56 Replies to “Subsidiarity and Solidarity – Not Necessarily What You Think They Are”

  1. In my own observations, it seems that we (as a society in general) have gotten into the habit of crying, “Someone should do something!” or, “There ought to be a law!” when we see suffering and instead of looking into what we can do ourselves our knee jerk reaction is to lobby the highest governmental authority possible (“go straight to the top”). And that’s part of what’s gotten us into the mess we’re in as a nation. If you look at the political scene, just about every interest imaginable, no matter how great or small, is currently lobbying the federal authorities to get something done for themselves (and of course, that usually involves wanting money). I can’t help but wonder if things might not run better if we started fixing our communities ourselves *first* and only go to the next highest level of authority when we get to a point where we can do no more on our own. And I think that might be why we’re seeing a “subsidiaridy camp” emerge, as sort-of a natural push back on our growing tendency to appeal everything under the sun to Ceasar himself.

    I hope that makes sense.

    1. Amen, Mandy! I’d also like to point out that according to the actual, current text of the U.S. Constitution, there are only 18 enumerated powers of the federal legislative body. Even the author incorrectly asserts “interstate highways” as a legitimate use of federal power – but this authority is not listed in the Constitution. My point goes hand-in-hand with yours: everybody has grown accustomed to lobbying the federal government bc it is perceived the federal authority possesses the most power. Yet, in actuality, the federal was supposed to be the weakest authority, handling only those things which no one state within the union of states could or should (like coining money and regulating the value of money, or the Navy). However, the political movements of the last 150 years have continually asserted more power at the federal level, with barely a change in the text of the Constitution to legally grant this power. My point: if we want power from the top down vs. from the bottom up: change the law! But a weak federal authority, as originally designed, discourages this lobbying of “federal money” and encourages the resolution of problems at the local and state levels.

      1. “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” – James Madison, author of the US Constitution.

        It is the Church’s job to care for the poor, not the government’s job.
        The government should make it easy for the Church to do her job.
        The USCCB keeps asking the government to do the Church’s job.

        It reminds me of a parishioner who once told me, “Well, we HAVE to tax people! How else can we FORCE them to be CHARITABLE?”

        Peter Brown’s argument on why the friendly societies fell apart is ludicrous.
        The government gets its money from the same place friendly societies do – the citizens.
        So, how can the government have MORE money available than friendly societies?

        Friendly societies fell apart because the government TOOK all the money that had been given to friendly societies. If Brown had just read chapter 7 of Larry Elder’s “Ten Things You Can’t Say In America”, he would have known that.

        Brown’s article is a load of claptrap dressed up as social commentary.
        This what happens when a theologian with no historical knowledge attempts social commentary.

      2. Sarah, not to split hairs, but I believe Congress referenced the commerce clause and the postal clause as bases for the Interstate Highway system. Debatable, sure, but they weren’t acting arbitrarily (like they seem to do so much nowadays).

        Otherwise, I agree, we’ve got a federal government run amok because our citizenry has given it the power to do so. We’ve got to starve the beast whilst taking responsibility for ourselves and lending aid to our neighbors.

      3. Part of the responsibility and powers of the federal government is providing for the common defense. The Interstate Highway system was actually conceived with the idea that it would make it easier to move troops across the country quickly at need. Of course the benefits of it went far beyond that in terms of increased commerce, ease of movement for the citizenry, etc.

    2. St. Paul appealing to have his case heard by Caesar is a neat example of someone not finding a solution in a lower order appealing to find a solution in a society of a higher order. Although maybe St. Paul appealed for a different reason.

  2. “As the adverse selection problems inherent in private insurance have grown, the state has assumed an ever greater role. Subsidiarists have not yet come up with a modern model that better manages risk.”

    The author appears to be unaware of group life and health insurance.

    1. How is group health insurance different from regular insurance? I suppose if the group gets bigger the pool gets bigger but that only lasts so long asvcost continue to rise. Would not larger and larger groups also tend toward impersonal service and possibly trend away from some of the insights of subsidiarity? I dont actually know the answers, these are real questions by me, not rhetorical ones

      1. Monsignor,

        Why do you assume that large groups necessarily lead to impersonal service?

        Knights of Columbus is huge.
        Is it impersonal?

        Apart from the capes, swords and ubiquity around bishops, how does the KofC insurance differ from that of any other insurance company?

        Do you really think people would choose an impersonal insurance company if they didn’t find a benefit from it?
        Isn’t allowing the individual to choose how to allocate his resources – whether to this insurance company or that friendly society – the essence of subsidiarity?

        And, to the extent that I contribute monetary support to the organization I have chosen to join, am I not in solidarity with all the others, not only in that organization, but in solidarity with anyone in an organization that has similar methods and goals?

        I don’t have to have tea and crumpets with someone to have solidarity with them.
        If I choose not to have tea and crumpets with them, that is my right by the principle of subsidiarity.

        1. This snide tone of your remarks is unnecessary. I do not argue for a necessary connection between large and impersonal, only a possible relationship. Knights of Columbus of course is a life insurance company, not a health insurance company and one interacts Far less with life insurance companies than with health insurance. All that said, I am not an advocate of government run healthcare per se, as you seem to assume in the tone of your remark. As a Catholic however I do have an interest in being sure that our terminology is properly understood. So stand down with your tea and crumpets stuff. Nobody requires that of you, nobody but Jesus (cf Lk 14:13 inter al. )

  3. One thing that has been left out of this discussion here is the rise of the corporations, especially the healthcare ones. They have grown to such power that they are now able to manipulate the state and her laws for their own benefit. They have turned healthcare away from susidiarity because it was not profitable. Profit has become the end for which they exist and act, not charity. In fact, there are now numerous laws that greatly restrict the charitable activities of physicians. One out of every seven dollars spent in the USA is now spent on healthcare. The giant pharmaceutical companies, the huge conglomerates of hospitals, the massive insurance companies are in it for their slice of the pie. However, profit does not have to be the reason a corporation exists. Lokk at the Knights of Columbus, they are in business for charity. Until charity is once again the focus of the healthcare industry, their quest for profit will continue to steamroller over both the principle of susidiarity and solidarity.

    1. The Knights of Columbus tolerate pro-abortion members.
      Is that solidarity, subsidiarity or the quest for profits?

      I fail to see why pharmaceutical companies, hospitals or insurance companies would be opposed to charity.

      The first two don’t care who buy their products, as long as someone does.
      Whether the purchaser uses the products themselves or subsequently gives them away makes no difference to the bottom line.

      As for the last two, charity is a positive good. Insofar as someone, say a doctor or other medical professional, willingly donates time or money to care for someone else, the hospital does not need to treat, the insurance company does not need to pay. Why would THEY be opposed to charity? Charity helps their bottom line.

      You make these assertions about evil corporations, but they don’t make any sense.

