the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology

Let’s assume that individuals have ethical responsibilities: each of us must strive to do what is right. However, our knowledge, self-discipline, and capacity to influence the world are all severely limited. Therefore, we are obliged to participate in groups that aggregate information, motivate their members, hold them accountable, and obtain collective power. Within groups, our individual responsibility shifts into an obligation to exercise either voice or exit. “Loyalty” means a commitment to the group; but it shades into “complicity” when the group does wrong.

This is a purely secular thesis, but it can draw on religious debates about similar issues. I’ll focus here on Christian views, mainly because I know them better than I know other traditions.

There are startling differences among Christian communities–from storefront charismatic churches and Quaker meeting houses to Orthodox monasteries and the global Catholic Church. However, it is a virtually unanimous Christian view that the soul is individual; it stands before God for separate judgment. Christians reject theories of a shared or universal soul. Thus all Christian theologians believe that it matters what each human person thinks and does.

At the same time, it is essential to Christianity that human beings are cognitively and motivationally limited–“fallen.” Thus all Christians see the benefits of being religious in groups that guide their members and speak and act collectively. Although the papal curia looks very different from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, both are groupings of morally responsible individuals.

Only a caricature of Catholicism portrays it as a papal dictatorship. The papacy has been stronger since Pius IX (1846–1878) than it ever was before, but even in this era of relative centralization, the teachings and actions of the Church result from the whole community; and all Catholics are obliged to exercise voice within the Church. But Catholics have a strong obligation of loyalty and not much of a moral right of exit. That is because mainstream Catholic thought emphasizes the special standing of the Church. It was instituted by Jesus when he called the apostles and gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter.

No one believes that the visible Church is pervasively infallible; it is a human institution. But Catholics hold that our mortal limitations make organization indispensable, and God has selected one organization to mediate for all individuals. (“Catholic” means universal.) Wrecked on a desert island, you should do your best, and God will understand. But if you can, you must participate in the global Church in order to be right with God. If, in your opinion, the Church errs, then your responsibility is to improve it by exercising voice.

Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church because of his premise that conscience is logically inalienable. It’s not only wrong to try to delegate or share one’s moral responsibility; that is a contradiction. Responsibility always remains fully yours, by definition. In 1520, Luther wrote, “In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2[:9] says, ‘You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,’ and Revelation [5:10], ‘Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.'”

Why then do Lutherans have churches at all? (They even employ people in special garb who, at least in countries like Sweden and Finland, are called “Lutheran priests.”) Lutherans share with Catholics the assumption that the individual human being is too frail to believe or do right, and a group is necessary. They also agree that receiving spiritual help from other people does not negate personal moral responsibility. Their disagreement with Catholics is that they maintain a right of exit in cases of conflict between individual conscience and any particular group. That means that they are pluralists about groups, while Catholics are unitary.

Two other issues that are relevant to secular or “civic” groups are also emphasized in some Christian denominations. One is deliberation: the expression of personal views as part of a group’s search for shared truth. Making deliberation a transcendent value distinguishes Quakers from other Protestants, but it is present in all denominations to various degrees. Erasmus, for example, tried to make the consensus of believers a definitive feature of Catholicism.

The other issue is tradition: loyalty to the values and beliefs that have emerged over time, rather than those that are authored by any nameable human beings. Orthodoxy is particularly deferential to tradition. Whenever possible, the Orthodox prefer to acknowledge practices that have emerged, rather than make discretionary decisions. That practice is consistent with a very strong belief in individual cognitive limitations, combined with some faith in the ability of people to learn from accumulated experience.

All of these ideals–tradition, deliberation, plurality, unity, exit, voice, loyalty, conscience–are also available to secular groups; and often the best arguments for each principle have been developed by theologians.

See also: a typology of denominationssystem, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitionsfrom I to we: an outline of a theoryThe truth in Hayek; and what defines an organization? the case of the global sanghaSt. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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