This is a very thought provoking article over at The Catholic Thing by Peter Brown on an issue I have also struggled to present here (far less capably than Mr. Brown). And that is the issue of finding the proper balance or interplay between two principles of Catholic Social teaching: subsidiarity and solidarity.
Precise meanings have been lost – The problem that has emerged is that Catholics, and others, have taken these terms into the political arena and, as might be expected, these rather careful and nuanced Catholic terms have been reduced more to slogans, and are fast losing their truly Catholic meaning. Thus, subsidiarity becomes shorthand for smaller government, and solidarity is shorthand for expansive government. They are also losing their interconnectedness and taking on a more polar opposite quality.
Interrelatedness is lost – To be sure, these terms do exist in some tension with one another, but they also compliment and depend on each other. Yet, much is lost as they become slogans and shorthand terms. Also ignored in this rather bipolar world are other principles of Catholic Social Teachings such as distributism, complementarity, charity, and the universal destination of goods.
A few thoughts on the two principles in question by your truly and then a look at Peter Brown’s Article.
Subsidiarity – The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of Subsidiarity –
The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature (1879)….A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them (1880)….but the human person is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions. (1881)…..Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “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 co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (1883)…..The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order (1885).
Note the careful, interplay between levels of a society that subsidiarity envisions. It is clear that subsidiarity opposes the imposition of top-down solutions, and insists that problems should be handled at the lowest level possible, thus respecting individuals, families and local communities. But higher levels do have an obligation to support lower levels and to provide a coordinating function, where necessary, between various and numerous lower levels. So subsidiarity does oppose “excessive intervention” by the state, but also envisions some role of support in case of need, and coordination that respects the common good.
Hence what subsidiarity seeks, it would seem, is the lowest reasonable level to solve a problem. Sometimes the lowest level is in fact the family, Church, or local community (disciplining a child, providing food and shelter), at other times it is at the state level (building state roads), at still other times the Federal Government is the appropriate and lowest level (e.g. in building interstate roads, stabilizing national monetary policy, repelling international enemies and so forth).
It will therefore be noted that, even before examining the principle of solidarity, subsidiarity already admits of nuance and the need for prudential judgement as to what the most appropriate level to solve a problem is. Reasonable men and women may differ on the exact level and combination of levels to problem solve.
It does seem clear however that we have come through a time of heavy Federal and State intervention and that greater scrutiny is needed to avoid violating the intrinsic demand of limits to governmental involvement and collectivist solutions.
Solidarity – Here too the Catechism teaches:
The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of “friendship” or “social charity,” is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood (1939)…Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work. It also presupposes the effort for a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts more readily settled by negotiation (1940). Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples….(1941).
This principle, it will be noted is far more sweeping, almost poetically so, in its vision. It is less restrictive and more proscriptive. In short we are to see everyone as our brother or sister and be prepared to stand with them for a more just social order. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Hence we are summoned to become more keenly aware of the injustice that others suffer. If we are part of that injustice, then we are summoned to repent. In all cases we are called to know and love our brethren more.
Solidarity implies above all else, a relationship. It is more than writing checks or making occasional protests. It is coming to know others and sharing their hardships as well as their joys. It is also sharing our hardships and joys with others.
It will be noted that little is said of Government in these quotes from the Catechism on solidarity. For solidarity includes subsidiarity even as subsidiarity includes solidarity. (Peter Brown will make this point well in the quote below). Rather, solidarity is about interpersonal relationships, and of individuals joining together in mutual support.
As such, groups often develop political involvement, as they have the right to do. In recent years it is clear that many such groups, that have come together for solidarity among themselves, have adopted a stance that is more insistent on political and legal solutions. But this is a trend in our society not an intrinsic demand of solidarity.
Paradoxically it will be noted that Subsidiarity makes mention of Government while Solidarity (at least in this Catechism definition) does not. Subsidiarity, while seeking to limit government and other high level solutions, does envision some role for higher levels (e.g. Government) in terms of “support” and “coordination.” The Catechism’s treatment of solidarity does not make mention of Government (though it does not exclude it).
It is therefore interesting how, in recent years, subsidiarity has come to be identified with small government, and solidarity with big government. The catechetical reality is more complicated and nuanced. As Catholics we do well to be more careful in our use of these terms.
