation then they must be based upon full participation by all persons. Hence, the emergence of concern for civil society points to participation--to the question "Who Belongs?"--as a basic, even prior, issue which today is in need of urgent attention. This, in turn, involves issues of universal human dignity, of the essentially social nature of the human person, and hence of the basic right of every person and group to participate in the life of society.

Fortunately, insistence upon sameness, upon tailoring everyone to the same Procrustean bed, has come to be recognized as crudely insensitive and unjust. The new awareness of cultures tends to be joined to a new degree of awareness of diversity; this, however, can be perceived not only positively but negatively. In a time of mass migrations this can be deeply unsettling to the host people's sense of peace, stability and security, experienced in terms of an identifiable home and homeland: the right to remain can be no less than the right to leave.

From this flow a number of anguished questions for civil society:


- Can diversity contribute to, rather than destroy, solidarity?

- Is there a way in which communities can retain their solidarity while opening to others in a pattern of subsidiarity which promotes, rather than destroys, the cultural identity and humanizing roots of the community?

- Can diversity and equality be wed?

This seminar will bring together representatives of different regions and multiple disciplines in an attempt to face this first challenge to the redevelopment of civil society in our times: namely, the basic issue of inclusion or participation in society. On what bases and in what structures is it possible both to recognize and celebrate the unique character of all persons and groups and to promote cohesion within a broadened sense of the common good.


The Response

For this there are significant and promising resources. The humanities (history and literature) can uncover the values of the various cultures. The social sciences (psychology, sociology and economics) can contribute understanding of the structures of the world in which we live. Above all, it will be necessary to think together philosophically, in order to understand the way in which human freedom is open rather than closed, and how self-assertion consists in reaching out to others.

To realize this a seminar is envisaged which will have the following characteristics:


- Size: restricted to under 20 scholars, in order to facilitate intensive interchange around a single table;

- Interdisciplinary: in order to draw upon the contemporary capabilities of the various humanities and sciences and to penetrate deeply into the philosophical roots and religious meaning of cultures;

- Inter-cultural: to benefit from the experiences and commitments of the various ethnic communities from all parts of the world, to discover their particular problems in our day, and especially to envisage new and creative responses;

- Focused: a single integrating theme, in order to encourage a convergence of insights;

- Duration: 10 weeks, in order to allow the issues to mature, the participants to establish a growing degree of mutual comprehension, and new insight to emerge;

- Intensive: analyzing in detail the papers planned in common and written by each of the participants during the seminar; and

- Publication: the resulting volumes, consisting of chapters written by the individual seminar participants, intensively discussed in the seminar and then redrafted, will reflect concretely the work of the seminar and share it with those working in the various cultural communities in facing the problems of contemporary life.


The Organization


- Sponsor: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, in cooperation with The Catholic University of America and Oblate College.

- Participants in each seminar: 10 scholars in related disciplines from the various continents, with an equal number of professors from universities in the Washington area. The visiting scholars will be welcome to join in seminars and courses at CUA, and to use the libraries and research facilities of the Library of Congress and the Universities and Institutes of the Washington area in the furtherance of their research. The period of the seminar should constitute effectively a hard working mini-sabbatical.

- Place: Room 300, St. Bonaventure Hall, The Catholic University of America, Monroe and Michigan Ave. (at the Brookland-CUA Metro Station), Washington, D.C.

- Schedule: Fridays, 3:00-5:00 p.m.: presentation by the individual participants of the drafts of their chapter, as a basis for intensive critical and exploratory discussion by the group.





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