Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Prospecting for Subsidiarity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 03, 2009

Many of us have long been sifting through episcopal socio-economic recommendations over the past thirty years or so in the hopes of discovering some valuable nuggets of subsidiarity. There is a kind of Trinitarian genesis for Catholic social teaching in that it all revolves around three core principles, each equal in value to the others: The universal destination of goods, solidarity, and subsidiarity. Typical episcopal statements in recent years have been strong only on the first two.

That may be changing. In the debate on health care, where all the bishops clearly agree on the universal destination of goods and the principle of solidarity, a number of bishops are also—for very nearly the first time in recent memory—emphasizing the critical importance of subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity encompasses the following unshakable natural logic:

  1. It is part of the dignity of the human person that he should exercise as much control as possible over his own destiny;
  2. In consequence human affairs should be orchestrated and human needs should be met at the lowest possible level in the social order, the level at which the most people can participate in shaping their own destiny;
  3. A higher level of governing control should intervene only when necessary to compensate for deficiencies at lower levels;
  4. The role of the higher level is to support and enhance the capabilities of the lower level, not to emasculate, replace or obliterate the lower level.

Now, the primary social unit in society is the family; it is therefore the “lowest” or “smallest” social unit on the subsidiarity scale (subsidiarity resembles golf in this respect, with lower being better). Above the family (in the sense of having a broader but shallower scope), we have various voluntary associations, companies, and professional associations which serve a wide variety of human needs, and also various governmental bodies, operating at multiple jurisdictional levels. For simplicity, I am deliberately leaving churches—institutions with a specifically sacred character—out of this discussion.

At each rising level, moving away from the family and the person, organizational or governmental agents have both an increasingly broad and an increasingly shallow scope. The family influences its members (its society) with the greatest comprehensiveness and depth. As we move outward from the family, various organizations and levels of government are organized to further promote the common good by making up what is lacking in lower and more deeply personal organizations, as each case and situation demands. Thus, according to Catholic social teaching, it is in fact a grave evil to use higher levels of state power to supplant the family, to bypass or suppress local associations, or to monolithically control those lower levels of governance in which the governed have the greatest personal scope for the proper ordering of their affairs.

To put the matter succinctly, wherever the principle of subsidiarity is ignored, human dignity suffers. If the principle of subsidiarity is ignored completely, the result is totalitarianism.

But with a typically liberal Democratic episcopate, straight talk about subsidiarity has typically been nonexistent or rare, even in the face of the growing dominance of a secular state. Far too many programs have been advocated in terms of Federal this and Federal that, seeking overriding action primarily at the very highest level. It has seemed almost as if subsidiarity prospectors had no future, so meager has been the yield of good ore. But as I said, this may be changing. The mother lode may finally have been struck in the vast field of health care. Just within the past couple of weeks, the following bishops have all issued statements emphasizing the vital need for subsidiarity:

These bishops are applying Catholic social doctrine to practical problems in its full glory. That’s extraordinarily valuable; perhaps it will trigger a new rush. Subsidiarity or bust!

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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