Subsidiarity is integral to a social doctrine based on natural law rather than technology. That ought to be a feature rather than a bug, but in today’s world it means no one can make sense of it or apply it coherently.
The principle tells us that lower level associations such as families and local communities should carry on the greater part of the life of society, and higher level associations such as the state should facilitate their efforts. The point is to make social life more truly human, since face to face communities are more human than the stock market or the Code of Federal Regulations.
The approach is in line with social justice, understood in the Catholic manner as “conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” Lower level associations are due a setting that lets them pursue their vocation effectively, and subsidiarity calls on higher level associations to promote such a setting. It is also consistent with the Holy Father’s call in Evangelii Gaudium for “growth in justice [supported by] decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” The call is for measures that promote the growth of productive and rewarding connections between the poor and the rest of society, rather than direct delivery of material benefits (which would be “a simple welfare mentality”).
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While the approach makes a great deal of sense, it is not always obvious how to apply it. Actions don’t come with labels saying whether they constitute direct state intervention or support for the functioning of individuals and local groups. Nor do general principles make it clear what specific situations are urgent enough to justify the temporary direct intervention in social and economic life for the sake of the common good that Bl. John Paul II mentions in Centesimus Annus. So it seems that subsidiarity is less an enforceable rule that can be applied by anyone regardless of his views on other subjects than a guiding principle for building a good social order that has to be applied prudently, keeping in mind the proper balance of goals and a deep understanding of human nature and the workings of the system.
Unfortunately, that kind of complex, steady, and statesmanlike approach is hard to find in politics today. A basic problem is the difficulty of limiting the modern state and modern economic life. The state doesn’t want to be limited, because people who like to run things believe they know best. And technology has multiplied our ability to buy and sell whatever we need, and seems to hold out the prospect of absolute freedom through unlimited wealth.
For that reason money and the state pervade more and more aspects of social life today: fast food, day care, social welfare schemes, and electronic entertainment all substitute for family life, for example. The result is a political and social system based ever more totally on government bureaucracies and the market, with their relative power determined by relative institutional advantages and by shifting popular sentiment that both powers try to mold and manipulate with the aid of their allies and hangers-on.
The two working together are unlimited in their ambitions and demands, and they have no interest in subsidiarity. They believe they can do anything, and the growing exclusion of religious faith from public life means that the secular utilitarian ways of thinking that guide them function as a substitute religion. The result is that they feel called on to remake all human life in their own image, turning it into a system of maximum equal preference satisfaction consistent with the efficiency, coherence, and security of the social machine.
The only constituents ultimately taken seriously in that machine are the state and the individual. Church and family dissolve as independent institutions with their own principles of legitimacy. The freedom of the Church becomes freedom of worship, an aspect of the right of privacy, and marriage becomes a strictly private arrangement in the service of individual preferences, its public recognition a free decision of the state that must be carried out in a way that treats preferences equally. Hence “gay marriage.”
Such a system is at odds with subsidiarity, since the latter won’t exist unless non-state institutions have their own principles of legitimacy, and the system insists on extirpating such principles for the sake of its own coherence and dominance. Ordinary human beings don’t look at the world in the radically simplified terms the official outlook requires. It takes a great deal of training, and an innate or acquired lack of imagination, to do so. Untutored views bring in distinctions—man and woman, God and man, what is good and what is preferred—that motivate institutions other than the state, but have no official standing and therefore count as prejudiced and even bigoted. For that reason the people have to be propagandized, re-educated, and subjected to ever closer supervision to eradicate the effects of such views. If you want to join in mainstream public life you have to get with the program and help fight whatever could interfere with the perfection of the system.
That creates a problem for Catholics. In recent decades they have emphasized cooperating with others in a common effort to build a better world, and to do so they must join in efforts that are based on ways of thinking that are not specifically Catholic. It was once thought that the gap could be filled through dialogue, good will, natural law, the attractiveness of Christian answers to inevitable human questions, and the pervasiveness, at least in the West, of anonymous and cultural Christianity.
The expectation has not panned out. Obamacare is the most recent example. Giving the Federal government responsibility for the health of individuals means subjecting social life more and more to the official view of what constitutes well-being. The official view is that equal participation in the economy and in various personal indulgences is central to well-being, since those are the things that make life worth living. Women’s sexuality makes that kind of equality difficult, so the physical well-being with which healthcare is concerned is thought to include whatever is necessary to neuter women. Hence, among other things, the requirement that all institutions (with minimal exceptions) support abortion and contraception.
There are of course other examples. At one time the Church was suspicious of state schools. Today most people would say that they give parents a way to carry out their responsibility for the education of their children, and help the children grow up as active members of society. In fact, though, state schools reject parental influence, are designed to turn children into useful and compliant subordinates, and indoctrinate them in an official ideology radically at odds with Catholicism. Further, the workings of the system make it difficult for parents to choose something different for their children’s education. It is evident, then, that the state school system as it now exists is a radical violation of subsidiarity.
So what to do? At bottom, the Church needs to recall her mission and stop trying to be a player in mainstream secular politics. Any mainstream program is going to be at odds with Catholic teaching, not only because of its specifics but because the political project of which it is part is profoundly anti-Catholic. Instead, she should use whatever political intelligence and influence she has in a wholly different direction, toward making a decisively Catholic way of life a practical possibility. That approach would truly support subsidiarity, which requires legitimate principled autonomy for non-state institutions, and it is the only practical way for the Church to do so today.
For that approach to have a chance it will be necessary to demonstrate the value of that kind of autonomy. And to do that we must live by the substantive values at stake. The freedom of the Church cannot be seen as a matter of arbitrary will but as a principle necessary to attain substantive goods. Like other aspects of Catholic social teaching, what subsidiarity requires most of all is that Catholics live as Catholics.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 5, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of Empress Josephine in Notre Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804” painted by Jacques-Louis David between 1805 and 1807. Behind Napoleon sits Pope Pius VII, forbidden from crowning the emperor, a departure from past custom.