Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Catholic Social Doctrine Begins with Subsidiarity

by Frank Morriss


Frank Morriss explains why Catholic social doctrine should begin with subsidiarity instead of the welfare programs, which often amount to a deception and falsehood when it is implied that every welfare proposal fits Catholic understanding in the area of human need.

Larger Work

The Wanderer


4 & 8

Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., August 19, 2004

The attempt to divert American Catholics from concern about pro-abortion politics is badly abusing Catholic social doctrine. The line goes: "Never mind the single abortion issue, but consider the many issues of human need held by candidates who might incidentally include the right of a mother to abort her child among them."

This, of course, implies that every proposal for welfare programs fits Catholic understanding in the area of human need.

This often amounts to a deception and even falsehood for the reason that Catholic social doctrine begins with the principle of subsidiarity — namely, that fulfillment of human needs begins at the lowest level possible, starting with the individual. Only when necessary should social welfare turn to higher levels of society, and that means that government is the very last resort for the working of social justice.

The Church has always recognized that the temptation for the state is to take complete control of a nation's economy, thereby in effect making the people dependent on it, rather than on themselves.

Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum predicted his insistence on the state protecting public welfare with this statement:

"It is not right for either the citizen or the family to be absorbed by the state; it is proper that the individual and the family should be permitted to retain their freedom of action, so far as this is possible without jeopardizing the common good."

He also condemned such taxation that amounts to public interference with "the productive activity of the multitude [which] can be stimulated by the hope of acquiring some property in land."

". . . These advantages can be attained only if private wealth is not drained away by crushing taxes of every kind."

And further:

". . . [Justice] does forbid anyone to take from another what is his and, in the name of a certain absurd equality, to seize forcibly the property of others" (emphasis added).

Pope John XXIII at the outset of his Mater et Magister encyclical quotes from Pope Pius XI's Quadraqesimo Anno:

"It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they [individuals] can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry."

Good Pope John XXIII, known as the people's Pope, comments:

"Included among [basic rights of individuals] is the right and duty of each individual normally to provide the necessities of life for himself and his dependents. . .

"Experience, in fact, shows that where private initiative of individuals is lacking, political tyranny prevails."

These he states as principles pertaining to subsidiarity. Only after presenting these does he turn to the need for "appropriate activity of the state to prevent exploitation of the weak" (emphasis added). Nowhere in papal teaching or other magisterial statements do you find endorsement or recommendation of the welfare state, or for forced distribution of income, or for ever-widening "entitlements."

The Second Vatican Council, though speaking at length of social consciousness and duty of the individual to the needs of others, nevertheless also said this:

"Private ownership or some other kind of dominion over material goods provides everyone with a wholly necessary area of independence, and should be recognized as an extension of human freedom" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 71).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is emphatic concerning subsidiarity:

"Socialization also prevents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which '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 rest of society, always with a view to the common good.'

"God . . . entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of government ought to be followed in social life.

". . . Subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention" (nn. 1883-1885).

These numerous citations make clear that welfarism as understood and presented by many socially minded politicians, many now of the Democratic Party, is not compatible with Catholic social understandings, since it is heedless of the principle of subsidiarity. It holds out economic equality, distribution of wealth, without reference to the ability or willingness of most citizens to earn and take care of themselves and their families. It caters to those who think those of greater industry and wealth should take care of them.

A free market economy held sway in America from its beginning. It allowed for economic ups and downs, with the working of supply and demand to correct things, as was the case until 1929. Herbert Hoover, then president, instituted temporary relief programs, counting on a quick return of prosperity. But the gambling fever that helped bring the crash had deceived the whole culture into a spirit of abandon following World War I. The bubble that burst in Hoover's second year in office was too immense to allow for a normal working of the economic cycle. Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to replace Hoover, swept away free economics in favor of Keynesian economics, which inserted government regulation into every area of economic life. Hence the host of regulatory bodies established by Roosevelt — NRA (struck down by Supreme Court), PWA, TVA, and so on.

The Democratic Party has never recovered from the idea that governmental expertise is more reliable than natural free economics in providing opportunity to most Americans, despite the fact that the Great Depression was still ongoing when World War II brought on a burst of demand for labor and production, ending it.

Now, Keynesianism puts no stock in the principle of subsidiarity. To the contrary, it disputes the right and ability of most people to make their own economic way without undue interference. True, free economics is open to abuse when it is allowed to be laissez-faire governmental indifference to the general economic welfare. But only free economics by its very own premise allows for the existence of subsidiarity, which demands not governmental indifference, but proper governmental restraint — the greatest amount of noninterference in economics in keeping with the common good. Welfare programs heedless of need, applied generally and replacing the desire and ability of the vast majority to govern their own lives and families, financed by taxation imposed on the basis of economic success, clearly give no weight to subsidiarity.

Thus it is a major mistake to equate welfarism with compassion, and a worse one to consider it called for by one's Catholic duty to love one's neighbor. Often it is elitist contempt for those considered less capable than achievers. Sometimes that is mixed with guilt feelings by rich elitists, embarrassed that they have inherited wealth. All of this ignores that egalite was the cry of the French Revolutionary terrorists, who considered as revolutionary duty the work of making the mighty equal by removing their heads, thus reducing them to the height of the lowly. They considered fraternity a matter of class, not, as does the Church, a matter of sharing human nature. But the aim of the American Revolution was "one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all."

Welfarism prepares society for collectivism, expressed in various theories of socialism, wherein the wealth of the many is confiscated through taxation to finance a host of "entitlements." The result, as planned, is a large number of votes in favor of keeping these "entitlements" in place, and enlarging them with each election wherein the givers of others' money are kept in office by the receivers.

During the New Deal monies were doled out liberally at every level. It was called "priming the pump." The catch was that as a war against wealth it meant that the pump would eventually run dry. Experience shows the less taxation, the greater the amount of wealth to be shared through employment and respect for enterprise and entrepreneurship.

To buy into welfarism as an excuse to vote for someone who supports exterminating the most helpless humans of all — those conceived but yet unborn — is an irony of ironies. Candidates who favor abortion, but speak of freedom as an antidote for fear, overlook the fact that it is a mockery of both freedom and bravery to reject human life at its beginning.

Every mother should consider that she once was in the womb, and remained there for the months needed before entry into society by birth. If a mother has a right to kill her child, then that mother was once subject to the right of her mother to end her life.

Cumulatively, abortion says that women have the right to put an end to the human race. That is an absurdity of logic and an insult to the instinct of women to love their children. That instinct has been attacked, blurred, and obliterated by one of those false "entitlements" that liberals constantly seek to widen. Whence did the "entitlement" of mothers to kill their babies come? Surely, not from the instinct that helped give them birth and nourishment. It came from the elitists on the Supreme Court who wanted to free women from the responsibilities of motherhood on the idea that choosing not to bear children — be whatever means — should be every woman's "entitlement."

Catholics should be aware that their faith does not embrace the idea that freedom means irresponsibility — a freeing of each human from the duty to fulfill the meaning of being human.

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