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Protecting the Human Environment: Alienation as Social Critique

The renewed emphasis on the study of Roman Catholic social teaching and how it can contribute to the rebuilding of the culture of life presents many challenges. A formidable one is relaying the essentials of that teaching to the average person in a way that simply and concretely captures the imagination. This is especially necessary today as the linkage between religious values and good citizenship appears all but broken. Indeed, people who believe in God are being pushed farther and farther to the perimeter of public discourse. We need a new rallying cry suitable to the specific problems of our time in order to reestablish the connection between God and good government.

This cry may be buried deep within John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. In paragraphs forty and forty-one of the encyclical the Pope undertakes an analysis of the phenomenon of alienation. Even though these paragraphs occupy only a small portion of the encyclical, they arguably represent two of the encyclical’s richest sections, because in them the Pope addresses the role of the state in defending and preserving the human environment. After indicating that market forces alone cannot adequately safeguard this good, the Pope then characterizes the defense of the human environment as the state’s new challenge. The Pope considers this new challenge to be as significant as the state’s historical challenge of defending the rights of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Here John Paul II seems to supply the substance for the new generation’s rallying cry. But in order to adopt the Pope’s guidance for this rallying cry, we must understand what the Pope means when he uses the terms human environment and alienation.

First, we will consider alienation. The Pope makes clear that he is not referring to alienation as defined by Marxism, which posits an inevitable clash in society between the proletariat (laborers) who produce and the bourgeoisie (business executives) who own the means of production. Under Marxist theory the inevitable clash between them is the external manifestation of alienation between groups. Marxists further contend that this alienation inheres in the structure of capitalism. As history has proven, the only possible Marxist solution for this alienation is to eradicate free market capitalism by collectivizing the means of production. The Pope determines this Marxist understanding to be inadequate and mistaken. He notes that market relationships in and of themselves tend toward overcoming the alienation that Marxists perceive. The Pope also points out—rather wryly it seems—that not only has Marxism failed to overcome alienation, it has added the miseries of crushing poverty and daunting inefficiency. To infer that the Pope has come to these conclusions by drawing deeply from his personal experience is hardly outlandish.

Using this critique of the Marxist view of alienation as a springboard, John Paul II provides a definition of alienation that assumes a decidedly and—not surprisingly—religiously personalistic flavor. In John Paul II’s terminology alienation means being anti-communitarian and anti-religious. In the Pope’s own words, “[w]hen man does not recognize in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person, he effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefiting from his humanity and of entering into that relationship of solidarity and communion with others for which God created him. Indeed, it is through the free gift of self that one truly finds oneself.”1 Thus, God, the author of human life, has written into our natures an essential capacity for transcendence. This means that, contrary to popular opinion, humans are not by their nature self-centered, but rather other-centered—oriented outward toward the other. Another way of saying this is that humans have the capacity to love—that mysterious ability to desire the good for others, to give of themselves for others, and to go out of themselves to seek union of mind and heart with others. This capacity finds its highest fulfillment, its final destiny in our union with God, “who alone can fully accept our gift.”2

Based on the Pope’s definition, alienation could then also be described as discord with one’s very nature, a failure to be truly human. Because a human’s nature is essentially social, failure to live in an authentically human way has social consequences. When personal alienation becomes the norm, this will be reflected in society’s laws and customs. John Paul II characterizes this condition as social alienation: “A society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people.”3

Understanding his conception of alienation allows us to see what the Pope means when speaking of the human environment that must be protected. This environment consists of all the conditions that lead people to freely apprehend and appreciate the unique beauty and capacity that humans have for authentic giving of themselves to others, and ultimately to God, in order to form a loving communion of persons. This communion can be formed in part by the laws and policies that society enacts. To the extent that social policy or law recognizes and encourages (or at least does not hinder) a person’s ability to give a sincere and free gift of self in accord with his or her created nature, the human environment will be protected. To the extent that social policy and law hinder this ability, the human environment will be harmed. No specialized training or education is required to understand this simple, but profound concept. To further enshrine this understanding of the human environment in the popular consciousness, an effort must also be made to concretely show its application.

To begin with, to be able to give of self requires a mastery of self, or self-control, because in order to give a gift, one must first possess it. One of life’s essential struggles is developing the self-control necessary to enable a person to give of self. The first lessons on cultivating this self-control occur within the family. A child learns primarily by imitating his or her parents. In fact, the family is the primordial example of the sincere gift of self and its relationship to establishing a communion of persons. God intended the human family to be a symbol of that original communion of persons, the Blessed Trinity, after whom all of society is patterned. Hence readily apparent is the place of importance occupied by marriage and family. Protecting them is essential to protecting the human environment.

