The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Eight
by Bill Droel
Always do for others what they cannot do for themselves. That’s the rule of charity. Never do for others what they can do for themselves. That’s the rule of freedom. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity maintains the tension between the two. It guides the interplay of functions. It prevents charity from becoming disabling help and prevents freedom from becoming selfishness or libertarianism. Both extremes violate both charity and justice.
The parents of Siddhartha Gautama, for whatever reason, were overly protective. He eventually left home in search of what he called the middle way. The careless parents of recent mass murderers were overly permissive. The father of the Prodigal Son erred in both directions. He was first too protective of his son and then, when the son wanted an early inheritance, the father permitted too much freedom.
In Catholic social thought subsidiarity is usually invoked in the context of governmental responsibility and economic systems. The current picture in our country has ragged individuals at one end and big government plus big business at the other end. If something goes wrong with an internet or TV connection, it is a frustrated individual trying to reach an impersonal media company. If poverty overwhelms a family, a seemingly helpful array of social programs possibly debilitates that family further.
Despite some gestures and language to the contrary, Republicans and Democrats (with an occasional exception) include only individuals, government and business in their worldview. The operative philosophy and economic model of both political parties neglects those institutions that stand between the ragged individual and big forces—first the family, then associations like a parish, a union, an ethnic club, a veterans’ group, a community organization and more. Because these mediating institutions are not in the picture, the local groups have grown weak in recent decades.
Oliver Zunz has written a biography of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), The Man Who Understood Democracy (Princeton Press, 2022). James Madison (1751-1836) “talked only about factions,” Zunz says in an interview. He “feared them and sought ways of limiting their impact on government.” Madison favored a strong central government. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), on the other hand, was a pioneer in creating civil society, the realm for volunteer fire departments, local post offices, clubs and other mediating institutions. De Tocqueville, Zunz says, found the United States to be unique in its dependence upon people’s institutions. However, de Tocqueville warned that our individualistic spirit could outpace our community spirit, resulting in a polarized society.
Sometimes subsidiarity is rendered small is beautiful. It does not mean, however, that government governs best which governs least. Subsidiarity insists that government step in, but not in a manner that creates dependence. Whenever possible and always to the degree that is possible, government assistance should be delivered closest to those affected, delivered through local institutions. Ideally, business should act responsibly. A particular business and an industry should operate justly–first toward its employees and then toward its customers and suppliers and then its other stakeholders. When business exploits employees, gauges customers, pollutes the environment and in other ways operates selfishly, government has a duty to regulate and punish.
Perhaps subsidiarity is better rendered no bigger than necessary. It desires the formation of ragged individuals into community-minded citizens. It protects an embedded person’s responsible freedom by buffering those big entities that can smother a person. To be continued…
Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).