Part 4 of my series on Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity, Part 1

Part 4 of my series on Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity, Part 1 August 6, 2019

Following the dignity of the human person and the common good, we turn to the third pillar of Catholic social teaching — subsidiarity. This pillar can be difficult for some U.S. Catholics to grasp, given the particular understanding of the human person and of human nature that we have inherited from the political thought of our country’s founders (largely Protestants and Deists).

This, once again, demonstrates the danger of making our chaotic and confused American politics — which are of very recent vintage historically and which are in a constant state of flux and devolution — into the template by which we measure the Church’s teaching. It’s the magisterium, not our favorite political tribe, pundit or ideology, that teaches us the mind of Christ. And we must learn to measure our political tribes, pundits and ideologies according to his light, not vice versa.

Here’s what I mean: I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to Catholics who say, “Of course I believe in Catholic social teaching! I believe in subsidiarity.” Which is a little bit like saying, “Of course I believe the Creed. I believe Jesus was born.” It’s true as far as it goes, but there is rather more involved.

Here’s an important point to remember: Subsidiarity is not in competition with the other pillars of Catholic social teaching. We can’t pit subsidiarity against, for example, solidarity and the common good — as, perhaps, some of us may be tempted to do, unwittingly thinking that the former secures the individual’s rights against the tyranny of big government (good thing), while the latter two pillars simply sound like code for socialism or the “nanny state” (bad things).

All the pillars of Catholic social teaching are in harmony with one another because all the pillars insist that, although we indeed live in a fallen world, nonetheless, the most basic truth about the human person is not that he is fallen, but that he is made in the image and likeness of God — and that Jesus Christ, not the Fall, is the last Word about who we truly are.

This is, again, especially tough for us Americans to swallow, since we live in a constitutional order (created by Protestants and Deists) that (certainly with a real measure of wisdom) is filled with checks and balances and designed to keep fallen man from getting too much power concentrated in too few hands. That’s true as far as it goes and has functioned well for two centuries. But Catholic social teaching is not fundamentally a political order (though it impinges on our politics) — but a theological vision of the human person made in the image and likeness of God.

And for the Catholic Tradition, our fallenness, while real, is not the most basic truth. Our origin, dignity and destiny in Christ is.

So if subsidiarity is not supposed to be a check on the Church’s teaching about the common good and solidarity, what is it?

Subsidiarity, practically lived out, generally comes down to this: The person or institution closest to a problem is typically the one or organization that should handle that problem. In short, as much as possible, you and I should personally be about the business of loving our neighbors, not waiting around for somebody else to do it while we focus on selfishness.

Here’s a simple illustration: Your local library finds it has a pothole in the parking lot. How do we handle that? Well, we don’t phone the White House and demand the Marines be sent in to patch the hole. Instead, somebody who works at the library might say, “I’ve got a bag of cement at home. I’ll fix it” and then asks the boss to reimburse him for labor and materials. Or those running the library might hire a contractor. Problem solved. No act of Congress required. Ordinary people have, by their own generosity, talent and resources, seen to their neighbors’ need and exercised their human dignity to perform an act of love — and thereby grow in holiness.

It will be quickly seen that the vast majority of our lives are lived by this commonsense rule. As G.K. Chesterton said:

“This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”

Why? Because the dignity of the human person, that’s why. It’s why we insist our children learn to tie their own shoes, keep their own rooms clean and bit by bit claim adult control of their lives so they can live, love, work, play, worship and be a gift to the world with their time, talent and treasure. It’s an attitude to human growth and freedom that has (whether we realize it or not) nothing less than the divinization of the human person and his full participation in the life of the blessed Trinity and the communion of saints as its end point.

This is something that is, to a certain degree, deeply appreciated by American culture. Americans have an intense respect for those who “learn to stand on their own two feet,” for the “self-made man” and so forth. And that is good as far as it goes. As a parent, I most certainly do desire to see my children flourish and prosper and give back to the community that has given us all so much.

The trouble comes when we divorce the language of personal autonomy from the love of God and neighbor and allow it to become attached to a sort of Darwinian ideology of the war of all against all for survival. I want my children to grow up to be loving, personally responsible adults. I don’t want my desire for them to stand on their own two feet to become so important to me that I am willing to countenance a Hunger Games culture-of-death struggle for survival, wherein the weak are destroyed and only the strong and cunning reach adulthood and have the right to spawn like salmon and then die. Yet a vision like this is often very much what our culture holds out to us: a perverted vision of subsidiarity that boils down to “I’ve got mine. Too bad for you.”

Subsidiarity is ordered toward human flourishing, not the survival of the fittest. It deeply respects human freedom, just as good parents deeply respect their children’s freedom. The freedom it respects, however, is ordered liberty, not moral anarchy.

Therefore, the Church says (Compendium, 185):

“It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities; in short, for that aggregate of economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional and political expressions to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth.”

In other words, the Church is a not a vast, centralized, totalitarian system in which all is micromanaged by Rome and that which is not forbidden is compulsory. For the same reason, the Church desires that our secular orders mirror this. Rather than the state running everything, there are a host of “mediating institutions” — everything from bowling leagues and school boards to theater groups, Facebook groups, Boy Scouts and birdwatching societies to cooking guilds — wherein human beings self-organize without the state or the Church telling everybody what do. The Church blesses this liberty and trusts that the Holy Spirit, in his immense fertility, will draw out from these ordinary human interactions a host of gifts and graces to the world from the charisms and human abilities he himself gives to human beings.

As Pope Pius XI taught it in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (Reconstruction of the Social Order):

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social and never destroy and absorb them.”

The Church, then, emphatically lives by the conviction that Small is Beautiful and tends to side with the Little Guy, doing what God has gifted him and graced him to do — and confident that through his dedicated devotion to honest work honestly done with the gifts God has given him, the needs — both large and small — of the human community will be met in large measure. Paul’s theology concerning the body of Christ is the great image here: Each part — each cell — doing its proper job will not only support itself, but receive from and give back to the whole and live in harmony, not competition, with the other members of the body.

Subsidiarity, thus: “protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfil their duties” (Compendium, 187). Why? Again, because of the dignity of the human person and the common good. The law is made for man, not man for the law. The person is not the means to a nice, shiny, functioning machine of government, because the person is not a means to any end. The human person is the only being in the visible universe that God has created for his or her own sake.

Certainly, systems — of government, as well as plumbing, football rules, taxation, computer programming and immigration law, to name a few — must exist. But they exist for the sake of the person, for each person and thus for all persons. Persons don’t exist for the sake of systems, and the moment a system becomes harmful to the human person, it is right and proper to alter or abolish it and create a better one. And the system which allows each person to grow in genuine freedom and dignity as a son or daughter of God is the system that’s best.

It will then be asked, “If all that is so, then what role is there for the state?” Of that, and other matters, more next time.

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