Subsidarity Is Not Libertarianism

Pope Pius XI at the opening of the Vatican radio on February 12, 1931. Public Domain.
Pope Pius XI at the opening of Vatican Radio on February 12, 1931. Public Domain.

Subsidiarity is a word that gets thrown around a good deal in Catholic circles. Typically, it’s associated with distributism, and most always with Catholic Social Teaching on the whole. Its emphasis on what some would call “federalism” (to me this colors the concept with Americanism so stark that it becomes unrecognizable) is, however, often perverted such that it no longer makes sense within its great theoretical context (e.g. its association with solidarity). In the United States, many “followers of Catholic Social Teaching,” many “distributists” are effectively libertarians.

I am not a distributist (though the idea has my sympathies; it seems to lack, however, the theoretical heft of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Its solutions are decent ones, but it underestimates the intractable nature of capitalist economic structures). But, as an admirer of Dorothy Day, as a member of the American Solidarity Party (may my friends on the Catholic Left have mercy on me), and, well, merely as a Catholic, clarifying this definition holds a special significance. And so, with my meager, graduate-student, blogger’s powers, I shall try.

First, we’ll need a general definition of subsidiarity. The Catechism has this to say:

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.”

This division of powers, so to speak, seems, to the American ear, to mean federalism as it is spoken about in the U.S. Here, for example, is the Acton Institute on subsidiarity:

Monsignor Higgins, by contrast, fails to even mention the relationship between federal, state, and local governments. Any extended discussion of the principle of subsidiarity which neglects to consider the respective roles of the state and federal governments in the American system is radically flawed. As our founding fathers made clear in The Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution was designed to leave many issues of great importance in the hands of the states. The federal government was to do only those things which the individual states could not effectively do for themselves. The subsidiarity principle was at work in the foundation of our nation. But from the New Deal era onwards, there has been a steady growth in federal power at the expense of the states. This has sparked a renewed interest in the Tenth Amendment, which reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.

This amounts to an equation of (a specific understanding of) American-style federalism with subsidiarity. This is prima facie misguided for a couple reasons. For one, the term “subsidiarity” entered our “social teaching” (it did not quite have the name yet) through Friedrich Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz. In context, he was carving out a space for Catholic liberty in the midst of persecution during the German Kulturkampf (not to mention his dalliance with certain forms of socialism). This moment in history was not about “levels of governance,” but represented a time of fierce Protestant aggression against German Catholics:

Kulturkampf, (German: “culture struggle”), the bitter struggle (c. 1871–87) on the part of the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck to subject the Roman Catholic church to state controls. The term came into use in 1873, when the scientist and Prussian liberal statesman Rudolf Virchow declared that the battle with the Roman Catholics was assuming “the character of a great struggle in the interest of humanity.”

Bismarck, a staunch Protestant, never fully trusted the loyalty of the Roman Catholics within his newly created German Empire and became concerned by the Vatican Council’s proclamation of 1870 concerning papal infallibility. The Roman Catholics, who were represented politically by the Centre Party, distrusted the predominance of Protestant Prussia within the empire and often opposed Bismarck’s policies.

The conflict began in July 1871, when Bismarck, supported by the liberals, abolished the Roman Catholic bureau in the Prussian Ministry of Culture (i.e., ministry of education and ecclesiastical affairs) and in November forbade priests from voicing political opinions from the pulpit. In March 1872 all religious schools became subject to state inspection; in June all religious teachers were excluded from state schools, and the Jesuit order was dissolved in Germany; and in December diplomatic relations with the Vatican were severed. In 1873 the May Laws, promulgated by the Prussian minister of culture, Adalbert Falk, placed strict state controls over religious training and even over ecclesiastical appointments within the church. The climax of the struggle came in 1875, when civil marriage was made obligatory throughout Germany. Dioceses that failed to comply with state regulations were cut off from state aid, and noncompliant clergy were exiled.

The principle, however, became something of a buzzword at a more fully-ecclesial level via Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno:

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

First and foremost, the State and every good citizen ought to look to and strive toward this end: that the conflict between the hostile classes be abolished and harmonious cooperation of the Industries and Professions be encouraged and promoted

The social policy of the State, therefore, must devote itself to the re-establishment of the Industries and Professions. In actual fact, human society now, for the reason that it is founded on classes with divergent aims and hence opposed to one another and therefore inclined to enmity and strife, continues to be in a violent condition and is unstable and uncertain.

Labor, as Our Predecessor explained well in his Encyclical, is not a mere commodity. On the contrary, the worker’s human dignity in it must be recognized. It therefore cannot be bought and sold like a commodity. Nevertheless, as the situation now stands, hiring and offering for hire in the so-called labor market separate men into two divisions, as into battle lines, and the contest between these divisions turns the labor market itself almost into a battlefield where, face to face, the opposing lines struggle bitterly. Everyone understands that this grave evil which is plunging all human society to destruction must be remedied as soon as possible.

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