Love and Our Common Life

What does a world look like, if it’s organized around love and not power?

Many would argue that it’s not worth trying to envision that. Whether it’s expressed as the will to power or original sin, the tendency of humans to push their individual, selfish wills onto others runs deep, so deep that it’s assumed to be an essential part of who we are. But we mark stages of moral and social development that move infants, children, teens and adults to a growing awareness of and empathy toward the needs of others. Why do we limit our expectations of society to merely constraining our worst impulses rather than organizing around calling out our best impulses?

It begins with an understanding that love is what we are most essentially called to. Not power. Not achievement. Not consumption. Love. Willing the good of the other. That is where, in our individual charisma, we most feel fulfillment, we most meet our need of living on purpose.

So I’ve said earlier that we need health, security, connection, purpose and play. The assumption I start from is that we optimally meet those needs through interdependence, by working together to help others meet those needs. Historically, Catholic social thought has upheld the dignity of work and articulated twin principles of solidarity (being for the other) and subsidiarity (working through the most intimate institutional structures possible) in developing a vision for our world. Those work, and here’s why: solidarity focuses us on providing those five basic needs for those around us, and subsidiarity ensures that we each have an active role to play that empowers us with purpose in helping others meet those needs.

The road to ruin is littered with “third way” approaches. I know. But a state-focused political model will fail to be love-centered, because it is focused on the accumulation and use of power. And a market-focused economic model will fail to be love-centered, because it is focused on stoking the selfishness of consumers and the accumulation and use of capital. So, though you may groan, we need to find a third way.

Just as we found a new way to see God by flipping the model of love and power, maybe we can find a new way to order the world by flipping the twin principles of subsidiarity and solidarity and the taxonomy of economics and politics. A world ordered around love is first and foremost a small and intimate world, where families and neighborhoods matter, where local isn’t just a geographic descriptor but an operating model. Subsidiarity calls for an economic and political world in which most of life happens within the bounds of people you can meet on the street. Whether that happens through economic democracy, neomercantilist import-substitution economics, direct democracy, or other channels, I don’t know.

This seems like folly in the face of our technology. We can now easily bond with people on literally the other side of the world; in fact we often find it easier to connect with people far away from us than with our neighbor. And maybe this is a trajectory we have to struggle to reverse, even in small ways. But we cannot abandon those who we are called to love throughout the world, even as we renew a culture of encountering our physical neighbors.

The risk in shrinking our worlds is allowing the need to bond together in tribes to create artificial animosities with distant brothers and sisters. So solidarity remains important.

The earliest church we know about, the church of St. Paul, has some lessons for us. Paul’s letters are above all artifacts of the struggle to be a close-knit, intimate community, a spiritual family under one roof. At the same time that Paul was encouraging the believers in Corinth, or Thessalonica, or Ephesus to be that non-kin family, he was calling them to contribute to the good of their counterparts in other communities. That was the solidarity across communities that complemented the loving community.

So as we regenerate that subsidiarized community in which we all can live on purpose in daily connection, we need to create models of solidarity that ensure that our tightness with neighbors doesn’t preclude connections of distance. I have hope that others brighter than I can create structures and habits to encourage this. But more than that, I have faith in you, O Love, to spark us to return to you.

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