What is Alienation?
The Definition of Alienation
While alienation exists in different forms, “there is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted, belonging to no one.” (Pope Francis, 53) It is then that we experience the loss of the “authentic meaning of life”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 41)
What are two dangerous forms of alienation?
“Sometimes we prove hard of heart and mind; we are forgetful, distracted and carried away by the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society. This leads to a kind of alienation at every level”. (Pope Francis, 196)
So, when we only think of and act for our self and do not believe in a higher purpose – we become alienated. As Pope St. John Paul II said: a person “is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself and to live the experience of self giving”. (Centesimus Annus, 41)
Pope Benedict XVI also pointed out that, “alienation and the many neuroses that afflict affluent societies are attributable in part to spiritual factors”: (Caritas in Veritate, 76) “Man is alienated when he is alone, when he is detached from reality, when he stops thinking and believing in a foundation.” (Caritas in Veritate, 53)
Indeed, lack of belief in God has devastating personal consequences: “When human beings set themselves against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and consequently do not become free, but alienated from themselves.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
We live “in a world marked by a ‘globalization of indifference’ that makes us slowly inured to the suffering of others and closed in on ourselves.” (Pope Francis) “A land of fruitfulness demands contexts in which roots can be planted and give rise to a vital network capable of ensuring that the members of its communities feel ‘at home’.” (Pope Francis)
Failing this “society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish solidarity between people”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 41) and (Pope Francis, 196)
As with personal alienation there is also a spiritual element in society’s alimentation: “All humanity is alienated when too much trust is placed in merely human projects, ideologies and utopias.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 53)
“A land will be fruitful, and its people bear fruit and give birth to the future, only to the extent that it can foster a sense of belonging among its members, create bonds of integration between generations and different communities, and avoid all that makes us insensitive to others and leads to further alienation”. (Pope Francis, 53)
Some Causes of Alienation
Pope St. John Paul II points to some specific (and actionable) causes for our society’s current alienation including: Consumerism; Work settings which isolate a person in a maze of relationships marked by destructiveness, competitiveness and estrangement, and; “Manipulation by the means of mass communication which impose fashions and trends of opinion through carefully orchestrated repetition”. (Centesimus Annus, 41)
What is the Solution?
Pope Francis identifies a two-step solution: we can “overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the [corporal and spiritual] works of mercy.” How, exactly, is that?
“In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy – counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer – we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated…” (Message For Lent)
As Pope Benedict XVI said, “there cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account”. (Caritas in Veritate, 76)
“The concept of alienation needs to be led back to the Christian vision of reality, by recognizing in alienation a reversal of means and ends. When man does not recognize in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person, he effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefiting from his humanity and of entering into that relationship of solidarity and communion with others for which God created him.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 41)
Avoiding the Ultimate Alienation
“[T]he danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.” (Pope Francis)
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)