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Societies of Friends of the Nation

A good example of what Montesquieu had envisioned, of a group of enlightened noblemen contributing to the common good occurred in Spain. Xavier María de Munibe (1723-1785), the Count of Peñaflorida, had studied experimental physics and mathematics,[1] and he dedicated himself to the application of the sciences to economic development. In 1763, with a few of his friends, he founded the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Country. The society concentrated on improving agricultural and industrial practices through studies, publications, and contests.[2] Following this example, and ecouraged by King Charles III, similar societies were established in the rest of the Spanish country and in its colonies, some of which are still functioning. [3] In the more current democratic context, industrialists and intellectuals have replaced the roles of the noblemen. Another active example is the Economic Society of Friends of the Nation of Barcelona

Emblem of the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Country
Photo source: Wikipedia (public domain)

Labor Organizations

In our times labor organizations are sometimes viewed as conflictive, but it is important to recognize that many of the social benefits enjoyed today are a result of the "pushing" of these organizations. When Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical (1891) the most important social problem was the dire conditions of laborers resulting from the Industrial Revolution. In this document, he defends the right of workers to organize and  so as to defend their rights:

It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient... We read in the pages of holy Writ: 'It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one falls, he shall be supported by the other.'(Ecl 4:9-12)... It is this natural impulse which binds men together in civil society... For, to enter into a "society" of this kind is the natural right of man.[4]

Settlement Houses

The movement that came to be known as  "Settlement Houses" developed principally in England and the United States towards the end of the XIX century. The consisted of buildings in poor neighborhoods where social services and training were provided for the purpose of improving the conditions of residents of the neighborhood, frequently with the cooperation of a nearby university. Some members of the associated university faculty and graduate students would often move into the house to facilitate their work and research.

Chicago Commons, founded in 1894, was a good example of these organizations, and it is still functioning.  It no longer has a residence component, but it continues to provide some of its original services such as community building, early childhood education and career training.

Photo ©  Chicago Commons


Churches and other religious organizations are perhaps the most influential elements of a civil society. Pope Francis provides a good example of social exhortation:

The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction... inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. [5]

Dagoberto Valdés and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the interpretation of the role of churches in this context :

The Church is a "sign" of civil society: That is, the churches, in their style of living in communities of persons, in their search for the common good, in their struggle for justice and peace, in their style of fraternal and solidary life, are should be sign and preview of what the whole civil society aspires to be.[6]

Pope Francis
Photo source: © Wikimedia (agencia brasil)


The churches in their turn would contribute an ingredient of purification and renewal of the whole civil society of which they are part, and they are called to serve as leaven, generating participation spaces and articulating networks of solidarities and services.[7]

It is appropriate for churches to advocate moral principles that are not currently accepted by the majority in the larger society. The end of slavery was largely the result of the "pushing" of religious groups.

Civic Organizations

There are organizations, which we may call civic organizations, that have the conscious purpose of applying civil society principles. Convivencia is a good example of this. Lead by Dagoberto Valdés, it proposes the use of these principles to address socioeconomic issues. The name of the organization roughly translates to "sharing life":  “Convivir is to project together, to share dreams and opportunities... Convivir is to come out of oneself and to leave gloom behind. To live for others is the new name for hope.”[8]

Through educational activities and other efforts, this group tries to develop civic awareness, and to foster group activities:

Photo source: © Convivencia Study Center

An ethical and civic education for public life can develop fraternal and positive citizens, ensuring the conviction that we are all brothers and sisters and therefore perfectible, fragile, and subject to errors and limitations. Civic friendship... teaches how to take care of all citizens, to place their life and dignity as a supreme value; to contribute to the prosperity of the nation, and to learn to practice subsidiarity and solidarity with the most vulnerable, seeking the possible personal happiness and the reachable common good.[9]

In addition to its educational activities, Convivencia sponsors microprojects that provide an "incubation" process for small businesses.


Here is a summary of the primary principles presented in this website:

  • Civil society seeks "the formation of human beings as persons and active, conscious and responsible members of society."[10]
  • Individuals, private organizations and governments all have natural and positive roles to play in society, and their interactions build a "civil" society.
  • It is preferable to take actions at their most immediate or simplest levels, providing that these actions can work effectively at that level.
  • It is appropriate and healthy for individuals and groups to advocate their private interests and ideas, as long as they are seen and evaluated in the context of the common good.

[1] Joaquín Iriarte, S.J., El Conde de Peñaflorda y la Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País (Donostia-San Sebastián: Colección Ilustración Vasca, 1991),  46.

[2] José de Aralar, El Conde de Peñaflorida y los Caballeritos de Azkoitia ( Buenos Aires: Editorial Vasca Ekin, 1942),  91-95.

[3] Robert Jones Shafer, The Economic Societies in the Spanish World (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1958), 48-52.

[4] Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, Paragraphs # 49-51.

[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Paragraph #88. 

[6] Dagoberto Valdés Hernández et al., Etica y Civica, my translation (Pinar del Río, Cuba: Ediciones Convivencia, 2014), 303.

[7] Ibid., 274.

[8] Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, Un Umbral para la Ciudadanía y la Sociedad Civil en Cuba, my translation (Pinar del Río, Cuba: Ediciones Convivencia, 2016), 71.

[9] Ibid., 201.

[10] Dagoberto Valdés Hernández et al., Etica y Civica, 20.