Subsidiarity Defined: Downsizing Social Programs

There seems to be a lot of confusion in regard to exactly what the Church teaches about economics.

On one side, there are those whose reasoning goes something like this: “The Catholic Church is for poor people, so it is for large governmental social welfare programs and something like socialism.”

On the other, there are those who reason along these lines: “Since the Catholic Church is against socialism and communism, therefore it is unabashedly for capitalism. Government should therefore stay out of economics — as should the Church — and leave the whole money-making thing to market forces.”

And then in the middle there are large numbers of Catholics who don’t know what the Church actually thinks on this issue, because they hear seemingly contradictory things from polar opposite sides, which both claim to be touting Church teaching.

There is some truth in both points of view, but neither of these sides expresses the Church’s central economic principle, subsidiarity. And it’s likely that the folks in the middle haven’t heard a whole lot, if anything, about it.

Since I can’t do everything in one short blog post, I’d like expound on the principle of subsidiarity in this post, and then, in the next two, show how subsidiarity corrects both the polar views noted above.

The principle of subsidiarity is both simple and far more profound than it seems at first sight. “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good’” (Catechsim of the Catholic Church, 1883).

This is both a moral and, we might say, a cosmological principle.

Let’s begin with the cosmological part. “God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence” (Catechism, 1884).

God could do everything himself. He could govern the world like a benevolent dictator, making sure, by very direct rule, that things all came out for the good immediately, every time. Instead, he does something much more dangerous, and much more divine: He puts the moral responsibility on us. He makes us as moral creatures, creatures who must choose the good, who must strive to become better, who struggle to do what needs to be done, and therefore truly share in the perfection of real moral goodness. He does all this knowing that moral freedom is as messy and imprecise as it is noble and god-like.

Those who “govern human communities” must take their cue from God. They must entrust to citizens the functions that they are capable of performing, according to the capacities of human nature. Governments must restrain themselves from the temptation to be benevolent dictators. That is why the “principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism,” and “sets limits for state intervention” (Catechism, 1885).

And now the moral part, which flows from the cosmological. The state should not interfere in, or take over, the moral duties of the “lower order” communities. It is, for example, my moral duty, as a husband and father, to provide for my family. That provision is part of my moral perfection as a husband and father.

The state, like a benevolent dictator, could provide food, clothing, and shelter for my wife and children, but in doing so, it would violate my “moral space,” the space in which I have the opportunity and responsibility of using my freedom to become morally good.

The state could also, like an entirely absent and hence improvident God, allow (or even subsidize) economic activities that would drive the economy into ruin, and therefore make it nearly impossible for me, as a husband and father, to provide for my family. Here again, my moral duties go unfulfilled, and the opportunity for my moral perfection has been lost.

In both cases, we have much the same result: the violation or destruction of the moral sphere in which human families should be free to fulfill their moral perfection.

So, what does that mean for those leaning to the “left” and “right”? We’ll have a look in my next posts.


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BOOK PICK: In Paul Thigpen’s latest, ‘we see not only Joseph, Jesus, Mary, and their contemporaries but in a certain sense ourselves as well. Held up as a mirror, this story invites us all to view ourselves more clearly and to imitate their holy example as we seek to navigate the course of our lives.’