…The principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the activities of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, is a first principle in genuine Catholic social teaching. It requires each of us to be responsible for those who are suffering in our midst. Families, friends, associates, churches, local charitable organizations—these should be the first to respond to the needs of their brothers and sisters. Government should only be directly involved as the organization of last resort and should implement policies designed to support rather than replace intermediary groups. In this way, people are induced to serve one another, as Christ commanded.
While this sounds fine in theory, how does it play out in real life? Pope John Paul II presents an example in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. In discussing the social problem of unemployment, the Pope outlines the roles of the players in solving it. Government should be involved, he says, both directly and indirectly. Its direct activities include defending the weakest, limiting the autonomy granted to determine working conditions, and ensuring that a minimum of support exists for those who are unemployed. Indirectly, government should create an environment conducive to the free exercise of economic activity. Entrepreneurs then have the opportunity to create and operate businesses, leading to abundant employment and myriad sources of wealth. In this way, government and private actors both have their roles to play and neither seeks to do that which the other can do more effectively.
Subsidiarity respects the proper roles of all the players. It allows government to have a role, as the final source of assistance, and as implementer of policies encouraging to the practice of subsidiarity, while, at the same time, being respectful of human freedom. It allows businesses and entrepreneurs to use their unique talents and abilities to serve the common good by, among other goals, fulfilling the responsibility to make a profit justly. It takes into account the insights offered by economics, as well as Catholic theology, and it allows everyone to take the lead in caring for those in need, instead of simply allowing a government agency to do so.
It is not a case of selecting either the individual/community/state or the federal government, it is the proper ordering of these in relationship to those in need.
As students return to Catholic schools this month, it is important for those schools to teach them authentically. Students should not be taught that the aid of those in need depends upon government intervention, but rather, that it depends upon faith-filled individuals who take up Christ’s call to love one another, and who use their unique gifts and talents to serve their neighbors.
Update: Mark Shea also comments on this article:
Seems reasonable to me as long as calls for subsidiarity don’t become a mask on a commitment to individualism that trumps the good of the family and the common good. Libertarianism, like the GOP and Liberalism, can become the god that is idolatrously adored more than the God of Israel, who has dangerously socialistic things to say about the alien, the orphan and the widow. If the free market can do the best job of helping the family, then the free market is best. If some other system works better, or some modification of the present system, then that is best.
Why? Because all Catholic social teaching instantly (and only) makes sense if you put the good of the family first and everything else second and in the service of the family. Unfortunately, neither libertarian, GOP conservative nor liberal do this, so Catholic social teaching is always incomprehensible to them.