COVID-19 exposed the fragile foundations of our economic and political life. The global pandemic has laid bare the erosion of our everyday economy, stripped down to “just-in-time” delivery and dependent on foreign powers we cannot trust for the provision of essential equipment. COVID-19 is also shining a light on the hollowing out of democracy and society, built on an atrophied polity and anemic civic institutions that fail to give ordinary people a voice in the government of communities and countries.
For forty years or so, state and market institutions centralized power, concentrated wealth, and reduced social status to the already affluent, successful, and mobile. After decades of being told that the new “knowledge economy” spreads opportunities for all, it is clear that the dominant model largely benefits the professional-managerial class composed of bankers and lawyers aided by an armada of accountants and auditors. Once the world went into lockdown, we came to realize who the essential workers are. Truck drivers and warehouse workers. Delivery staff and shelf-stackers. Shop assistants and cashiers. Police officers and firefighters. Doctors and nurses. Hospital cleaners and home carers.
“Labour,” writes Maurice Glasman, “is something you can’t do from home. It requires real physical presence, leaving home and doing something, usually involving your hands, for other people. Far from being replaced by machines, key workers require skill, empathy and compassion to fulfil their vocation.” The COVID-19 pandemic has created the conditions for restoring the meaning and dignity of labour. The value and dignity of labour has been revealed as central to the economy and society. It is through work that we find fulfillment and become more human. We owe these ideas to Catholic Social Thought and similar traditions in Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Nonconformist churches. Christian social teaching retains its as yet unrealized potential for transforming our economy and democracy.
As Pope Francis remarked in a different context that is very apposite to our post-pandemic predicament, “we are not living an era of change but a change of era.” The coronavirus crisis speeds up long-standing developments that have been decades in the making: the fragmentation of free-market globalization and the resurgence of the protective state; a greater emphasis on borders and national sovereignty; the need for greater investment in our public services and the importance of civic community; the urgency for science and technology to serve human needs in a manner that favours ecological balance; a yearning for stability and mass participation in big ways and small to take care of others.
“The pandemic has exposed the paradox that while we are more connected, we are also more divided,” wrote the pontiff last November in the New York Times. “Feverish consumerism breaks the bonds of belonging.” COVID-19 opens up the space for renewing a communitarian spirit of rediscovering the importance of attachment and affection for particular people and places. Protective isolation has thrown us back onto family and neighbourhood, community and country. Yet at the same time, we find greater meaning in virtual connections worldwide, crossing liberal fault lines between the private and the public, the local and the global. Binding together the tension between being embedded in places and being connected across the planet is our yearning for purpose: a natural desire for relationships and institutions that provide meaning. If humans are meaning-seeking and storytelling animals, then the self only makes sense in something greater than itself. In our quest for a purposeful life, we discern at the heart of ourselves what the late Jonathan Sacks, former UK chief rabbi, calls the greater human “We,” all the covenantal ties binding us together as humans who are social beings.
The Covenantal Promise at the Heart of Catholic Social Thought
From the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891, until the most recent one, titled Fratelli Tutti, Catholic Social Thought calls us to rediscover the sacred in our lived experience. Human beings and nature are not commodities to be traded in a global marketplace at the lowest place in pursuit of the highest profit. Labour, land, and life have intrinsic worth and value, and the economy has to support the dignity of humans and the entire natural world—what Pope Francis called in his encyclical Laudato Si’ “our common home of nature.” Human flourishing based on dignity, not domination based on wealth and power, should be the telos of a vibrant economy and healthy democracy.
Covenant—the complex web of intergenerational bonds—is more primary than contract because relationships matter more than transactions. Humans need love, lived solidarity, and emotional stability as much as physical or material security like shelter or money to put food on the table. Being born into a state of complete dependency, we are embodied creatures who are oriented toward our mother, family, and extended kin who provide the love we need to live and flourish. Rites of passage into adulthood involve life in society with a balance of rights and obligations. First there is “we,” then there is “me.”
As social and political beings, humans are neither isolated individuals nor cogs in a collective wheel but rather born into a pre-existing social order made up of parents, extended family, neighbourhood, community, and country. A person’s autonomy and her agency are embedded in relationships and institutions that precede us. For that reason, the liberal idea of a social contract between rulers and ruled defining the power of the sovereign, the rights of the subjects, and the consent of the governed will not work. It is transactional rather than relational. It focuses on the individual and the collective without the social relationships between persons or groups. And by subordinating custom and culture to commerce and capital, it cannot repair the breakdown in trust and cooperation or renew a sense of loyalty and authority. “Me” divorced from “we” ends in a Hobbesian dystopia of a war of all against all in which the sovereign is the individual writ large who rules over all others and ends up erasing all given relationships.
