Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The World Council of Churches and International Civil Society

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The World Council of Churches and International Civil Society

Article excerpt

The term "civil society" is being used today for a variety of purposes and with a range of meanings and nuances. Moreover, it is being used by people who live, think and act in diverse contexts and whose understanding of society is more or less shaped by different traditions of social analysis. Inevitably, a certain ambiguity thus surrounds the term. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that most people who speak about civil society would typically include among its actors the churches, their related organizations and less formal associations of Christians.

For the most part, civil society has been understood as a phenomenon at the level of the nation-state. But as modem means of transportation, new communication technologies, world trade and international politics hasten the transition to a global society, some have extended this concept to speak of an "international civil society". That leads to the question addressed briefly in what follows: If one were to describe the various international institutions related to the churches -- and specifically the World Council of Churches -- as part of an international civil society, what would it imply for our understanding of the identity and the work of the WCC and similar international bodies?

The concept of civil society

Before directly addressing the issue of international civil society and the place of the WCC within it, however, a few observations are in order to guide our discussion in a way that will do justice to the diversity and open-ended nature of the term civil society itself.

* The present situation of transition in global society requires a new analysis of social reality. Within such an analysis, civil society may function as a category which sheds light on certain features of social reality that would otherwise remain obscure. In order for it to play such a role, however, it is important that the term be understood as a heuristic and analytical tool, and not used in a normative, prescriptive way or in a purely descriptive sense.

* Civil society is usually defined over against the political and economic dimensions of society. Again, this is an analytical distinction which is not necessarily descriptive of existing sectors in any society. But in drawing a distinction between the "civil" on the one hand and the "political" and the "economic" on the other, it is important not to suggest or infer that civil society is simply the unstructured realm of the private and personal. Civil society is as public as the state or the economy, and it has its own rationality and follows its own processes of institutionalization.

* The interplay between the political, the economic and the civil dimensions of society is vital to the well-being of society as a whole, particularly in the face of the absolutizing tendencies of the political and economic systems. In recent years, these tendencies have manifested themselves in a growing absorption of civil society by the needs of the economy in many situations or by civic organizations being co-opted and used for political purposes. The emphasis on civil society, therefore, is an expression of resistance, a claim of the critical autonomy of the civil realm which thus contributes to a reshaping of the public space.

* A characteristic feature which distinguishes civil society from the realms of politics and of the economy is its orientation towards shaping and maintaining relationships. Civil society seeks to build a sense of coherence and trust and, through communication, to create a culture of fundamental moral consensus, rather than to acquire, defend and exercise power or to accumulate capital.

* It is clear that all of the institutions which are typically classified as part of the civil society -- educational, scientific and religious institutions, media organizations and, to some extent, courts of law -- are continuously vulnerable to being dominated or controlled by the political or economic powers. …

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