What do subsidiarity and ‘the common good’ mean today?
Federal budget debate brings new attention to church's social teaching.
The emerging debate on the federal budget --- and the distinct options being presented that will chart the country's future --- has brought renewed attention to the Catholic Church's social teaching.
Prominent in the debate are the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic, has repeatedly cited the principles in recent weeks as justification for the fiscal year 2013 budget plan he drafted, which was approved by the House of Representatives March 29 in a largely party-line vote.
Ryan maintains that his faith and his understanding of church teaching led him to prepare a budget that delineates a decade-long plan to reduce spending on nonmilitary programs as a step toward reducing the country's $15 trillion deficit. The GOP budget also calls for remaking Medicare, establishing Medicaid as a block grant program for states to administer and simplifying the tax code by closing loopholes and lowering individual and corporate tax rates.
Catholic critics, primarily from academia and community organizations tackling social justice issues, have challenged Ryan on his claims, charging that he is misusing Catholic teaching to support a blatantly political agenda that makes scapegoats of the poor and endangers vulnerable people.
Taking a more measured approach, the chairmen of two U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees have voiced their concerns about cuts in several domestic and international programs.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, have called for "shared sacrifice" and a "circle of protection" around the poor and vulnerable in budget negotiations.
The debate points to the different conclusions that individuals can reach in attempting to understand how Catholic social teaching can be applied in modern society, said Michael Miller, research fellow and director of media at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"The principles are there," Miller told Catholic News Service. “They are to guide us and we are to pay attention to them. You have to affirm those principles. Where Catholics are going to disagree is in the prudential implementation of them.”
So what do subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good mean today?
First, a bit of history.
The concept of subsidiarity emerged within church teaching in Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical "Quadragesimo Anno" ("In the 40th Year"), marking the 40th anniversary of another social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" ("On the Condition of Workers").
Explaining the concept, Pope Pius wrote: "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish on 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."
Pope Pius called for the government "to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance," while allowing the state to "more freely, powerfully and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands."
He called for those in power to ensure that a "graduated order" be kept among the various groups in society "in observance of the 'subsidiary function,'" thus ensuring a "happier and more prosperous condition of the state."
Popes John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI subsequently have touched on subsidiarity in various encyclicals.
Whenever you're dealing with Catholic social principles, these are not revealed truths. There's always a question of judgment. Two very good people can come out with different answers.
---Retired Bishop Anthony Pilla
The term subsidiarity is traced to the Latin "subsidium," the reserve or auxiliary troops of the Roman army, or a reinforcement, said Father Joseph Komonchak, emeritus professor of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America.
He cited the Oxford Latin Dictionary, which further defines subsidium as "a person or thing affording help, a resource, aid, safeguard."
Writing on the Catholic Moral Theology blog March 8 in a post titled "Subsidiarity is a two-sided coin," Meghan Clark, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. John's University in New York, explained that Pope Pius framed his discussion of subsidiarity in terms of the common good of society.
"Subsidiarity is an effort at balancing the many necessary levels of society --- and at its best, the principle of subsidiarity navigates the allocation of resources by higher levels of society to support engagement and decision-making by the lower levels," Clark wrote.
She told CNS that subsidiarity protects the intermediary organizations that help society function.
"What subsidiarity isn't is a claim that smaller is better just because it is smaller," Clark explained to CNS. "Smaller is not necessarily more efficient or capable."
Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro, professor of moral theology at Boston College, summarized the idea of subsidiarity outlined by Pope Pius simply: "As big as necessary, but as small as possible."
Under subsidiarity, he explained, societal issues are resolved, decisions are made and actions are taken at the most local level possible. Practically, the federal government can handle tasks --- such as the implementation of pollution standards or the operation of national parks --- more efficiently than a local community, he said.
"Ultimately the purpose of society is to provide for the common good. We could all do our private good, but that leaves some important social tasks undone," he explained to CNS.
Catholic social teaching is even broader in the eyes of retired Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland.
"We have a preferential option for the poor as another principle. If you are dealing with real poverty, you can't use subsidiarity alone," said Bishop Pilla, who regularly stressed the importance of considering the principle in homilies, meetings with staff members and pastoral letters on social issues throughout the 25 years he led the diocese.
"Pope John Paul II was strong on that preferential option for the poor," he continued. "You do have to make those considerations."
While the church's social teachings leave room for prudential judgment, ensuring that people have a say in how public policies are developed and carried out is vital for the common good, Bishop Pilla said.
"Whenever you're dealing with Catholic social principles, these are not revealed truths,” he pointed out. “There's always a question of judgment. The struggle of the Catholic politician is, how does he properly interpret or give appropriate consideration to all of the factors involved?
"Two very good people can come out with different answers," he added. "The point is these are the principles that should guide them in their decision-making.
"It's not easy."