Person, Desire, State

United States and Europe
Two Traditions Face to Face

An American, a teacher of Comparative Constitutional Law, an expert on European constitutionalism. During an evening at the Cultural Center of Milan, Paolo Carozza reflected on the image of man and society that can emerge from a constitution.

by Luca Pesenti

To realize that Paolo Carozza is a brilliant 40-year-old American, you have to have him in front of you, with his unmistakably Yankee face. If you are not looking at him directly, his name only indicates to you his Italian origins, and not even very distant ones. These origins enable him to speak the Italian language fluently, even though he, a perfectionist, does not fail to apologize for his (few) mistakes in pronunciation.
A teacher of Comparative Constitutional Law at the University of Notre Dame, an expert on European constitutionalism, Paolo is also among those who are tracing, in this period, the new history of Communion and Liberation in the United States. All these things together make him a special spokesman in these stormy times, a person to talk to in attempting to understand the spirit of Europe by looking at its reflection in the American spirit.

The original liberty of the person
The angle of observation is necessarily that of the law. Asking oneself what image of man and society emerges from a constitution is never a purely intellectual exercise–to discover, for example, what is at the center of the Constitution of the United States. “In all of American law,” Carozza explains, “the central question, the true pivot around which everything turns, is the relationship between the person, the law, and the State. And this relationship begins with the original autonomy of the person; the law is formed and developed only as an acknowledgment of the existence of the individual.” Here he gave an interesting example, that makes things clearer than a thousand words: “My name is Paolo, because my parents baptized me with this name. It is my name, the name that defines who I am. Well, if I did not like this name and I wanted to change it, I could easily do so, because–this is the fundamental idea–the name that was given to me does not belong to anybody; it is mine alone, and so I can do anything with it that I like.” Here we have clarified for us the sense of a civilization that constructs itself patiently around the personal “I.”

Rousseau’s “general will”
This, naturally, does not have a merely symbolic value. And the priority of the person over the law is pregnant with consequences. “American constitutional law,” Carozza goes on to explain, “thus does not claim to define society and the person in the most minute details; it does not claim to control and regulate every single aspect of life. And this idea finds an evident reflection in the Constitution, which expressly forbids only slavery. On the contrary, I notice a ‘totalizing’ temptation in the debate on the European Constitution, because there is the temptation to posit it as the general model for living together among people. This happens because in Europe the reference to the ‘general will’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still too strong. For us Americans, on the contrary, Rousseau represents the most evident temptation of a possible liberal dictatorship, which is the dictatorship of the majority and of the law over the person.”

Ideological snares: individualism
These words sound discordant and yet they are terribly realistic, reminding us once again that every human ideal, even the most beautiful and perfect, hides snares, too, when it is forced in an ideological sense. This–it goes without saying–is valid first and foremost for the United States of America, for behind the centrality of the “I” is hidden the greatest limitation that can be found in the American world, that of individualism. “The Christian and European tradition,” Carozza explains, commenting on a reflection by Giorgio Vittadini, “has educated us to start from a desire and to band together in order to respond to the needs that emerge from every man’s desire. It has educated us, in short, to the idea of subsidiarity that starts from the ‘I,’ is developed in concrete works, and only at the end takes the form of political representation, of a social structure, a model of State. Here, this reconstruction, this reference to the profound meaning of the idea of subsidiarity is precisely what in the United States is least taken for granted.” It is so little taken for granted that the word “subsidiarity” is rarely used in the American academic world; at the most, one speaks of federalism. And so the swim upstream, the expression of an “I” in a “we” becomes the hardest thing of all, immersed in the sea of the normal individualistic culture. “In the United States, the big problem is that the passage from the person’s desire, the primacy of the ‘I,’ to the construction of an ideal economy, a common good, does not appear automatic. This is the reason why what in the Christian tradition is taken up by Communion and Liberation–the construction of a people as the result of the encounter of a multiplicity of ‘I’s’–in America works very little and very badly. The American risk is this: forgetting that the ideal of subsidiarity is that of giving a subsidium, a concrete help, an assistance to the person, to prevent his being swept away in moments of difficulty.”

It is not law that creates a people
Looking closely, however, the same criticism, but for different reasons, can be leveled at the model of European unification synthesized in the debate for the definition of a common constitution. On this point, too, Carozza’s words are caustic. “The European governments and the bureaucrats in Brussels seem to be obsessed with the need to create a fundamental Charter to take the place of the life of the European peoples. Nothing could be more dangerous! If ‘the people’ does not come first, if first there is not an educational movement to enable the European peoples to feel they are one people, there will never be a Europe. What is more, the European Constitution wants to indicate also an ideal of a good life, the ideal of a good society. But if these ideals do not arise from the grass roots level, if they do not arise from the life of a people, the authoritarian or even totalitarian risk is very strong. This is absolutely unthinkable in the United States. What a constitution must do, according to us Americans, is just one thing: defend the freedom of individuals so that they can pursue fully their own desires. Besides, our tradition is rooted in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which sanctifies the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.”