      1. Steve,
        That the Knight of Columbus tolerate pro-abortion members is a worn out mantra that has little basis in reality. Shure, some members are pro-choice, but unless they are acting in a pro-choice way or attempting to get a council to do pro-choice things, they are aloud to stay. The K of C is definately not pro-choice and has arguably do more than any other group in the country for the pro-life cause.
        Second, charity has to do with persons. They are opposed to charity when they put proffits ahead of people. It is true, that there is no necessity to do so, but the fact that they do is not desputable. How else could pharmacutical companies justify six figure salaries, producing life ending drugs, manipulating safety studies, etc. How could hospitals justify multi-billion dollars profits, turning away the poor or giving-sub them standard care or allowing the harvesting or organs from people that are not yet dead so that they can be sold for profit?
        Third, the law forbits a doctor to offer care either in exchange for a another good or service rather than money or for a lesser fee than they charge others. Charity does not help their bottom line. In fact, when charity is asked for, even from “Catholic” hospitals, it is often difficult to apply for, and ussually given out of a funding from charitable donations, not hospital profits.

        1. Blake,

          First, members who are publicly pro-choice have no place in the Knights. Bishops have already said this. The Knights refuse to acknowledge it. Would the Knights tolerate members who are publicly racists, anti-Semites or misogynists? If not, how would this be different from baby-haters?

          Second, the pro-choice members who are being tolerated are almost all either financially or politically well-connected. Given this fact, how is the K of C NOT putting profits ahead of people?

          There is nothing wrong or sinful about profit, and most people do profitable things not for love of people but for concern about their own future. Even millionaires – especially millionaires – realize how fleeting wealth is, and how easily they can lose it all.

          If we did not have millionaires, we would have no one to pay for the honor of being guinea pigs for extremely expensive procedures, procedures whose costs drop because millionaires pay for their own treatment, which brings down costs incrementally so semi-millionaires can afford it, which brings down costs more (bigger pool of clients), so quasi-millionaires can afford it, and about twenty years and several iterations later, I can afford it. Without rich people to subsidize the treatment and the working out of the kinks, I would never get it.

          Third, you are telling me the government forbids charity.
          So, how can it be the case that all these rich people are against charity?
          The government is making a law to prevent something that no one is doing?
          Really? REALLY?

          I believe the law exists – I’m just pointing out that SINCE it exists, your original premise has to be wrong.
          It isn’t rich people who oppose charity – it’s the government.
          Which is the exact opposite of Peter Brown’s putative point.

          1. Blake is correct on calling you Steve on your charge about the Knights. It is way over the top for you to make this charge. Every Knight swears an oath to be accepting of the Catholic Church’s teaching, to be a practicing Catholic, and the Knights are some of the strongest pro-life warriors and extremely generous to pro-life works. Your charges are at best misinformation, at worse they are calumny.

            As you have noticed I have not been able to post all your other remarks on this blog due to your harsh and accusatory tone in general. So the advice I would like to offer is that you tone it down.

  4. We (in the USA) have the most innovative, cutting edge and profitable healthcare system in the world. If we could cut out the dead-weight costs (ie: junk-lawsuits) and go more aggressively after the deadbeats (ie: people who can afford to pay for their care but refuse to), then we would have more than enough resources to provide free care to those who legitimately can’t afford it with no increase in taxes or reductions in quality of care.

  5. Also, I would like to add that just because friendly societies like the Knights of Columbus did not adapt to changing societal and economic needs, does not mean there cannot be new groups formed to address these shortfalls in caring for persons in society.

    My plan was (doubt it could be feasible to launch now that we have Obamacare), to have Catholic dioceses or a group of them offer a Catholic Health Care plan to compete with the big carriers. My vision would have this plan cover anyone who wants it, but specifically reach out to the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the terminally ill, anyone who is marginalized in society, etc. and provide care that is fully in-line with Catholic teaching: no abortion, no contraception, no sterilization, no euthanasia, no morally objectionable procedures or medications whatsoever; yet care that respects the dignity of each person. This plan could give preference to Catholic and Christian doctors and hospitals, supporting their work as well. I won’t go into the details of how I would make it work financially, but my point is simply that there ARE ways to ensure “access to health care” without involving the federal government and enforcing mandate upon mandate. If we want to take care of the individuals who need care, let’s do it ourselves and not push the responsibility onto the government.

  6. An old doctor recently told me he thought many problems have arisen because of hospital chain companies and for-profits. In the “old days” (probably the 50’s and 60’s), he said, the hospital board, CEO, doctors and wealthy benefactors met socially at cocktail parties and fundraising functions. They were all local residents. There was solidarity (not his term) among them, i.e., they were bound by social niceties and the rules of high society. If something was wrong with the hospital, the people responsible were socially embarrassed in front of their peers, a powerful corrector. All this fell apart when hospitals got larger and sold out to healthcare chains, owned and operated by people a thousand miles away.

    What he was talking about was not just subsidiarity and solidarity, but also distributism in the healthcare market. Small, locally owned, is better, and avoids all the perils of big business.

    Another point: I work in healthcare finance, and my experience has been that as complicated and high tech as medicine has become, government involvement has made it even more complicated. The laws are not rational, but are instead cobbled together political compromises that defy understanding and are almost impossible to implement. Medicare rules amount to 100,000+ pages of this, for example. The administrative burdens on health facilities are so demanding that small companies cannot sustain the effort; the only way to survive has been to merge into larger chain organizations that have the resources to prepare the reports, run the compliance programs, meet the billing requirements, etc. So government rule making, IMHO, has helped drive healthcare to the sad state it is in.

    1. You make a good point about the legal complications in the health industries. My mother-in-law is an administrator in infection control at one of the larger hospitals in the area and she regularly complains of the burdensome and counterproductive regulations that drive down efficiency and drive up costs. For example, her hospital employs folks whose sole job is to read charts to make sure all the appropriate boxes are checked for each patient’s diagnosis classification. In other words, there is a check list of procedures, exams, tests,etc that must be done in a certain order not according to whether or not you need them but according to what group classification your illness falls into. So you may not need procedure x, it may not have anything to do with your illness at all, but because your diagnosis falls within a certain category you have to have it done. The reasons for it are (1) to protect against frivolous lawsuits, and (2) to make sure the hospital gets compensated, especially by the government if the patient is on Medicare or Medicaid. So in just this example we have extra employees that are being paid to do nonsensical work as well as unnecessary treatment/tests/etc. (which is extra work for the hospital and extra cost o the patient) because a box *must* be checked, as ruled by the government.

      And that doesn’t even get into all the laws between the federal government and the state governments (that are just as complicit in the health insurance mess) that mandate minimum coverages, prohibit competition, and serve overall to limit our options in regards to health insurance.

      1. Yet again, Shakespeare is proved right: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the Lawyers!” 😉

  7. I have been writing on my blog for months on the lack of understanding of political language among leaders in the Church. You should be giving classes in major seminaries, so that the next generation of priests and bishops understand something other than socialism. The USCCB is guilty of a lack of sophistication regarding definitions and the diversity of economic systems.

    We have a leadership crisis regarding definitions and the ability to conduct rational discussions at the highest levels, instead of knee-jerk reactions. Please do not give up the fight for clarity.