Equally important is the authenticity of the gift. Only manifestations of self-giving that correspond to the truth about human nature as created by God will tend toward that genuine communion of persons to which humanity is directed. This highlights the necessity of an environment conducive to discovering and implementing the correct standards for judgment and value, these standards themselves resulting from the recognition of God as Creator. Unveiling these standards is a central duty and aspiration of the practice of religion. Thus, respect for the role of religion in social life is fundamental. However, translating the discoveries of what constitutes correct human action into public policies is most properly the role of the lay citizen rather than the pastor.4 Thus, the importance for the believer to engage in the political process by utilizing all the legitimate powers of persuasion available cannot be overestimated.

In addition, the nature of gift denotes freedom. If a person is compelled to give a gift, what is given is no longer a gift. Thus, a certain measure of external liberty—freedom from coercion by external entities, such as the state—is required in order to favor the conditions under which the gift of self can be freely made. Linking liberty to the freedom necessary to give an authentic gift of self to others helps to educate people in the understanding and purpose of liberty. Liberty should always be placed within the context of what true freedom entails. As John Paul II explains, “obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom.” A society then must offer a person sufficient liberty to be able to freely choose to act for the good of others. To that end, liberty should only be curtailed to the extent necessary to protect against unjust aggression and to satisfy the demands of the common good that cannot be fulfilled through any other means.

In addition to helping this conception of the authentic human environment take wing in the popular imagination, the link between religious belief and governmental policy must also be reestablished. Linking religious belief and governmental policy is not anti-American, though many in the popular media suggest it is. Even so, reestablishing this link is complicated because of the separation between church and state that is necessary to respect each person’s right to religious liberty. But complicated is not the same as impossible. The political system in the United States is suited to the challenge of solving this dilemma.

While often described as a secular nation, the United States is more correctly classified as an interfaith nation. Its founding principles acknowledge the presence of a Supreme Being from whom certain inalienable rights are received. This means that our government is based on the worldview that God exists. One could say that the existence of God is a first principle of our form of government: God is the one who endowed us with those inalienable rights. In a sense, the challenge to protect the human environment is not new at all, but rather was given to us by our Founding Fathers. Within the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and the Constitution’s hope of founding “a more perfect Union” is intertwined this mysterious concept of the grandeur of the human person and his or her ability to form a communion of persons conscious of God as the final destiny.

Therefore, the religious liberty that is the right of every person does not mean that government must be insulated from religious values. Quite the contrary. Government must not discourage, but rather it must encourage God-loving people to participate in the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies. As has been previously alluded to, the religious believer is, in a real sense, the model citizen, because the religious believer is the one most likely to understand the importance of protecting the human environment from social alienation. In other words, the religious believer has the best standpoint from which to recognize the significance of creating an environment in which citizens are encouraged to generously give of themselves to each other according to a correct order of values established by the Creator.

Rather than expecting citizens to check their religious sensibilities at the door, society should highly regard participation from those who are fundamentally oriented toward the truth that each person must seek communion with God and neighbor. Among all citizens the religious believer stands out as a beacon most capable of guiding society to formulate policies that encourage an atmosphere conducive to the reason for human society’s existence. One could say that the participation of the religious believer in the political process is our country’s best hope of realizing the greatness of our foundation as a nation. As society comes to understand this, religious belief will no longer be seen as something that disqualifies a person for public service, but rather renders him or her more suitable.

The current environment in which religious believers are viewed with fear and skepticism prevents the greatness of our founding principles from being actualized. In order to truly form a more perfect union—the communion of persons—the human environment must be protected. Only then will the blessings of liberty, through which citizens enjoy the freedom to give the gift of self to others according to the order of creation, come to fruition. This is truly the essence of the culture of life. In reestablishing this culture, the religious believer must respond to the clarion call to protect and defend the human environment. This response must have personal and political components. True liberty—the freedom to act in the service of others—is necessary to allow this culture to flourish. Only by impressing this reality on citizens not religiously inclined and those who fear the reaches of big government can we answer their concerns regarding the religious believer’s participation in politics.

Notes

  1. See paragraph 41 of Centesimus Annus. As some may have already recognized, the quoted statement is a paraphrase of the last sentence of paragraph 24 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes: “This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Thus, being so ever present in the Pope’s writings, this concept seems to be adopted as one of the cornerstones of his thought.
  2. See paragraph 41 of Centesimus Annus.
  3. See paragraph 41 of Centesimus Annus.
  4. Canon 227, Code of Canon Law Annotated (Wilson & Lafleur Limitee: Montreal 1993). Additional discussion of this subject also appears in paragraph six of the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published on November 21, 2002. The document can be found online at the Vatican Web site at the following link: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20021124_politica_en.html