A good beginning


By Frank Wessling

Terry Branstad’s inaugural speech as governor of Iowa contained splendid notes from the Catholic social justice tradition. It could even have been titled A Call to Subsidiarity.

No, subsidiarity doesn’t mean that everyone gets a subsidy, although the principle itself means that we all have our hands out toward each other as friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, brothers and sisters attentive to each others’ welfare while working with diligence to meet our own needs.

Branstad’s theme was limited government, and he promised to “remove the lead boots of excess government” so we can “run like the wind … to prosperity.” But most of his rhetoric was on the positive side, calling Iowans to soar with new responsibility.

“Let us renew our commitment to get involved,” he said: “help the homeless, feed the hungry.”


He looks for a fresh readiness to sacrifice for the common good while “protecting those who need our help.”

“It is time for a new covenant … founded upon principles of limited government (and) service above self….”

In the Catholic tradition, subsidiarity is a fundamental principle in reaching the common good of society. It means that responsibility for meeting needs belongs first to the place and person where the need exists. If that isn’t possible, or can’t be done well enough, larger units of society, voluntary or governing, are responsible.

In education, as an example, parents and the family have primary responsibility. Schools and paid teachers are crucial for doing what parents normally cannot: give the time and effort needed for specialized teaching. But fundamentals like the basics of language, respect for others and support for learning must happen in a child’s home.

Education is also an example of what happens as responsibility diminishes in the small and personal units of society. Children who come to school from homes where learning is respected and stimulated will do better. Money, skill and dedication in a school is important but it seldom compensates fully for what is lacking at home.

Branstad’s call for a new covenant of shared responsibility among us as neighbors and citizens is useful. We should hear such a call periodically. But it does not mean that government and taxes are bad words. The governor was careful to criticize “excess,” not government itself. We may have differing notions of what “excess” means but at least we should all acknowledge that governing structures, with payment for their support, are needed whenever people live together.

A healthy covenant among us means both that we take as much responsibility as possible while not begrudging our contribution to the welfare of others and our common welfare. Modern societies, where an action taken in China can have effects in Fairfield and Newton and Muscatine in Iowa, make it difficult to know precisely how far we should push a sense of responsibility. Keeping a car until it has 300,000 miles on the odometer might be good stewardship. On the other hand, the worker in an auto plant and the salesman at the dealership may lose jobs because business is down. Even recycling our own garbage, while virtuous in itself, means less work for garbage truck drivers.

It is easy in these circumstances to talk about changing jobs and following “opportunity” as conditions shift, but such change means disruption, uncertainty and churning of personal and family life for a great many people. We don’t always see that, and keep a tender heart for the needs of those affected.

The common good, and the “covenant” noted by Governor Branstad, requires a heart that beats in tune with others, especially the most needy, along with eyes that see clearly and minds ready to listen and work together. We can all assume responsibility for these fundamentals of the good society.


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