Catholicism & Individualism

Catholicism & Individualism December 26, 2014

Individualism, according to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, is “The tendency to magnify individual liberty, as against external authority, and individual activity, as against associated activity.” In its entry on the subject, published a few years before World War I, the encyclopedia explains the relevance of this to the Catholic understanding of the state:

Moderate political individualists would, as noted above, reduce the functions of the State to the minimum that is consistent with social order and peace. As they view the matter, there is always a presumption against any intervention by the State in the affairs of individuals, a presumption that can be set aside only by the most evident proof to the contrary. Hence they look upon such activities as education, sumptuary regulations, legislation in the interest of health,morals, and professional competency, to say nothing of philanthropic measures, or of industrial restrictions and industrial enterprises, as outside the State’s proper province. This theory has a much smaller following now than it had a century or even half a century ago; for experience has abundantly shown that the assumptions upon which it rests are purely artificial and thoroughly false.

There exists no general presumption either for or against state activities. If there is anypresumption with regard to particular matters, it is as apt to be favourable as unfavourable. The one principle of guidance and test of propriety in this field is the welfare of society and of its component individuals, as determined by experience. Whenever these ends can be better attained by state intervention than by individual effort, state intervention is justified.

. . .  As in the matter of the necessity and justification of the State, so with regard to its functions, the Catholic position is neither individualistic nor anti-individualistic. It accepts neither the “policeman” theory, which would reduce the activities of the State to the protection of life and property and the enforcement of contracts, nor the proposals of Socialism, which would make the State the owner and director of all the instruments of production. In both respects its attitude is determined not by any metaphysical theory of the appropriate functions of the State, but by its conception of the requisites of individual and social welfare.

 The entry goes on the reject what we now call libertarianism as well as religious and ethical individualism.

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