Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society

Fr. Gregory Jensen, contributing editor to AOI blog and editor of Koinonia blog recently published this essay on the Acton Institute website.

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation.  Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy.  Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands.   Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.  

Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture."  She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.”  While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy.  Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God."  And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society.  "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “ 

Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad.  Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude.  Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.

Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition.   Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10).  It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life.  And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.   

What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends.   Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust —is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?  

Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular.  Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East.   As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide. 

Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society.   Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.   

Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient.  True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control.  Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time.  In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside."  Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.   

In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.  


  1. In what way do we lose things distictive to us, as the Noonan article says, whether we consent to mention it to someone or many others, or not?

    The energy driving the efforts to know more about a person than one might care to share comes from the felt need of people who create products and services to be present in the awareness of those who might be in a position to use them.

    It isn’t all bad, either. Find a way to share interests repsonsibly and less time in the day gets wasted. How many men out there wouldn’t mind if they never lost another minute to advertising of products only of interest to women? How many of all of us would rejoice if we never spent another minute hearing about a medicine for a disease we don’t have?

    I think everyone who looks back on how things were done 100 years ago and wonders how folk managed will look back on our day at our methods of ‘commercial and public service advertising’ and shake their heads at our backwardness. Much as we do when hearing about how cutting people so as to leak blood was thought to cure great categories of disease.

  2. Thanks for the link Father!

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :
  4. Michael Bauman :

    Perhaps another way to frame the issue is one of modesty, intimacy, and personhood. Privacy is a myth, in some ways it always has been. By even using the word, one has already descended to the same level of discourse.

    What has changed is not necessarily the knowledge of one another, but the drive to exhibit the knowledge and force it on others–lack of modesty.

    What has changed is the subsitution of “knowledge” and “facts” for the truth. Just because we know certain things about others does not mean that what we know is true and does not mean that knowledge leads to acutal intimacy. Often a sense of fake intimacy is created which in turn feeds into the lack of modesty.

    What has changed is the replacement of a sense of personhood, a gift of God that is only fully realized in communion with God and others, with the drive to be autonomous and “be all you can be” at the exclusion of others. The superstars that the culture creates, worships and discards are little more than the erstaz supermen of Nietzchean fantasy.

    All of this is wrapped up like a burrito for our consumption. Commercials are another symptom of both the lack of modesty and the fake intimacy.

    Harry, I’d just as soon not have any commericals. I like having the information available if I want to access it.

    • Michael, it’s fairly clear that ‘commercials’ as we know them will be looked upon by future generations much as we look on the emptying of ‘chamber pots’ in the city streets of yesteryear. A very bad idea, except for the worse available alternatives.

      Obligated as we are to choose among alternatives or create new alternatives, it becomes tiresome to read laments about whatnot when the authors presuppose and suggest a better way exists — but without examining whether it’s actually real and available.

      • Michael Bauman :

        Harry, the manner in which we attempt to communicate the goods and service we have to offer always changes with the technology and the culture.

        The question to me is how much do the commercials simply reflect the lack of modesty and other passions we are prone to, and how much do they form and fuel our desires. (In this context social networking sites, blogs and new media commercial web sites are included).

        Ultimately the solution is the same: live as much as a Christian as possible in thought, word and deed. Lots of ramifications to that which effect what we do on our own and corporately.

        Not all bad–Certainly the relative ease of communicating globally and across barriers of time, space and organizations tend to put pressure on the traditional idea of community in both religious and political senses. Homogeneity of thought becomes much more difficult to enforce.

        This web site alone is replete with examples.

        Such availability also puts a greater premium on us to develop discernment because the same media can be used by demagogues to attack ideas and destroy the genuine and the valuable.

        Privacy, however, is a red herring if not an actual tool of tyranny.

  5. Seems to me privacy is a RIGHT everybody has; no more, no less. To use as they seem fit, and also quite easy to use or get, in the way you want it to. Longing for ‘the old days’ in this matter is a strange leap and frankly quite silly. (Overanalyzing something will do that) If someone finds himself inapt in using/ getting privacy, it can hardly be blamed on society.

  6. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Dennis, since “privacy” is a right only recently discovered (it is not mentioned in the Constitution and did not exist as a legal construct before Roe v. Wade), what you or I might think about it is largely irrelevant. The Court has seen fit to create this “right” and define it for us.

    (Actually, Michael is right. If government becomes the guardian and adjudicator of “privacy,” all privacy is actually lost. Think of Obamacare and medical records. 16,000 new IRS agents hired so they can examine your bank records to determine if you qualify for the care you are receiving. Structural tyranny. The only thing missing is the tyrant.)

    • Fr Hans,

      If I may, it seems to me that the problem you are highlighting is less the right to privacy as such and more the idea of the government as the source and arbitrator of privacy. Or have I missed something?


      • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

        Essentially yes. The Supreme Court, in justifying Roe v. Wade under the argument of “privacy”, took unto itself the right to define privacy as a tool of social policy. Once taken, it gets extended in ways that actually destroys privacy (Obamacare as an example).

        I think we have to be careful of speaking of privacy as a “right.”

    • There was no mention of governmental restrictions on privacy in the article to which I commented (and referred to)… I think we’re talking about different kinds of privacy here….

      • Let me clarify: you have privacy. I think of privacy as a right for me to seclude myself from the outside world to, well, do want i want to do, or think what i want to think, for me, some time for myself.
        Linking privacy with social isolation and community life in the way Fr. Gregory Jensen does is well, silly. They aren’t really related.
        If a psychologist analyses a person, and finds that person lives in social isolation, he’s not going to tell him:”Boy, you’ve been having to much privacy”.

        • The article would make more sense to me should in most places where the word ‘privacy’ was used, it be replaced by ‘individualism’.

          Is that how I should read it or am I misunderstanding something?

  7. Dennis,

    Yes, I think you could substitute “individualism” for “privacy” at least in my essay.


    • Thank you Fr. Gregory, this helped the big ‘huh?’ I had while reading the essay. I would like to place a beautiful quote here taken out of the Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard”. It illustrates the issue I have with regard to monasticism beautifully.

      How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot
      Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
      Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

      The quote is about Elosia’s desire– and inability– to forget her love for Abelard. She refers to herself as a ‘vestal’– a virginal nun, because she has been forced to take orders. She believes that if she were a more faithful nun then she would be able to forget her love, and her lust, and be happy in her confinement.

      Fr. Gregory Jensen writes in his essay: “Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible.” The question is: is Elosia correct to try and give up her wishes? Are they not also the source of our happiness?

      • Dennis,

        I believe the phrase is ‘Lonliness wants, Solitude has’. One of many ‘Rorsach Moments’ we find when looking through the Christian lens at the world. And like any lens, what is of importance yet not in view is the majority of what is.

        None of it allows or considers properly for the dimension of electing and if so blessed be in a position to accept the joys and burdens and immense risks and sacrifices required to bring forth the future in the form of raising a family. Those who deem sex and so on in such a context ‘spots’ in some manner of character are having a ‘Rorsach moment’ I think.

        The people who have accepted the family responsibilities historically had so little time to spare to judge or get involved in the monastic’s life you just don’t hear much those like us. While the monastics wrote books — we brought forth those who might read them and of course including all the future monastics. Busy doing what we are given to do.

        I suppose only because of the internet it becomes possible (statistically, broadly speaking, looking over the decades in general) for us to take a moment and chime in on these spaces of detailed writing and responding where previously mostly the monastics had the time/education to explore.

        The monastics that frost me are the ones who while able-bodied do not do for themselves but expect and indeed order their affairs to be paid in excess of the married clergy w/families. Today those are defacto ordained young never married CEO’s, not what I think of when ‘monastics’ come to mind.

        I’m so impressed with the ones who live in community (beyond two-person common-law gay marriages) and produce more than they require to sustain their personal needs.

        • Why does nobody here seem to actualy want to discuss the essay? (You know, the one on the top of the page here).

          Is that because the essay is causing everyone trouble in understanding it? Is the lack in understanding because the author appearantly has different meanings for the words he uses than the rest of the world (and the meaning of ‘privacy’ is NOT the only example here)? Should we as readers ‘just feel’ the correct manner of the way the author ment it? Or is because the author makes assumptions that are ‘not wrong’ so they must ‘automatically’ be right? Or is it because of its conclusion, which is rather silly? Maybe this is all just happening in my mind, but I wouldn’t know would I? Could someone actually tell me what they think of the essay, and discuss it!

          • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

            It probably has more to do with the fact everybody is discussing other things right now. You are right though. This essay is worth a lot more discussion than we have given to it.

  8. The Healing of the Paralytic and the Loneliness of Contemporary Man
    By Fr. George Calciu

    The most tragic state of man is loneliness, his total isolation. According to Saint Cyprian of Carthage: “Everyone falls alone, but we are been saved in the community”, in the community of the church. To be alone means to fall, to get lost. Being along implies thinking only of oneself, or perhaps not even so, because you’re overwhelmed by the suffering in which you lie. You are overpowered by the futility of life. For if your life is lonely, and without God, it becomes useless and lost. A life whose meaning has vanished from the moment you became estranged.

    My beloved faithful, our contemporary society and most authorities, not only the communists – are increasingly isolating us. So we may become lonelier, less bound to each other and less communicative, in order that they may lead us to their intended destination. They are trying to isolate us, because communities are much harder to lead than isolated individuals.

    The communists have done it through violence. The West doesn’t use violence but another way; a way of proclaiming you “unique”, that you have “all rights”, you are an “independent man”; you need to be unique/isolated, not confined to your parents, not obedient to them or to anyone as a child, because you are a “free man”.

    This misunderstood freedom is a revolt against God, it is nihilism.

  9. To Fr. Johannes Jacobse @ : So, I’m probably wrong, because people are discussing other things… That’s the same argument I gave. Funny! And yet you also do not discuss the essay, but merely imply: you are wrong.

    Some people are convinced by divine gestures, but get suspicous by arguments.

    It seems clear to me now the essay was only written for those kinds of people.

    So forget it, this was my last post and you can relax, I won’t be coming back here again.

  10. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Dennis, hang on. My comment was not meant to be dismissive. Sorry it came across that way. I made a point of answering because I didn’t want your question to be left hanging. So, no, I didn’t mean that because people are discussing other things you are wrong. I meant that because people are discussing other things, they just aren’t paying that close of attention to Fr. Gregory’s post. That happens all the time and sometimes some really substantive posts hardly get comments at all.

    Yes, I didn’t really discuss the essay. You are right about that. Fr. Gregory pointed that out too and I concurred. Sometimes though things get a little freewheeling around here, but that makes it interesting too.

    • To Fr. Johannes Jacobse:
      Ok, I overreacted than I guess, so it must be me to apologize! My sincere apologies! It was frustration speaking. It seemed to me at the time I was delibaretly misunderstood or ignored. (fellow Fathers helping each other out, you know) I guess this was not true!

      I will keep my big mouth shut than, I said what I wanted to say and I guess that’s enough. Let the freewheeling begin 😉

      • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

        I could tell you were frustrated and I was trying to relieve it. Thanks for accepting my explanation.

Care to Comment?