Social capital refers to a certain set of informal values and skills shared among members of a group that permit cooperation regardless of socioeconomic characteristics. It is the learned ability of individuals to engage socially and work within organizations to pursue common objectives.
In economics, the term “fixed capital” refers to a stock of equipment, and investment and depreciation are flows adding to or decreasing the existing stock. The stock of social capital at any point in time is fixed but may be augmented or diminished by changing institutions and the behavior of residents. A significant factor responsible for the Great Disruption in social capital is a loss of transcendent religious beliefs maintaining the social order. Without religious sanctions or some other code of ethics sustaining traditional attachments and responsibilities, the stock of social capital declines.
Catholic social teaching offers hope to those concerned with maintaining social order in a democratic state. Ultimately, it provides a framework available to all for sustaining traditional attachments and responsibilities along with personal autonomy.
Catholic social teaching deals explicitly with the positive value of voluntary associations and thus indirectly with social capital. Pope John Paul II is forthright about the interest of the Church, as just one of many voluntary associations, in maintaining membership and independence. He explains, “In defending her own freedom, the Church is also defending the human person … [and] the various social organizations and nations – all of which enjoy their own spheres of autonomy and sovereignty” (Centesimus Annus, no. 45).
The contribution of Catholic social teaching in dealing with civil society is often dismissed a priori, because it explicitly refers both to natural law and the concept of the common good. Its social teaching is based on a vision in which “the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good” (Centesimus Annus, no. 13). At its core, Catholic social teaching is an understanding of human nature and the human condition.
The focus of Catholic social teaching is to argue persuasively for individual freedom and participation in voluntary organizations. It is not to define policy for any particular society. We, therefore, take John Paul II seriously when he says that after careful study of current events, he does not intend Catholic social teaching to pass definitive judgment on policies (Centesimus Annus, no. 3). He further clarifies that the Church does not attempt to present any overall model of socioeconomic life (Centesimus Annus, no. 43).
Collective terms such as “common good” and “national interest” are stumbling blocks for many; therefore, we wish to emphasize the concept of positive externalities, another term borrowed from economics. The term positive externalities describes benefits accruing to all from the stock of social capital. A positive externality, for example, is the benefit – financial or aesthetic – received by everyone in a neighborhood when one neighbor improves or maintains his or her property. Similarly, positive externalities result when individuals in a community act honestly and honor contracts.
As indicated, Catholic social teaching is based on the concept of natural law, interpreting it specifically as the means through which an individual becomes aware of his or her earthly and transcendent dignity. Thus, a denial of natural law deprives the person of standing and consequently leads to reorganization of society without reference to a person’s dignity and responsibility (Centesimus Annus, no. 13). Class struggle, partisan interests, and ideology shape this reorganization in a way that is inconsistent with personal development. Those struggling with the concept of natural law, but who fear social chaos, must at least recognize the point at which contempt for the human person begins to place government-mandated social control above that of reason and law (Centesimus Annus, no. 14).
Social capital should in no way be confused with social control. Social capital refers to capabilities embodied in individuals and employed by choice or habit to benefit society as a whole. In this sense, social capital is a subset of human capital, not merely an amorphous substance floating around in the atmosphere of certain communities. Conventional human capital – education and skills – can be acquired independently from cooperative skills. However, to maintain the present stock of social capital, groups of individuals must choose to participate and accept the norms, disciplines, and objectives of particular autonomous organizations.
The link between the social nature of persons and personal development within social institutions is addressed in Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. A person’s social life is not something added on but is essential to being human. An individual’s destiny hinges on personal gifts developed through dealings and dialogue with others. Certain social ties, like family and nationality, are given, but others originate from free decisions. In our times, mutual dependencies have given rise to a variety of associations and organizations, both public and private. This socialization, while certainly not without its dangers, brings with it many advantages with respect to consolidating and increasing the qualities of the human person (Gaudium et Spes, no. 25).
This excerpt has been adapted from the second chapter of Rebuilding Social Capital, the latest title in the Acton Institute’s Christian Social Thought Series.