So also we are many persons. But in Christ we are one body. And each part of the body belongs to all the other parts. Romans 12:5
A misunderstanding of subsidiarity is being advanced insistently by those who oppose the American bishops on protecting programs for the poor and vulnerable. Wrongly, this misunderstanding presents Catholicism’s teaching about subsidiarity as at odds with the principle of distributive justice. Wrongly, it presents subsidiarity as allied with anti-government and pro-market ideology. Wrongly, it is employed to minimize traditional teachings about government’s special responsibility to preference the needs of the poor and vulnerable.
In truth, subsidiarity conforms to the Church’s ancient teachings on distributive justice. Papal encyclicals enframe subsidiarity within the moral duties of government to care for the poor. Likewise, the magisterium’s understanding of subsidiarity is inseparable from its oft-reiterated demand that markets must be regulated for the common good and for the dignity of the human person.
The “subsidiarity misunderstanding” pops up everywhere at the moment. George Weigel, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center—whom I otherwise admire for his exposition of Blessed John Paul II’s personalism—disappoints in describing subsidiarity as “Catholicism’s anti-statist social justice principle.” Weigel imagines, incorrectly that thanks to subsidiarity, government should wither away (or concern itself only with muscular projections of American force abroad) and that free market magic would then solve the problem of the poor by “breaking the cycle of welfare dependency and unleashing the creativity the Church believes God builds into every soul.”
Similarly, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed in recent weeks that the House-passed (and Mitt Romney approved) budget he designed was somehow “Catholic” because of what he imagined to be its conformity with the principle of subsidiarity. Illustrating the misunderstanding, Ryan mused that subsidiarity “is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best.” Ryan promotes an approach to poverty without “big government” wherein we all privately “take care of people who are down and out in our communities.” From this, by his own account, he felt justified in cutting Medicaid, Medicare, WIC, food stamps, school lunches, and similar programs while at the same time advancing tax cuts for the richest Americans.
Our bishops understand subsidiarity somewhat differently. Without mentioning Ryan by name, they rejected the idea that there was anything particularly Catholic about Ryan’s employment of the idea to defend his budget. Sending letters to the Agriculture and the Ways and Means committees they expressed their concerns.
Congress faces a difficult task to balance needs and resources and allocate burdens and sacrifices. Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs. The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.
Letters from our bishops to Congress asking for distributive justice are increasingly common. In the last year or so about a half dozen have been sent to Congressional leaders. Over and over these letters have maintained that the burdens of deficit reduction need to be shared by everyone and that it was unfair to help the rich at the expense of safety net programs for the poor. One take away for Ryan, Weigel, and others should be that subsidiarity—correctly understood—is neither anti-government nor at odds with distributive justice.
Church teachings about the responsibilities of government, about distributive justice, and about subsidiarity, all fit together in a seamless arrangement—along with allied Catholic ideas concerning solidarity and the common good. The critical insight for understanding this fit is to recognize that for the Church the human person is NOT the hyper-individual in competition with others that Ayn Rand and libertarians and Tea Partiers and some advocates of market thinking imagine. Our teachings instead present the human person as part of what St Paul described as a Mystical Body, which is in the fulsome sense the Church in the world and en route to salvation. Distributive justice is giving each part of that body its appropriate proportional share, as measured by the common good of the whole (which is measured in part by the good of those “least” of our brethren). Subsidiarity, which has as its root the idea of subsidy, is part of the ethic of corporate distributive justice. It obliges us to empower and promote all the lower parts of the corporate whole to their fullest extent so that each part complements the other for the common good.
So, subsidiarity is not Tea Party federalism translated into Latin. It’s not about simply preferring state and local government (or private markets) over the national government. It’s about having a just distribution of power, responsibilities, goods, and privileges in society so that all the parts of society are fully dignified for doing what is best for the whole. It’s about distributive justice in the fullest sense.
Throughout the 20th century and up through Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, papal encyclicals have described responsibilities of government in light of this rich conception of the social order. Government has a moral obligation to promote the common good of the whole. It does this badly when it loses sight of distributive justice. It can fail in distributive justice in light of subsidiarity if it exceeds its proper role and takes too much power, responsibility, and so forth into itself (about which Weigel and Ryan worry). It can also fail the test of distributive justice—as our bishops are warning in regard to the budget—when it does not rise to the responsibilities it bears for the poor, the vulnerable, or other parts of the common good of the whole.
In so many ways, the ideals of Catholic social teaching offer much guidance for addressing the crises of contemporary American political life. Subsidiarity, properly understood in the context of distributive justice, is especially pertinent to thoughtful reflection on budget and tax priorities relative to the common good. But, the social magisterium is compromised when shoehorned into the shallow ideologies of today’s America. The Church’s teachings on subsidiarity—like similar teachings on the common good, solidarity, and the dignity of the person—transcend political ideologies. Therein lies their glory. That’s why politicizing subsidiarity should concern us all.