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Church offers balance to U.S. culture.

It's no news that our culture is off balance on the "individual" versus "communal" spectrum. Signs are everywhere, and it is easier to record the problem than to find remedies for it.

We have lived with the "me generation," watched fathers walk out on mothers, children turn against parents. And we have seen permanent vows (be they marriage or religious) rendered impermanent with shocking frequency.

Last week, twentysomething people turned on seventysomething people at the national headquarters of the American Association of Retired Persons, protesting that the elderly need to shoulder more of the budget burden.

There has been much social-justice slippage in the past generation, but one undisputed gain has been among the nation's elderly. Far fewer old people are living in poverty than in the 1960s. While the wealthiest U.S. elderly may be able to carry a greater financial burden, however, as a group they are not the social culprits and ought not be scapegoated.

Traditional societies gave the elderly far more respect and protection than we render them today. In societies in which change is the norm, the wisdom of the old often seems less consequential. But that, too, may represent shortsighted judgment.

The broader point here is that in a more balanced social setting we would find and appreciate complementary interests and ways we depend upon each other to strengthen the whole.

"We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness of the individual," Robert Bellah wrote in Habits of the Heart. "Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious."

We did not invent individualism, either as fact or philosophy. It dates at least to 17th-century England and the writings of John Locke. But we have gone a long way toward perfecting it in our legalistic and contractual society.

Even if President Clinton sets us on a path to economic recovery, even if he manages to balance economic stimulus and economic sacrifice among competing interest groups, long-term recovery will not likely occur unless our values are reshaped to stay the course.

Individualism in its most meaningful form needs to be celebrated: That each of us reflects God's image and has inalienable rights that must be guaranteed is an undeniable 20th-century advance.

However, balance is called for. Christian belief has it that every human being is related to every other, not primarily because of any contract entered into to protect self-interest, but because we are all created in God's image and likeness, have a common origin and common destiny.

Commitment to this destiny ought never be viewed as stifling; it is beneficial to all and by its nature can and often does call for self-sacrifice for the larger good.

This is basic Christianity, basic Catholicism. It is also elementary for the recovery of our nation. Spread the word.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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