Subsidiarity (Do John Halpin and John Podesta even know what it means?)

You can learn some interesting things about how people really think when Wikileaks dumps their emails on the public.  I am not a proponent of this type of invasion of personal privacy, but since the media has abdicated its critical journalistic responsibilities to keep the public informed and protected, I can make an exception here when the individuals are actively working to undermine religious beliefs.  If you have not had a chance to read the emails, they were centered around mocking the “severely backward,” “ignorant,” and “medieval” thinking of conservative Catholics by the president of the Center for American Progress.  One note John Halpin wrote to Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, “They can throw around ‘Thomistic’ thought and ‘subsidiarity’ and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they're talking about.”  My question is if they even understand what the term means?  Since they brought it up, it is an important concept in Catholic social teaching that is worth thinking about. 

The key concept of subsidiarity is that nothing should be done by a larger, more complex or centralized organization which can be done as well or better by a smaller and simpler source closest to the task at hand or the person in need. Subsidiarity favors less government, more personal freedom and responsibility, as compared to socialistic or Welfare State models that demand centralization, bureaucracy, power, and distance from the individual situation.  This may be one of the concepts at the core of the tug-or-war going on between the left and right when it comes to political policy today – individual or local freedom, participation and responsibility versus large centralized one-size-fits-all government solutions and dictates for more and more areas of citizen’s lives. 

So why does the Catholic Church, the largest single provider of health and social services on the planet, weigh-in on concepts such as subsidiarity?  At its core, it is concerned with the dignity of the human person and how we best love and help those in need of assistance from others.  Each human being is a child of a loving and self-giving God.  We find out own dignity, freedom, and who we are as a human being through those acts of both giving and receiving from each other.  Each of us has a personal responsibility to not only ourselves but to helping those in need around us, and God empowers us and gives us free will to participate and follow that call, individually and as a community.  

I think the vast majority of people on both sides of this debate have a core belief that there are people in society who need a safety net and assistance at times during their lives.  The question is – what is the most effective way to provide that help in a way that does not compromise the dignity of each human being doing the giving and receiving?  Philosopher, John Vanier, who was all about the power of community and giving wrote, “We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”  Loving someone is not necessarily doing things for them that result in learned helplessness but sometimes allowing them the opportunity to struggle, and to gain strength and confidence in their own gifts and abilities.  If we care, we need to make sure we are providing what is actually best for each individual situation – and that is rarely managed well by a large, distant powerful bureaucracy.  

Consider any real life situation of struggle.  If the individual can work through and solve their own issue, there is a power of dignity and strength in that process.  If they truly need assistance of any sort, the next source that knows their needs and the best options would be their immediate and extended family.  Their local church, synagogue, mosque or community would be the next best option when the family cannot provide what they need.  Local organizations and town resources might be necessary for some situations before having state or federal options step in. Those last options are the furthest from the individual’s condition and most helpful options.  There are certainly areas such as national defense, social security, and human rights protection that are best driven by state and federal support, but they are not usually the best first option for many other areas of individual’s lives. 

The problem with large centralized government solutions is that they are often inefficient, distant and can do more harm than good to the dignity and freedom of individuals, families and communities involved.  There are often just a handful of people with the power to decide what is best for everyone based on an ideology that is disconnected from results and the people they claim to serve.  Each human individual’s situation is unique and deserves respect.  Each human individual deserves the opportunity to grow and live with dignity.  Government can help to create the social conditions for each individual to live with the freedom, safety and support necessary for human development, but we need to be careful to provide those conditions with the concept of subsidiarity as the foundational guideline.  Proponents of large federal solutions and control policies often believe or claim that their opponents are selfish and just don’t care.  If caring is the measuring stick, then we have look honestly at the actual results and impact on individuals, families and society when then we impose a philosophy that is the opposite of subsidiarity.  Maybe that answer is not the most caring and effective one for the individual or community at large.