Subsidiarity: True, but Not the Whole Story

A reader writes:

I have a friend who is a recently converted Catholic and a longtime believer in limited government.  He insists that his approach to government mirrors that of the Catholic Church and that to be a Catholic one has to be a believer in subsidiarity.  In this view he argues, government has to decentralize as much as possible.  He feels that to be a good Catholic, one must adhere to this view.  Is this accurate?

No.  It’s not.  Not that he’s wrong about subsidiarity.  It is most certainly an aspect of Catholic social teaching.  Basically, subsidiarity means “The people closest to the problem should, as a general rule, take care of the problem.”  So, for instance, instead of creating, say, a massive federal bureaucracy to deal with Asian carp leaping out of the river and whacking people in the head, the principle of subsidiarity would suggest that the first line of attack is not some fresh layer of bureaucracy a thousand miles away, but rather local and state authorities dealing with the problem.  Hey!  If individual Americans, working together to destroy whole species, could wipe out the Passenger Pigeon and nearly exterminate the bison, then surely they can deal with this aquatic kudzu!

Subsidiarity is basically common sense.  You don’t want some bureaucrat in DC deciding how your library parking lot should be laid out or what songs your kindergartner may sing before naptime.  It’s better to have the people in the neighborhood do that.  As the Soviet Union and other commie societies so wonderfully illustrated, centralized governments and economies have a genius for inefficiency and chaos.  The achievement of food shortages in Communist Poland (imagine Kansas and Nebraska crippled by wheat and corn shortages) bears eloquent testimony to the sheer stupidity of control freak systems which don’t trust the locals to do what they would naturally do if you just trust them to do it.

So subsidiarity is certainly Catholic teaching.  As the Catechism says:

1883 Socialization also presents dangers. 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.”

1884 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.

1885 The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

That said, however, this is not all Catholic social teaching has to say.  For it also elaborates the principle of solidarity, which reminds us that no man is an island and that the purpose of both state and economy is to provide for the common good. 

So, suppose that the local powers that be can’t get it together in dealing with Asian Carp.  Suppose the government of one community decides the solution is to poison the waterways with stuff that kills all the fish, thereby destroying the fishing downstream.  Such “solutions” are perfectly local, but they don’t consider the common good.  Sadly, fallen man does that sort of thing all the time.  And because he does, he requires a state that protects the common good from rogue actors.  As Madison said, “If men were virtuous, there would be no need of government at all.”  So if the people closest to the problem can’t or won’t deal justly with their affairs, it is necessary (due to solidarity and the need of *all* people in the image of God to share in the common good) that some higher authority see to it that selfish people don’t harm the common good.

That’s why the Catechism tells us that subsidiarity “sets limits” not “tells the government to decentralize as much as possible.”  The Faith is not a Libertarian or anarchist wish fulfillment fantasy.  Indeed, it is not theory of government at all.  Any Catholic who looks to the Faith in order to force all Catholics to hold to their particular view of political arrangements needs to familiarize himself with Romans 14, which basically says “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”.  One can be a perfectly good Catholic and prefer democracy, republicanism, monarchy, Swedish systems of self-governance, American systems of self-governance, Canadian systems of self-governance, Italian systems of self-governance and on and on.  All human systems have flaws.  None are ideal.  Some are worse then others because they violate some core precept about the nature of God and man.

But all, per Romans 13, require some sort of state since, contrary to Libertarian dreams, the reality is that people are fallen and need the state to check their destructive and selfish tendencies. Subsidiarity without solidarity is called “heresy”: that is, the desire to take part of the Church’s teaching that agrees with our pre-conceived ideological preferences, while ignoring the rest of what the Church says.  When it comes to solidarity, this is what the Church says:

1939 The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of “friendship” or “social charity,” is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.

An error, “today abundantly widespread, is disregard for the law of human solidarity and charity, dictated and imposed both by our common origin and by the equality in rational nature of all men, whatever nation they belong to. This law is sealed by the sacrifice of redemption offered by Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross to his heavenly Father, on behalf of sinful humanity.”

1940 Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work. It also presupposes the effort for a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts more readily settled by negotiation.

1941 Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples. International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this.

1942 The virtue of solidarity goes beyond material goods. In spreading the spiritual goods of the faith, the Church has promoted, and often opened new paths for, the development of temporal goods as well. And so throughout the centuries has the Lord’s saying been verified: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well”:

For two thousand years this sentiment has lived and endured in the soul of the Church, impelling souls then and now to the heroic charity of monastic farmers, liberators of slaves, healers of the sick, and messengers of faith, civilization, and science to all generations and all peoples for the sake of creating the social conditions capable of offering to everyone possible a life worthy of man and of a Christian.

Subsidiarity is a vital part of the truth.  But the key word here is “part”.  To make it the be all and end all of one’s worldview is a textbook example of how not to read the Catholic tradition.  The Faith is not a spare parts kit to be ransacked in order to accessorize one’s own private preferences.  It is a Mother at whose feet we are to sit and learn—particularly those things that we have never thought about, which make us uncomfortable, and which thereby bring us into a much larger world than whatever cramped ideology we brought into the Church with us.

Only thus and not otherwise can we discover the truth of Chesterton’s remark that ““The Catholic Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”