A voluntary association means any group of individuals freely united for the pursuit of a common end. It differs, therefore, from a necessary association in as much as its members are not under legal compulsion to become associated. The principal instances of a necessary association are a conscript military body and civil society, or the State, the concept of voluntary association covers organizations as diverse as a manufacturing corporation and a religious sodality. The legal right of voluntary association--the attitude of civil authority toward bodies of this nature--has varied in different ages and still varies in different countries. Under the rule of Solon the Athenians seem to have been free to institute such societies as they pleased, so long as their action did not conflict with the public law. The multitude of societies and public gatherings for the celebration of religious festivals and the carrying on of games, or other forms of public recreation and pleasure, which flourished for so many centuries throughout ancient Greece, indicates that a considerable measure of freedom of association was quite general in that country.
The Roman authorities were less liberal. No private association could be formed without a special decree of the senate or of the emperor. And yet voluntary societies or corporations were numerous from the earliest days of the Republic. There existed collegia for the proper performance of religious rites, collegia to provide public amusements, collegia of a political nature, collegia in charge of cemeteries, and collegia made up of workers in the various trades and occupations. In Judea the Pharisees and Sadducees--though these were schools, or sects, rather than organized associations--and the Essenes were not seriously interfered with by the Roman governors. With the union of Church and State in 325 there came naturally an era of freedom and prosperity for associations of a religious nature, especially for the religious orders. During the period of political chaos that followed the fall of the Empire, liberty of association was as extensive as could be expected among populations whose civil rulers were not sufficiently powerful either to repress or to protect the formation of voluntary unions. Indeed, the "minor, obscure isolated, and incoherent societies", to use the words of Guizot, that erected themselves on the ruins of the old political organization and became in time the feudal system, were essentially private associations.
As the needs, culture, and outlook of men extended, there sprang into being a great number and variety of associations, religious, charitable, educational, and industrial. Instances are the great religious orders, the societies for the relief of poverty and sickness, the universities, and the guilds which arose and flourished between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries. All of these associations were instituted either under the active direction of the Church, or with her warm encouragement and as a rule without any serious opposition on the part of the civil power. Some of them, in fact, performed important political functions; others secured a measure of social peace that the civil authorities were unable to enforce while as a whole they constituted a considerable check to the exercise of arbitrary power by sovereigns. Thus, the merchant and craft guilds governed trade and industry with a series of regulations that had all the force and authority of legal statutes; the associations instituted to enforce the "Truce of God", helped greatly to lessen petty warfare between different lords and different sections of the same country; while "the monarch was . . . hemmed in on all sides . . . by universities, corporations, brotherhoods, monastic orders; by franchises and privileges of all kinds, which in greater or less degree existed all over Europe".
With the rise and extension of political absolutism in most of the countries of Europe in the seventeenth century, freedom of association became everywhere greatly restricted. It was frequently subjected to unreasonable conditions in the last century and it is still withheld by some governments. From 1820 to 1824 labour unions were absolutely prohibited in Great Britain. Up to the year 1901 non-industrial associations consisting of more than twenty persons could not be formed in France without authorization by a public official whose power in the matter was almost arbitrary. At present, authorization is required in the case of associations composed of Frenchmen and foreigners: associations whose supreme head resides outside of France; and associations whose members live in common. Owing partly to the terms of the law and partly to the course pursued by the officials charged with its enforcement, almost all the religious congregations have been driven out of France. In Prussia and in most of the other German states political associations are subject to close inspection, and can be dissolved by the public authorities in case they go outside of certain well-defined limits. Most other societies pursuing reasonable ends can obtain existence and recognition by the becoming registered according to a general law of the empire. The law of Austria empowers magistrates to forbid the formation of any association that either in aim or personnel seems contrary to law, and to dissolve any society that is no longer conducted in accordance with the legal conditions to which it is subject. In Russia participation in any association not expressly authorized by the Government is a penal offence. Speaking generally, it may be said that with the exception of France, Russia, and Turkey, European governments exhibit today a liberal attitude toward associations pursuing reasonable ends.
In the United States associations whose purpose is pecuniary gain, and all other societies that desire a corporate existence and civil personality, must, of course, comply with the appropriate laws of incorporation. Unincorporated societies may be instituted without legal authorization, and may pursue any aim whatever, so long as their members do not engage in actions that constitute conspiracy or some other violation of public order. Even in these contingencies the members will not be liable to legal prosecution for the mere set of forming the associations. Under the present fairly liberal attitude of governments, and owing to the great increase in the number and complexity of human interests, the number and variety of associations in the Western world have grown with great rapidity. We may enumerate at least nine distinct types, namely: religious, charitable, intellectual, moral, political, mutual-benevolent, labour, industrial, and purely social. The largest increase has taken place in the three classes devoted to social intercourse and enjoyment, such as clubs and "secret" societies; to industry and commerce, such as manufacturing and mercantile corporations, and to the interests of the wage earner, such as trade unions. Probably the great majority of the male adults in the cities of the United States have some kind of membership in one or other of these three forms of association.
Like all other moral rights, that of voluntary association is determined by the ends that it promotes, the human needs that it supplies. The dictum of Aristotle that man is a "political" animal, expresses more than the fact that man naturally and necessarily becomes a participant in that form of association known as the State. It means that man cannot effectively pursue happiness nor attain to a reasonable degree of self-perfection unless he unites his energies with those of his fellows. This is particularly true of modern life, and for two reasons. First, because the needs of men have greatly increased, and second, because the division of labour has made the individual more and more dependent upon other individuals and groups of individuals. The primitive, isolated family that knows only a few wants, and is able in rude fashion to supply all these, may enjoy a certain measure of contentment, if not of culture, without the aid of any other association than that inherent in its own constitution. For the family of today such conditions are unsatisfying and insufficient. Its members are constrained to pursue many lines of activity and to satisfy many wants that demand organized and associated effort.
