Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Christian, Organic Society and
Pagan, Mechanical Society
"Catolicismo", November 1951
Continuing our exploration of the doctrinal treasures contained in the papal allocution to the directors of the “Universal Movement for a World Confederation,” which we have been commenting on in earlier issues, and having analyzed topics of that document regarding structural errors in modern society, we will now delve into the general outlines that, in the mind of Pius XII, the Christian society of the future should have.
Speaking about international life, the Pontiff said:
“The Church wants peace, and thus she strives to promote everything which contributes to ensure it within the framework of divine, natural and supernatural order. Your Movement, Gentlemen, endeavors to establish an efficient political organization of the world. Nothing could be more in accordance with the traditional doctrine of the Church or more fitting with her teaching on legitimate or illegitimate warfare, above all in the present junctures. Thus, it is necessary to achieve an organization of this nature if only to put a stop to an arms race which has been ruining peoples and exhausting their resources for decades, to no avail.”
“It is your opinion that in order to be efficacious, the world political organization must take the shape of a federation. If by that you understand that it must free itself from the workings of mechanical unitarianism, then also on this point you are in accord with the principles of political and social life firmly established and sustained by the Church. In fact, no world organization will be viable if it does not harmonize with the ensemble of natural relationships, with the normal and organic order that governs the particular relations of men and the various peoples. Without this, no matter what its structure, it will be impossible for it to remain standing and to last.”
“This is why we are convinced that our primary concern must be to solidly establish or restore these fundamental principles in all spheres: national and constitutional, economic, social, cultural and moral.”
Switching to the political sphere, Pius XII said:
“The life of nations everywhere is disrupted by a blind cult of the value of numbers. The citizen is a voter. But as such, he is nothing in fact but one of the units whose sum total constitutes a majority or minority that the mere dislocation of some votes, if not only one, suffices to reverse. From the standpoint of political parties, the voter counts only for his electoral power, for the value of his vote.” Instead, one should also take into account “his situation, his role in his family and profession,” something the present voting systems absolutely “do not consider;”
As far as economic and social life is concerned, the Pontiff stated that
“There is not the least natural organic unity among producers,” but, on the contrary, “quantitative utilitarianism, the sheer search for profits is the only norm that determines the places of production and work distribution, as it is the ‘class’ that artificially distributes men in society and no longer the cooperation of the professional community;”
In the cultural and moral plane, he said:
“Individual liberty, unfettered by any bonds, any rules and any objective and social values, in fact is nothing but mortal anarchy, above all in the education of the youth.”
And, further on, the Holy Father concludes:
“Thus, if in the spirit of federalism a future world political organization cannot under any pretext let itself be dragged into the game of a unitarian mechanism, it will not wield effective authority except to the degree that it safeguards and favors everywhere a life proper to a healthy human community, of a society whose members work together for the good of the whole of humanity.”
The emphases, naturally, are ours, and are meant to facilitate the study.
Organic vs. Mechanical
In these various topics, one more important than the next, the Pontiff constantly employs two metaphors: “organism” and “mechanism.” “Organism” always corresponds to something which is upright, good and laudable. For its part, “mechanism” corresponds to what is deviant, inadequate and wrong.
Thus, an exact knowledge of the papal guidelines requires a deeper analysis of these metaphors.
An animal or human organism has something in common with a mechanism. Both are an ensemble of different parts ordered in such a way as to constitute a single whole and each carrying out a task which is part of a common work.
In spite of so many analogies, the differences between organism and mechanism are so profound that we could almost call them infinite. All of them result from the difference between something inert, static, and dead, and something which is warm, agile, alive:
I — The organs of a body act by a movement coming from the life present in them; the movement comes from the very depths of their being. The parts of a machine are incapable of moving by themselves. Their whole movement comes from the outside. They do not move, but are moved.
II — Living organs have a great capacity to adapt to new living conditions and ways of functioning. It is a delicate adaptation, usually slow, done millimeter by millimeter, but most exact and durable. The machine is only what it was made to be, and cannot adapt itself to anything. When someone adapts it to some other end, he can do so in a drastic way, for matter is blind and no reflection is necessary is needed to forge a piece of metal or sculpt a piece of marble.
III — Endowed with a life of its own, an organ has some independence. Thus, none of us is free to determine the size or shape of his arms or legs as he fancies. On the contrary, something which is fabricated, artificial, and mechanical is absolutely subject to man. And thus a crippled can impose on his wooden or rubber leg the color, weight or shape he deems more practical or handsome.
IV — Since nature is a direct work of God and a mechanism is more directly a work of man, all things organic are much more perfect even though all things mechanical are more subject to science. For example, no matter how much science perfects mechanical arms and legs — and it has achieved real marvels in this regard— any man will prefer his own arm or leg, albeit deficient, to any of those “marvels.”
V — All parts in a machine obey like slaves the motion of the one commanding them. So the main role is played by the will of the person running the machine. Only one type of command is possible with a machine: dictatorship. And when the machine is recalcitrant, there is only one solution: to open it up, take it apart, and fix it. A living organism is much freer, while mechanics are and will always be more efficient than surgery. In a certain way (note the qualification) the success of bodily activities in the human organism depends on the natural, living and free cooperation of each part.
Let us now apply the concepts of “organic” and “mechanical” to human societies.
Let us describe two societies of the past, one organic, and the other mechanical.
An organic and Christian society
In a certain sense, the family is the most alive of all societies. Indeed, although the State and lesser social groups are born from the natural order of things itself, no society is so imperatively, and so to speak, urgently, created by nature as the family. Prior to the existence of the State we can conceive an embryonic human society living in a familytype structure. But we cannot conceive a State existing before or without the family.
On the other hand, we do not have for any other society such a great natural propensity. At least in some way, all the dispositions of soul necessary to regulate the functioning of the family exist in us spontaneously: respect of children for their parents and love, understanding, and mutual help among family members. Compared to the family, any other society appears stiff, rigid, and in a certain sense artificial.
One of the characteristic traits of the Christian civilization built up in the West after the Barbarian invasions was making the family not only an institution of a merely private and domestic life, as it is today, but the one driving force of all, or almost all, political, social and professional activities.
Real estate was often owned more by a family than by an individual. The home, the land, the fiefdom were considered much more as a patrimony of the family than of the individual. The same happened with guilds of artisans and merchants, in which the tendency appeared of transmitting the profession from father to son over many generations.
If we examine the spheres of science and the arts, we will also see how members of the same family would often devote themselves to the same field or profession.
In the feudal, municipal or royal administration; in finances, diplomacy, war; in a word, in all fields we note that the family was the great driving force of action and propulsion. No fiefdoms, guilds, universities, municipalities or anything else would escape the penetration of the family. So the State — a kingdom, for example — was nothing but a family of families, governed by a family: the royal family.
While metaphors like the one above should be employed with due reservations, one can say that the family permeated all parts of the body social like arteries penetrate and irrigate all the members of the human body. Thus, the family communicated something especially lively, malleable and organic to all political, social and economic institutions and so on.
When one looks at the life of these institutions, whether they are guilds or universities, one is impressed by their “naturalness.”
The typical features of these various types of organisms were not preestablished by any academician or fanciful theoretician. On the contrary, they emerged slowly but surely from daily adjustments to the needs and problems of every moment. For this reason, they had something profoundly real and at the same time living and agile, stable and solid about them.
What about the State? It was also something much less stiff, impersonal and full of rough edges than it has become since 1789. Due to the feudal system’s intertwining relationships, a king — the incarnation of the State — could own fiefs in foreign territory. Thus, sovereignties were intertwined with one another, nations interpermeated one another, and in some border areas it was particularly difficult to clearly distinguish where one country began and the other ended. It was something as complex as body tissue, rather than simple like the lines of a mechanical sketch.
If we consider the relationships between the whole and its parts, the State and the social organs that made up the nation, the impression of vital organicity becomes even more pronounced: each organ is, as it were, a small ensemble, a miniature kingdom endowed in its own sphere with certain legislative, executive and judiciary functions of government. Thus, in the family, the father was a true miniature king by the power he exercised over his wife and children. A characteristic axiom of the time is: the father is king of his children; and the king is the father of fathers. Even the laws of succession were peculiar to some families and different from those applied in other families.
Also in the fiefs, the lord was a miniature of the king; he was legislator, governor and judge within his sphere of competence.
For their part, the guilds also exercised their own “laborrelated” functions, to employ a modern expression — functions now carried out by legislative, executive or judiciary State agencies.
