Subsidiarity: Where Justice and Freedom Coexist

What is the Catholic social justice principle known as “subsidiarity”?

If you’re an American and you’re unfamiliar with subsidiarity in this day and age in which the federal government is about the only segment of the economy that’s growing; you better find out in a hurry.

In a nutshell, the principle of subsidiarity states that matters impacting the human person should be addressed by the smallest, least centralized, most localized, competent personal authority possible. The opposite situation is realized when personal affairs are managed by larger; more centralized and detached public authorities.

At the heart of the matter lies a concern for the protection of individual freedom as an inalienable right associated with human dignity, and a prime example of how crucial it is to understand subsidiarity (and to demand that it be duly observed) is staring Americans directly in the face as I write.

Case in point; when it comes to making decisions about which medical treatment options are best pursued in a given circumstance, the principal of subsidiarity states that these are best left to individuals, families and caregivers to the extent that the demands of necessity and the competency of each party makes it possible.

Where the principle of subsidiarity is well observed, public authority is exercised in a limited, supporting role; i.e. it recognizes and “subsidizes” the authority of individual persons; it does not usurp it.

Did you get that? Memorize it and share it with every Catholic you know, because a full court press is on to tell you otherwise as it relates to government run healthcare, and not just from our friends in the White House.

Yes, it seems as though every new election and legislative cycle brings politicians eager to secure the support of Catholic voters by painting their agendas as fitting expressions of the Church’s social doctrine, even when such isn’t necessarily the case. Unfortunately, we have come to expect as much from politicians, but when the bamboozlement comes to us courtesy of Catholic News Service — a wholly owned official organ of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, funded by faithful Catholics — it’s high time we sat up and paid attention.

Reading my local diocesan newspaper last week, I encountered an editorial piece written by a notoriously liberal CNS columnist who in an effort to sell the benefits of a government takeover of healthcare informed readers, “The Church’s teaching of subsidiarity insists that higher levels of government and social organizations must take action and do what individuals and smaller groups cannot do for themselves.”

I am certain that this struck many a Catholic reader as believable enough; after all, it came from Catholic News Service in a column syndicated for distribution to diocesan newspapers from coast-to-coast. It must be true, right?

The well-informed reader (of whom you are now one) will have noticed immediately that the writer has twisted it almost exactly backwards — subsidiarity properly understood is not a mandate for government action; it is a warning against government interference!

Pope John Paul II, echoed his predecessors in warning about the dangers of an overbearing public authority in his Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus, saying:

Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good (CA 48).

There is certainly a place for public authority to be exercised within the framework of subsidiarity; the challenge is striking a balance between a collective effort — assisted by government only to the extent truly necessary — and individual prerogative as demanded by the pursuit of the common good. This would necessarily preclude, however, any proposal that would rob individuals of the freedom and responsibility that naturally flow from human dignity. As the Second Vatican Council warned:

Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, not to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups (Gaudium et Spes – 75).

Is the state of healthcare in America in such dismal condition as to merit a government takeover, or will less extreme measures provide the surer path to justice?

Catholics of goodwill can certainly disagree on how best to improve the nation’s health care system, but as we debate this important issue one thing we should all be able to agree upon is this: media organs and others that carry the name “Catholic” — especially those that operate on the faithful’s dime — owe it to their audience to represent the doctrine of the faith clearly and accurately — yes, even when it might undermine the argument for a personal pet political cause.

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