The Working Catholic: Catholic principle of subsidiarity ‘offers a way out’
(POSTED: 2/7/12) Social policy is caught in a paradox. People want less government. At the same time they want the services government provides. Therein lies the meaning of the odd-sounding slogan heard at some rallies: “Keep Your Government Hands off My Medicare.”
For more than three decades we have engaged in a national debate about how to best structure the satisfaction of human needs. A near consensus agrees that massive state programs have become a hindrance to human needs, a form of disabling help. Yet hardly anyone wants to completely eliminate Social Security, veterans’ programs, assistance to college students, unemployment insurance and the like. Further, most people favor some type of safety net for the poor — even if they make a distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity offers a way out of this paradox. It likewise suggests an alternative to two dominant ideologies in our country: Those on one hand who favor big enterprises such as government programs and those who, at the other extreme, want to leave everything up to the rugged individual.
Subsidiarity (a word found only in a few dictionaries, including World English Dictionary) says that decisions should be made as close as possible to those affected by the decision. It highlights the institutions that stand between the individual and society’s big entities. Subsidiarity champions the family, first of all, and then the neighborhood, the ethnic club, the union, the school association, the parish and the like. Phrases that capture the feel of subsidiarity include no bigger than necessary, small is beautiful, celebrate pluralism and local empowerment.
When it comes to social services, subsidiarity says that not everything governmental has to be government delivered. People will maintain personal freedom and programs will be more accountable when government partners with non-profit clinics, settlement houses, churches, mosques and more. This approach is time tested. Yet most social policy debates (health care reform, for example) give due consideration to the big players and to individual consumers, but neglect any role or ramifications for social groups.
It is said that Catholic social principles are a “third way.” Catholicism does not claim to be a political or social system (a third way, a fourth way, or whatever). However, its principles are a corrective to common ways of picturing our life together. Catholicism distinguishes the state from society in order to protect the freedom that is nourished as people relate to one another around shared interests. Thus Catholicism opposes totalitarianisms that bypass or squash the realm of society.
Catholicism also distinguishes the individual from the person in order to emphasize humanity’s necessary familial and social nature. Thus Catholicism opposes consumerism because it eventually reduces education, health, labor and even access to water to market commodities.
The concept of subsidiarity is enjoying renewed attention among social policy thinkers in Europe in regard to issues as varied as wealth creation and waste management. It shows up in the U.S. too in opinion columns, on blogs and occasionally in political speeches. For example, President George W. Bush used the term a couple of times in connection with his theme of compassionate conservatism and his Office for Faith-Based Initiatives. More recently subsidiarity has been linked in the press to themes expressed by presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is Catholic.
Unfortunately of late, subsidiarity is misconstrued to mean the government is best which governs least. Some even suggest that church institutions assume the entire responsibility for social services in this country without any reimbursement from government.
Subsidiarity is not anti-government. In fact, it realizes that a healthy society and an accountable state go together; the two must be creative partners. The state’s role is to coordinate many matters, to prevent monopolies from clogging service delivery (and the economy in general) and to step in when smaller, more local groups are not up to a particular task.
Subsidiarity is also misconstrued when people equate anything that is private with being accountable locally. This was the fallacy of President Bush’s ownership society campaign. A private neighborhood clinic can be just as unattached from the community as a large health facility operated by the government.
Finally, some who invoke subsidiarity are selective in what they include as an intermediate societal institution. For example, they do not like labor unions — which are explicitly supported by Catholic principles. Nonetheless, subsidiarity, when tied to all the other Catholic social principles, has the potential to make a significant contribution to social policy.
By Bill Droel, an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He edits a newsletter on faith and work for the National Center for the Laity (P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).