  8. Keep it simple! The only question is: At what level of government (Federal, State, County, City, Parish, the individual herself/himself) can the Christian concern for others best be implemented? Studies show that 50% of the taxed dollar makes it to the needy person. Just under 100% of the dollar donated to St. Vincent de Paul Society reaches the poor person. Unfortunately, after the current and proposed tax increases, there is much less available for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. You tell me which is the better application of “Subsidiarity”.
    John Felcyn

  9. Number one we need to get the federal government out of the insurance and healthcare business. These should be handled at the private and individual state level. Insurance policies should be allowed to transfer to other states when a person moves. I have worked in the healthcae field since 1974, and I know this is a sore spot in the catholic mission of compassion and sanctuary but, the federal and state government have to inforce immagration laws and stop the anchor baby policy. This has put a servere drain on hospitals and healthcare businesses only to be suckered into sucking at the breast of the federal governments control under the abusive and misinterpreted use of the interstae commerce clause by activist judicial crony capitalist. This has been the number one reason healthcare cost are going up in this country inspite of all the technological advances of free interprise. Union members should have the right to secret ballots when voting issues and should the union leaders and lobbyist should not be allowed to donate union funds to political parties or candidates. Churches and other charitable institutions should be financially reimburesed and supported by private, local and state agencies using state and local taxes- not some robinhood scheme cooked up by the federal government. As for people who are not citizens of this country and are given care here, They should be accountable for the care they receive here or the country from which they came should see that we are reimbursed for the costs accrued while in our country. This is what we as U. S. citizens face when we go out of this country and receive care their. We can’t be providing social welfare for other countries citizens and we have to insure the welfare of ourr own. We are not a country built on socialism but if we choose to be, we will live a thrid world existence.

  10. This is a really complex issue that would need multiple posts to do it justice.

    The only thing I ask is this: does context matter? I am not able to well discern what Church social teachings apply to a hypothetical “Catholic society” and which teachings are universal. I have a hard time believing, for instance, that for the sake of solidarity I should support an secularist civil power in its efforts to “help” people when I know that with every one of their efforts will come requirements for indoctrination in the principles of the culture of death.

    Also, a comment on the following from Msgr. Pope: “Paradoxically it will be noted that Subsidiarity makes mention of Government while Solidarity (at least in this Catechism definition) does not.”

    I would suggest this is because the Church fathers realized that while the civil power might be necessary to protect the lower orders of social organization, there is good reason for us to be wary of the civil power playing the role of THE order of social organization. Said another way, the Church fathers meant to imply that we should not look to the civil power for solidarity, but should make sure that it is merely protecting subsidiarity. Thoughts?

    God bless,

    1. My thoughts are: insightful comment. Also, wondering who Telemachus was. If I can’t remember, I will google that later, unless I forget to google that in the same way that I have forgotten who Telemachus was.

  11. This debate is far less complicated than we are making it. This is a flaw intrinsic to modern Catholicism. But in reality the bottom line is this. Solidarity is just another aspect of the basic Christian teaching that we must “love our neighbor”, This includes the poor, which is obvious from the Gospels. On an individual basis this means alms giving, personal charity, whether of money or service. This is obviously a Christian duty. To completely ignore it is a grave sin. In terms of public policy it means we should be weighing public policies based on how they affect the weak and vulnerable, but how a given public policy affects the weak and the vulnerable is not a religious question at all. It is an empirical question subject to the analysis of facts and data. A given public policy may intend to help the poor but in reality hurt them. Analysis of such policies often requires some intellectual effort and in fact some expertise in the relevant disciplines ( economics, public policy) It is very similar to medicine, there is a moral duty to take care of the sick, but how best to manage the Adult Respiratory Distress syndrome ( ARDS) and what specific rescue mode of mechanical ventilation works best , lets see….. should it be the High Frequency Oscillator or Airway pressure release ventilation…. is not a question the Catechism or the USCCB can answer. It is a technical question answered by an appeal to empirical data. To suggest otherwise is self evidently absurd, and yet there are members of the Catholic commentariat who are equally unfamilar with economic and public policy evidence who feel empowered to lable a policy as just or unjust inspite of the fact that they are completely naive to any actual evidence that bears on the question. They will tend to support a policy that purportedly “helps the poor”, regardless of the actual measurable effects, all in the name of “solidarity”. As I and many others have repeatedly pointed out, this is the root of the controversy. This attitude provides relief for those who prefer liberal economic policies ((something that is demonstrably foolish but not necessarily immoral, it is sort of like a physician who would support an outdated and demonstrably inferior medicine. They may mean well but to their patients they are dangerous) , Since supporting liberal economic policies means in practical terms supporting Democrats, and of course this pretty much means supporting the party wed to abortion on demand. As Abortion is characterized as an “unspeakable crime”, This undoubtedly causes the Catholic left some cognitive dissonance. I feel their pain, hence all the talk about “solidarity” . In the United States such talk is largely absurd because there is no one in either party that advocates as a principle ignoring the plight of the poor and down trodden. It is always the technical question of what set of policies help them.

    The general principle of Subsidiarity is a bit different. There is a moral principle involved ( that higher units of organization should not smother lower ones). It is not entirely clear that all the main political actors in the United States subscribe to the principle. So we are not talking purely about which policy this or that advances the principle of subsidiarity. There are those on the Left… well the entire left actually, who reject the principal entirely. All one has to do to understand this is read the transcript from the oral arguments during the recent SCOTUS debate over Obamacare. The Solicitor General was repeatedly asked to state a limiting principle on the power of the federal government and in terms of defending the legislation could not easily do so. Of course liberals do not reognize such a limiting principle so they traditionally object to the very idea of subidiarity, not this opr that application. It should be pretty obvious that this principle dovetails nicely with those of us who favor limited federal government. So in some sense a Catholic political philosophy would clearly have a “conservative” flavor ( as the principle of subsidiarity demands it) Although again it is pretty obvious that this principle involves limits and at times a larger unit of organization is morally required to step in, when the common good requires it. When such situtations arise is of course an issue of prudential judgement, subject to the analysis of objecitive facts and evidence and can again no more be precisely by the USCCB or the Catechism than they can define which mode of mechanical ventilation to use.

    So where does all that leave us?
    The bottom line is that a “Catholic” political philosophy ( lets say if some decendant of St Louis IX was to be the leader of a poltical movement) It would look moderately conservative ( because it would adhere to the general principle of subsidiarity) but it would not be rigidly so, there would be some sympathies for unions in general but not necessarily for the rapacious and thuggish behaviour exhibited by some ( the SEIU comes to mind). There would be a bias to peace and negotiation but a willingness to use military force when appropriate, St Louis of course participated in 2 crusades while King, and had a very large and able military seeing to the fact that France remained a great power. Obviously it would be vigorously pro-life. I can not imagine St Louis picturing the advocates of abortion as anything short of demonically possessed. In the United States of 2012 it is obvious that we would lable such a Catholic philosophy as moderately conservative, and it is championed by the likes of Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and non Catholics like Mike Pence of Indiana, or when he was a political figure a Mike Huckabee. This does not mean that one must endorse each of every position of these individuals ( not of them are divinely inspired) but it does mean that is in broad outline what a Catholic political philosphy would “look like”. I am not sure how one can rationally conclude otherwise.