And now for some words from the Peter Brown article I noted earlier. Mr. Brown is here referring to the Healthcare debate but makes the same basic point that “subsidiarity” and “solidarity” ought not be reduced to bipolar (opposite) notions but are in fact related. As per usual, his remarks are in black, bold italics, my minor remarks are in red plain text.
These are excerpts, the full article is here: The Limits of Subsidiarity
[T]he great American health care debate….has even spilled over into theology, where partisans on either side are armed with cudgels called, respectively, “subsidiarity” and “solidarity.” …
In broad outline, “Subsidiarists” are people who are fearful or hostile to the state provision of social welfare – preferring that charity be dispensed at lower levels of society: communities and families. “Solidarists,” by contrast, believe that society as a whole is often the best administrator of social welfare, and prefer that things such as health insurance be run by the state. Or so it is said by those who use these terms. But, as Brown notes the reality of these terms is more complex.
Subsidiarists speak kindly of social arrangements as they were in the old days, when communities consisted of people who knew and cared for one another and extended families. Why, in this view, should Catholics support a distant, impersonal, bureaucratic welfare state, when for most of Church history Catholics subsisted by taking care of one another?…
In his core conviction, the subsidiarist is not wrong. People did use to care for each other more and without state provision. The original risk-pooling arrangement in the West was the feudal society – with peasants and lords combining resources to take care of the sick and the dying. …With the emergence of modern capitalism, the feudal system collapsed. The provision of social welfare was replaced largely by guilds, trade unions, and friendly societies [e.g. Knights of Columbus]. For a membership fee and active participation, friendly societies would visit sick members, while underwriting doctor bills and funeral expenses. Over time, many of them arranged for long-term support for the disabled as well. [To this day, the Knights of Columbus has a strong Life Insurance Policy program for its members].
These societies also practiced solidarity, with regular member meetings imbued with a specifically religious flavor – prayers, Bible readings, and fellowship. The Knights of Columbus was originally set up along the friendly society model. The arrangement seemed a subsidiarist theologian’s dream. People taking care of one another in families and communities in Christian charity. What was not to like? [But note how solidarity and subsidiarity existed together and were quite interwove. They were NOT competing principles at all, they worked together].
[But] friendly societies actually began collapsing well before the emergence of the modern welfare state…One problem was the vast improvement in medical care…A small community could provide for the health care that was available in 1870. It was much harder in 1910. It would be impossible today with the cost of care for, say, cancer or heart disease easily running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars….
Another thing that killed the friendly societies was …social mobility. With people increasingly moving from farm to city, and from city to city, the social solidarity that made the societies work fell apart. Solidarity is in fact an absolutely necessary (though not sufficient) condition for subsidiarist arrangements to work. [Again, note the relationship and interdependence of solidarity and subsidiarity. They are not competing principles, they are interdependent ones]. And solidarity simply does not hold up well in a dynamic labor market. Want to move to Texas to accept that great job offer? Then someone needs to take care of grandpa and the disabled cousin back home.
The final blow to the friendly societies was….privately underwritten insurance. Insurance companies recognized both the rising cost of medical care, and social mobility; they could offer better rates to younger, healthier, more mobile people. This left the friendly societies with the older, sicker and less mobile. …
As the adverse selection problems [i.e. more older and sick policy holders and fewer younger and healthy ones] 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. [Is this true? Perhaps the comment box will address this answer].
Consequently, we have a health care system that is not very subsidiarist – or solidarist. …
I do not know what the ideal health care system would look like. But I do know that theological terms such as “subsidiarity” and “solidarity” of themselves provide relatively little insight into where we should go. There are great dangers in turning power over to the state, but also in leaving people in modern societies without practical recourse.
On this issue as many others, the complexity of the modern age defies simplistic theological sloganeering [exactly].
Peter Brown is completing a doctorate in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America.
Bottom line: Subsidiarity and Solidarity as used in the public debate are not being properly understood or applied. Sadly, it looks like these words have been reduced to bumper stickers. Catholics do well to exercise care in their use, and to grow in a deeper understanding that Catholicism is not easily reduced to simple one-liners. As the photo above shows, sometimes solidarity means withstanding government power and is not necessarily the polar opposite of subsidiarity. Likewise, subsidiarity cannot usually exist without solidarity. Though the political world loves to divide, Catholicism does not easily fit into the political world’s simple categories.
After a rather serious post on the proper meaning of words, perhaps a little levity at my own expense is in order: