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Subsidiarity and Solidarity are Inseparable

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 11, 2011

Over the past generation or so, there has been a serious flaw in the implementation of Catholic social thought in the United States. Most bishops and other Catholic leaders have promoted big government solutions to social problems with little thought to the negative consequences of subordinating every aspect of the social order to the power of the State. Although this is slowly beginning to change as our Bishops find themselves in an increasingly adversarial relationship with government on strict moral grounds, it is important to observe that this long-time default position has been derived from a false understanding of the Catholic principle of solidarity.

Many have confused solidarity with the adoption of governmental social programs. But in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict identified this as an error when he wrote: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (38). He also discussed the propensity to rely on large, impersonal institutions, which can never be a substitute for solidarity:

Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. (11)

It is necessary to emphasize this point: Human development involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity. Yet this free assumption of responsibility in solidarity is precisely what is lacking when we turn to government to implement broad social solutions.

In fact, a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity requires engagement with another key Catholic social principle, namely subsidiarity. The meaning of subsidiarity is that things should be done on the lowest level possible, and that if assistance is needed from higher levels of organization, the higher levels should, whenever possible, assist the lower levels rather than replace them. Subsidiarity is essential to human dignity because it ensures that people are directly involved in the solutions to their problems, and that these solutions are implemented and controlled at the levels “closest to home”, where they can be influenced or even managed by those most affected.

As should be obvious, subsidiarity encourages both personal responsibility and the creative development of community-level organizations to assist individuals in the resolution of particular problems. These could be neighborhood associations, churches, businesses organized to provide needed services, fraternal organizations, unions, professional associations, and charitable groups, with the involvement of formal government bodies when the power of law and law enforcement needs to be invoked, or in those rare instances when universal tax-supported services will provide a distinct advantage in terms of feasibility or efficiency.

Societies characterized by subsidiarity are necessarily characterized by a rich and varied social organization, rather than by the common modern organization of the atomized individual on the one hand and the enormous power of the state on the other. In other words, the principle of subsidiarity necessarily results in the development of intermediary institutions which enrich the social order and, through their own corporate (i.e., consolidated group) influence, provide a bulwark against the abuse of State power.

Manifestly, then, the principle of subsidiarity is essential to the assumption of widespread responsibility, just as an instinctive, ill-considered turn to the State implies precisely the opposite. The reflexive turn to the State actually involves an abdication of true responsibility, generally hidden beneath the claim that we have acted responsibly (in fact, we have seized the moral high ground!) merely by voting for “the right program”. Thus, in most cases, the invocation of the power of the State diminishes personal responsibility. We like this only if we mistakenly think it gets us off the hook.

In other words, the invocation of State power typically means: “The State will make things right; therefore, I don’t have to worry about this any longer.” But, of course, in most cases, the State cannot make things right at all. As the Pope said, institutions are not enough, for human development “involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone.”

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  • Posted by: New Sister - Aug. 18, 2011 3:11 PM ET USA

    “the invocation of State power typically means: 'The State will make things right; therefore, I don’t have to worry about this any longer.'” - how true! Ever notice how dirty socialist countries are? People don't care about their neighbors. It's gotten so bad in England and France, where citizens wait for the government to clean up behind their pet dogs! America is here, too. It's time to get active: slash the government back and strive for the 'New Evangelization' of the West.

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Feb. 13, 2011 3:43 AM ET USA

    It’s laughable to hear of the MA Bishops writing to Governor Deval Patrick to request he not cut funding to support the poor. Who do you suppose that might be? Of Catholic Charities 2.67 billon in revenue [in 2000], 67% came from state, local and federal gov. OK, I get it... Great piece, Dr. Mirus, but only a few will get it. ”It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you don’t think.” – Thomas Sowell

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 12, 2011 11:26 AM ET USA

    A case in point is the way that the USCCB has dealt with Hispanic ministry in this country for the past three decades. Our diocese has been bulldozed by separate ministries for which parishes pay, parishioners we don't know, and general mutual suspicion. My comment to my pastor was that preferential option for the poor does not mean dumping on everyone else.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Feb. 12, 2011 7:17 AM ET USA

    Excellent analysis. The basic question is this: is Christ the answer? If He is, then a functionally atheist government could never be the answer.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Feb. 11, 2011 3:33 PM ET USA

    Indeed, even if the activity of the State were benign, constant recourse to it to solve all civil/social problems, large and small, would be deleterious. As it is, the State increasingly adopts an anti-Christian stance and fouls everything it touches with this stain. Reflexive recourse to such an baleful influence is even more to be deplored.

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