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Civil Society as Democratic Practice:

Solidarity and Subsidiarity

September 8-November 14, 1997                                     Washington, D.C.




On approaching the new century, indeed the new millennium, we remain intensively effected and effectively conditioned by the long cold war from which we emerge. As with any war, it has worked in two directions. In vast regions the ideology, in order to affirm the totality, laid waste to all other levels of association, reducing the people to anonymous masses. In reaction, contrary ideologies so stressed individual autonomy and rights as progressively to dissolve bonds of community, neighborhood, and even family, thereby inevitably projecting ever greater responsibilities on the state. Whether out of extremist allegiance either to the state or to the individual, to the whole or to the part, there emerged a common rationalist extremism, marked by faceless communes or lonely crowds.

It has been sobering indeed to find that old habits -- especially those of societies -- die slowly. Indeed, more recent experiences of social disintegration and conflict shock us and warn of a foreboding future. This threatens to be constituted by communal aggression, which destroys from without, and self-seeking corruption, which dissolves confidence and cooperation from within. Thus, in some areas celebrating the emergence of a free market there is destabilizing disillusion at the avaricious corruption accompanying the unleashing of private initiative. In other areas, a reductivist focus upon individual rights sweeps away common standards of human decency and with them human social bonding.




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, respectively, the dignity of the person and the importance of human solidarity. But 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 reconstitution of the structures of association and cooperation which implement humansolidarity and cooperation. In each field -- neighborhood, education, health, business and religion -- the forms of interpersonal social life must be rearticulated and promoted.

Secondly, in contrast to a rationalist and univocal ordering of all according to an ideology imposed from above, these patterns of human community must define from below their natural hierarchy and interaction in a pattern ofsubsidiarity. For this, key factors will be the concrete spatial and temporal character of human needs and the practical, cultural and religious patterns of human interests.

Beyond and in dialogue with the political and the economic, this active engagement and creative expression of the people constitutes authentic democratic process.

Such modes of concrete cooperation between persons and peoples 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.



For this work 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 with these 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 in the solidarity and subsidiarity in which civil society consists.

For this a seminar is projected with 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 cultural 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.



- 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 philosophers from the various continents, with an equal number of professors from various disciplines at the universities in the Washington area. The visiting scholars from other countries 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: Tuesdays 10.00 a.m. - 12.00 noon: discussion by visiting scholars of key contemporary texts related to the evolution of the theme of the seminar. Fridays, 3:10-5:00 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.

- Costs: No fees will be charged. Participants will be responsible, however, for providing their own room and board, unless otherwise arranged.




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