Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The Corrosive Society

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 29, 2010

Modern man seems to live in a perpetual tug of war between the struggle to make money and the demand to redistribute it. In the United States, this tug of war is more or less accurately represented by two opposing political parties, the Republicans who are more focused on creating wealth, and the Democrats who are more focused on reallocating the wealth we already have. There are many other differences, of course, some more important than money, but I suspect this general dichotomy is similar elsewhere. The tug of war has become a way of life, and we seem to continually shift our weight from one side to the other to tweak the existing system.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about this lately, and whenever I do, I keep hearing a voice in my head, as if from the Son of Man, saying: “The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society.” Perhaps that doesn’t sound like Jesus Christ’s speaking style, but in a very real sense it is, because Benedict XVI said it in his recent great social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (#39). And if the Son of Man speaking through Benedict is right, as we know He is, then all of us need to radically rethink the social order.

Benedict made this particular remark is the context of solidarity. He argued in Caritas in Veritate that if we construe the social order as controlled by impersonal forces—economic laws and government regulations—we inevitably produce a corrosive culture in which the inequities created by involuntary market dynamics depend for their resolution on involuntary government controls after the fact. This rarely works very well, and it is both impersonal and coercive to boot. But when we view the social order as shaped primarily by personal moral decisions, then we have a chance to shape it according to the principle of solidarity—the concern of all for all.

Solidarity Demands Subsidiarity

This leads us once again to the forgotten principle of subsidiarity, because solidarity and subsidiarity are really opposite signs of the same coin. I have said in earlier writings that those in our culture who seem most concerned about social inequities appear to be committed to solidarity without paying the least attention to subsidiarity. On deeper reflection, I would argue a stronger case. The very fact that many people can express deep concern about unfortunate social situations without thinking in terms of subsidiarity is clear evidence that they really don’t understand solidarity at all. Their solutions to social problems almost always involve the expansion of state power to do things for (or perhaps to) those of us, rich and poor, who are not living according to their prescribed vision. To be sure, the careful application of the force of law in such matters is sometime both necessary and salutary, but more often the resort to government power actually represents a failure or even a deliberate bypassing of solidarity, an unwillingness to work shoulder to shoulder with those people who ought to be actively incorporated into proposed solutions to their problems.

When we’re really concerned about persons, and not just about “situations”, we always want to get them involved in the process of making their lives better. We want to explore their concerns, weaknesses and strengths, and find ways for them to participate in the solutions. We want to stimulate effective and voluntary action on the part of all concerned so as to create as many stakeholders as possible in the process of improvement. This simply isn’t possible without subsidiarity, without attempting to create effective mechanisms at the most appropriate levels to address core issues. If we are really moved by the principle of solidarity to be significantly concerned about others, we will always look for ways to build productive, multi-level relationships among the real people who must collaborate to make things better.

Intermediary Institutions

Subsidiarity is closely connected to the role of what we call intermediary institutions. In a medieval monarchy, for example, there was generally far more personal and group freedom with respect to central government than we experience in today’s democracies. This statement may be incomprehensible to the modern mind, but its truth is proved by the existence and operation of the intermediary institutions through which so many divergent aspects of the social order were organized. The most important of these intermediary institutions was the Church, of course, though the Church is only incidentally an intermediary institution between the citizen and the State. In her own sphere the Church is not intermediary but sovereign. But in addition to the Church, the nobility had their traditional rights, privileges and deliberative bodies, as did the free towns, as did the guilds which represented skilled laborers of every kind.

Intermediary institutions contribute greatly to the vibrancy of human culture because they involve human persons in the activities and decisions which affect their destinies precisely at the level at which each solution ought to be decided and implemented. Strong intermediary institutions also serve as a necessary hedge against the tendency of those higher up to grab increasing amounts of power so that they might order the world to suit themselves.

Another and even more remarkable instance of the role of intermediary institutions was evident in the difference between slavery in the United States and in the New World colonies of Spain. While it is obvious that slavery should never have gotten started among Christians in the first place, it was difficult to root out in a New World dominated by large landowners with a strong sense of commercial self-interest. But the Catholic Church was a very strong intermediary institution in both Spain and her colonies. Slaves were recognized as persons and protected from many forms of abuse. They had time off, they could earn money, and they were permitted to purchase their freedom. In addition, the laws of the Spanish Crown, formed over the centuries under the influence of the Church, mitigated slavery in the colonies, and in the end the practice was abandoned under the combined pressures of institutions operating from within the social order.

In the United States, however, the Catholic Church was weak, and the voice of religion was divided among hundreds of differing sects, which were often quite willing to serve the moral convenience of their congregations; nor had the laws of the United States been shaped under the influence of the Church. Therefore, in the United States slavery became what historians can only describe as a Peculiar Institution. Slaves were treated not just as slaves in a traditional sense—human persons in servitude—but as animals, as non-persons. No intermediary institution of any significance was capable of mitigating the horrors of American slavery, still less of converting or pressuring the wealthy landowners who kept the Peculiar Institution in place. In the United States, slavery was a problem that would ultimately be solved through the cataclysm of civil war.

