Monday, March 29, 2010

Catholic Ballast for the Ship of State

The California philosopher Edward Feser has a fairly long blog post (here) in which he discusses, among other things, the casual use to which even Catholics have lately the words "right" and "rights." If the Eskimos have a dozen words for snow, we Catholics understand the words "right" and "rights" in many complex ways, and Feser admirably outlines them. But what I most wanted to pass along is Feser's very helpful collection of citations (from magisterial sources) of the Church's understanding of subsidiarity.

Not only have we lately been using the words "right" and "rights" rather sloppily, but we have often failed altogether to appreciate the anthropological and social principle of subsidiarity.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the Tea Party Movement, for example, most it by the mainstream media shamefully inaccurate. But the truth seems to be that it is a movement that could use some principled philosophical ballast, and nothing could better provide that, in my view, than the robust Catholic understanding of subsidiarity. Mr. Feser has given us a primer on that subject.

So, with a hat tip to Edward Feser, here are the citations on that subject that he has collected:
As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno 79)

Neither the State nor any society must ever substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and of intermediate communities at the level on which they can function, nor must they take away the room necessary for their freedom. Hence the Church's social doctrine is opposed to all forms of collectivism. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis Conscientia 73)

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. (John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 48)

Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society, limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative… An absent or insufficient recognition of private initiative — in economic matters also — and the failure to recognize its public function, contribute to the undermining of the principle of subsidiarity, as monopolies do as well. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 187)

Various circumstances may make it advisable that the State step in to supply certain functions… In light of the principle of subsidiarity, however, this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 188)
Since the principle of subsidiarity raises the question as to what is, after all, the institution at the center of the concentric circles of institutions that are progressively more remote from the person and therefore to be given power over the person with increasing degrees of hesitation?

The Church's answer to this question is, of course, the family, and, again, Mr. Feser has gathered a number of relevant texts:
Inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire. (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 13)

The Church considers the family as the first natural society, with underived rights that are proper to it, and places it at the centre of social life. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 211)

A society built on a family scale is the best guarantee against drifting off course into individualism or collectivism, because within the family the person is always at the centre of attention as an end and never as a means. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 213)

The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed… The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family. Every social model that intends to serve the good of man must not overlook the centrality and social responsibility of the family. In their relationship to the family, society and the State are seriously obligated to observe the principle of subsidiarity. In virtue of this principle, public authorities may not take away from the family tasks which it can accomplish well by itself or in free association with other families. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 214)
In the debate that has only just begun about the nature of our common life together as heirs of both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the political genius of the Founding Fathers, much more use should be made of these two principles -- the family and subsidiarity -- which the Church has long regarded as anthropological bedrock.

Hat Tip as well to Carl Olson at Ignatius Insight.

1 comment:

Mark Gordon said...


As you well know, the principles of CAthlic social teaching are not 'family' and 'subsidiarity,' but 'the dignity of the human person,' 'the common good,' subsidiarity,' and 'solidarity.' If the Tea Party movement - which I consider a proto-fascist mob searching for a scapegoat - if that movement could use any ballast at all, it seems to me it could use the ballast of 'the common good' and 'solidarity,' not to mention the 'dignity of the human person,' especially with regard to immigrants, the poor, etc. The Tea Part already seems to have an inflated appreciation for the value of 'subsidiarity.'