    1. I find myself agreeing with so much of your comment including the conclusion of how a rational person should conclude. I found myself at an Iowa Causcus being accused of being a RINO (Republican in name only) because I was opposed to capital punishment and supported gun control. Everything else on my political resume was voided by these two. The only flaw in your statement and it is a painful one to admit is that very few people seem to examine their actions and beliefs sufficiently to make it reasonable to conclude your conclusion. Cognitive dissonance is so incredibly powerful that I fear most people would willingly argue even passionately argue for their irrational positions. Unions are a favorite topic of mine. When the organized labor movement really got off the ground in the US, the average worker had little or no real protection or voice at the economic table and the unions eventually gave them this voice. What is the function of a union now? A rational discussion of the real evidence would quickly lead to the conclusion that the function is largely obsolete but don’t even try to have that discussion with most people. You will have your choice of vitriolic arguements for and against unions but with little rationality.

      Unfortunately if it is true that most people don’t live life deeply enough to truly analyze their beliefs and form these to a logical and rational place we seem to be stuck in an ever growing emotive and chaotic storm. I think it will take years of teaching and reform in islands outside the mainstream for a re-birth of responsible and raitonal citizens. Maybe a lot of prayer should come first. God created a very complex creature in Man and this means anything we do will have to be complex as well. Complex problems really do require complex answers. My son attends a very good Catholic college outside of Washington DC. We wanted him to have a solid foundation of good classic education not the pure engineering route of his father. (Go Blue! by the way) Over Easter he began talking about a small group at this college including a professor that believe a Catholic monarchy needs to be imposed on our country as the only solution. That one made me mad. We didn’t send him to a state school in large part to avoid the extreme political environment in Iowa City but now we have the other end of the spectrum. At our best we are still emotional, irrational beings. We need to discuss a solution that addresses this data as well. This is why I love this blog. A perfect blend of rational, faithful teaching and emotive and beautiful thoughts.

    2. mdepie,

      I agree with your diagnosis of the problem, and the tendency of Catholics to favor the policies of the left, but your conclusions are still a little bit off. First, you seem to be speaking abstractly about what a political system in line with Catholic teaching should look like. I just want to clarify that there is perhaps a distinction in the type of “Catholic form of government” you envision and our current Constitutional federation of states.

      I happen to believe our current Constitutional arrangement (as written and originally intended) is most in-line with Church teaching on what a political system should look like. Individual liberties and freedom of worship are protected at all levels (in the federal and state constitutions), governmental authority at the federal level is severely limited to only those things which no state can handle itself (such as the Navy, coining money, the Post Office, etc.) As written, the federal authority only comes into play with these issues, leaving how one conducts his or her life on a daily basis as an individual, economic actor, as a God-fearing person, etc. to this individual. In other words, what the federal government is involved in should focus only on those few things that are required for there to exist a federation of states, but not be involved in our daily lives. It should not be an agent in the marketplace, an agent in our morality, or an “agent” in the true sense of the word. It is supposed to exist to protect life, liberty, and property and the sovereignty of the states. This leaves citizens the freedom to live their lives the way they see fit, and to seek the morality they choose (with the lives and property of others as one’s limits). This also leaves the Church the freedom to evangelize and to promote her teaching shamelessly in the public sphere, and for her also to act freely in the marketplace. In this system, groups of people living in cities, counties, states, etc. may choose how best to govern themselves and which laws are appropriate, or may freely enter into contracts amongst themselves. But at the federal level, there is no legislative authority except as related to the 18 powers granted.

      Now, obviously, this picture is not the system we have today. Unfortunately, there have only been a very few amendments to the original Constitution (so it SHOULD still look like this), but our Constiturion has pretty much been ignored except for the phrases “freedom of speech,” “general welfare,” and “commerce clause.” 18 enumerated powers? Never heard of them. I won’t go into how and why we’ve come to our Constitution being ignored, but I still believe the system as written is ideal.

      I think in your “ideal Catholic government”, you dangerously appeal to a higher level in cases where “the common good” demands it. I don’t know exactly how you envision this government being structured, if it’s remotely similar to our federal system, but having a greater authority to decide right vs. wrong or the ability to intervene at lower levels means that the ultimate power resides at this top tier and all decisions are subject to this tier’s interpretation of “the common good.” This is a very different dynamic than that of our Constitution, wherein rights and liberties originate from God and governments exist merely to protect them, where the power of governance resides within the individual and he or she then “delegates” persons or governments to act on his or her behalf.

      I believe this way of thinking, the misunderstanding of the power structure of government, is the reason we are where we are today. If we are of the belief that “some other power” is supreme, and we constantly defer to this power to make the important decisions, this power can assert itself over us and dictate what the good is, leaving us subjugated to whims of “the common good.”

      This is not to say I believe in radical individualism – but that as far as POLITICAL organizations are involved, the governmental authority must be subservient to the rights of the individual. The individual is, of course, still subject to his conscience and his relationship to the Creator.

      Ps: your “ideal Catholic” politician would actually be much closer to Dr. Ron Paul: a Christian man and pro-life, anti-death penalty, anti-undeclared war, pro-Constitution, defender of man’s God-given right to govern himself. 🙂

      1. You bring up some interesting points. And I would add that, from my own perspective, I am constantly having to remind myself that what’s coming out of the Holy See is intended for the *entire* world and as such is put in very general terms that are applicable to the vast majority of nations. Which means the terms don’t necessarily translate to the US in the same way simply because our nation is extremely different than most others (That doesn’t mean they don’t *apply* to us, of course. Merely that the implementation of our Catholic principles may need to take a much different form here than we see elsewhere). For all intents and purposes, our individual states are more similar in size and scope to other nation-states than our entire federation, if you will, is. And I think that’s where we in the US can get ourselves into trouble because, as I said in another comment, what works well in individual European nations, for example, wouldn’t be practical or logical for the entirety of Europe. And look, the national authorities can be extremely effective in other nations simply because they generally are not very large. You’re talking about nations whose government is very close to the people in physical proximity. They can be more responsive and more ready to tailer to specific needs because they aren’t trying to put together one solution for 300,000,000 people over 3.7 million square miles of territory.

        I don’t personally see a lot of consideration of those factors in the American conversation on the appropriate size and scope of government (maybe they’re there and I’ve missed them?) and I think there should be more thought given to that because they are genuine mitigating factors.

  12. Reading the responses it’s clear that this issue brings out a lot of feelings in people, but objective evidence would be stronger than feelings in establishing policies. Are there any data available to demonstrate that people (Catholics included) actually do give more to charity when taxed less? To those who suggest the Church rather than the government should care for those in need: What happens in remote areas with no Vincent de Paul presence? Is the local Catholic community willing to mortgage their houses to pay for an operation for a local indigent who needs a liver transplant? There are serious implications to dismissing the role of a government in helping to create a just society…

    1. I don’t think anyone is arguing that there may not end up being some gaps. I think we all know there will be and no one’s quite sure yet how those gaps will be filled. I think the point overall is that the primary responsibility to fill those gaps rests with the local communities and only when those people cannot take care of the problem themselves are we to look to a higher level of authority. The problem we have now is that most folks are operating under the belief that someone else, most often the nebulous government, will step in to fill those gaps without us having to be bothered. And that’s a big problem.

