Learning that searching the word “personalism” at The Distributist Review yields very helpful results.

What a Christian political movement needs, in order to become genuinely post-liberal rather than merely reactionary, is to combine its communitarian instincts with a more sustained theological analysis of the modern economy, including problematic concepts such as “economic growth,” “sustainability” and “consumerism.” A Christian social movement needs to expose and examine the assumptions that underlie our present economic order, in the light of alternative principles derived more directly both from revelation and from human experience. For human society is not simply a “natural” phenomenon: it is created by human beings and partakes of their supernatural destiny. The economic realm is often regarded (even by ‘Christians and other religious believers) as in some sense “autonomous” and subject to its own set of unchanging laws. But it is surely autonomous only in the sense that regular miraculous interference with its operations need not be expected; not in the sense that it can be separated from the drama of the human soul, the drama of divine and human freedom. It involves human decisions and thus functions neither impersonally nor deterministically.

Thus in the great social encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991), Pope John Paul II can be found arguing not merely for a system of social insurance, or for particular measures to soften the social and environmental impact of consumerism, but more radically for an economy structured throughout by a less secular or individualistic set of assumptions: “It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (no. 36). Implicit here is the growing realization that the apparent “neutrality” of liberalism, which claims merely to facilitate free competition between equals on a “level playing field,” is an illusion. Markets are not some kind of natural phenomenon governed by scientific laws. They are artificially created by legislation, which to a large extent defines both what is to count as a commodity and how it is to be priced.

It is not the act of consumption that alienates, but consumerism as a way of life in which we define ourselves by what we consume.

As the pope said more informally on another occasion (an address to young people in Trent, in April 1995): “In our society of consumerism and image, we easily run the risk of losing ourselves, of ending ‘in pieces’. A shattered mirror can no longer reflect the whole image. It has to be remade. The person thus needs a deep and stable centre around which he can unify his various experiences. The centre, as St. Augustine teaches, is to be sought not outside oneself, but deep in one’s own heart where man meets God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the relationship with God who is unity, man can unify himself.”

The problem with endorsing the free or “market” economy uncritically is that economic growth is currently measured in terms of the quantity of financial transactions taking place, and thus depends on a steady increase of both production and consumption. Quite apart from the environmental implications of sustained growth, the social and psychological effects of the pressure to consume more and more are dramatic. And the alienation is as great for the producer as for the consumer. For the pope,6 one of the worst results of modern capitalism is the reduction of labour-power itself to a commodity, exchanged for wages. Thus “the unity between production and consumption is broken”: increasingly the worker is not producing the things he or his neighbour needs and consumes; he is working simply for the money that he must exchange for those things. What he actually produces is quite without meaning for him—and the things he buys are filled with meaning less and less by his own needs than by the advertising industry which exists to persuade him to buy them.

The point of speaking in such apparently “romantic” terms about a civilization of love or a culture of life is simply this: if we wish to preserve our freedom, we must subordinate freedom to love. A freedom that is not subordinated to love is vacuous; furthermore, it fragments and dissolves the self. Liberal freedom being merely the power of choice, by exercising it, by actually choosing one option over another, we inevitably become less free. Any definite commitment restricts our freedom in some respect, even if it opens up for us a new range of options at the same time. Liberal freedom is thus an endless process of becoming less free, because it continually determines and shapes the self. Authentic human freedom continually makes us more free. It also involves choice, but choice directed towards the purpose of human existence. The act of choice is directed outward, away from the self; actions are taken for the sake of another. This means, essentially, that the self is always being opened rather than closed by the exercise of its power of choice. Whereas liberal freedom places at the centre of society the choosing self, those who place love before freedom place at the centre of society the other who is loved. This is the proposal that Christianity makes to all who would remain free (even free to become Christians or not). In a (purely) liberal society (if there can be such a thing), the individual is paramount, and everything revolves around that centre.

Our society, if not purely liberal, is increasingly dominated by liberal assumptions. This is a fait accompli. How, then, can Christians respond to it? First, by becoming more aware that the society around them is exerting enormous pressure on them to reinterpret the content of their faith, and by resisting that pressure. This has implications for Christian educationalists and teachers, as well, as for homilists. Second, by not merely resisting, but positively holding up before the liberal society an alternative way of life that shines by its own light. This has implications for personal spirituality and morality as well as social action. Third, in the fields of politics and economics, by proposing legislation that encodes the alternative spiritual logic.

The implications of such statements are enormous, but of course the body of papal teaching is only one set of resources for a broader process of reflection by Christians and others on the social economy. In England, for example, the cross-party Movement for Christian Democracy founded by David Alton brings together Catholics and Evangelicals committed to the six principles of social justice, respect for life, reconciliation, empowerment (or subsidiarity), active compassion and wise stewardship. If the new politics for life is to emerge anywhere it is likely to be here. And a politics for life is also necessarily a politics for faith, hope and love. As the personalist William Miller wrote in 1974, “the primacy of Christian love should be brought from its position of limbo where human affairs are concerned and infused into the process of history.” It sounds a bit grand; but it might do for a manifesto.


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