When you mention the principle of subsidiarity to a progressive Catholic, the reaction is frequently one that you might expect when informing a man that his mother-in-law is in town on a surprise visit and staying at his house for the foreseeable future (not mine, of course). I have seen this firsthand when I asked about subsidiarity at an excellent presentation on Caritas in Veritate by a prominent Catholic liberal.
This is unfortunate.
The reason for the deep discomfort of many progressive Catholics on the topic is clear, however. A handful of right-wing Catholics have twisted this concept to match their doctrinaire commitment to minimalist government and under-regulated capitalism, a distortion that is both audacious and indefensible. They have claimed that government closest to the people inevitably governs best, a claim that subsidiarity does not make and is empirically false, with local and state government action in Ferguson and California providing the most recent evidence. These revisionists have tried to turn subsidiarity into the American version of states’ rights, as though John C. Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, and Barry Goldwater were the architects of the principle.
Yet despite these unfortunate attempts at redefinition, progressive Catholics who value Catholic social teaching should reexamine subsidiarity, as it is a principle that they can and should embrace.
Subsidiarity is an essential component of Church teaching. The catechism states that under subsidiarity, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” In terms of government action, “The principle of subsidiarity holds that the functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. When the needs in question cannot adequately be met at the lower level, then it is not only necessary, but imperative that higher levels of government intervene.”
Subsidiarity helps us to translate our sense of solidarity into social justice. While it is solidarity that gives us the desire to achieve the common good and protect the most vulnerable members of our communities, the principle of subsidiarity is particularly useful in helping us to achieve this preeminent goal. It protects us from large corporations and excessive government invading the most intimate spheres of our lives and inhibiting our freedom to reach our full potential as persons.
Subsidiarity also protects civil society, the foundation of a strong democratic culture. It recognizes the inevitable need for communities between the person and the state, the inherent duties that exist within these communities, and the threat to these posed by tyrannical regimes, kleptocracies, and other forms of domination by powerful interests.
Nothing reveals the value of subsidiarity more than the horrors of the 20th century. Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism lead to the death of tens of millions of innocent people. All three tried to destroy institutions and organizations that existed outside of the state apparatus, fearing that these would threaten the supremacy of the state and divide the loyalties of the people. In their attacks on families, the Nazis turned children against their parents through the Hitler Youth and other forms of indoctrination, while Mao intentionally broke up families by physically dividing spouses and encouraging children to turn in their parents for being traitors to Mao’s vision. Religious persecution existed in all three states, as authentic religion inevitably challenges the totalizing ambitions of such regimes and the gross violations of human dignity that invariably accompany totalitarianism.
This disregard for subsidiarity suffocates the development of the human personality. It aims at the decimation of communities in which each person can participate and use their gifts to promote human flourishing: the family, local communities, professional and other associations, and religions. The principle of subsidiarity was formed in the shadow of autocracy, as the Church began to recognize the dangerous potential of these new forms of tyranny.
Unfortunately, we can see the same behavior in the tyrants of today from North Korea’s totalitarianism to Putin’s assault on civil society as he dismembers Russian democracy to the unjust behavior of authoritarian regimes in China, Saudi Arabia, and far too many other places around the world. The enduring need for subsidiarity should be clear.
Of course, contrary to the doomsday prophets, the United States is not heading down the slippery slope to communism or fascism. What then is the value of subsidiarity in an advanced liberal democracy such as ours?
Subsidiarity reminds us that it is essential to create policies that will unleash the full potential in each person and make our intermediary institutions and communities stronger and more vibrant. It cautions us against being satisfied with a federal government-based solution to every problem under the sun. It challenges us to orient our government’s policies toward fostering stronger families. It demands that we recognize the dignity of work and seek full employment rather than simply being content with government assistance to those who cannot find work (something that is more of a problem in some European countries). It directs us to ensure that government programs serve the people and communities they are designed to assist, rather than the bureaucracies that administer them.
But the most important lesson subsidiarity can offer Americans today is this: Action is needed to reduce the influence of economic elites, whose collective power threatens the freedom and flourishing of everyday Americans. Plutocracy violates subsidiarity and it currently poses a grave threat to American democracy. Money shapes electoral outcomes, which in turn produce policies that undermine the common good. In addition, large corporations dominate the marketplace, which also gives them excessive influence on the everyday lives of the public.
The radical individualism of economic elites harms American culture and prevents the government from serving the people. Because of the pressure of these elites, the government has failed to fulfill essential duties. The social safety net remains incomplete, social mobility is stalled, families lack adequate support, unions are attacked, the minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, the middle class struggles to feel secure, and unborn children lack protection.
Meanwhile, corporate profits flourish; taxes are not raised during multiple wars; economic inequality soars, as the rich fill their coffers; and Wall Street and big businesses expand their influence on our daily lives. Individual license expands while personal freedom is diminished—the freedom to flourish, to reach one’s potential, and to use one’s gifts to contribute to the common good.
Reducing the power of economic elites on our political system and in the market will not remedy every injustice, but it is necessary if we wish to move closer to the common good, and subsidiarity demands it. It will lead to stronger families, a richer communal life, stronger intermediary institutions, and greater participation from working class and middle class Americans. Progressives rightly praise solidarity, but they should not ignore subsidiarity, an essential means to promoting the common good.