With Church Reopening Plan, Minnesota Bishops Model Solidarity and Subsidiarity

COMMENTARY: The state’s role is to support social institutions such as churches in their operation, not to supplant their decision-making.

The Cathedral of St. Paul is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Paul and Minneapolis.
The Cathedral of St. Paul is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Paul and Minneapolis. (photo: Aaron of L.A. Photography / Shutterstock.com)

As bishops decide about reopening churches and the public celebration of the liturgy, the case of Minnesota shows two key principles of Catholic social teaching in action, solidarity and subsidiarity.

Minnesota’s Catholic bishops have decided to permit the reopening on May 26 of those churches that are capable of doing so. The churches that will reopen for Mass must operate at one-third capacity and have various sanitation protocols in place. Minnesota’s Lutheran bishops are doing the same.


Insisting on Religious Freedom

The Catholic bishops acted after the governor amended the state’s “stay-at-home” order to open restaurants and nonessential retail and big-box stores to operate at 50% capacity. The Mall of America is open for business. At the same time, however, the governor chose to keep in place the order limiting religious assemblies to 10 people, even in the cavernous Cathedral of St. Paul. The bishops made repeated proposals to the governor for reopening churches, but they were not accepted.

Minnesota’s bishops consider that the differential treatment of religious houses of worship is a violation of religious freedom.

Liberty, including religious freedom in the first place, is a key principle of Catholic social teaching. But the current circumstances also draw upon other key principles of Catholic social teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity.

Both solidarity and subsidiarity have been at work in the response of the Minnesota bishops to the pandemic.


Solidarity Already Demonstrated

Solidarity is often understood in terms of being “my brother’s keeper,” or the commands of Matthew 25, “insofar as you did it for the least of my brethren.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it a “direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood” and refers to it as “social charity” (1939). It is expressed in working for justice, defense of the rights of the vulnerable, and care for the weak and suffering.

The bishops noted that “the six dioceses of Minnesota voluntarily suspended parish activities, Catholic schools, and the public celebration of Mass, and did so before any executive orders were put in place.”

That’s solidarity, not acting because of legal requirements, but out of concern for those who might get sick, especially the vulnerable. Making painful sacrifices for the common good is part of solidarity. Minnesota’s bishops point out that the Catholic population has done just that.


Subsidiarity Denied by the State, Lived by the Church

Subsidiarity is a more complex but also essential Catholic principle for the ordering of society. Subsidiarity concerns itself with how different social groups and bodies work together for the common good. The Catechism says the principle means that “neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies” (1894).

The Catholic social vision is that all the various social groups that make up the whole should do their part in order to flourish. Larger groups with more resources —  the state, most obviously — should not usurp the responsibilities of smaller groups, thereby discouraging initiative and creativity. For example, only the state is able to redistribute money on a vast scale, but its social-welfare programs ought not remove the space for personal initiative and the work of voluntary intermediary institutions.

“Subsidiarity,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, “insists on necessary limits to the state’s intervention … inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the state and inasmuch as the state exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them” (11).

If the Minnesota state government was acting with subsidiarity in mind, it would enunciate the public-health practices that are necessary to follow, but allow churches and movie theaters and shopping malls and liquor stores to figure out how best to observe those protocols in their own circumstances. The state’s role is to support social institutions in their operation, not to supplant their decision-making.

In regard to churches, it is quite impossible for the governor’s office to come up with rules that would reasonably apply to an enormous urban cathedral and a small rural parish. Very likely, the public-health circumstances in such places would also be very different.

Subsidiarity does not assume that the governor’s staff could figure all that out in a timely manner, nor does it even assign it that role. Minnesota is full of creative and industrious people who can best address their own local situation. The bishops of Minnesota appeal to subsidiarity when they point out that what they are proposing is already being done in other local situations across the country that have been permitted a greater measure of local autonomy. The diversity of approaches offers the opportunity to learn from what works best — and why.

The bishops are practicing subsidiarity themselves, recognizing that conditions vary greatly from parish to parish and that it is not the responsibility of the chancery office to regulate all the variations. Local pastors and parishioners are more than capable, and it is part of their mission to care for their own parish.

“We have charged our parishes with the task of preparing for a limited return to public Mass, but we are not requiring them to begin public Mass on May 26,” the bishops write. “Each parish community needs to be comfortable that it can meet the standards set forth in extensive and stringent diocesan protocols. We already know that many will be unable to do that immediately. … We also recognize that some parishes may choose, for now, to adhere to the existing 10-person limit. We trust local leadership will determine when they are able to follow all the directives and open, and we stand ready to assist them when necessary.”

Trusting local leadership and standing ready to assist — that’s a good working definition of subsidiarity, a principle to be honored in both church and state.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.