I was asked recently whether Pope Francis had issued any new teachings on collectivism. This was an out-of-left-field kind of request, and it made me think about something important that I think is going on in people’s reactions to the Holy Father’s teachings about society, particularly when he touches on economic issues.
First, let’s define two key terms — collectivism and individualism.
Collectivism is a political and social ideology in which the individual person does not have moral value or significance of their own, but rather has value only as part of a larger entity. So, in the case of communism, it’s the workers class; in the case of fascism, it’s the nation or people; in the case of utilitarian capitalism, it’s the market economy; in the case of some forms of religious fanaticism, it’s the people of faith. Basically, the individual is just an atom in a larger body, with no real inherent value. Collectivism is a denial of the dignity of every human person and the principle of subsidiarity.
Collectivism is the opposite pole from another significant error, namely individualism. This is the attitude that every individual person is an entity unto themselves, with no connection with or duties towards society or their fellow men. You see this in the libertarian economic and political philosophy that has infected American conservatism. Individualism is a denial of the solidarity of the human family, and our duty of charity and fraternity towards our brethren in society.
The Church has consistently condemned both collectivism and individualism. This condemnation can be seen, for example, in the Catechism 1895, and in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine 390. Both collectivism and individualism deny the authentic meaning of the human person and our relationship with each other, and can never be approved.
In times past, when the socialist, communist and fascist movements and regimes were a particularly grave threat to society and to the Church, the Popes paid a great deal of attention on the dangers of collectivism. But in the current age, the threat of individualism is clearly much more grave, and so Pope Francis has focused much more on that evil and on its offspring, self-centered materialistic consumerism. You can see this in both Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si. Going back, Pope Benedict’s emphasis on solidarity in Caritas in Veritate was making the same point. Going back further, St. John Paul took on both collectivism and individualism in Centesimus Annus.
So why would anyone in this day be concerned primarily about whether the Holy Father is condemning colelctivism?
There’s an interesting passage in the Screwtape Letters about how the Evil One loves to get us to pay an excessive amount of attention to things that are not really threats, in order to blind us to the ones that we should be worried about. It goes like this:
We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding”. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
I think Uncle Screwtape nails it there. Concerns about collectivism are a diversion from the real problem. There are a lot of conservative Catholics who are very exercised about defending individual liberty against the imagined threat of papal “socialism” — as if Pope Francis wanted to nationalize the means of production and restore the “worker’s paradise” of communist dreams. Not only is that utter nonsense, it the exact opposite of the really grave and evil threat that we face — atomistic individualism, with its hard-heartedness, selfishness, crude materialism, etc.
Pope Francis sees through that tactic very clearly, and he’s urging us to do the same.