Subsidiarity Without Solidarity is Heresy

Libertarian-flavored Catholics tend to focus on subsidiarity as the only aspect of Catholic social teaching that really matters while downplaying or even denying Solidarity. They are wrong. Heresy is from the Greek word meaning “to draw out” as one pulls a thread from a sleeve. Heresy is never simply false. It’s a partial truth, a piece of the gospel, and so is always partly right. But only partly. When that partial rightness is used as a weapon against the rest of the Church’s teaching it becomes double destructive because it often results in people rejecting not just the true thing the heresy attacks, but the true thing the heresy defends. The remedy, of course, is to accept the whole truth the Church defends.

Subsidiarity, which is very popular and often discussed among Libertarian Catholics means that the people closest to a problem are usually the ones to take care of it. This is, like most Catholic teaching, common sense: You don’t want Congress passing laws on many parking space you can have in the local library parking lot or arbitrating which printer toner you can buy for your home’s printer.

At the same time, not everything is done on the basis of raw individualism since we are not an aggregation of individualists anymore than we are a collective hive mind. We are a free society of fallen creature who are capable of moral agency, but also of sin that can do massive damage. So checks on pure selfishness are necessary for the sake of the common good since we are, in fact, all in this together. That’s what solidarity means: we’re all in this together and sin affects the whole. This truth tends to get short shrift from Libertarians and their sympathizers since it somehow sound “socialist” even though it is actually just Christian (it undergirds, for instance, the doctrine of original sin, as well as the doctrine that the human race is a unity). Since it is such an unknown commodity, I thought I would reprint the basic teaching on solidarity from the Catechism:





1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.


1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him:

What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.35
1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”37 No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.

1932 The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”38

1933 This same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us. The teaching of Christ goes so far as to require the forgiveness of offenses. He extends the commandment of love, which is that of the New Law, to all enemies.39 Liberation in the spirit of the Gospel is incompatible with hatred of one’s enemy as a person, but not with hatred of the evil that he does as an enemy.


1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.

1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it:

Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.40
1936 On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth.41 The “talents” are not distributed equally.42

1937 These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures:

I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others. . . . I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one. . . . And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another. . . . I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me.43
1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel:

Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.44

1939 The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of “friendship” or “social charity,” is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.45

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.”46
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”:47

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.48

1943 Society ensures social justice by providing the conditions that allow associations and individuals to obtain their due.

1944 Respect for the human person considers the other “another self.” It presupposes respect for the fundamental rights that flow from the dignity intrinsic of the person.

1945 The equality of men concerns their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it.

1946 The differences among persons belong to God’s plan, who wills that we should need one another. These differences should encourage charity.

1947 The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities. It gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities.

1948 Solidarity is an eminently Christian virtue. It practices the sharing of spiritual goods even more than material ones.

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  • Repeat after me Mark, economics is not like theology. Things really shift in economics in ways that shouldn’t be happening with theology.

    Conditions do legitimately change and it is just embarrassing to rely solely on 80 year old *economic analysis* without at least a cursory examination of what has changed. The theology embodied in certain papal statements may be eternal but that is no guarantee that the economic analysis is right today or was right even back then.
    We have had an industrial revolution and it was the implications of that revolution that pushed things towards centralization. The industrial revolution was in full swing when Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno (quoted in the linked article). Subsequent to that is the information revolution, a revolution that highly empowers everyone and thus reduces the number of things that can only be done by higher order civil organizations. This information revolution was barely a glint in IBM’s eye when the catechism was written and really took full swing decades later.
    It’s not Pius’ fault that he wasn’t prescient on his economics but it is our fault if we treat Pius’ economics like his theology and pretend that we live in an economic world that even remotely resembles his.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Eighty years ago? You do know that social encyclicals have been issued something like twice or thrice a decade since the 80s, yeah? And that these encyclicals are remarkably consistent in developing earlier social teaching as related to the present? Spend less time with the screeds, more time with Church teaching. Your strategy should be to learn the Church teaching and apply it, not throw every objection imaginable at it.

    • Mark Shea

      And here I thought the Catechism was only 20 years old.

    • the information revolution, a revolution that highly empowers everyone

      I think this is an illusion. People are not empowered when their local communities are broken up by the mobility of labor.

      • Adam L

        So mobility of labor is a bad thing? Are we to be Luddites now?

        • Hezekiah Garrett

          So murder of the innocent is a bad thing? Are we to be abject pacifists now?

          Makes as much sense.

          Sign me,

          Luddite and proud

          • He said… on the internet… which requires using a computer – wait what?

            Whatever you are, you can NOT be a luddite.

          • Adam L

            Actually, considering that Jon was bringing up the mobility of labor in the context of the “information revolution” and that such mobility is made possible largely by technological advancements, I think that in making my comment, while admittedly a bit glib, was getting at a valid point. And I don’t think it’s any worse than characterizing libertarianism as all subsidiarity and no solidarity. Besides, do you really think that the greater mobility of labor is somehow morally comparably to abortion?

            Nate: Sure Luddites can use computers. They may be hypocrites, or may simply justify it as a necessary evil.

        • ivan_the_mad

          Ah, good. Another false dichotomy.

          • Adam L

            I was getting at something. The greater mobility of labor is driven largely by technological innovation (as Jon himself seems to acknowledge). Considering Jon’s apparent negative view of greater labor mobility how, practically speaking, are you going to stop or reverse that growth in mobility without adopting some kind of draconian anti-technological policy? Either that or legally bind people to their professions/land, but that appears to me to basically amount to the same thing.

            • ivan_the_mad

              Check your premise. And I see you’ve more false dilemmas.

              • Adam L

                Lets see:
                1) Jon says: “People are not empowered when their local communities are broken up by the mobility of labor.” Notably this comment is made in the context of a discussion on the advancement of information technology.

                2) From this statement I concluded that Jon holds a negative view of (a) the greater mobility of labor and (b) the advancement of information technology which enables this, hence my initial response. Now to be fair, Jon may not have meant that in an absolute sense: he probably didn’t mean that labor mobility and technological advancement are entirely bad. He likely meant to point out what he saw as the negative aspects of these things. In my defense, however, he didn’t qualify his remarks, but merely made a blanket statement.

                3) In response to your claim that I had set up a false dichotomy, I asserted that the greater mobility of labor is driven largely by advancements in technology. Do you deny that this is true? However I didn’t claim that this was the sole driving force behind the trend towards increased mobility of labor. The other major driver behind it, in my view, are economic incentives. I had left that one unstated, assuming it was obvious.

                4) Assuming that the main drivers of increased labor mobility are indeed technological advancement and economic incentives, I ask how, if we are to view this increased mobility as something to be checked, is this to be accomplished short of the abandonment of such technological development and/or the imposition of draconian policies to ensure the reduction of labor mobility. Now you may reply that you don’t want to abandon these technologies or to impose such policies, but rather to merely keep labor mobility at a more optimal level. Perhaps you want to persuade people of the value of other considerations besides purely economic ones (which people of course already do take into consideration). Or perhaps you want to voluntarily create new economic incentives that would tend to encourage people to remain in their communities. Fine, you are certainly welcome to do that, but I still contend that, all else being equal, technology will tend to increase the opportunity costs of workers choosing to remain in their communities, and will therefore increase labor mobility, which returns us to the point that I made before.

                There is also the question of how one goes about determining what the optimal level of labor mobility is.

                • ivan_the_mad

                  Ah, the screeds and abstractions of the ideologue.

                  • Mercury

                    Why not just answer the man’s questions? I see a person trying to lay out in detail what he was trying to say, respond to pithy comments, and then try to get an explanation of said pithy comments.

  • Marthe Lépine

    Dear TM, this sounds to me like a real effort to twist around what the Popes are trying to teach us in order to make it fit your own preconceptions…

    • Sean O

      Spot on Marthe.

      I see this response all the time. Theology can’t keep up w our sophisticated economy.
      His response is vague, but it’s clear TM’s pretty satisfied w the way our economics works (despite some minor problems no doubt) and he’ll run rings & stand on his head to avoid upsetting the economic schema he has fallen in love w in his head. Any mental contortions are preferable than seeing the simple truth : our economic goals & practices to not comport w Catholic, w Gospel purposes.