But the triumph of “me” over “we” fails to reflect a deeper anthropological truth. Beyond wealth and power, humans tend to seek mutual recognition: valuing everyone’s talents, vocations, and contribution to society, and in turn having our own recognized. Connected with this is our natural disposition for what George Orwell termed “honourable performance.” We take pride in a job well done. The forging of a common life between separate selves who are also relational beings requires a politics based on a transcendent conversation, which can address deeper divisions around questions of shared identity—covenantal bonds of belonging. Paradoxically, the search for the self leads us to discover the priority of the relational over the purely individual or collective.
Paradoxically, the search for the self leads us to discover the priority of the relational over the purely individual or collective.
Yet our economic and political life is trapped in the secular logic of contract and individual rights without mutual obligations. Reality shows the centrality of the givenness of life and our social relationships, but our political and economic structures are built on something completely different. What is lacking is a genuinely popular democracy with much greater civic participation in the exercise of power by more virtuous elites, alongside much more real equality (of esteem as well as before the law) and genuine creative freedom in the economic realm. Greater virtue among elites will help to strengthen their sense of duty for the people they serve, while more equality is a vital condition for reconciling estranged interests around the common good. Both virtue and equality will nurture the covenantal ties binding people together across generations.
The Radical Tradition of Catholic Social Teaching
Here Catholic Social Thought is at once radical and traditional. Faced with the depredations of the Industrial Revolution and the first wave of globalization in the late nineteenth century, the Catholic Church and the nascent labour movement sought to develop the best tradition of Britain’s “mixed constitution” by building a more plural and organic commonwealth through a more democratic and egalitarian rendering of English and similar Celtic traditions. This was perhaps best exemplified by the alliance between Cardinal Manning and the workers at the time of the 1889 dockers’ strike, which was one of the events that shaped the thinking of Pope Leo XIII—the author of the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum that inaugurated the body of modern Catholic social teaching. Manning, like the labour movement, opposed the liberal system of individual self-fulfillment without limit because it denies the social nature of the person and the divine inheritance of creation and reduces both to tradeable commodities, whereas the workers backed by the cardinal fought for higher wages, lower working hours, and the dignity of labour.
Initially Catholic Social Thought rejected the two ideological extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and Marxist communism that dominated the second half of the nineteenth century. Later it sought to chart an alternative to a variety of more or less unsavoury options in the twentieth century stretching from fascist corporatism via state socialism to secular social democracy (welfare capitalism) and, more recently, neoliberalism. Common to all of these is a fundamental utopian outlook and commitments to remake humankind—either in the form of the atavistic Übermensch, or the new Soviet man, or indeed liberalism’s homo economicus.
In response to this utopianism, Catholic social teaching proposes the primacy of interpersonal relations as a middle path that avoids the oscillation between the individual and the collective, just like it rejects the dialectic of given nature and private freedom because real liberty is a social freedom that recognizes limits and restraints on disordered desires. Among the concepts that underpin this primacy of the social over the economic and the political are (1) the dignity of the person (personalism), (2) the just distribution of resources (distributism), (3) devolving power to the most appropriate level consistent with human flourishing (subsidiarity), (4) responsibility and self-rule (autonomy), and (5) mutual assistance, especially for the poor (solidarity).
Linking all these is the idea of “intermediate institutions,” which diversify and pluralize the sovereignty of the state and of the individual. That is because intermediate institutions represent autonomous bodies, which—when properly protected by the constitution—escape both state coercion and market competition. For this reason, Catholic Social Thought differs from revolutionary thinking in that it closely connects both solidarity and fraternity to a blending of the principle of human association with that of free independence (personalism and autonomy). As an alternative to both market individualism and state collectivism, the “fraternal” alternative of Catholic social teaching advocates solidarity between persons—whether as individuals or organized in groups. But how?
Ethical Economy, Democratic Politics, Covenantal Society
First, we should embed our political and economic processes in the social relations of civil society—defined as a complex body in which different intermediary institutions interact and provide greater popular agency. For example, citizen assemblies can help give people a voice in the governance of local issues. A democratic form of corporatism brings together businesses, labour unions, and local government to negotiate wages and working conditions in line with the needs of people and places. There will always be tension and even conflict, but by the same token civil society is the creative “free space” between ruler and people wherein persons and groups can engage in a plural search for the common good—a variety of groups with different values but some shared interests and ethical principles, such as work, the family, or pride of place.
Thus defined, the common good is not the aggregation of individual goods but rather all the relational goods we can only have by sharing them in real relationships of cooperation that give meaning to our activities—from trust via the imparting of knowledge to care for others. Relational goods are like common land on which animals graze and people can freely walk. Such goods are not tradable commodities but rather something of intrinsic worth that can only be enjoyed in common, like friendship or cooperation for reciprocal benefit and flourishing. In Christian social teaching, the common good is like a compass that can help to order our action toward the pursuit of shared interests that are mutually beneficial.
