Subsidiarity and the Social Doctrine

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money [to spend]." Margaret Thatcher

“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” G. K. Chesterton

Subsidiarity in the Gospels

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Human Community

It is often said that the Church should stay out of politics. And indeed the Church should refrain from partisan politics — explicitly favoring one candidate or party over another. In another sense, the Church must remain in politics, that is, the principled quest for a just and humane society that serves the common good. This is because, ultimately, we can only find happiness in community, in association with other persons endowed by God with life and dignity and called to friendship with him. In truth, the one God is a community of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since we are made in God’s image, and since Christ in some way has united himself to each person, human fraternity is modeled to some extent on the oneness of the Holy Trinity. Here we find the ultimate basis for the link between love of God and love of neighbor (Compendium, 401).
The Rule Of Law
In countries like the United States, there are intense debates about the size and scope of government institutions and programs. These debates, however, are sure to go awry when we forget that “the human person is and ought to be the principle, the subject, and the end of all social institutions” (402). In other words, social institutions should exist for the good of human beings — not the other way around. All human beings need social institutions, beginning with the family and extending to the local civic community and one’s nation. We are also increasingly linked to the international community.
Over time, the Church took up and refined the principle of subsidiarity to protect the human person from being overwhelmed and harmed by large, faceless, bureaucratic institutions and structures. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “a community of a higher order should not assume the task belonging to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority” (403). The most basic human structure is the family, based on the marriage of a man and woman. It is in the interest of all, including the state, that family life be strong. And as a rule, the state should not preempt parental authority, as happens for instance when laws permit minors to procure abortions without parental notification. In a well-functioning society, institutions such as national and regional governments assist and support families and local governments so that they can function well.
Because of the reality of sin, human society will always be less than perfect and even deeply flawed. Nonetheless, the cause of human freedom must be won over in every age, and instead of becoming cynical, we must continue to seek what is authentically good for ourselves, our families and our society. This means giving priority to “ethics over technology,” and acknowledging “the primacy of the person over things” and “the superiority of spirit over matter” (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 16). To retrieve these values and keep them from becoming lost, we stand in continual need of repentance, and the Church must often stand in the breach to call for changes in laws and social structures. Furthermore, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in his first encyclical, even the most just society would still require charity — providing basic necessities to those in need in a spirit of love and human respect (Deus Caritas Est, 28; Compendium, 404).
The Common Good
Many people today distrust or disrespect authority. Yet, in God’s plan, every human community, from the largest to the smallest, needs legitimate authority (405). Of course, authorities do make mistakes and sometimes break faith. The legitimate exercise of authority includes the personal integrity of leaders and requires that the common good is sought using morally licit means. Laws that are unjust and immoral “are not binding in conscience” (406). Lastly, governments are to be constituted and to function by the free decisions of citizens, and leaders should respect “the rule of law” rather than imposing their own will on others.
It is not only leaders of social institutions that have a responsibility to seek the common good; all of us must do so by living up to our vocations, by doing our work well, and by being loyal and engaged citizens. The common good is all those conditions which enable individuals and groups within society to flourish. It is best secured in communities that defend the dignity of individual citizens and promote various social institutions that truly assist citizens, while calling them to seek the good of the nation and the world as a whole (407-410).
In such a society, where authority is exercised well and wisely, social justice is more likely ensured. In other words, society is better able to help individuals and groups attain what is their due, such as the freedom to speak freely in the public square and the opportunity to pursue beneficial goals (411).
The attainment of the common good and genuine social justice is based on human solidarity. We are bound together because all persons are created in God’s image, endowed with a rational soul, share the same nature and are called by Christ to happiness in heaven (412, 414). Despite this fact, there is a growing disparity between the rich and poor, affecting millions of people. We cannot be complacent about these inequities, which are contrary to the Gospel. Instead, we must work for a more just and humane society and practice generous charity. Indeed, the principles of the Knights of Columbus — charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism — track closely the Church’s social teaching and call us to work for the common good of all.

Knights Of Columbus
Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori

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