‘Subsidiarity’ goes public


The word “subsidiarity” is now being thrown around in this extraordinary year of public attention to things Catholic. We welcome the notice for a valuable term in our understanding of social justice.
The word has unfortunately become a political football. While that might make it harder to rescue from partisan uses, at least it now has some concentrated attention.
This is thanks to Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan, a Catholic, chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee and promoter of its proposed federal budget. That budget plan has been criticized by representatives of the U.S. bishops for the way it leaves needy citizens at the mercy of the market system while raising higher the walls protecting the well-off from taxes. And Ryan himself came under severe criticism from Catholic scholars when he spoke recently at Washington’s Georgetown University.
He has used subsidiarity to explain why federal support for the poor and regulation of financial and business markets should be cut. When people are not required to care for themselves they lose their sense of responsibility. Initiative dies. A culture of dependence develops. More responsibility must be left with the smaller units of society. That is where needs are best known and solutions best designed to fit those needs.
This, according to Ryan, is what subsidiarity is all about and it’s why the Catholic Church uses that term as an important part of its teaching about the good life in society.
There is something in what the Wisconsin congressman says. However, his view is both distorted and very selectively partial. He sees subsidiarity through a lens that reduces persons to autonomous actors in a free market economy. In contrast, the Catholic use of subsidiarity sees it as balanced with an overriding principle: the common good of persons in relationships of mutual respect and interdependence.
The difference is not so surprising when you know that Ryan has several times declared himself a disciple of Ayn Rand, the 20th century atheist author of “Fountainhead” and founder of a project known as Objectivism. Her gods were power and self; selfishness would not be a stretch. Charity, altruism, disinterested love, self-sacrifice – all are contemptible in the Randian universe. After being challenged at Georgetown and by spokesmen for the bishops, Ryan said he was not a follower of Ayn Rand.
The budget he proposed and still defends seems to say otherwise.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this in relation to government and its role:
“Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests, but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.”
Those words in Paragraph 1908 of the catechism don’t nail down either a conservative or liberal approach to governing. But they clearly establish the principle of the common good as a primary measure, and they envision a minimum of human needs for which government, or public “authority,” has responsibility.
This is why the Catholic understanding of subsidarity has two balancing parts: as much responsibility and freedom as the smaller units of society can handle by themselves, and as much subsidizing, or supporting, as needed through larger units to ensure a common and proportionate share in the good life.
We decide among ourselves how to work for the balance that best shares the good life.
Frank Wessling

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on