      The basis of Capitalism is greed & love of self. The basis of the Gospel is love of others & active concern for our brothers. It is hard to reconcile them. But in a broken world it is possibly the best we can do. Tempering the excesses of Capitalism is not helped by elevating Ayn Rand to market sainthood & chucking Gospel values as they are expressed in CST.

  • Bill

    This is Church teaching. People can dissent all they want, but if they dissent they are right wing cafeteria Catholics.

    Enough with the gymnastics. If people don’t believe it, they are rejecting a teaching of the Church. It’s black and white

  • TM, I simply don’t see any point in what you wrote. You are mighty hard on Pope Pius XI, especially since he himself pointed out that conditions often change in the course of history. You can’t act as if the Pope were unaware of this, or as if he wouldn’t want us to take account of changing times.

    He also pointed out that the principle of subsidiarity itself doesn’t change, it just needs to apply to new situations. Also, I’d scarcely call it a principle of economics; it’s a philosophical /religious principle about human beings, because that is what the Church is mainly concerned about, human beings, their good, their rights and their dignity. Subsidiarity is actually about a lot more than economics. Naturally, the Church’s understanding of these matters also has to take account of economics to be coherent, but John Paul II seemed to have no trouble adapting.

    • oops, need to finish with “adapting the principle to his time.”

  • Andy

    TM – I don’t buy what you are selling – JPII and Benedict XVI, who ignore in your response, wrote after the Information Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and seemed fine with the idea that the government could intervene to regulate business. I find it strange to see today’s version of libertarianism does not practice subsidarity – today’s version of libertarianism seems fine with mutli-national corporations removed from the local level making economic decisions about local economics, they seem fine with agri-business destroying small farmers, they seem fine with large corporations opening big-box stores, pricing their goods below the current market in an are to drive out competition and then raising their prices. (I am paraphrasing from the article Mark linked to) I guess a different version subsidarity for economics – what is good for the big and removed corporation must be good for the local economy. I note that libertarians ignore in their drive for a smaller government that the popes have not been afraid of giving the government a blessing to act when there was a need or when there wan a significant lack of balance in the economy. Subsidarity is not a prescription for a smaller government, they are not one in the same. Subsidarity is about, to my understanding allowing the most local level deal with an issue, and if the issue is of such magnitude it cannot be dealt with locally, the responsibility moves up the levels.
    Solidarity without subsidarity reduces man to a good to be sold, to be used and then discarded. Today’s current version of libertarianism seems to support that idea. It is fine for a large corporation to put its profits ahead of a living wage or ahead of supporting those who work for it. It is fine for executives to make inordinately high salaries and complain about the demands of the workers who create the high salaries. It is fine to blame the poor for being poor, because they don;t want to get off the dole, but then to not invest in education, public transportation or health care so there are paths to leave the dole. In short solidarity with our fellow man has been replaced by solidarity with making money, at least for those who are of the managerial class. That is the heresy.

  • Pappy

    I agree with your premise, but in the current culture, I don’t think we need to be too concerned that solidarity is getting short shrift.

    • ivan_the_mad

      I disagree, I think that a rising tide floats all boats in this instance. Every bit of the truth, of Church teaching, that can be restored to society makes the remainder easier.

    • Solidarity is not the same as centralization. Centralization, as practiced by both most government and most business today, is opposed to both solidarity and subsidiarity.

  • Nate

    Well, in TM’s defense, he’s just saying what neoconservative Catholics say all of the time. Replace TMLutas with ‘Novak’ or ‘Weigel’ and I wouldn’t have thought anything was amiss.

    Depressing, isn’t it?

  • Robert

    Of course, the converse is also true – solidarity without subsidiarity is also heresy. The neoliberal Catholics who favor bloated government programs advocate policies that are also condemned in the social encyclicals.

    What is needed is a true balance of the two. Imnsho this is best achieved in our country by returning social functions to the states and local communities. That is the right way to apply Church teaching – not individualism.

    • R.C.


      I think we need not merely BALANCE, but COHERENCE and SIMULTANEITY between the two. But I already wrote a lot about that in my gigantic post further down; you may find it interesting if you can stomach the length.

  • Another problem is that the libertarian conception of “subsidiarity” isn’t really subsidiarity. Vast bureaucratic enforcement of contract and property law is not small local government; it is large centralized government, as I point out (for example) here.

