Refinding the Conservative Communitarian Tradition

The 31st World Eucharistic Congress of 1932 provides an excellent, if somewhat obscure entry point, to a more thorough understanding of communitarianism. GK Chesterton in his timeless essay Christendom in Dublin highlights both the granularity and universality of communitarianism, a duality which the Eucharistic Congress demonstrated.

Communitarianism emphasizes the particularity of our reality, demanding each individual invest in their immediate environs while simultaneously providing a baseline of common purpose. The coherence between communitarianism’s practical manifestations while providing a shared purpose which encourages citizen action position communitarianism to correct the deep divides of today.

This duality, an organizing, universal baseline paired with each citizen’s reality, is an essential and fundamental feature of our republic. Each citizen can be committed to the universal ideals delineated in the preamble of the Constitution but the discharge of these duties, such as establishing justice, will and should look different for someone living in Portland Oregon and someone living in Farmington Pennsylvania.

The Eucharistic Congress convened in Dublin 11 years removed from the violence of the Irish War of Independence and on the eve of another World War, which is all to say the festivity and peaceful atmosphere within Dublin seemed out of step. Consequently, the animating tension within Christendom in Dublin is the exploration of the common cause these co-religionists found around the most holy sacrament in the midst of such massive political and national turmoil.

What so many leaders then and now forget, Chesterton opined, is humans’ visceral need to come together with others and work towards a shared vision. This desire, Chesterton contends, found expression for each attendee through their shared faith.

Chesterton explains that while a German priests may disparage Poland as deserving partition and a Polish priest, given recent Prussian aggression, would clearly have comment on Germany, neither will exalt nationalism over religion’s common cause.

“There was a time”, Chesterton writes, “when these crazy negations were supposed to be peculiar to cranks; it is even possible that they are still largely peculiar to cranks. But what is emphatically not impossible is for cranks to become the rulers of the commonwealths”.[1]

The ability of dialogue diminishes in proportion with as divisions based on claims from nationalism in 1932, or claims from tribalism in 2021 overtake the common claims of shared context. A shared starting point precludes political leaders from assuming “ultimate positions, which theologians of the past and indeed all thinkers of the past, [call] anarchical and abnormal; but from which they cannot be dislodged, simply because they are ultimate positions.” [2]

A close reading of the text reveals Chesterton highlighting both the ultimate premise and final objective of a communitarian vision. Communitarianism, as we see reflected in the Founders’ vision, calls for individuals to simultaneously retain their unique identities and beliefs while subsuming their individual interests to the shared needs of the community.

This profound reflection stands at odds with the neoliberal project of the last forty years. The internationalists requires that each national identity fades into oblivion and that each person assumes their world view. Most recently, this is spilling over into a demand that each person now is also culturally “woke”, adopting the dogmas and language of a strange form of godless religion which places government as the ultimate and finer arbiter of morality.

The Eucharistic Congress demonstrated, both to Chesterton and us today, the unifying ability of common cause and the transformative affect it can have. The commonality of a shared faith provided a baseline of interaction for each attendee. Individuals as disparate as a Native American and priest from New Delhi could share beliefs but express those beliefs in completely different but fully complementary ways which incorporated their local environs and heritage.

Within these differences we find the fundamental tool with which the Founder’s left for us: the tension between the universality of common cause and simultaneously allowing for the particularity of each person’s daily reality; encouraging the individual to root himself in his locality, district, and citizenship.[3]

For Madison, as famously detailed in Federalist 10, the presence of factions proved, contrary to Montesquieu’s view, the very strength of the our Republic. However, if the common cause frays or breaks down, factions, rather than strengthening the republic, will rip the colorful tapestry of American society to shreds.

Communitarianism ensures the common purpose is protected and factions are directed towards their positive functions. Instead of starting with national proclamations, communitarianism exhorts each individual to invest their time and attention into their city, block, or township. On the particular level, those with seemingly inimical world views can share a neighborhood vision and build a consensus around their immediate needs.

Clearly, the subtext and unifying theme during the Eucharistic Congress and throughout Christendom in Dublin is religion. Confronting Marx’s trite riposte, “religion is the opium of the people”[4] directly, Chesterton writes

The inference is that it is only by believing in God that we could possibly believe in the Government. But the truth is that it is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God. That fact is written all across human history; but it is written most plainly across that recent history of Russia; which was created by Lenin. There the Government is the God, and all the more the God, because it proclaims aloud in accents of thunder, like every other God worth worshipping, the one essential commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods but Me.[5][6]

Chesterton finishes, “Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.” The strongest thing in the world obviously being the government.[7]

If Chesterton is right, and I argue he is, our current moment is not a religious versus secular battle. Rather, what we see today is the disagreement between those who see government as the ultimate power and highest god and those who worship the Abrahamic God.

A renewed and reinvigorated communitarianism is the commitment to the particularity of a citizen’s locality, exploring with neighbors what is good for the revival of the shared environs. However, communitarianism is predicated on trust that each person across the nation is similarly engaged in their neighborhood with the shared commitment to baseline values and ideals.

With each person focused on nurturing the common good within their own environs rather than presuming to understand what distant parts of our republic need, the rancor of national politics will diminish. From this collective focus on the particular, a shared understanding of what is commonly good for the country will organically rise.

During the Eucharistic Congress, Chesterton observed this General Will, first submitted by Rousseau, forming and developing in real time. Chesterton wrote,

As the illimitable multitude began to melt away towards the gates and the road and bridges, the instantaneous thought: “This is Democracy…Now it is quite certain that a General Will walked about the streets of Dublin for a week. It is quite certain that there was a practical harmony, because there was theoretical unity. There was truly and actually, in the threadbare and vulgarized phrase of the politicians, a Will of the People; and it did prevail…the mob could be managed successfully, because every man in the mob passionately wished the ceremony to be a success.[8]

Consequently, communitarianism is baked into the very foundations of our republic. We need only to rediscover the shared understanding that each citizen is endowed with inalienable rights and a Creator who desires us to be free. Most important however, each generation must share the commitment to the pledge found at the end of the Declaration of Independence,

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.[9] Communitarianism provides a way to ensure our next door neighbor is cared for and, through this act, simultaneously ensure the American experiment survives and we leave our Republic on more secure footing than when we found it.

[1] Chesterton, G.K. “Christendom in Ireland”, GK Chesterton Collected Works, Volume 20. (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001. Print). Page 38 – 39. Page 54

[2] Chesterton, page 53

[3] For complete discussion regarding factions see Federalist 10 and 11

[4] Marx, Karl and O’Malley, Joseph. Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the Right. 1970, Print

[5] Exodus, 20:3

[6] Chesterton, page 57.

[7] Ibid

[8] Chesterton, page 62

[9] Declaration of Independence, §33