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Surprised by Subsidiarity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 16, 2010

The argument I have developed in the preceding two entries may be summarized as follows: First, our concern for the poor and marginalized must be motivated by love for the whole person as a child of God. Second, it follows that authentic human development must be directed toward the whole person in every dimension. Consequently, the potential for such development is greatest when it is planned and directed in a local community setting, among those who know the nature and causes of the problems in question and can act most effectively to craft personalized solutions that will actually work.

I had deliberately contrasted this approach with that of a bureaucratized process of massive “programs”, which must frequently be implemented with little knowledge of conditions “on the ground”, little awareness of the distinctive needs of the real persons involved, little appreciation for the spiritual dimension of man (what we might otherwise refer to as his heart or his dignity), and little concern for long-term success—not to mention problems occasioned by constant politicization, partisan struggles, and the quest for legislative or bureaucratic power and influence. Of the twin pillars of Catholic social teaching, the first pillar of solidarity is so frequently cited in connection with such programs that one might almost imagine that major social problems can be solved with no more solidarity than it takes to support a program which empowers politicians to force others to pay a bill.

This is what I have meant, in other commentaries, when I’ve complained that very few—including few bishops—are capable of thinking outside the Federal box. But Pope Benedict’s flat statement that “integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone” (Caritas in Veritate, #11) strongly implies that problems of development can be effectively addressed only in the context of mutual interdependence among those who know and care for each other more intimately than does the law; and this requires active participation in realistic solutions worked out at the local level. And so at the end of what is always a long and weary road in our contemporary culture, we come face to face with the forgotten twin, that other pillar of Catholic social teaching: the principle of subsidiarity.

The principle of subsidiarity may be summarized as follows: In the social order, everything should be done at the lowest possible level. Higher levels of social organization are certainly required to achieve some goals, but insofar as higher levels are brought into any issue, their first priority must be to determine whether that issue can be handled more locally and, if so, to provide whatever assistance may be reasonable to effect that result. Thus each level of social organization retains its own proper sphere of action, each level can be assisted by higher levels to maximize effectiveness, but each level will yield authority to a higher level only in those areas which, by their nature, cannot be effectively addressed more locally.

As a matter of authentic human development, subsidiarity is vital because, first, it ensures that each person becomes involved in making decisions about what affects him most and, second, it ensures that development is carried on in an interrelated community, based on real knowledge and concern. Or, to quote Benedict:

[I]t is very important to move ahead with projects based on subsidiarity, suitably planned and managed, aimed at affirming rights yet also providing for the assumption of corresponding responsibilities. In development programs, the principle of the centrality of the human person, as the subject primarily responsible for development, must be preserved. The principal concern must be to improve the actual living conditions of the people in a given region, thus enabling them to carry out those duties which their poverty does not presently allow them to fulfill. Social concern must never be an abstract attitude.

In these last three entries, I have said that we must step back in order to gain a perspective that will make all the difference. This perspective is provided by the principle of subsidiarity, and we may profitably express it as an aphorism: Successful human development proceeds not from the top down but from the bottom up. It is important for everyone to grasp this point. Without subsidiarity, it is impossible to consider specific cases and concrete proposals for authentic development with any hope of success.

Previous in series: The Importance of Community
Next in series: The Pope's ‘green’ message: not standard environmentalism

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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