      The thing is that what might be a good solution for gap-filling in my hometown in Central Florida may not be a good solution wherever it is you live. The demographics are different, the physical area itself is different, resources are different, etc and so on. By handing these issues over to say the federal authorities to try and solve them for the country at large you will inevitably end up with a cookie-cutter solution that’s not meant to serve the human person individually or can easily be tailored to the needs of different people and circumstances. Let’s face it, many of our states are larger than most European nations. You wouldn’t try to force one universal solution to an issue on all of Europe, so why would we do that here? It’s unworkable on its face and makes no sense at all.

    2. I cannot speak for everybody else posting here, but I would not argue that the civil power should play absolutely no role in assisting where there is great need. In fact, that very idea is built into the idea of subsidiarity. However, there should be limits, and that is what needs to be discussed.

      First of all, what I object to is the unprincipled meddling of the state in the affairs of civil society. Why is it that the state was relatively uninvolved in the education of society during the Middle Ages, but that in the modern era it is nearly impossible to provide education without the approval of the state? What changed? This is but one example of the abuse of the civil power, and it is justified in the name of “protecting people from a bad education.” See? An ostensibly good motive which is used to justify an improper exceeding of the role of the state. And once these limits have been broken, all alternatives are driven out in the name of “efficiency” and “quality.”

      Second, not enough effort is made to look at the whole picture of the interactions between the civil power and the society it governs. Why has medicine increased in cost so much, for instance? Could it possibly have anything to do with unnecessarily high standards for equipment, facilities, employees, etc. that do not arise from real need but are forced upon it by the civil power for the sake of “assuring quality”? I don’t know, but we need to ask such questions. Could it possibly have anything to do with the massive amount of subsidizing of the medical industry as a whole that is carried out by the federal government and the various state governments? When something is subsidized, prices go up. Is this part of the problem? I don’t know, but we need to ask such questions.

      But saying “This guy needs a liver transplant, so let’s have the state pay for it” is unhelpful, because it ignores the possibility that state interferences may be the reason that the liver transplant costs so much in the first place. We should not take it for granted that the costs we see are “just so.” Unfortunately, many social documents put out by our Church leadership (even at the level of the Holy See) do take this for granted, as if these are settled questions already.

      God bless,

    3. Daniel, yes indeed there are data to demonstrate that charitable contributions rise when tax rates decline. If you look at annual charitable contributions (a magazine called Philanthropy publishes yearly numbers, I believe), you can look at the changes over a time when tax rates declined. I did this years ago for the period of the late 1970s into the 1980s, when Pres. Reagan’s across the board tax cuts came into effect after the high tax era of Pres. Carter. There was a surge in contributions, and as I recall, more of the surge came from lower-income than upper-income-income earners.
      This happens as a secondary result of tax cuts. The primary result is that tax reductions provide incentives that generate new investment in businesses and jobs, so the whole economy grows more quickly. Secondarily, as more people become employed in a growing economy, and those already employed are prospering, they contribute more to charity.
      So you don’t have to offer people big tax deductions and write-offs to get them to give to charity. All the govt has to do is encourage the economy to prosper. In their sense of solidarity (and with some reminding from the pulpit), people will do the rest.

  13. Thanks Msgr. Pope,
    A well written insightful article. We need less polarization. And the idea that solidarity and subsidiarity imply a complimentary role for each other that naturally defuses the polarization timebomb is a very important concept to keep in mind during all these debates.
    It seems the government could do a lot to provide the framework for individuals to be able to contribute more easily and less painfully to society. This is especially true given the very high tax rates that leave little left for charity. Perhaps allow fifty cents off taxes owed to anyone who donates a dollar to a hospital or charitable institution. This would probably be more efficient than funneling everything through the giant bureaucracies and would be true sacrificial charity (i.e. solidarity) since people would still be out fifty cents for every dollar they contribute. Welfare is not charity because people who ‘contribute’ are merely doing so to avoid further penalties.
    The government would simply provide the incentive framework, coordinating effort to help those communities that cant raise enough to meet their needs and oversight to fight misappropriation. True solidarity together with subsidiarity.

  14. The concept of subsidiarity — much as made clear in the Catechism — is first and foremost founded on the concept of the individual. As I read Msgr’s discussion, he seems to gloss over this foundational personal responsibility which an individual has for his or herself, where they must first abide by what is just and right:

    “(1880)….but the human person is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions. (1881)”

    Likewise, before you begin to address the level or responsibility for someone other than an individual to resolve a “problem,” one had better first define the problem with extreme care.

    Once the problem is accurately and fully defined, only then can one even begin to discuss the “cure” or best resources to deploy against the problem. The application of theories of “subsidiarity” or “solidarity” are useless unless we can first define the nature of the “problem.”

    My point is everything: Need we remind ourselves that our current government sees pregnancy as a “problem” to be fixed via abortion or avoided through contraception. Need I say more?

    This same government has convinced us we have a “problem” with healthcare. Do we? From a societal point of view — the answer is far closer to a clear NO than a clear yes.

    We have, by any measure of human progress in all of history, a healthcare system today which, under our semi-capitalist system, has generated countless cures and medical breakthroughs. True, 35% of all people living in this country (including illegal aliens) do not have health insurance. But we must all agree that they are all provided with urgent care without consideration of the cost.

    In human terms, this is a problem we should all be grateful for — return to the healthcare we had only two or three decades ago and you are talking infinitely more human suffering and deaths across the globe. Note that the medical breakthroughs from our industry in the USA get disseminated to even the most remote parts of the world in under 18 months.

    I respectfully appreciate the good Msrg’s discussion about the nuances between subsidiarity and solidarity. But I also suspect he has fallen hook, line and sinker for the current mania that we have a “problem” that must be resolved! Its a PROBLEM I tell you!

    And for my own contributions to the levity of the “the problem is destroying us” argument, consider this video

    Which is not so funny really — the guy is calling for a world-government control to fix the “problem” of man-made climate change.


    I can imagine that there would be lots of discussion about subsidiarity when it comes to this question, but really — that misses the point of discussing the truth of the problem first. We are learning more and more that man-made climate change is a farce and scientifically unsound.

    But you can bet, the left won’t allow for that discussion — only around the question of “subsidiarity” and the need for a world-government control because, hey, after all, the “problem” cannot be solved even at a national level.

    God help us all.

  15. Democratic Senator Daniel Moynahan stood on the floor of the US Senate some years ago and observed that the good, caring actions of providing welfare for the African American community, by the federal level of government , had the unintended consequence of destroying the African American family. The current level of African American homes with no father is 70%. Where is the solidarity in that? Dont’t make the mistake of concluding that the person who speaks of this reality is not in “Solidarity” with the poor.

    Also, is it a failure to engage “solidarity” with the poor when one refuses to give cash to a drug adict or alcholic on the street?