To simplify things very much, the king had only the supplementary function of doing what those various organs were unable to accomplish, namely, to watch over and guarantee the common and supreme interests beyond their proper sphere of competence; to maintain a just balance among them; and watch to ensure that no fundamental principles of morals or Christian civilization were violated in any recess of these organs.
Looking at this very simplified picture in its ensemble, one sees how organic it really is. In it, each celllike element has entirely individual functions. To exercise its functions, each of them has attributions corresponding to its own rights and is moved by energy acting from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. The good functioning of the whole depends much more on the good functioning of each part than merely on an action by the central organism.
An unorganic society
What would an unorganic order of things look like?
It would look like a machine, that is, one in which all members would receive their impulse from a single, external and central agent; in which the obedience of each component were absolute and impersonal; in which the form and task of each part and of the whole were susceptible of being subjected to any reform deemed advisable by the theoretical conceptions of technicians.
How would that be realized? Through absolute socialism. In fact, for the socialist State, the family and social groups do not exist. Such a State conceives no other means of action but public bureaucracy, naturally enslaved to any impulse from the central command, moving exclusively according to that impulse, and organized like an immense network of wire mesh involving the whole country and through which the central direction sends surges of electricity when and how it feels like.
On the other hand, all this is rigid and works as follows: a theoretician conceives a priori a series of parts of that organism. A decree or law makes it a reality. And it will exist as the decree or law dictates, or as long as another decree or law does not rule the opposite. True, nothing could be more rigid, but then, nothing could be more reformable. A new law suffices to transform that organism into a totally different one, without any trace in common with what it once was. As molten metal, it accepts a new mold and keeps no trace of its earlier shape.
The contemporary State
To a large degree, modern democracies participate in the vices of the socialist State. Their great driving force is the will of the merely numeric majority of the population. Once that will is expressed in the ballots, a sovereign parliament is established that can do everything, including reform the Constitution. Thus, as long as an absolute majority is mustered – half the votes plus one – they can decree anything they want: everything will be legal as long as it is done through the parliament. The family can be dissolved, private property corroded with all kinds of sophisms or even abolished, Religion dethroned by its separation from the State or even proscribed: all will be considered honest, coherent and upright if it is the will of the majority. It was in the name of that majority, consulted in successive plebiscites (concerning whose enigma history has still not said the last word), that Hitler reduced Germany to a slave quarter.
In the regimes originating from the Revolution, the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary Branches belong entirely and exclusively to the State. And facing this almighty State, groups and individuals are not living organs but parts of a machine.
Only an illiterate would not see that the censure of Pope Pius XII refers exactly to this aspect of today’s State.
How to attain organicity
What should be done, then? The same thing our ancestors did in the early dawn of this civilization. They understood that, within the paths of the Decalogue and respecting the rights of the Church (a matter in which utmost intransigence and severity is the least one should offer) society must be allowed, little by little, to walk by itself, freed from the straightjacket of State dictatorship, whether it be by the parliament or by the head of State. The family must be allowed once again to return to the fullness of action and influence it once attained; professional groups and other intermediary social groups between the individual and the State must be free to exercise, by their own right and in their appropriate forms, the activities necessary to fulfill their duties; the State must respect this autonomy in every way and give every region the right to organize itself according its own social and economic structure, its temperament and traditions; and finally, in its own supreme competence, the sovereign power must be honorable, vigorous, and efficient.
If these principles were respected, where would we arrive? Would we return to the Middle Ages? Or would we march toward a new and absolutely unpredictable future?
Both questions should be answered in the affirmative. Human nature has its own constants, which are invariable at all times and in all places. The basic principles of Christian civilization are also immutable. Thus, this new order of things, this new Christian civilization will profoundly resemble, even better, be identical, to the old one in its essential traits. And it will hold fast to God, in the 21st century, the same as it did in the 12th. But on the other hand, technological and material living conditions have been profoundly transformed, and nothing would be more unorganic than to ignore these changes. In this particular case, the appropriate thing to do is precisely not to make many plans.
The founders of Christian civilization in the early Middle Ages did not conceive the 13th century exactly as it came about. They simply had the general intention of building a Catholic world. For that end, each generation gradually resolved the problems within their reach with farsightedness and Catholic sense. As for the rest, they did not lose themselves in conjectures.
Let us do as they did. From history and from the Magisterium of the Church, we already know the whole framework in its general lines. As for the details, let us go forward step by step, avoiding cerebral and bureaucratic theoretical plans: "sufficit diei malitia sua - sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”