    Libertarians seem to genuinely believe that comprehensive centralized government formulation and enforcement of contract law, corporate law, etc are “laissez faire” — that is, amount to keeping the government out of people’s business – while, somewhat arbitrarily, other kinds of regulation and enforcement constitute “government interference”. I have no idea why they believe that. It boils down to belief that government should do the things I think it should do and shouldn’t do the things I don’t think it should do. That’s fine in itself, but the pretense that the comprehensive regime of property/contract/corporate law and enforcement is somehow “the government staying out of people’s business” is a kind of lie or self deception.

    • Adam L

      Some thoughts in reply:

      1) I thought the problem with libertarians was that they were all subsidiarity and no solidarity. Now you are complaining that they want too much centralization?

      2) How much government and bureaucracy do you really think it takes to enforce contracts?

      3) Are you opposing the enforcement of private property and contracts? Or are you really claiming that you don’t see the difference between the enforcement of a contract that was voluntarily entered into by two parties and the state using coercion to prevent people from doing so.

      4) Libertarianism isn’t about “the government staying out of people’s business”. It’s about a consistent application of the non-aggression principle. I would also add that many libertarians are in favor of competing legal systems and are explicitly critical of the state being a monopolist in the provision of adjudication.

      • How much government and bureaucracy do you really think it takes to enforce contracts?

        Quite a lot of it. Local police departments alone employ nearly a million people in the US. There are about 50,000 actual judges. There are half a million plus tort cases per year in the US, and tort cases are a small sliver of civil property litigation.

        I haven’t rolled up some rigorous number, because denial would be ridiculous; but yeah, just on the back of a napkin, enormous bureaucracy, litigation, legislation, police, and other resources go into enforcing contracts and other property claims every year. It is a huge part of what government does, and doing it involves making substantive value judgements about what kinds of agreements will be enforced, the conditions under which they will be enforced, etc. Libertarians treat this enormous aspect of government as a given, and pretend that all of its activities, substantive judgements, restrictions, etc fall under a rubric of “voluntary contract”, as if the contracting parties existed in a vacuum rather than supported on the back of an enormous government bureaucracy.

        Are you opposing the enforcement of private property and contracts?

        Not at all.

        Or are you really claiming that you don’t see the difference between the enforcement of a contract that was voluntarily entered into by two parties and the state using coercion to prevent people from doing so.

        You’ve missed the point of the linked post completely. Choosing what kinds of contracts to enforce and under what conditions to enforce them, and actually enforcing them, is not the “leave people alone to make voluntary agreements” passivity that libertarians claim that it is, at all. These are massive activities of government, enormous global undertakings of governments, not passivities.

        I would also add that many libertarians are in favor of competing legal systems and are explicitly critical of the state being a monopolist in the provision of adjudication.

        Competing forms already exist. They are called “binding arbitration”, as well as differing contract jurisdictions.

        Frankly, though, I’m not interested in arguing with libertarians directly, any more than I am interested in spending the afternoon having a conversation with a bag of hammers. I posted merely to point out to the non-libertarians among us that the libertarian notion of “subsidiarity” isn’t really subsidiarity at all.

        • Adam L

          So are you telling me that if the state restricted itself to protecting property and enforcing contracts there wouldn’t be much of a reduction in the size of the federal government? Am I really to believe that most of the state apparatus that exists today is necessary for that? Besides, as I mentioned, the state is a monopolist, so inefficiencies are to be expected.

          You also seem to think that libertarians ignore the fact that the enforcement of contracts is itself a service that needs to be provided and requires the active allocation of resources and that they merely take this for granted. Quite the contrary, libertarians are very well aware that the enforcement of contracts, the provision of justice and security are all services which require human actors and the allocation of resources. Indeed, libertarians are prone to question the need to rely on a coercive monopolist to provide these services. It seems to me to be more the case that non-libertarians are more likely to take government “services” for granted and to treat them as though there were no cost involved. And being as it is a coercive monopolist, it has no rational basis for deciding upon how to allocate those resources.

          I would also add that libertarians, in adhering to the non-aggression principle do not buy into the moral relativism that if a person uses aggression against another its wrong, but somehow if they are acting on behalf of the state, that somehow it becomes morally pristine. This brings me back to the point that I made earlier: that there is an important difference between something like enforcing contracts and using aggression to intervene in the economy. Besides, that’s what the state claims it’s there for, so we may as well get it to do that, even if we are forced to put up with a whole lot else.

          • enforcement of contracts is itself a service that needs to be provided

            You still don’t get it. The trivializing language “a service that needs to be provided” demonstrates that you don’t get it. As I’ve said before, I don’t know why libertarians don’t get it, because it is as obvious as the emperor’s nudity.

            • Adam L

              How about instead of insisting that libertarians “don’t get it” you actually explain what it is that I am apparently not getting? By all means, please assume I am an idiot, and explain exactly how the enforcement of contracts *isn’t* a service that needs to be provided and how referring to it as such is “trivializing language”. While you’re at it, you might also care to explain how I can simultaneously hold the view that adjudication and contract enforcement are services, and at the same time I take these things for granted and give them no thought whatsoever.

              • Because talking to libertarians is as productive as talking to a bag of hammers.

                • Adam L

                  Well, you’ve really taught me a thing or two.

        • Jamie R

          Kinda nitpicky, but torts, property, and crime aren’t contracts.

    • R.C.


      I think you’re straw-manning there. Try steel-manning the views of the Libertarians. Remember that they insist both that they aren’t anarchists, AND that they support States’ rights against Federal intrusions, County rights against intrusion by the State Legislature, Township rights against intrusion by the County Seat, and Family/Individual rights against intrusion by the Town Council.

      Consequently, I know of no libertarian who would say that the intended end-outcome of their policies would be the further centralization of power in the Federal government. You can argue that that’s the perverse-but-predictable outcome of their preferred policies, but I don’t see why it would be…and you certainly can’t justly ascribe that to them as an intended outcome.

  • j. blum

    Seems to me no one has been more “empowered” by the “information revolution” than the dread and centralizing Government, currently data mining your emails, etc. What exactly is decentralizing and subsidarist about that?

  • R.C.

    I’m not sure what the issue is raised by TM; I’ll have to take a second look and try to suss it out.

    But it seems to me that there are two critical insights missing here…and they are missing in nearly every other place these topics get discussed:

    1. FORCE VERSUS PERSUASION: We can “cause” people to do good by exhorting them to do so, and “prevent” them from doing evil by convincing them not to do it: That is “Persuasion.” Or, we can “cause” them to do good in a different sense of the word “cause,” by forcing them to do it (or punishing them forcibly if they don’t); and we can “prevent” them from doing evil by forcing them not to do it (or punishing them forcibly if they do it). That is “Force.”

    In the Christian religion, the use of Force to Compel Good Behavior is not morally licit under ALL circumstances, but only under a fairly narrow set of circumstances. Persuasion to Exhort Good Behavior is morally licit under a much broader set of circumstances…pretty much all the time.

    It follows that there is a distinction between Voluntary Solidarity and Forced Solidarity, and that the latter requires a much higher threshold of justification before it can be called morally legitimate. For example: It’s totally okay for a bunch of states to vote to unite under a Federal government; but if they had opted not to do so, it would have been morally illicit to compel them to do it. Only a really powerful overarching mandate, like liberating a heckuva lot of people from slavery, could make a compulsory solidarity morally just.

    And what of compulsory solidarities which are not morally just? Well, the venom tends to work its way through the whole system, producing additional evils, in proportion to the degree of injustice. (Ask anyone who’s lived under a conqueror or totalitarian dictator.)

    2. THE TEACHING OF THE CHURCH IS NOT SELF-CONTRADICTORY: People tend to view Solidarity and Subsidiarity as necessarily opposed things; they’ve set up an emnity between the two just as they have between men and women. But just as the war between the sexes is not a necessary thing, so too the war between Solidarity and Subsidiarity is unnecessary. Their relationship, like that of a man and a woman, ought to be more like a dance, less like a drill (to paraphrase C.S.Lewis).

    We should expect this, because the Church’s teaching does not contradict itself. If it were not possible to practice both Subsidiarity and Solidarity at the same time, the Church would not obligate us to honor both.

    And this is easiest to see in Voluntary Solidarities: When people join together to form civic organizations or lay apostolates, they do so voluntarily. And because some have the opportunity to do otherwise, nothing prevents them from creating different organizations. Notice that because each person has made an individual decision, he has thereby exercised his Subsidiary authority. And notice that this exercise of Subsidiarity authority produced Solidarity.

    Sometimes multiple organizations will unite for a particular project, producing a Solidarity of Solidarities. Wonderful! Again the Subsidiarities have exercised authority to produce Solidarity.

    The problem comes in with compulsion. I do not say that it is NEVER just; but I do say that Compulsory Solidarity is RARELY just, and that our tendency as sinful humans is to knock other men on the head when they don’t agree with us: To violate their Subsidiary dignity and authority and compel them to become cogs in our machine.

    THAT is when Solidarity and Subsidiarity come into tension.

    But consider the Polish labor movement “Solidarity.” Look at what it did by virtue of being a voluntary organization, a spontaneous joining-together.

    Now, imagine what would have happened had the communist regime in Poland said, “We want to organize the workers, the better to make them a single powerful organization supporting the ends of the state and bulldozing opposition out of the way.” One can see it now: “Solidarity” is the name of the state’s designated labor union. Membership is compulsory. Meetings are run by the usual apparatchiks. Would anything like the same good outcomes have been achieved, by such an entity?

    Compulsory Solidarity may, as I have said, be required for the preservation of the dignity of persons whose dignity is being squashed at some lower level of social organization.

    But when Compulsory Solidarity is imposed for a lesser reason, it lacks adequate justification and it squashes out Subsidiarity. And since Subsidiarity is ITSELF intrinsic to human dignity — the dignity intrinsic to persons and groups of persons which gives them the fundamental right to pursue good under their own direction without fear of forcible interventions by others — unjust impositions of Compulsory Solidarity are themselves a way that man is robbed of the intrinsic dignity which comes from being created in the image of God.


    The question, then, is not whether we should be One Nation Under God. Heck, we should be One World Under God.

    But we should NOT, we should CERTAINLY NOT take this to mean that the United States Federal Government (or some future world government) has just authority under God’s Moral Law to legislate that your local community must have a minimum 10% tax on all wages earned to ensure the upkeep of your community’s playground, or whatever.

    That, you see, would be an example of the highest level of Solidarity reaching down and forcibly robbing a much-lower level of the opportunity to direct its own affairs. This robs your community of its own intrinsic dignity, and without any adequate justification.

    It is helpful to see such unjust uses of force as bracketed by unjust uses of force on lower and higher levels of Subsidiarity/Solidarity: The individual, and the national.

    At the individual level, a person may justly use force against a man who has just broken down his door and invaded his house, or a man whom he catches attacking an innocent (provided the identification is clear). This is called Just Self Defense in the “gravest extreme”; and many people in the U.S. carry or keep firearms in acknowledgement of this moral principle. (The old saying is, “I carry a firearm because I can’t carry a policeman.”)

    However, a person cannot justly use force against his neighbor because his neighbor lets his kids listen to music with lewd lyrics. That is a case for exhortation, not compulsion.

    Moving from the individual to the national level, we see the same dynamic at play: A nation can go to war against an aggressor nation which attacks it or an ally (and provided some other requirements are met). But a nation cannot go to war against another because the other nation, say, refuses to curtail the rudeness of its waiters to tourists. That is a case for exhortation, not compulsion. (The French need fear no invasion force over the behavior of Parisian waiters. But there’s nothing wrong with exhorting them to civil behavior!)

    In general, then, we see that force becomes morally licit when there is a grave, aggressive threat to the dignity of innocent persons…and when that’s not the case, the moral justification for the use of compulsion is either greatly reduced or nonexistent. Now this is true at the individual level; it is true at the national level; it is also true with respect to each level of Solidarity dealing with the Subsidiary units underneath it.

    Thus if a local police force shows signs of obvious racism, going around locking up all its black citizens for stuff white citizens never get a ticket for, there ought to be an FBI investigation.

    BUT, if a local school opts for a class in Riflery or Early Christian Patristics as an elective, their ought not be a Federal law against it.

    I think you’ll find that Libertarians are of two camps. Some, famously associated with legalizing not only marijuana but all other narcotics, come to their Libertarianism from a Libertine direction. But others come from a more “Conservative/Constitutionalist” direction. And this latter group will recognize the justice of what I’ve been saying, and how it fits with what they’ve always supported.

    For the most part, Solidarity ought to be Voluntary. This allows Subsidiarity and Solidarity to coexist as friends.

    The alternative is not, in the end, True Solidarity. For when Solidarity is imposed without adequate moral justification, all Subisidiarities are homogenized, converted into cogs in a machine. That is not God’s Family of Man. That is Satan’s ape-ing of God’s Solidarity, the hive rather than the family. It is the bloated-spider parody of God’s love, the unity not of heaven but of hell, wherein all the individuals and smaller groups lose their ability to say “I” and “we,” and are absorbed against their objections into the large collective.

    • Robert

      @RC – Not quite as pithy as x – y = heresy, but very well explained. We have the same understanding of Church teaching in this regards.

      • R.C.

        Thanks, Robert.

        I do the “explained in detail” thing reasonably well, most of the time.

        “Pithy,” not so much!

        But not all truth fits on a bumper sticker, so I suppose somebody’s gotta be the ponderous a** who spells it all out!

  • Dan C

    I think the story of the corruption of community needs to be part of this. We have ghettos of hundreds of thousands of people or even millions of people due to a change in technology (cars) and the change in types of employment. This has been the activity of the past 50 years that has driven generational poverty, not an entitlement-addicted underclass.

    Today, I can determine with high likelihood the income of anyone based on their zip code. We live in economically homogenized areas (and worship in these areas too-this I claim is the cause of the death of the Faith in America). The consequence of this is that “subsidiarity” on geographic scale increases.

    In any major American inner city ghetto, which comprises again 6-7 digits of people, it is inconceivable to expect that 1 million people to support their services because they fiscally cannot. If left to their own devices, the sick children will be sicker and die, children will not be born routinely in hospitals, and the hospitals will leave the city (because they cannot maintain proper standards of care without revenue).

    Subsidiarity in the 21st century American must account for the scale of numbers of poverty in which folk live. Without such a calculation, one ends up with expectations for “low-level solutions” for accessing and organizing resources in a zip code that hasn’t had substantive resources for half a century. This is due to the loss of middle class and upper class sense of dedication to community as wealth fled the cities to the suburbs, taking its resources and talents. As such, scale of intervention must accomodate tens of millions of folks to assist the million of inner city folk in a region.

    These are the modern complexities when discussing subsidiarity. It is not Norman Rockwell’s America.

  • Jeremy Dobbs

    I think St. Augustine put it this way: in all things necessary, unity. In all things not necessary, diversity. In all things charity. It’s the charity thing we have particular trouble with.

  • New Book–must read–on Subsidiarity–

  • tz

    The converse is equally true. Solidarity without Subsidiarity is a heresy.

    But there is one crucial (pun at root intended) difference. The state has guns and other means so can coerce. And power corrupts. The Bishops – within Canon Law – have the power to excommunicate but little else. The State can execute (assassination drones or otherwise), torture, imprison, or do other horrible things. If there is an error do you really prefer the latter?

    Ought we waterboard people until they confess the correct doctrine?

    Worse, instead of the church trying to assemble individuals using their moral arguments and natural law, they defer to the state. Today on many moral issues – typically sex – the state is ultralibertarian – libertine – while on others they are strict.

    The church could have moral authority if they would simply be constant and consistent (e.g. not sleeping 22 months then trying to say 2 months before an election that only abortion matters, and not subsidiarity, solidarity, or anything else).

    The individual v.s. the community (and what level of community) will always be a balancing act. And where the church could ask the right questions in search of the correct answer. Instead they render it unto Caesar or cast it before swine and it is trampled. Rerum Novarum condemned socialism in no uncertain terms, but the church – the hierarchy – have adopted it as it is simpler to coerce the right response instead of changing the hearts of those to do the right thing. We need “progressive” taxes – or anti-progressive versions like Social Security (embezzled ponzi scheme). We need crony capitalist regulation. We need people to commit mortal sins on our behalf so we can rese secure – well, they might not know so it might not be mortal for them but are for us.

    In a(n Ayn) Randian dystopia, the church can argue its case and perhaps transform things and ameliorate the errors with their doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but without any force or violence or other direct evil, yet persuade citizens that a lack of caritas will end in Hades. In the current dystopia – applauded by the “thing that used to be Catholicism”, they say “shoot first, and let God sort them out”, after all, it is the state, not the church that sets standards.

    Things not done of free will aren’t as strict as being judged as either sins or righteousness.

    Perfect free will is terrible – as in terror – that I am really fully responsible for every act I do as it is un-coerced. I, not the state, become my brother’s , and my neighbor’s, keeper! Yet this is only possible with full liberty and freedom.

    You can have communities at the point of a gun. That is called communism.

    Is coerced solidarity not denatured?

    And we’ve turned subsidiarity to subsidy.

  • Subsidiarity is not federalism. It does not involve a jurisdictional question, but a question of competence. Too many are confused about this. On the other hand, I suspect that some people aren’t confused about it at all, and are spreading misinformation anyway. Great article, Mark, as usual.

    • R.C.

      Subsidiarity, as you correctly note, is phrased in the Church’s teaching in terms of competence rather than jurisdiction.

      But it is a sad truth that when you give people power, they suddenly believe themselves competent at doing all sorts of things, and their actual competency often bears little resemblance to reality.

      Also, when it comes to understanding a situation, there is little substitute for “being there.” There is especially little substitute for “having your own money/neighborhood/neck at risk if you choose wrongly” to make a man think carefully about his own decisions.

      Federalism is thus an application of Subsidiarity, using smallness of jurisdiction as a proxy for closeness to the situation. The idea is that the family knows more than the neighborhood, the neighborhood more than the town, the town more than the county, the county more than the state, and the state more than the nation…and that on occasion if the family finds they really need outside help, they can always ask for it. But it should not be normal, standard-order-of-procedure, for the Federal government to set the dinner menu for my kids, the zoning regulations for my town, or the road-maintenance budget for my state.

      So it’s not identical to “competence,” but jurisdictional smallness ain’t bad, in the end, when coupled with Constitutional enumerated powers and separation of powers. It’s a pretty good proxy for competence.

      It beats the heck out of saying to a president like Mr. Obama (or a Governor like Mike Bloomberg), “Hey, whatever you think yourself competent to decide, you just decide it for us, and we’ll trust you to leave a few things that we can still decide for ourselves.”

  • Robert

    Federalism is an application of subsidiarity, and subsidiarity is not about competence. It is about human dignity. A competent, greater authority is not supposed to supplant an individual’s or lower order’s rights.

    • R.C.

      Robert, I just stole your “application of subsidiarity” phrase even before I read it! An instance of great minds thinking alike, I hope.

  • Mike Walsh

    A lot of combox overkill, here, IMHO.
    Liberals believe that freedom=autonomy, and that morality=equality or evenness. They put their faith in the State.
    Libertarians also believe that freedom=autonomy, but that morality=equity, or fairness. They put their faith in the Individual.
    The Church teaches that ultimately, freedom=doing the will of God, and that morality=caritas, theology leading to a broader and deeper anthropology than any of the ideologies. And faith in God.

    • Adam L

      Libertarianism is not an all-encompassing ideology. It merely seeks to answer the question of when the use of force is morally licit and then apply that in a consistent way. It does not address morality beyond the issue of the use of force. That is why people from a number of different religious and ideological backgrounds are libertarian. Libertarians do not put faith in the individual and, in fact, will often go to great lengths to point out that knowledge is distributed throughout society which no individual or group of individuals could hope to attain.

      • Mark Shea

        I have news for you: subjecting all of reality to a single dominating question (“Is everything about electricity? Or money? Or race? Or (in your case) the use of force?) is the textbook definiton of a ideology. The all explaining paradigm is what ideology is all about.

        • Adam L

          Mark, you are misunderstanding what I am saying. I am not “reducing all of reality to a single dominating question”. It is simply a matter of bracketing aside the sphere of politics and taking a moral position on the use of force. It does not inform my taste in art, or belief in God, or any number of other things. Being consistent on a moral position does not equate to ideology. Being consistent and opposing abortion, even in cases of rape or incest does not make one an ideologue, nor does refusal to condone lying, even when done to expose Planned Parenthood or to infiltrate a criminal organization.