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New book about Chesterton’s view of Catholic social teaching

Localism book article image

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/28/24

Co-edited by the President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 'Localism' asks if Chesterton's ideas for organizing society would actually work.

Back in the heady days of my college years, when I was painfully searching out my adult identity, I tried on lots of new philosophies. I would drive my parents crazy by randomly declaring that I’d become a socialist or monarchist or anarchist. It was around that time that I learned about something called “distributism.” I had no idea what it was except that it had something to do with economics and people who ran in Catholic circles were partial to it.

Whenever I heard talk of distributism, it was always in connection to Catholic social teaching, the medieval ages, and G.K. Chesterton. During that time before my conversion, all things Catholic were still mysterious and somewhat repellent to me. For that reason, even though I’d read some Chesterton and liked his work, I never bothered to read more deeply about his distributist ideas.

A name change and a new book

I suspect that even within the Catholic Church itself, the concepts that underlie distributism aren’t widely understood. The name itself is odd. Is distributism a political philosophy? Some sort of baptized version of socialism? Does it require turning against the rich and distributing their property of others via punitive taxes or force? Perhaps these unresolved questions help explain why vanishingly few Catholics outside of dedicated Chestertonians would label themselves as distributists.

The Chesterton Society aims to change all that. Dale Alquist, in particular, is leading the charge to rename distributist principles more accurately so people can actually understand what it is. His suggestion is to simply call it “localism.”

Alquist explains his reasoning in the introduction to Localism: Coming Home to Catholic Social Teaching from Sophia Institute Press. It is one of the books on Aleteia’s 2024 Summer Book List for Adults.

Not a political philosophy but a way of life

First, although localism is concerned with how human communities are arranged, it isn’t a political philosophy to be found in any one book or adhered to by a specific political party. Localism doesn’t advocate for any particular form of government or politician. It’s a way of life meant for everyone, across all walks of life, social class, amount of wealth, and nations.

Generally speaking, the idea behind localism is pretty simple, so much so that when I first heard it, it struck me that it was nothing more than common sense. Localism is the idea that the ownership of goods, land, business, property, and freedom ought to be distributed as widely as possible to as many people as possible. These common goods ought not be collected up into the possession of the very few.

In practice, this idea translates into support for local communities, families, and ownership of small business. It looks like having a garden of your own, a strong local community, the initiative to be creative and thrifty so as to make your home beautiful, and the ability to earn a decent living without undue government interference. Localism operates by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which means that whatever can be done at the local level ought to stay at the local level.

For this reason, localism is opposed to socialist collectivization or other forms of social organization where forces like national governments, globalist control of economies, or large capitalist enterprises would concentrate ownership among fewer people.

Localism - image of Chesterton and wooden houses

The roots of localism

Many are surprised to discover that localist principles have been around for a long time and have a Catholic pedigree. Pope Leo XIII argues in his hugely influential social document, Rerum Novarum, written in 1891, that as many people as possible deserve have the chance to become owners. This concept of ownership includes owning a piece of productive property, a place in a union, a small business and, yes, even ownership in the making of laws, the choosing of political leadership, and the way a community governs itself.

As Leo XIII explains, the Church supports the promotion of human dignity, which includes but not limited to economic and social freedom. The family and local parish is our most important social unit. Any political intervention that weakens them is taking power that isn’t rightly deserved.

Inviting a conversation

Localism is an attempt to make Chesterton’s commonsense ideas widely accessible again. It’s meant to spark a conversation. Not a conversation about a particular political theory or political party but, rather, how we as individuals live our lives. We should all have a say in what happens to us and how we will use our freedom to contribute to the common good.

For me, this means putting the vast majority of my energy into my family, my marriage, my parish, my city, and the good work God has given me personally to accomplish. I don’t waste time worrying about matters that are beyond my ability to change. Instead, I grow raspberries, shop local, support private Catholic schooling and homeschooling, and vote in local elections. These small places, our homes and families, says Chesterton, are where “the seed of civilization will be preserved.”

The value of thrift

By way of full transparency, I wrote an essay that is included in Localism. My essay is all about how thrift is creative and beautiful. When we use our talents to make good and useful objects for our homes and parishes, they end up being much more beautiful than mass-produced equivalents. Local efforts, for example, are directly responsible for the staggeringly magnificent cathedrals of gothic Europe. Those houses of worship are mostly the result of local artisans who were working within communities they cherished, and as such those cathedrals stand as monuments of love.

I’ve read all the chapters in Localism and thoroughly enjoyed each and every contribution. The essays are varied but there’s a common theme: that localism isn’t abstract, complicated, backwards-looking, or naive. Quite the opposite, it’s the way forward. It’s the fullest embrace of our stewardship to make this earth flourish and reflect God’s beauty. Read this book if you’re interested in practical advice for how to live more creatively, with more freedom, and more joy in the life you have been given that is uniquely yours.

EconomyGK ChestertonSocial Doctrine of the ChurchSociety
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