A Guiding Principle to the Debate on Healthcare: The Principle of Subsidiarity

As a Catholic-American, the most frustrating thing about watching our Catholic public officials in action is that they undoubtedly fail to capture, much less present, Catholic insights that might be helpful to our American society at large. A prime example of a missed opportunity is that Catholic members of Congress have utterly failed to raise an aspect of Catholic Social Teaching that is particularly instructive in the current healthcare debate — the Principle of Subsidiarity.

Given the anti-Catholic bias in many circles, I must point out that the Catholic Church has no desire to gain power over the State, or even impose its teachings on those who do not share our Faith. Nevertheless, the Church offers her various social teachings, such as the Principle of Subsidiarity, as guiding principles in order to do Her part to promote reasonable dialogue and to make the Church’s own contribution toward the common goal of a just solution to social issues such as healthcare.

We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est , 28).

The Principle of Subsidiarity, which has been an integral part of Catholic Social teaching for over a century, states that only things that need to be done at the national or “federal” level should be done by a “federal” government; and allows for things that can be done at the local or smaller level to be done at the more local and smaller units of society. Where individuals, intermediary groups, or small private groups of persons can address the particular exigencies and realities of a given situation, it is best to defer to such smaller groups because human beings need some flexibility and autonomy in order to effectively address their particular circumstances.

As with all things Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI describes it best when he summarizes the Principle of Subsidiarity as “the coordination of society’s activities in a way that supports the internal life of the local communities.” As if he were acutely aware of the genius of our American system (i.e., a system which has successfully balanced federal, state and private initiatives for over two hundred years) the Holy Father observes that the principle of subsidiarity helps governments at the national level “attune themselves to the natural human desire for self-governance.” The Holy Father most recently pointed out that the principle of Subsidiary prevents a completely dehumanizing and “all encompassing welfare state,” which inevitably leads to a form of “paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need” (Caritas In Veritate , 57, 58).

Thus, the Principle of Subsidiarity can serve as a guiding principle in the Healthcare debate because it comports with our American history of governance and provides a means by which we can somehow find a middle ground between an all encompassing welfare state and a laissez fare system with no safety net for its citizens.

Moreover, the Principle of Subsidiarity provides a refreshingly non-partisan principle, as it is rooted in the common good and thus ultimately transcends political affiliations. If nothing else, the Principle of Subsidiarity offers a means of discussing healthcare in a non-caustic and principled manner. Whether we are really in a “cultural war” or not, we could use a guiding, non-politicized criterion upon which we can ground true dialogue and reasonable discussion about healthcare. Because it is a guiding principle rooted in natural law and the common good it necessarily eschews simplistic slogans and avoids the temptation of prioritizing votes and reelections over principles and justice.

Furthermore, applying the Principle of Subsidiarity to healthcare can help local communities and smaller governments better coordinate their healthcare issues with other societal issues such as generating sufficient revenue for other societal and human needs. Some local communities might coordinate their approach to healthcare with their approach to immigrant workers who not only thankfully provide value and enrich their communities but obviously greatly increase societal costs such as healthcare.

Although I do not have a prediction as to where the dialogue will end, I believe that if we apply the Principle of Subsidiarity to healthcare issues, we will most fully ensure that competition in the marketplace, human and charitable initiatives and creativity can all flourish. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, when those responsible for the common good allow people to govern themselves and address their own problems, those public officials “leave space for individual responsibility and achievement.”

The Principle of Subsidiarity should serve as our national GPS in the healthcare debate, pointing the way for countless groups of Americans. Through their genius and hard work, attuned to their own local and unique realities, they will yield true and genuine reform of our healthcare system. It is only in this way that we can meaningfully address the healthcare needs of persons of all ages and illnesses and yield surprising and innovative solutions that an all-encompassing welfare state simply can’t produce.

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  • Warren Jewell

    There is much kindness in Pope Benedict calling the impending American national way of things “paternalist social assistance” when it more and more appears to be attempts at “socialistic national, cultural, etc., down to familial control”. He who would be paternal must be part of the family, and supposes his place as and like a father. He also understands and abides by his limitations. Our leaders aren’t demonstrating much understanding of any of that ‘paternal’ stuff, though they may think they are.

    And, since they seem to grasp the idea of ‘shoving it down our throats’ as a first resort, would not accepting the principles of subsidiarity nearly require like treatment – i.e., shoving it down THEIR throats? Even the protests to government grasp for dominance seem geared toward “Leave ME alone” more than “Leave US alone”. Just how many throats are going to be required to open to take the reasonable and rational medicine that is subsidiarity, or have it shoved down?

    Maybe I’m getting crabby with age and infirmity, but it seems to me that the hindquarters of America, its secular democratic republican form, is trying more and more to lead the head and heart of us around, and even to our very souls. And, Mr. Gernazian, we seem to have less and less remembering that they have a free soul, let alone a freedom-loving head and heart, around us. They are, rather, ‘entitled’ (read: ‘eating another’s provisions out of the trough’), and in such a way as to throw their democratic means aside to have all the wrong representation . . . . . .

    . . . . . . I’m getting too old for this stuff.

  • Fox News special from Wisconsin could give some light to this debate.