As previously explained, I've enrolled in the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP) to pursue their Certificate in Doctrine. I am currently taking my third of the required courses: Ecclesiology. This week's topic is The Church as Community.
Our instructor posed an interesting reflection question to start the week:
Believers belong to many communities apart from the community of the Church: families, neighborhoods, cities, political parties, and so forth. How should Christians understand their belonging to the Church in relation to these other communities?
We can see these communities as what Edmund Burke called the "little platoon" and what Tocqueville described as mediating institutions, which stand between the autonomous individual and the Leviathan state. Ideally, as George Weigel has written, such communities help build "a citizenry regulating itself from within according to a shared public 'language of good and evil.'" In this regard, the Church is the paramount community for both theological and civic reasons.
Virtue is an adaptive response to the instinctive human recognition of (and need for) a transcendent moral order codified in a body of natural law. People are most likely to act virtuously when they believe in an external power, higher and more permanent than the state, who is aware of their shortcomings and will punish them in the next life even if they escape retribution in this life.
Civic virtue also can be created by secular communities, however. As James Q. Wilson observes, “something in us makes it all but impossible to justify our acts as mere self-interest whenever those acts are seen by others as violating a moral principle.” Rather, “[w]e want our actions to be seen by others—and by ourselves—as arising out of appropriate motives.” Voluntary communities strengthen this instinct in two ways. First, they provide a network of reputational and other social sanctions that shape incentives. Virtuous communities will use those sanctions to encourage virtue among their members. Second, because people care more about how they are perceived by those close to them, communal life provides a cloud of witnesses about whom we care and whose good opinion we value. We hesitate to disappoint those people and thus strive to comport ourselves in accordance with communal norms.
The Christian thus appropriately can value such secular communities as ways of inculcating virtue and ethical behavior. At the end of the day, however, the Church has primary claim on our affections and devotion. It is after all, the community within which we work our our eternal destiny.