In his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI defines the common good as “the good of ‘all of us,’ made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.” Therefore, the common good is not the total mathematically measurable good—the sum total of individual utilitarian happiness in some artificial aggregate average like national output. For national output counts people one by one, not in their real relationships. By contrast, the common good is concerned with the truest goods that we share together as human beings and members of society.
Second, such a vision rests on the recognition that the political order is plural—that persons are irreducibly plural and that there is not a single way to live a good life. Pluralism also applies to the sources of sovereignty. Neither the state nor the church nor individual institutions nor nations have absolute authority over us. Instead, sovereign power is shared among them within a variety of distinct yet partially overlapping spheres. And as the Protestant thinker Althusius argued already in the seventeenth century, “the subject of politics are the principles concerning the exchange of things, works, and laws, which . . . we follow in view of the shared advantage of social life.”
Given substantive pluralism (not the liberal procedural variant), the purpose of politics is to build a “common home,” which can only be achieved through a creative coordination of differences rather the imposition of a single will—whether of the individual ruler or the popular collective. The English political theorist Bernard Crick defined politics as the peaceful conciliation of diverse interests. This conception, he writes, “is to assert, historically, that there are some societies at least which contain a variety of different interests and different moral viewpoints and [also] to assert, ethically, that conciliation is at least to be preferred to coercion among normal people.” Democracy not only depends on pluralism but also should uphold it by fostering the common good.
Third, a common-good democracy has to acknowledge that capital left to itself is a force that concentrates wealth, centralizes power, and commodifies everyday life, which in turn creates forms of dispossession and exclusion (as outlined in Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium), and works against the plural political order described above. As a result, the task is to create a participatory economic democracy that distributes both power and wealth across society. This involves (1) embedding economic transactions more fully in social relations so that the economy serves the relationships that make up society; (2) protecting the most vulnerable from oppression, exploitation, and exclusion (because supposedly they are not economically “useful”); (3) creating alternative forms of mutual aid (e.g., membership-based welfare); (4) establishing associative modes of production, ownership, and control that uphold the dignity of labour. As the Italian economist Stefano Zamagni (and proponent of the idea of “civil economy”) puts it, “A society in which democracy applies only to politics will never be fully democratic. A good society to live in will not force its members into uncomfortable dissociations: democratic as citizens and voters, undemocratic as workers and consumers.”
Fourth, such a democracy depends on incentives and rewards for virtuous action. Far from being the moralism of “,” virtue is a habit or quality that enables human beings to pursue their purpose, which is to lead a good life. A good life combines individual fulfillment with mutual flourishing in association with others—fulfilling the unique talents of each and pursuing the common good of all. This involves seeing our fundamental identity beyond our individual selves and making personal sacrifices so that shared identities may be affirmed and strengthened. Another way of saying this is to suggest that society is a covenant between generations that balances freedom and autonomy with solidarity and care for others. A society that reflects our social, relational nature rejects the cult of rampant individualism and arbitrary restrictions on freedom that come with the cult of nationalism.
Finally, one of the highest social virtues is lived fraternity—the practice of interpersonal solidarity. This involves injecting gratuitousness or gift into contract and balancing rights with obligations. In concrete terms, this would involve rewriting company law to mandate businesses to serve not just shareholder interests but also social and ecological purpose. Ever-greater individual rights and economic contract alone cannot deliver security, prosperity, and human flourishing for the many. That is why there is a need to invent or discover new, more participatory modes of self-restraint and responsibility, and of economic justice and shared well-being. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate,
Individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licence. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defence and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good.
The Foundations of Fraternity and Friendship
What is lacking in our economic and political life is a sense of purpose beyond rights and utility—a vision of human flourishing anchored in fraternity and friendship. Such a vision can be found in Pope Francis’s social encyclical Fratelli Tutti, in which he calls for “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship.” Fraternity is a universal disposition, the idea that we ought to love every human being because all have dignity. Friendship is a particular sentiment, the affection we have for those we encounter. Fraternal love turns into friendship as the strangers in our midst become our neighbours.
In the pope’s own words, “Every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country.” Social friendship, he writes, creates a “true universal openness,” as opposed to “the false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people.” But it is not just liberal globalism at which the pontiff takes aim. He rejects populist nationalism and its demagogic exploitation of fear in order to attain power. True to the “third way” so characteristic of Catholic Social Thought, Francis seeks to chart a constructive alternative that balances “love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family.”
