The Middle Ages would like to speak to us about political philosophy
In an opinion piece written for The New York Times, Pope Francis stated that,
“Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.
“It is all too easy for some to take an idea — in this case, for example, personal freedom — and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”
This was said on the same day that the Supreme Court ruled that the State of New York cannot impose restrictions on the number of attendees at religious services during a pandemic — at least until the Second Circuit has a chance to review the case in December. This case was brought by two parties, one of which was the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, over which presumably Francis has some say, and perhaps there will be some intense internal discussions in the next few weeks.
But while I agree with his point that we need to work together to solve problems, especially those that cause as much harm as the COVID-19 pandemic has, I object to his philosophy regarding individualism.
As the head of a church that values hierarchy in which the lower ranks submit to those above them, while the leadership only submits to an authority who is conveniently absent, Francis’s notion of the relationship between the individual and society is unsurprising. And many political schools follow the same kind of thinking, substituting national character, class identity, or race, among other asserted ideals for the invisible deity. But in all cases, and whatever party advocates may say in their promotion of their ideology, the leadership is assumed to be the only group with the right to exercise power.
Pragmatically speaking, society lets us accomplish things that we could not do individually, and we are emotionally preconditioned to live in groups. And the reality is that contrary to the eighteenth century notions of the transition from the supposed state of nature, we formed civilizations more by accident — the location of suitable environments, of adaptable plants and animals — than by intention. But philosophically, we can justify society only if it is understood as cooperative effort to improve the lives of each of its members and that collective power, exercised as it is by leaders, comes from those individual citizens, not from any source above the people.
The church that Francis represents is a classic example of what happens when an institution solidifies an official position that it is working for the good without having a clear grounding in individual rights. While he is correct in calling for cooperation with regard to medical guidelines during a pandemic, a collective effort that recognizes the role that we each play in containing or spreading the virus, the basis of his argument is flawed.
Thanks to the wisdom of our constitution’s framers, we in America can pick and choose in Francis’s words. It would be well for today’s right wing to bear this in mind, since their love of the idea of theocracy makes us all susceptible to being led by a pope whom they see as a socialist. By contrast, the Enlightenment value of human rights means that we can work together for the good of all and not lose sight of such effort’s ultimate purpose: greater individual freedom and opportunity.