Where We Are Today

Over the past several hundred years, with the rise of the modern nation state, intermediary institutions have become largely non-existent or weak, and the living reality of subsidiarity (with or without formal instruction in the principle) has declined along with them. This goes a long way toward explaining how totalitarianism has become possible. It is true that Western commentators have frequently noticed a far stronger tradition of voluntarism in the United States than in Europe; we do have here a strong tradition of ad hoc organizations, typically non-profits, formed to address a wide variety of social problems and also to influence government policy. The United States also has a stronger tradition of State government than do the provinces of most other Western nations. But even in America, there can be no question both that non-governmental organizations have relatively shallow roots in the social order, and that intermediate levels of government, which theoretically represent a significant level of subsidiarity, have gradually lost more and more of their power and authority. In the West generally, it seems, there is little between the isolated individual and the highest level of government.

Yet it is precisely to the principle of subsidiarity that the West will have to look if it hopes to once again stimulate a strong and creative social order—a social order in which people actively cooperate in solving their own problems, rather than passively looking to take care of everything by funding monstrous top-level bureaucracies through monstrous bottom-level taxes. As I said at the outset, we seem to rely on the market to create wealth and the State to come along later and redistribute it, and the one great political fear on the part of the State is that it might act so aggressively in the redistribution as to kill the market’s Golden Goose. Meanwhile, regardless of how much money is earned and spent, large numbers of social problems continue to worsen.

Perhaps this is because “the exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society.”

“Articulation” in Business and Government

We unwittingly permit this social corrosion to occur because of our unfortuanate cultural blinders. As Benedict puts it, “The continuing hegemony of the binary model of market-plus-State has accustomed us to think only in terms of the private business leader of a capitalistic bent on the one hand, and the State director on the other” (#41)—leaving nearly everyone else out of the picture. In attempting to address this corrosion, the Pope frequently refers to the need for articulation or stratification in the way in which social problems are addressed. Here is a representative passage on the business side of the divide:


In reality, business has to be understood in an articulated way…. It is in response to the needs and the dignity of the worker, as well as the needs of society, that there exist various types of business enterprise, over and above the simple distinction between “private” and “public”. Each of them requires and expresses a specific business capacity. In order to construct an economy that will soon be in a position to serve the national and global common good, it is appropriate to take account of this broader significance of business activity. It favors cross-fertilization between different types of business activity, with shifting of competences from the “non-profit” world to the “profit” world and vice versa, from the public world to that of civil society, from advanced economies to developing countries. (#41)

A little later he uses the same terminology in his discussion of the need for world-wide regulation of international trade and finance:


In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice. (#57)

In this passage, it becomes clear that the terms “articulated” and “stratified” refer to a sensible, targeted and effective organization, in different ways and at different levels, of all the roles, purposes, persons and authority necessary to address social problems—in a word, the implementation of subsidiarity through intermediary institutions. In the following passage, Benedict leaves no doubt as to his meaning:


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. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans — and therefore of the plurality of subjects — as well as the coordination of those plans. Hence the principle of subsidiarity is particularly well-suited to managing globalization and directing it towards authentic human development. (#57)

The Problem Implies a Solution

It is probably an oversimplification, but not by much, to say of the two main political parties in the United States that the Republicans talk subsidiarity without solidarity and the Democrats talk solidarity without subsidiarity. I suspect the dichotomy holds true for conservatives and liberals in much of the Western world. In the conservative mind, which is usually market-oriented, the human person is too often reduced to the status of a commodity to be used by those who allegedly understand how to manage market forces. In the liberal mind, which is usually State-oriented, the human person becomes an object of social engineering by those who allegedly understand how to properly regulate all of life.

There are many reasons why it is difficult for significant numbers from both sides to come together through an understanding of the true reciprocity of solidarity and subsidiarity. The most important of these reasons is almost certainly the great division over critical issues involving human life, and I do not for a moment mean to put that in second place. But the need to get solidarity and subsidiarity working together is extremely grave, because neither can exist without the other. Anyone who embraces subsidiarity without solidarity necessarily commits himself to selfishness, while anyone who embraces solidarity without subsidiarity necessarily lies to himself. But at least now we can begin to understand why our social order has so many severe deficiencies; that is, we can begin to understand what is wrong. And what is wrong, at least in this context, is that “the exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society.”

Previous in series: Immigration Reform

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: filioque - Aug. 13, 2018 5:37 PM ET USA

    I would love to see this discussion reduced to the following: the Pope has given his opinion which is only a prudential judgement, not doctrine, and is based on assumptions about facts that might not be correct in any particular case. Pope Francis abuses his role by presenting his opinion as "teaching" and putting it in the Catechism without the full context of the Church's Tradition. That Pope John Paul II set this up is no excuse. I expect normalizing homosexual activity is next.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Aug. 10, 2018 5:27 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus writes, "The Pope is not arguing that the death penalty is always and everywhere intrinsically immoral..." The death penalty change to the Catechism is a way of preparing us for: "The Pope is not arguing that (divorce/sodomy/adultery, etc.) are always and everywhere intrinsically immoral..."

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Feb. 02, 2010 1:14 PM ET USA

    When the Church does not stand up and vigorously defend its natural and constitutional rights to proclaim the Gospel and to direct and sponsor corporate and apostolic works which promote its values then the state will move in as it did in 2008 when Massachusetts forced Catholic Charities to cease from doing adoption services for children because CC would not place children with homo-sexual couples. The Church could have won this battle in which the state acted contrary to the common good.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 30, 2010 10:49 PM ET USA

    It is hard for me to say what philosophy our political leaders follow. A good case could be made for a general lack of leadership on both parties' behalf. Another case could be made for greed and lust for power for the two parties. But in the end it may be as simple as doing whatever it takes to get reelected. Sadly, many people are beginning to question whether our government has our best interests in mind when they legislate. All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing.