Civil Society under pressure[1]

“the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society…” Centesimus annus, 7, emphasising Rerum novarum

Civil society has played a crucial role in the Netherlands and Belgium as a level of social organisation between the individual and the state. There has been a whole range of social organisations which, together, encompassed nearly all domains of life. The underlying rationale was often inspired by Christianity. Nowadays, this form of civil society has come under increased pressure.

The Christian rationale[2]

Some important Christian principles are at the basis of civil society. A first one is personalism, which starts from the human person as always living in relation to others because our words and deeds have an influence on the lives of others. From a Christian point of view, we, as children of one and the same Father, are all connected as brothers and sisters.[3] This brings us to a second principle: solidarity, or the connectedness with others that calls upon us to take action. Such action can be translated into both charity and structural justice. When we speak of structural justice, the question concerning the appropriate level to organise such justice arises. The answer is found in a third principle: the principle of subsidiarity. The main idea here is that a higher order should not interfere in matters that a lower order can handle.[4] In other words: the state should not take all matters into its own hands, but should leave those issues that organisations can handle themselves to these organisations and, when necessary, support them. We now arrive at civil society.

Civil society as meso-level

Inspired by the above-mentioned principles, multiple Christian organisations that act on the level between the state (macro) and the individual (micro) have been established. These include, for instance, Christian hospitals, residential care centres and psychiatric institutions. Also, there are Christian schools that educate our children. In the Flemish Catholic context, there are Catholic organisations for workers and farmers, the youth, workers (unions) and the provision of healthcare. Obviously, not all civil society organisations are Christian. There are also those who have, for example, a politically inspired foundation. In all these occasions, it concerns organisations in which people unite to promote the wellbeing and/or interests of a group. They address those issues that do not necessarily need to be handled by the state, but which also exceed the capacities of individuals. Civil society also helps “civilise” the economic life of free markets.

Civil society under pressure

A better future for the individual therefore starts by uniting as a group, always in connection with others, and, in doing so, inspiring other people in the promotion of a cause that realises the common good of society.

In contemporary society, the underlying Christian philosophies are no longer self-evident, while pluralism and individualism are ever more turning into the norm. For instance, there is an increasing number of Catholic hospitals in which practising Catholics become a minority in the board.[5] In Catholic schools, it is not uncommon to place the ‘Catholic aspects’ on the shoulders of the religious teacher. Numerous historically Christian organisations have changed their names and have dropped the ‘C’, which mirrors internal evolutions that have been going on for decades. For the Catholic church, this often feels uncomfortable. Many of these organisations are faced with a choice: adapt themselves to secular reality or shrink. Often it is both. On top of that, Christian Democrat political parties, which often have been the defenders of civil society, are in strong electoral decline.

Questions thus arise concerning the sustainability of these civil organisations, when they disengage from their foundational rationale. For example: do we lose the radical aspect of the principle of solidarity when we drop the idea of being ‘brothers and sisters under one and the same Father’, and replace it by ‘one and the same humanity’? Can we really have faith in our ability to count on people when they simply identify as being part of a ‘common humanity’ in situations of crisis and conflict?[6] It is also clear that socialism, as an ideology, focusses on the state, while liberalism focusses on the individual. Are these ideologies really able to arrive at the same sort of civil society without taking into account the Christian foundational rationale? This brings us to a final question: are organisations that merely function as an advocacy group on a single theme really able to develop sustainable solutions in a world in which all are connected to everything, as personalism puts it?

Why society needs a strong and stable civil society

If civil society, as described in this blog, dies out, two options remain: the state that takes over everything or privatisation.

However, the need for people to rally behind their interests does not vanish. One expression of this idea is the single-issue political parties. For instance, in Dutch political life, there is a Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren), 50+, a Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging), and so on. Questions can be asked as to how far such political fragmentation remains workable and whether the central level of politics really is the best level to promote these interests? Are, for example, respectively animal rights associations, an association for the over fifty-year-olds, and a farmers’ union not better placed to look after these interests? They can then promote their interests in dialogue with politicians representing political parties that are motivated by a wider philosophy. From a personalist point of view, we can ask whether it is desirable that civil society organisations perceive their interests as being isolated from the interests of others. For the fate of others also has an effect on us.

On top of that, in an individualised society, it is no longer self-evident that people will engage in organisations with a broad remit that are not likely to entirely match their own convictions. This may leave the individual exposed when faced with the apparatus of the state without the protection of civil society groups. The same applies to the free market, which has led to globalisation and dominant multinationals in the face of which individuals can be left powerless.

A better future for the individual therefore starts by uniting as a group, always in connection with others, and, in doing so, inspiring other people in the promotion of a cause that realises the common good of society.


This contribution was originally published in Dutch at the website of ‘Tocqueville, Religie en Democratie’ (Tocqueville, Religion and Democracy) as Jans, J. (2023), Het middenveld onder druk;


[1] For this blog, ideas where drawn from the article: Verstraeten, J. & Jans, J. (2022), De sociale boodschap van het evangelie als drijfveer tot actie in de wereld, in Samen 4, p. 12-13.

[2] More on personalism: Torfs, R. & Marechal, P. (2011), Wie mooi wil zijn moet leiden, Twee generaties, één christendemocratisch manifest, Uitgeverij Van Halewyck, Kessel-Lo; Marechal, P. & Torfs, R. (2021), Over morgen, Mijmeringen voor wie niet van gisteren is, Uitgeverij Vrijdag, Antwerpen. More on interpersonal relationships and community: Geary, I. & Pabst, A. (eds., 2015), Blue Labour, Forging a New Politics, I.B. Tauris, Londen. More on solidarity and subsidiarity: Verstraeten, J. (1994), Solidarity and Subsidiarity, in Boileau, D.A. (ed.), Principles of Catholic Social Teaching, Marquette University Press, WI: Milwaukee.

[3] Williams, R. (2010), Tokens of Trust, An Introduction to Christian Belief, Westminster John Knox Press, KY: Louisville.

[4] Pius XI (1931), Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Vatican, §80.

[5] Torfs, R. (1992), Congregationele Gezondheidsinstellingen, Toekomstige structuren naar profaan en kerkelijk recht, Uitgeverij Peeters, Leuven.

[6] See: Williams, R. (2010), Tokens of Trust.

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

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Author: Jeroen Jans

Published: 15th March 2023

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