The Working Catholic: Public Friendship
by Bill Droel
Let’s say there is a society in which everyone honors contracts—formal ones and implied promises. Managers and their employees abide by their collective bargaining agreement. Car dealers transparently present their vehicles; customers pay their loans. Real estate agents advertise “open housing” and then do not discriminate. Tax returns contain accurate figures. Civil courts are the rarity. Yet, says Pope Pius XI (1857-1939), such a utopia may disguise alienation. All the rules can be followed, but that society can lack friendship or alternately what Catholic social thought calls public charity, neighborly love or solidarity. “Justice alone,” Pius XI writes, “cannot bring about a union of hearts and minds.”
The collapse of great societies is about the decay of relationships, writes Robert Hall in This Land of Strangers (Greenleaf Books, 2012). All of our major issues, he details, are really about weak relationships—homelessness, struggling families, addiction treatment, misuse of the internet and even economic downturns. Even our daily commerce suffers under a paucity of open relationships.
The big concept in business today is “marketing the brand.” A company may have several flavors or models or instruments or services. According to the brand theory, customers, employees and stockholders will stay connected to a successfully marketed brand, no matter the specific product or service. Yet, what is actually happening? There is high employee turnover and “an ocean of employee distrust” in many sectors, Hall writes. Managers too distrust the corporate executives while those executives lose touch with the original aspirations of the company. Stockholders are fixated on quarterly returns, not on a company’s future. Customers are loyal until a competitor runs a commercial that promises the next flavor, model, service or instrument. And all the while Wells Fargo spends lots of money on their “Rebuilding Your Trust” campaign.
Society goes along treating “relationships as if they were optional,” Hall continues, even though plenty of research documents the benefits of relationships. Those with many friends and colleagues are “prospering emotionally, socially, academically and economically.” Those who have few friends and colleagues are also those who lack confidence and resiliency, who fall behind in school, and whose finances are sliding backward. What holds for individuals and families also holds for companies and non-profits. Those with only tentative ties to a small number of stakeholders have or soon will have a grim financial picture.
Has alienation run its course? Will relationships be a priority in the days ahead? According to Hall, “the small group is the unit for transformation.” Neighbors or like-minded people unite around a local concern. They get to trust one another and, over time, expand their social capital to include other concerns and other small groups. Lots of encouraging energy comes about as people connect with other members of society in new and exciting ways.
There’s the Me Too movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s fresh energy in the movement for responsible gun ownership. Fresh relationships are building around local electoral campaigns. The durability and effectiveness of these movements and of other civic endeavors, however, depends on what is occurs between people, one-to-another. Does it begin and end on the internet or is there genuine face-to-face exchange? Hash tag groups and flash mob events do not in themselves contribute to a relational society. In fact if cyber-connections are overdone, there is risk of greater isolation.
Strong cultural forces make genuine relationships seem superfluous. Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) calls those forces liquid modernity. It favors episodic and temporary attachment and fluid identity. The culture suggests that strong attachments are potential hindrances. The fickleness goes further. Views of reason and good sense change with conditions, Bauman writes. There is little assurance that what an individual holds to be true at sunset will be what that individual prefers tomorrow. Modern culture puts too much emphasis on the individual, who is quickly overwhelmed with choices in the “realm of self-fulfillment and calculation of risks,” Bauman continues. In a liquid culture, strangers and weak ties are the substitutes for “the feared fluidity of the world.”
Movements, churches, unions, civic entities and more continue to use too many shortcuts. They resort to the strategy of “better presence on the web” and spend far too much time and energy on impersonal marketing, on the color of the brochures, the advisability of TV or radio promotions and the like. They attempt to catch people on the fly–people who might attend a grand opening or a rally, people who are fond of clicking like or don’t friend.
Effective solidarity or neighborliness requires the opposite. Public friendship is grounded in virtues, beginning with amicability. It treasures finesse, attention, subtlety, forbearance and perseverance. A person’s practice of civic friendship proceeds with calculated vulnerability in a humble and sincere manner. Public virtues are nourished in small groups, but not those given to mixing-up, shifting, exiting and entering, randomly meeting, starting late, jumping around, endlessly in crisis over collective identity and disbanding over and over.
Please send along your experience with small groups to the address below. Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is distributed by National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)