Subsidiarity and Human Dignity


In my column last week, I asked the question, Does the USCCB understand subsidiarity?” I received a variety of responses to that piece, the most interesting being from Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, who posted his thoughts on the website of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Writing in a judicious and even-handed way about the issue of subsidiarity, Monsignor Pope quoted my column at length and, after indicating sympathy with the basic points being raised, framed the question as, “What is a bishop to do?”

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It is perhaps easy for Mr. Hudson to want to draw the bishops in on this question. But, of course, he would want them to agree with his level of subsidiarity. Reasonable men do differ on what the proper level of government involvement is. Liberals generally want a higher level and conservatives a lower level.

Fair enough, and it’s refreshing to be engaged in thorny issues in a way that clarifies my point rather than subjecting it to caricature. Monsignor Pope continues with exactly the right series of questions:

What is the metric we are to use here to gauge proper subsidiarity? What is the level the bishops should use? Or, is it enough for them to set forth the principles of Solidarity and Subsidiarity, and for lay people (such as Mr. Hudson) to take these principles into the public arena and influence policy as they see fit? Should bishops reject the healthcare bill on the basis of subsidiarity?

At this point, however, Monsignor Pope veers in a direction that overlooks the specific threat to the principle of subsidiarity represented by the health-care legislation that expanded the power of the federal government in a way unprecedented in my lifetime.

Monsignor Pope asked, “Is it wise to apply the principle to a specific piece of legislation when the exact metric for subsidiarity isn’t even clear?” He is surely not unaware that USCCB support for this particular form of universal health care by federal mandate implies a virtual rejection of subsidiarity in the delivery of health goods and services.

The “metric of subsidiarity” in the case of the health-care legislation passed by the 111th Congress was represented as a difference in kind, rather than degree, of government control over our lives and those of our family. It was a giant step toward the European form of socialism that has brought many countries to the brink of insolvency.

Monsignor Pope is surely right when it comes to many of the pieces of legislation supported by the USCCB, where metrics of subsidiarity are difficult to determine. But handing the nation’s health care over to federal control flouts the Catholic principle of subsidiarity in an obvious way.

Monsignor Pope’s final point would normally be
the prudent course: “Is it best for the bishops to allow the political process to make that determination of the proper balance between solidarity, subsidiarity, and the proper scope and role of government?”

During the months of debate leading up to the final vote on the legislation, one bishop (who was vigorously supporting the bill while working to get the abortion funding taken out) told me that subsidiarity had not worked in achieving universal health coverage, and it was time for a federal program.

At the time, I appreciated the fact that a bishop gave me a straightforward answer to my question of why concern for subsidiarity was being tossed out the window. But the assertion that previous attempts at subsidiarity had failed sounded to me more like an assertion that needed verification than solid justification for handing control of health care over to the federal government.

I think of what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his eloquent passage about subsidiarity in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.

The Holy Father here articulates precisely the fear among many Americans fostered in the new health-care legislation, even among those Catholics, such as myself, who embrace the goal of achieving some sort of universal coverage. Any solution to the problems in our nation’s health-care system that eliminates personal responsibility and participation is the opposite of what subsidiarity demands.

Human well-being, as taught in the Catholic tradition, is always a product of action, of an individual’s active participation in the acquiring of the basic goods necessary to life. Subsidiarity begins with the recognition that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative” (1883).

One final point: Some commenters have muddied the waters by comparing the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity to the non-negotiable moral teachings on abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage, implying that Catholics need not always add subsidiarity to their judgments about foreign policy.

It’s true that the principle of subsidiarity is not a moral act, and thus is not comparable to an act like abortion. But it should never be ignored as a way of viewing the relationship between individual well-being and the various levels of institutions and governments that exert influence and authority over our thoughts and actions.

If subsidiarity is forgotten, if individual liberty and responsibility are not protected, then tyranny is inevitable; and with tyranny will come heinous moral crimes as well. Subsidiarity acts as a kind of nonstop watchman of, and advocate for, human freedom.

Thus, to ignore the Church’s principle of subsidiarity is no moral crime per se, but it encourages habits of dependency and the avoidance of responsibility that undermine human dignity.


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of “Church and Culture,” a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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