    I volunteered for St. Vincent de Paul Society for 15 years. Proper “Solidarity” includes Wisdom not sentimental

  16. The key questions dodged by self-proclaimed solidarists are these: what is the distinguishing moral feature of government which makes the collection of money by use of force something other than theft. At what point does the desire for a reasonable standard of living morph into coveting one’s neighbor’s goods? Can the social teaching of the Church ever appear to be in violation of the Ten Commandments? Why are governments ordained of God, and are all their acts (regardless of moral value) so ordained?

  17. I’ve been a little under the weather today and as such have not been able to interact with the comments as much as I’d like. However, let me say, in a general sort of way that some of the comments above (not all) have disappointed me in that I had hoped to reset the conversation a bit (at least among us Catholics). For subsidiarity and solidarity are more nuanced than the public (political) discussion appreciates. Further they are not bi-polar opposites, but interact and inform each other.

    But it would seem that many of the comments (not all) have said in effect “Well that was a strange article….now where were we…?
    and then it’s right back to using the terms in a simplistic, sloganeering manner.

    Again, my main point in this article is to try and keep the Catholic meaning of these terms which are richer and less bipolar than the political use of them appreciates, and also to recall that these are terms intersect with other principles of Catholic Social teaching.

    Alas, it would seem that for many (not all) of the commenters here, my attempt at reintroducing the nuances has been unsuccessful.

    But let me just say again, Catholicism is careful, politics is polar. Catholic terms with long history do not well fit into politics, left or right.

    1. Msgr,

      I think you are reading the thoughts expressed here through a defensive lens.

      The myriad of opinions above (and below) are far more substantial than you are giving posters credit for.

      The posters here are pointing out the various “problems” one speaks about — whether they be healthcare, unionization, military, global warming, etc. — can corrupt the terms subsidiarity and solidarity as they are known — simply by discussing the application of each to fixing the so-called problems.

      You seem bent on restraining the discussion to the meaning of the words — and the good Catholics here are rebelling against your constraint to point out that the context of the “problem” is the key because the words fit any point-of-view you wish, depending on your view of the problem.

      Define the context of the problem, and anyone can stand up and make a very good case FOR or AGAINST Catholic positions on solidarity or subsidiarity.

      I used healthcare and the “problem” of pregnancies above. But perhaps the clearest is the problem of unionization that someone else mentioned. At one point in time “solidarity” was a nearly-perfect pitch for unionization. And, indeed, our Catholic church through encyclicals and powerful Bishop support, stood with union members. But now? In the context of our time and our country? Who could justify “solidarity” to drive yet higher pensions and healthcare for life with no contributions?

      The point is you seem to be defending words — when our postings are stressing context. I am reminded of the Catholic definition of “sin” and saying sin is entirely and wholly dependent on context.

      One last point on subsidiarity. Whenever a higher-level of government steps-in to resolve a problem, the authority and power of that higher-level eviscerates the freedom of the minority in the “problem” community. And that danger is great and far exceeds the cost savings from efficiencies and quality imposed by the higher form overseeing the solution of the problem.

      Consider abortion. If my “town” passes a law making abortion legal, I can pick-up and move from my town to the next town over. The town will either strive or fail when enough free men and women make such a choice (of course it will fail! The town will die without new births!). But when the law is passed by a state government, it is dramatically harder to pick-up and move from one state to another. But wait, when the federal government passes a law making abortion legal, the only possible way to escape the power of that law is to renounce citizenship. Now, imagine a world-government making a law that abortion is legal — where does one go?

      This is the underlying foundation for subsidiarity — to allow for personal freedoms. If Jesus wanted to save the rich young man, he would have simply told the disciples to go to his home, confiscate his goods and distribute them so the man could ultimately find eternal bliss without those goods. But Jesus did not do so — honoring, above even the value of the man’s soul, the man’s freedoms.

      Subsidiarity is the closest mechanical form of government to that honoring of freedom.

  18. I surely hope that by “stabilizing national monetary policy” you are not defending the Federal Reserve. The Founding Fathers fought the creation of such a bank (Thomas Jefferson killed the First Bank of the United States, President Jackson the Second Bank), but our Dollar has lost over 98% of its value since 1913 (creation of the Fed), disproportionately harming the poor, the working class, and the elderly while benefiting the rich.

    If you wonder why in the past one man could support a family of 8, and now two can barely support a family of 4, look no further for your answer: it takes more dollars to buy the same amount of goods. I strongly encourage you Father, to study more into the origins of the Federal Reserve and its effect on society today. Catholic scholar Thomas Woods Jr. (author of How the Catholic Church Created Western Civilization) can be a great place to start.

  19. Msgr. Trying to begin from your reset. (sorry, first I hope you feel above the weather very soon) The teaching expressed by the Church is much more than the sum of the component ideas in each word. So much time is spent breaking ideas and issues into the parts and working with the parts and assuming this is the same as working with the whole. What is the role you envision for each level understanding that I am breaking this down again? For me as an individual I am responsible for the problems that I should address at my level through love and the teaching of the Church. As we grow in complexity from individual to family to city etc there is a duty at each level to act with subsidiarity and solidarity. I am at a loss on how to educate or grow people and institutions to understand and apply these ideas. I see how an international organization may be best suited to combat malaria on a worldwide scale from research or the delivery of medicines and how an individual should combat malaria by making sure there is no standing water. The individuals actions both protect the common good (solidarity I think) because there is now no standing water on my property to foster mosquitos. But I see the subsidiarity in that I don’t wait for the government to come tell me or force me to drain the water. Over simplified I am sure.

    Jumping wildly though is how do we foster the balanced approach that these two ideas require to compliment each other? Education, patience and Grace is all I can see.

    Again hope you feel better soon.

    1. Well, I think the place to begin is not to turn subsidiarity and solidarity into opposites. In fact subsidiarity presumes and requires solidarity to work, even if the solidarity is merely that of family members for each other. At no level can subsidiarity work without solidarity. The instinct of subsidiarity is find the lowest level reasonably workable to solve a problem and higher levels should therefore provide support and coordination. But here too subsidiarity cannot exist in a vacuum. For example. A man should work to support his family and the government or other higher level such as the Church should not take that role except in an emergency and temporarily. But consider that for a man to work other higher levels may need to provide supportive and coordinating functions. Thus the local community provides police support, paves the roads he drives on, regulates and ensures right of ways for the utilities for his home and business etc. The federal government moderates and regulates the currency so that the dollars he earns actually mean more than the paper they are written on, helps to moderate and coordinate interstate commerce etc. I mean I could go on but hopefully you get the point. There are lots of levels operative and different norms applying all at once. Finding the right balance and the proper degree of subsidiarity is more than one dimensional. I don’t have time to add in other Catholic Social principles but they all have a role in the discussion too. For a quick example, Distributism is the Catholic principle that ownership should be as widely distributed as possible and that this makes for more stable and just societies. Thus a goal for every economy is to encourage a wider and wider degree of ownership. Then everyone has a stake in preserving and up building the economy and the culture. How this is widely and wisely achieved is a matter of some debate, but to be avoided is state collectivism (i.e. communism) or a form of monarchy or oligarchy wherein most wealth is controlled and owned only by a few. Here too in America there are struggles to find the right balance as well, whether it be excessive government ownership of land and resources, or too many resources only in the hands of a few corporations. But also to be avoided is the all too eager distribution of ownership wherein banks were forced to give loans to high risk mortgages and then we saw the collapse of real estate and the huge foreclosure problem. All this said, the principle of distributism encourages a wider distribution of ownership where this is reasonably possible. As for the universal destination of goods, I have written on that principle here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/11/the-forgotten-principal-of-social-justice/


      The main point is that we cannot reduce Catholic Social teaching to a slogan or talking point. There are many principles to be held in balance. And, in seeking to find this balance reasonable men may differ. Hence the Church’s social teaching does not belong to any one political party or movement, but all should avoid either simplifying or selecting out one thing or another. All these principles inter-relate and enrich each other.

      1. Msgr.,

        May you get well soon. I agree that Catholic social teaching is complex. However, even a rudimentary examination of the post-WWII welfare state tells us that it is not Catholic in nature. You speak often of the decline of the West and frequently mention birth control as a key driver behind the decline. I would argue that the other great social change of the last 60 years, the modern welfare state, is equally to blame for the decline in Christian values in our society. The welfare state generates all sorts of social pathologies and discourages the practice of traditional virtues. Catholic social teaching is really about ensuring that our brothers and sisters who are unable to take care of themselves are taken care of by the rest of us. Catholic social teaching is not about the State taking money from the wealthy to give to those able bodied men and women who are unwilling to obtain a useful education and then work hard and live within their means for many decades to follow.

        1. Yes, I largely agree, but my point is that trotting out subsidiarity and contrasting it with solidarity is not an authentically Catholic way to critique the matter. What I am asking for is a more proper use of concepts in whatever critique is made, and there is, as you point out, much to be critiqued. But lets use proper terminology and not artificially set one Catholic principle against another. In effect, words matter and we should use them accurately. Even when considered alone, all by itself (which it should not and cannot be) subsidiarity is a principle, not a mathematical formula. Reasonable people differ on exactly where to lay the plumb line. So subsidiarity is not a slam dunk. Conservative Catholics do well if we will look at the wider social teaching and develop a deeper argument than just the “one-note johnny” of subsidiarity. Distributism and other notions also have a lot to say in terms of the size of government becoming too big. Wider…deeper, that’s my advice.

          1. But, Msgr., I think that the “one note Johnny” of subsidiary has reared it’s head because of the consistent “one note Johnny” of solidarity that’s been so prevalent over the years. I am relatively knew to Catholicism (confirmed one year ago on May 1), and one of the things I struggled with during the conversion process was the social teaching of solidarity because (a) it is probably the most prominent principle discussed in the social teaching in recent times, and (b) most of the interpretations of it I had seen either implied or explicitly stated that the ideal that stems from solidarity is either some form of Marxism (communism or socialism) or some kind of permanent welfare state. And it was baffling because I couldn’t understand how the Church could condemn those ideologies on the one hand and push them as ideal because of the principle of solidarity on the other. Luckily I found out that wasn’t the case (Through my own research, BTW. My catechists were none-too-pleased when I brought up the subject of subsidiarity in class and made an effort to gloss over its implications.), but imagine how many people never resolve that conflict, or even those who uncritically take the self-proclaimed solidarists at their word as “experts” on the subject.

            The point I was trying to get across in my first post (hopefully not too poorly) is that the new focus on subsidiarity is a natural response to the idea of solidarity being equal to an all-encompassing authority that doles out everything fairly. And I would argue- and I believe the decline of our social structures illustrates- that pushing “solidarity” above all has gotten us to a place where people not only misunderstand and/or misuse those terms and equate them with opposing political positions but that we’ve also managed to lose true solidarity with our neighbors by continually pushing for someone else to “do” for them under the guise of solidarity.

            Another thing is that these ideas seem to push our thoughts and musings into the political realm (where the terms are admittedly being abused and oversimplified) because it is a natural area where we would/should be applying these principles.

            I hope that makes sense and I hope you’re feeling better this morning. I will remember you in my rosary today.

          2. Yes, but the paradox is that solidarity came into the American lexicon in conjunction with the solidarity movement of Poland and that was the overthrow of an oppressive government. If the left does use the word Solidarity (and frnakly I dont hear them use that word much) they too are narrowing its meaning. Solidarity means to stand together ith others in their struggle it is no more right or left than subsidarity is right or left. Both are principles that adapt to the struggle and interrelate.

          3. That is definitely ironic. I probably hang out entirely too much amongst the political scene, which is why I hear the term solidarity thrown around a lot in conjunction with government largesse. 🙂

            And I definitely agree we need to use the terms appropriately. Someone like say Paul Ryan equating the American governing principle of federalism to subsidiarity is certainly problematic. I think he has his heart in the right place, but I wouldn’t say that federalism is interchangeable with subsidiarity. It could certainly be considered a possible *application* of that principle, but not the principle itself.

            I agree that there is not a direct opposite correlation between subsidiarity and solidarity, nor should there be. As with everything else I find out about our faith, it seems to be a but/and instead of an either/or. Which is a good thing because if we’re truly operating under both those principles we would be constantly be reexamining our motives and adjusting our actions to balance out those two principles in the best interests of those we are serving.

          4. I should correct myself and say that I hear solidarity thrown around amongst the *Catholic* left, as well as “social justice,” in conjunction with their policy preferences. Again, I’m kind of a political junkie so that may be the reason for the discrepancy between my experience and that of others.

  20. My oldest daughter mentioned a while ago that every country that has adopted a national pension scheme or plan to support the aged – starting with Bismarck’s Germany in the late 19th century – has seen gradual drops in the birth rate (per hundred women ages 15-45) to the point in the late 20th Century (early 21st century?) where fewer babies are being born than needed to replace the working generation. The replacement ratio in the USA is between 2.1 births and 2.2 births over the lifetime of each woman, as some children die before reaching adulthood; and some women do not give birth.
    In Greece, on average 100 grandparents have about 46 grandchildren. How can the working population in such a country pay enough taxes to support the retirees? When the government recognizes demographic reality and tries to reduce the pension expense either by direct cuts or, indirectly, by deferring the “normal” retirement age, the affected population riots in the streets!
    Our politicians of both major parties in the USA have a bad habit of making promises to people that will become unaffordable in the foreseeable future. Ask an actuary or a demographer.
    This doesn’t have anything to do with subsidiarity and solidarity, but the lack of thinking on government provided pensions in the USA is a problem at Federal, state (California) and local levels.

  21. I think they call them “straw men”, that is creating secondary issues to avoid dealing with the real issues.
    Subsidiarity and Solidarity are statements of principle and are easily understood. There is unity. They mean exactly what they say and it is not difficult to understand the principles.

    Now we can proceed with application of clearly understood principles. One only needs to ask whether a proposed or current action by government serves or violates those principles.

    For clear perspective, say “Greece,bankruptcy, intergenerational debt and economic collapse” and then explain to me the “nuances” of Subsidiarity and Solidarity. Government actions, at all levels, either serve of violate these principles. If you are willing to acquire all the facts, you will see great harm done by government in the name of solidarity.

