December 17, 2009
Subsidiarity: Where Justice and Freedom Coexist
By Louie Verrecchio *

By Louie Verrecchio *

Are you familiar with the Catholic social justice principle known as “subsidiarity”?

If you’re an American citizen in this day and age in which the federal government is about the only segment of the economy that’s growing and you don’t know what subsidiarity is; you better find out in a hurry. 

In a nutshell, the principal of subsidiarity states that matters impacting the human person should be addressed by the smallest; least centralized; most localized, personal authority possible. The opposite situation is realized when personal affairs are managed by larger; more centralized; far removed, public authorities. 

At the heart of the matter lies a concern for the protection of individual freedom as an inalienable right associated with human dignity, and a prime example of how crucial it is to understand subsidiarity (and to demand that it be duly observed) is staring Americans directly in the face as I write.

Case in point; when it comes to making decisions about which medical treatment options are best pursued in a given circumstance, the principal of subsidiarity states that these are best left to individuals, families and caregivers to the extent that the demands of necessity and the competency of each party makes it possible.

Where the principal of subsidiarity is well observed, public authority is exercised in a limited, supporting role; i.e. it recognizes and “subsidizes” the authority of individual persons; it does not usurp it.

Did you get that? Memorize it and share it with every Catholic you know, because a full court press is on to tell you otherwise as it relates to government run healthcare, and not just from our friends in the White House, mind you.  
Every new election and legislative cycle brings candidates and legislators eager to secure Catholic support by painting their agendas as fitting expressions of the Church’s social doctrine; yes, even when they are not. Unfortunately, we have come to expect as much from our politicians, but the bamboozlement also comes to us from any number of seemingly reliable sources as well.

Reading my local diocesan newspaper last week, I encountered an editorial piece selling the benefits of government run healthcare in which the writer insisted, “The Church's teaching of subsidiarity insists that higher levels of government and social organizations must take action and do what individuals and smaller groups cannot do for themselves.”

I am certain that this struck many a Catholic reader as a plausible point in the writer’s favor; after all, we are talking about an official diocesan newspaper so it must be true, right? Not exactly.

The well-informed reader (of whom you are now one) will have noticed immediately that the writer had turned Catholic social doctrine almost exactly upside down; the principal of subsidiarity properly understood is not a mandate for government action; it is a warning against government interference! 

Pope John Paul II echoed his predecessors in warning about the dangers of an overbearing public authority in his Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus, saying:

Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: 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 coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good (CA 48).

There is certainly a place for public authority to be exercised within the framework of subsidiarity; the challenge lies in striking a balance between individual responsibility and freedom on the one hand, and collective effort - assisted by government only to the extent truly necessary – on the other.

Much is at stake in this effort, and it is with good reason that the Second Vatican Council warned:

Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, not to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups (Gaudium et Spes - 75).  

So, is the state of healthcare in America in such dismal condition as to merit a government takeover, or will less extreme measures provide the surer path to justice?

People of goodwill will always find reason to debate the details concerning how best to pursue the common good in various situations, but given the level of deception that permeates much of today’s political discourse, we must be “wise as serpents” when weighing the merits of specific proposals.

Knowing Catholic social doctrine well enough to spot deception when we see it is a very good place to start.    

Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com

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