Subsidiarity and Solidarity

Today, as we debate the role of government with a presidential election approaching, it is important to understand what light our own social teaching casts on the role and limitations of state authority. We condone neither anarchy nor tyranny. The government has its legitimate functions. Solidarity and subsidiarity are the foundational pillars ensuring an appropriate balance for they are rooted in human nature illuminated by the Gospel.

We are connected with one another, not only as Christians, but in and through our common humanity. Thus, we uphold that human solidarity which informs both individual and sociopolitical activity. It follows that decisions at every level — personal, organizational and political — must include concern and support for the neighbor as broadly defined in the Gospels.

Of solidarity, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate that it “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. While in the past it was possible to argue that justice had to come first and gratuitousness could follow afterwards, as a complement, today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place.”

Subsidiarity, equally important, is the organizing principle that says that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. It keeps the “soul” in the works of justice and charity to ensure they include personal engagement and responsibility, never becoming de-personalized, as happens when bureaucracies grow. The production and the distribution of goods require personal engagement, not mere administrative oversight.

Applying these principles requires prudence and humility, which cannot omit awareness of facts and experience, means and consequences. At times, church leaders will suggest or even urge specific responses to economic or political problems. In most cases, Catholics may freely disagree, especially if their grasp of an issue brings more facts, experience and other circumstances to bear — over which no one can claim omniscience — and so long as disagreement does not compromise objective moral truths like the sanctity of every human life or the evil of racism. It is perfectly reasonable, for example, to commit to universal health care yet question how best to achieve it. Whether arming for deterrence or disarmament is more likely to avert international conflict is eminently debatable, and Church teaching does not force a choice between the strategies.

Not only should we Catholics take to heart Church teaching, we must also assume responsibility for our own decisions. Political campaigns, it seems, and their media surrogates, often appear content to manipulate voters with highly emotionalized, interest-targeted pitches, often short on facts or deliberation. We are invited — in some cases, intimidated — to believe promises with little foundation but assurances of best intent or the deft use of political power.

Nothing can supplant the exercise of our personal responsibility to inform and follow our consciences. For a Catholic, that process demands a critical stance before the high-tech political marketing to which we are often subjected. To be faithful to our own social teaching, we need to know it and apply it by thinking through its implications for the important decisions facing us now.