Since the individual is dependent upon so many other individuals for many of those material goods that are indispensable to him, he must frequently combine with those of his neighbours who are similarly placed if he would successfully resist the tendency of modern forces to overlook and override the mere individual. A large proportion of the members of every industrial community cannot make adequate provision for the needs that follow in the train of misfortune and old age unless they utilize such agencies as the mutual benefit society, the insurance company, or the savings bank. Workingmen find it impossible to obtain just wages or reasonable conditions of employment without the trade union. On the other hand, goods could not be produced or distributed in sufficient quantities except through the medium of associations. Manufacturing, trade, transportation, and finance necessarily far more and more under the control of partnerships and stock companies.
Turning now from the consideration of these material needs, we find that association plays a no less important part in the religious, moral, intellectual, political and purely social departments of life. Men cannot give God due worship except in a public, social way. This implies at least the universal Church and the parish, and ordinarily it supposes devotional and other associations, such as sodalities, altar societies, church-fund societies, etc. Select souls who wish to embrace the life of perfection described by the evangelical counsels must become organized in such a way that they can lead a common life. In every community there are persons who wish to do effective work on behalf of good morals, charity, and social reform of various kinds. Hence we have purity leagues, associated charities, temperance societies, ethical culture societies, social settlements. Since large numbers of parents prefer private and religious schools for the education of their children, the need arises for associations whose purpose is educational. Literary and scientific associations are necessary to promote original research, deeper study, and wider culture. Good government, especially in a republic, is impossible without political associations which strive vigilantly and constantly for the removal of abuses and the enactment of just laws.
In the purely social order men desire to enroll themselves in clubs, "secret" societies, amusement associations, etc., all of which may be made to promote human contentment and human happiness. Many of the forms of association just enumerated are absolutely necessary to right human life; none of them is entirely useless. Finally, voluntary associations are capable of discharging many of the tasks that otherwise would devolve upon the State. This was an important feature of their activity in the Middle Ages, and it is very desirable today when the functions of government are constantly increasing. Chief among the organizations capable of limiting State activity are those concerned with and the improvement of working classes. In so far as these can perform their several tasks on reasonable terms and without injury to the State or to any class of its citizens, the public welfare is better served by them than it would be if they were supplanted by the Government. Individual liberty and individual opportunity have a larger scope, individual initiative is more readily called into play and the danger of Government despotism is greatly lessened.
The right of voluntary association is, therefore, a natural right. It is an endowment of man's nature, not a privilege conferred by civil society. It arises out of his deepest needs, is an indispensable means to reasonable life and normal self-development. And it extends even to those associations that are not in themselves necessary for these ends--that is, so long as the associations do not contravene good morals or the public weal. For the State has no right to prohibit any individual action, be it ever so unnecessary which is, from the public point of view, harmless. Although it is not essential to his personal development that the citizens should become a member of an association that can do him neither good nor harm, it is essential to his happiness and his self-respect that he should not be prevented from doing so by the State. The moment that the State begins to practise coercion of this kind it violates individual rights. The general right of voluntary association is well stated by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical, "Rerum Novarum":
To enter into private societies is a natural right of man, and the State must protect natural rights, not destroy them. If it forbids its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence; for both they and it exist in virtue of the same principle, namely, the natural propensity of man to live in society.
Nor is the State justified in prohibiting voluntary associations on the ground that they may become inimical to public welfare. An institution should not be utterly condemned because it is liable to abuse; otherwise an end must be made of all institutions that are erected and conducted by human beings. The State has ample power to protect itself against all the abuses to which liberty of association is liable. It can forbid societies that aim at objects contrary to good morals or the public welfare, lay down such reasonable restrictions as are required to define the proper spheres of the various associations, punish those societies that go beyond their legitimate fields, and, in extreme cases, dissolve any particular organization that proves itself to be incorrigible. Through these measures the State can provide itself with all the security that is worth having; any further interference with individual liberty should be a greater social evil than the one that is sought to be remedied. The formality of legal authorization, or registration is not in itself unreasonable, but it ought not to be accompanied by unreasonable conditions. The procedure ought to be such that any society formed in accordance with the appropriate law of association could demand authorization, or registration, as a civil right, instead of being compelled to seek it as a privilege at the hands of an official clothed with the power to grant or refuse it at his own discretion.
The difference between these two methods is the difference between the reign of law and the reign of official caprice, between constitutional liberty and bureaucratic despotism. Precisely this sort of arbitrary power is at present exercised by French officials over religious congregations. The result is that Frenchmen and French women who wish to live in associations of this nature are denied the right to do so. Speaking generally of religious congregations, we may justly say in the words of Pope Leo XIII, that they have "the sanction of the law of nature", that is, the same natural right to exist on reasonable conditions as any other morally lawful association, and, "on the religious side they rightly claim to be responsible to the Church alone". When the State refuses them the right to exist it violates not merely the natural moral law but the supernatural Divine law. For these associations are an integral part of the life of the Church, and as such, lie within her proper sphere. Within this sphere she is independent of the State, as independent as one sovereign civil power is of another. Abuses that may grow out of religious associations can be met by the State in the ways outlined above. Treasonable acts can be punished; excessive accumulation of property can be prevented; in fact, every action, circumstance, tendency that constitutes a real danger to the public welfare can be successfully dealt with by other methods than that of denying these associations the right of existence.
APA citation. (1907). Right of Voluntary Association. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02001c.htm
MLA citation. "Right of Voluntary Association." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02001c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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