Two Kinds of Community

The word “community,” like almost every other word in the English language, has more than one meaning. I want to discuss two of those meanings here.

Sometimes when we speak of a community we have in mind what may be called a “moral community” (MC). For example, a family or a small group of close friends. But such a community doesn’t have to be small. It can be large, even vast. Examples of a large moral community would be a pre-modern tribe, a nation (France, Germany, China, the USA), or a religion (the Catholic Church, the worldwide Islamic community), or a political movement (e.g., Nazism, Communism).

A moral community is marked by at least four things: (1) a strong sense of “belonging,” a feeling that there is a very special “connection” among all members of the group; (2) a consensus on many important beliefs and values (important, that is, to members of the community); (3) definite feelings of love and devotion for the MC; and (4) a sense that the community is more important than the individual; that the individual member, therefore, should be willing to sacrifice for the good of the community – and that, if need be, the member should be willing to risk his or her life for the good of the community.

Membership in a moral community provides one with a feeling that one’s life is significant. As an individual, I may be unimportant; but my MC is certainly very important; and by membership in this MC I get a borrowed importance. The MC also offers me moral guidance; tells me what’s right, what’s wrong; tells me what kind of life I should be living.

A very different kind of community may be called a “utilitarian association” (UA). For instance, fellow passengers on a train or airplane; fellow workers in a factory; fellow shoppers at a supermarket; classmates in a big university.

A utilitarian association is marked by four characteristics that are quite the opposite of the characteristics that mark the moral community: (1) while we know that we have some connection with our fellow members of a UA, it is not a “special” connection; it has little or no feeling of intimacy about it; (2) we don’t, except perhaps by accident (e.g., I’m a Muslim on a plane full of Muslims), share important beliefs and values; (3) while we may have feelings of loyalty to the UA, we don’t feel love or devotion to it; (4) we don’t feel that the UA is more important than we are as individual persons; or that we should be prepared to make exceptional sacrifices for the good of the UA; and we certainly don’t believe that we should be prepared to die for the UA.

The MC appeals to the altruistic side of our nature. The UA appeals to the egoistic side.

Of course, a particular community can simultaneously be of both kinds. Take the United States, for instance. On the one hand, the U.S. is, and always has been, a moral community for which patriots have been prepared to die – and have died by the hundreds of thousands since the foundation of the republic. At the same time, it is a utilitarian association, a great free-trade zone that provides people with tremendous opportunities for buying and selling and making lots of money.

Now, I have the impression – but it’s only an impression (and I don’t know how to prove it) – that the United States in the last half-century or so has become more of a UA and less of a MC. In other words, Americans think of their nation more as a community that satisfies, or at least should satisfy, their egoistic needs and wishes than as a community that demands their love and devotion.

If so, this helps explain the great decline of the Catholic Church in the USA in the last half-century or so. We American Catholics belong to two communities, the Church and the USA. If as members of the latter community we are encouraged to be more and more egoistic, it follows that we will be less and less attached to the Church. Catholicism and habits of egoism are not compatible. If I am to be a good Catholic, even a halfway good Catholic, I have to feel that the Church is bigger and more important than I am. But if, like a good present-day American, I have learned to think of my dreams and my personal development as the most important things in the world, Catholicism won’t have much appeal for me. It offers too little support for my egoistic individualism.

There was a time when it was relatively easy for an American Catholic to combine his religion and his Americanism. For both of them ranked egoistic development lower than devotion to a moral community. Nowadays your Americanism tells you it’s a fine thing to focus on your egoistic development, but your Catholicism tells you that you must focus on your devotion to the Church.

So what are American Catholics supposed to do? Two things, I think. First, acknowledge that there is a profound conflict between the devotion to Church that is essential to Catholicism and the devotion to self that predominates in American culture today. Second, work for a restoration of American patriotism in which love of country takes precedence over love of self.

Let me add that I think those devoted to Donald Trump, that great embodiment – indeed that great caricature – of American egoism, are attempting to restore American patriotism by their paradoxical devotion to Trump. (“Make American Great Again.”) In fact, I think these Trump devotees are, again paradoxically, doing more in the battle to preserve the spirit of moral community than are our Catholic bishops, who, tragically, are for the most part offering no more than a “soft” resistance to the ever-growing spirit of egoistic individualism.

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

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