The pope’s intervention is vital for democracy, which depends on popular trust. Mindful of our fractured world, he calls for a more just sharing of the world’s resources, care for our common home of nature—the subject of his previous encyclical—and compassion for migrants. Linking greater economic justice and ecological balance to social fairness will help democracies around the world to renew their ethical traditions anchored in the common good, beyond utilitarian or rights-based models. A renewed democratic politics also requires an unequivocal condemnation of Christians who are apologists of xenophobia, racism, and ethnocentric atavism.
At the same time, Francis seeks to take the oxygen out of the “culture wars” that are ripping Western societies apart. Against protesters who tear down statutes and dismiss whole cultures as reactionary, he reminds people to know their history, learn from the experiences of their elders, and be open to the inheritance handed down from past generations. “People who abandon their tradition,” the pope writes, “and allow others to rob their very soul, end up losing . . . their moral consistency and, in the end, their intellectual, economic and political independence.” It is a powerful rebuttal to the advocates of cancel culture and the closing of the liberal-progressive mind.
Key to the practice of fraternity is a balance of rights with obligations. Selfishness enslaves us to our own fabricated desires, whereas caring for ourselves and for others makes us free. True equality involves a hierarchy in which the young have a duty to look after the elderly just as the elderly are obligated to impart wisdom that the young cannot achieve on their own. Too often in secular democracies we forget that the family remains the fundamental social institution that educates us into the social virtues of sacrifice and service on which citizenship and democracy depend. Social virtues rest on lived fraternity—relationships of give-and-receive that give our daily lives meaning.
What if our democracies were motivated by fraternal love that rebuilds broken societies? Love, home, work, and hope are the building blocks for the good life that fuse our own individual fulfillment with the mutual flourishing of others. This can lead to a politics that starts with the things that matter to people—their families and friends, the places where they live and work, the relationships of support and community that sustain them, and the institutions that provide security, including the state.
Fraternity is at the heart of the social fabric binding together communities and countries. Democracy, if it is to resist authoritarianism, needs to recover ethical traditions to be a force for good—gaining and retaining power to offer people a more dignified life.
Anthropology teaches us that human society is a spiral paradox of “non-compulsory compulsion,” in which the giving of gifts (and every act and speech-act is a gift) half expects but cannot compel a return gift. This means that the giving of gifts involves receiving and returning gifts in an upward spiral. Friendship embodies this idea, and fraternity within organizations reflects it too. This is the very fabric of all human society. It is at once a political and an economic fabric, so that when we try to base our economy on de-sacralization and individualism, society is gradually abolished and humanity starts to destroy itself.
Put differently, society—the plural compact of peoples, places, and purpose—already includes and yet constrains both economy and the polity. As the anthropologist Jacques Godbout puts it, the social realm as the gift-exchanging relationship is a “strange loop and a tangled hierarchy.” It is a loop because it involves an economy of spiralling linkage through time rather than perfect circularity or mutual standoff in space. It is a hierarchy because it involves continued guidance and ordering of some by others, but often depending on educative excellence, and in such a way that some may lead for certain purposes while others may lead for different ones. In short, a polity of gift-exchange involves both equality of exchange and hierarchy of ethos based on fulfilling one’s talent and vocation.
From this argument, it can be seen how both the economic sphere and the political realm spring from the humus of social relations embedded in institutions. In the course of time, they have obviously attained a certain autonomy that cannot simply be undone. Nor should it be. Nonetheless, the post-liberal politics of virtue asks how the economy and the polity could today be more referred back to their always secretly fundamental social basis, embedded in relationships of reciprocal trust and collective endeavour.
Frailty, decency, sacrifice, service, and the dignity of labour are some of the building blocks for a post-pandemic politics that is guided by an ethical compass. It is a re-moralized politics that transcends the pursuit of power or wealth by helping people to live rewarding lives for themselves and others. The vocation of politics is not to endorse a single conception of the good life or to impose moralistic values. Rather, it is to enable people to live both in security, free from fear or want, and in dignity. Like the idea of the good life, dignity is not reducible to one thing. Sometimes it is painfully expressed in grief when we experience dispossession or the loss of loved ones. At other times, it is celebrated joyously when we can exercise agency and shape the world around us. In each case, dignity concerns both one’s own intrinsic worth and the worth of others. It is about earning esteem and recognizing contribution.
The viral pandemic has revealed a social epidemic of loneliness and fragmentation that is leaving many people angry, alienated, and without a voice. Christian social teaching reminds us of our duty to show compassion for the poor—those who suffer and who long for a more dignified life. They are not merely those who are oppressed and exploited by the dominant economic and political system but also those “outcasts” and “leftovers” who have been excluded from society altogether, as Pope Francis warned in Evangelii Gaudium.
For the pope, “the Church [has] to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us.” That means a life of love and joy in union with God, so that “we evermore dwell in Him and He in us.”