    Be honestly willing to acknowledge how extensive this harm by government has been and can be. Then, let’s get on to Solidarity with real, needy people who cannot provide for themselves.

    1. So there is no role for government at any level? Seems like tossing the baby out with the bath water. Maybe this would be a great place to start. What is the purpose and role of government. There will be huge tracts of disagreement but can we find any alignment. Governments are messy I think by the nature of the beast. They somewhat by their nature do not have the authority of morality that comes to a religion. This seems apparent from the few theocracies in the world. Not that we should chuck aside ethics and morality for the actions of givernment but given the broad spectrum of people in a society under one government you either have to have compromise or dictatorship. So can we discuss what s the common ground around the definition of the role and purpose of government. If we can get through that with minimal emotional turmoil then we can apply the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity with more success. We just start with the common ground for the common good.

  22. I think the issue needs to be a little more evidence based. Lets take the notion of distributism. There is little empirical data to suggest such a system would be other than a disaster. it is based on a romantized notion that the ideal social order would involve small family businesses, little farms, and social cooperatives. This gauzy notion sounds nice but lets take a look at it. Right now large massive corporations are primarily responsible for making the things which are preventing death on a catastrophic global scale. Lets see how, clean water requires purification systems made by large coporations, indeed even in the Third World which must use relatively simple systems tubing and fliters made by large corporations like McMCaster Carr, and controllers made by companies like Anadex labs need to produce the components of the filters that prevent countless people from dying from infectious diarheaa. It is really unlcear how a distributism system as conceieved of by the delightful writers GK Chersteton and Hillare Belloc ( delightful writers but clueless when it comes to economics) would provide these things. We could go on along this vein, but the reason Distributism can not work in any meaningful sense is many things that we need to function in the year 2012 require the large scale mustering of technical expertise and resources of the large coorporation. The drug Combiver ( actually a combination of 2 drugs) is widely used to combat AIDS in the US and the rest of the world including poor areas of third world severely affected by HIV, like Africa. Without it and drugs like it millions would die sooner. It is made by Glaxo Wellcome, It required enormous prior animal and test tube research and organized clinical trials in thousands of patients, with the technical expertise of lab scientists, technicians, physicians, statisticians, and administrative personnel to make this drug “happen” .It is not readily clear to me how distributism would duplicate this. In fact the umpteen computer chips powering the computers that make the internet, are made by corporations like Intel, and AMD. Not clear to me how the little family cooperative opens up the hypersterile enviornment needed to make these chips, not to mention come up with the photolithography equipment that engraves the integrated circuit. When you say “distributism” you need to explain how distributism can do these things. When it become obvious it can’t it, it becomes clear that Catholics need to dispense with this trope. Thats not to say there is anything wrong with small family businesses ( my wife started a little decorating business, and my fathers family at one point owned a little small town tavern, Nothing like the family owned pizzaria, but capitalism allows for this kind of thing, which we need. It also allows for as large corporations which we need as well.

    As for the concentration of wealth in large corporations, Corporations are owned by stock holders. In this sense we already have attained goals that Chesteron could not imagine. 44% of all Americans own stock or mutual funds, and others benefit indirectly since the have pensions which are invested in mutual funds, and other equities. When the corporations accumulate more wealth and increase in value these folks benefit, even the teacher or fireman benefit as their pensions increase. In fact charitable entities benefit, The Archdiocese of Washington owned in 2009, 54 million dollars worth of equities, which if they increase in value would be a good thing for the archdiocese and the people it serves.

    It is time for the Catholic church to rethink its view of capitalism which for all its flaws is in reality the single greatest anti-poverty system known to man. It has resulted in a system in which the our poorest 5% has a standard of living better than 68% of the rest of the world, and comparable to the top 20% in places like India. This is not because we are “hogging” the worlds resources, because places that have almost no natural resources like South Korea, have similarly high standards of living, it is not a coincidence that there poverty declined when they adopted an economic system similar to America. It is not clear to me if what we are really worried about is helping poor people why we want some “third way”. In America poverty as known to the gospel writers is very very rare, 92% of the people classified as “poor” in the United States own a microwave, 2/3 of them own DVD players. This is not the Gospel poor. This is not to say there are not people who lack these things, or who have them but live in dangerous, crime ridden neighborhoods. We still have people who suffer from lack of resources and estrangement from opportunity, but it is not because of our economic system. There is plenty of evidence it is because of things like drug abuse, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, fatherless homes, and the sorts of things distributism will not fix. One might argue capitalism unattached from any other moral value can encourage such vices because it may stimulate appetities for things that are harmful if used in excess ( Alcohol) or at all ( pornography etc..) That is an argument for a “moral capitalism” something like what Blessed John Paul II maybe hinted at in Centesimus Annus. what is needed is a free market economy imbued with controls that are ethical and cultural. In some cases, some of these controls might need state backing, but this is not distributism.

    At best systems like distributism might be the begining of a solution in the third world, with things like microloans ( for those interested this is an interesting way to aid the global poor without subsidizing foreign dictators) helping start businesses. Still there is little evidence distributism will be effective on a large enough scale to help solve the ongoing castrophe in places like Sub saharan Africa.

  23. I disagree that Catholic teaching doesn’t fit well with politics. Maybe it doesn’t fit well with political talking points, but if it doesn’t have real world application in real contexts, what good is it? Over history, the Church has been quite comfortable backing (or at least preferring) particular regimes and political orders. I don’t think revisionist history should make us ashamed of that; more often than not, it was for the best. We should be proud of that history. Generalizing subsidiarity in order to protect it from political mudslinging risks rendering it too abstract to be useful. I.e., one should not be allowed to say with impunity that any conceivable solution to any specific problem is a legitimate application of the Catholic idea called subsidiarity. Some solutions are more consistent than others.

    In this country, we have a tradition of federalism which seems quite compatible with the Catholic idea of subsidiarity – more compatible than most big government solutions. This tradition has worked quite well; no, we don’t have a utopia, but get used to that. No doubt, subsidiarity would not play out the same in every country and at every time; but it seems to play out in that form quite well in the U.S. Why not acknowledge and endorse that? And we have observed real threats from the federal government to pre-political institutions that subsidiarity is intended to protect: the family, the Church, and private property. Moreover, the alleged success of the federal government in solving “big modern problems” is funded 40% by debt with no realistic chance of that figure going down even long term; the claim that the federal government has solved problems that other institutions cannot solve is premature before we actually pay for those solutions; likely, no problem has been solved at all, just shifted to different generations (that in itself is immoral). Meanwhile, the Church, the family, localized government, and other mediating institutions have been solving problems in this country and outside from time immemorial. The argument that modern problems are too big for these institutions is flimsy at best especially when you take into account that the 60% of funding the federal government is not borrowing is coming directly or indirectly from these institutions. The correct (or at least the better) side of our political divide is clear without even mentioning the issues of abortion, marriage, etc. When people of good will don’t acknowledge that one side really is better and turn meaningful Catholic teachings into abstract philosophical speculations in order to protect the Church from having to take a partisan stand they only magnify the problem of political confusion and social turmoil.

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