Society as Organism

The United States was deliberately brought into being by people who are well-known to history. This corresponds to the social contract myth that was utilized by John Locke and others to develop their political theories. While the rendition of an historical event might not have been intended by the development of the myth, a too literal reliance upon it can cause us to lose sight of the fact that societies are ultimately organic realities, biological events associated with the human animal. Human beings organize into societies as bison do into herds and bees into hives, our ability to reason and make decisions about it notwithstanding.

Plato, then, was not off the mark when, in The Republic, he conceived of a state that was the human soul writ large; a just society and a just person are similar phenomena, and both require an inner harmony to exist as such. St. Paul understood the same thing when he referred to the new society he was helping to bring to the earth, the Church, as the Body of Christ. The Church, Paul taught, is not simply an association of individuals grouped together, but is an organic whole, and there are implications of that reality. Paul said:

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“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

“Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’ Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” (I Corinthians 12:12-26)

The organic view of society is central to Catholic social teaching, and cannot be understood without it. The encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, is noted for its encouragement of unions for working people, but in that encyclical the Holy Father also lauded the development of associations of working people and employers together. [1] Associations of that kind are unthinkable in a society that is used to class conflict, where every person is expected to look out for his own interests alone. But Catholic social teaching calls humanity to a different view of society, an organic one, where, just as in the human body, the interests of one part are the interests of all.

Implementation of Catholic social teaching in the United States, then, will involve more than merely stepping outside of the political classifications presented in the common media. If it is to go beyond occasional policy victories which are subject to revocation when a new interest group comes to power, a paradigm shift in the American consciousness will have to be effected. We will have to change from a society where we are unrelated particles clashing with each other into one where we are each an intrinsic part of a larger organic whole, the health and well-being of each part being essential to the overall health of that whole.

At first blush this may seem utopian, but it is only so if Americans have become unreachable by reason. The truth is, the vision of a society where the best outcomes are obtained through repeated clashes between persons of differing interests is simply irrational. No one is self-sufficient. The need of the individual for society is both real and demonstrable. In our economic system, capital needs labor for the performance of necessary work, and labor needs capital to provide employment and remuneration. Both need government for the peaceful pursuit of their ends. Even the wealthiest capitalist will ultimately fall if the rest of the country becomes so impoverished that he has no one to whom he can sell his goods or services. All of the money in the world is useless without something to buy.

It will be pointed out that there are media interests that have perceived a benefit to themselves by encouraging social and political division. Thankfully, technology has developed to the point where the monopoly of information has broken down. This online publication is a humble exemplar of information’s democratization in our time. The message can go out, and it can be heard, because it is both sane and necessary.

Jack Quirk

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.