Good Governance Flows From the Ground Up

The most disputed election in U.S. history is an increasingly dim memory.

Sure, it's been good to see Washington return, along with the new president, to a certain everyday routine. And President Bush has been quite impressive right out of the gates, with his focus on education reform and cutting off federal funding for overseas abortions. But, in the wake of the nail-biting drama that proved so irresistible in those weeks leading up to, and immediately after, the excruciatingly close election, back-to-business has seemed rather mundane. What's a Catholic political junkie to do?

The answer: Practice subsidiarity.

It may not sound so fascinating as watching up-to-the-second cable newscasts until the wee hours. But the founding fathers, the new president, and even Pope John Paul II have asked us to live out this Catholic idea.

Subsidiarity was defined by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Pius said that governments should never “assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” He said it is a “grave evil and disturbance of right order” for a national government to usurp all authority.

Pope John Paul II told the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on Feb. 23, 2000, that “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 rightful functions; instead, the higher order should support the lower order and help it to coordinate its activity with that of the rest of society.”

The U.S. Constitution anticipated the principle of subsidiarity. The founding fathers wanted to make sure that no one political body made itself sovereign, as Parliament had in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. So they placed the ultimate authority not in the state or federal governments, but in the people.

The federal structure of government, with power shared among national, state and local bodies, is obviously a type of subsidiarity. Furthermore, the private sector, made up of individuals and corporations, has rights. It was a Catholic politician, Daniel Carroll, who proposed the 10th amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Carroll, whose brother John was the first archbishop of Baltimore, followed the Jesuit tradition in which so many American Catholics were educated.

Another founder, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, remarked that “by some politicians, society has been considered as only the scaffolding of government.” But “in the just order of things, government is the scaffolding of society: and if society could be built and kept entire without government, the scaffolding might be thrown down, without the least inconvenience or cause of regret.”

Call it ‘faith-based initiatives’ or ‘charitable choice' — it's really the principle of subsidiarity.

In other words, government exists to serve the people; things should not be ordered the other way around. Faced with our huge federal bureaucracy, however, many Americans have fallen into a passive attitude. We have forgotten that sovereignty belongs not to Congress, not to the president, not to our state governments — but to we the people.

Fortunately, President George W. Bush has promised to encourage our efforts to take responsibility for our communities. Bush wants to expand “charitable choice” or “faith-based initiatives,” a plan which gives non-governmental organizations federal dollars to spend in the community. He has also proposed a new “Office of Faith-Based Action” to “identify and remove federal regulations that bar faith-based organizations from participating in federal programs.”

If the president's “armies of compassion” are to have any effect on our communities, or a lasting impact on our system of government, a large number of citizens must volunteer. Catholics will no doubt be in the forefront of this movement, as we have been in so many charitable works in the past.

The possibilities are endless. Volunteer for a crisis pregnancy center. Start a task force to promote “family values” in your community. Sit on a zoning board or parks commission. Create a food bank. Read to schoolchildren.

Or think big. Why not start a new political party? It's about time the United States had a party which combines respect for individual rights with concern for the common good. The Christian Democratic parties in Europe represent Catholic political tradition, but America has a vacuum at its political center.

Both major parties are prone to err on the side of individual rights; it's just that each is pushing a different set of rights. For the Democrats, it's abortion, gay rights, women's rights. The Republicans champion rights to property, weapons, free enterprise. But the object of politics, Catholic tradition teaches, is not individual rights. It is the common good of society. The common good, in turn, implies certain individual rights, such as the right to life.

Directing ourselves toward the common good, while defending our individual prerogatives, is what subsidiarity is all about. Can this Catholic political notion take deep root in American soil?

“I ask you to be citizens,” President Bush said at his inauguration. “Citizens, not spectators. Citizens, not subjects.”

That's the spirit.

Scott McDermott's biography of Charles Carroll of Carrollton will be published this spring by Scepter Press.

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