March 10, 2016

Good Government, Subsidiarity and the Common Good

By Deacon Keith Fournier *
Good Government, Subsidiarity and the Common Good

We are in a presidential election campaign in the United States of America and the political rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. The candidates for the two major political parties have very different views on the proper role of the federal government. One of my concerns is that those who oppose a larger federal government make the mistake of using language which feeds the caricature painted of them by their opponents. The effort is to cast anyone who disagrees with the rhetoric of top down federalized governing as against the poor, and against fairness. 

It is time for a fresh political discourse and debate concerning the nature and role of government and the common good. So, I write to address an underlying question which has not yet been properly addressed, what is the proper role of government in civil society? I write as a Catholic Christian citizen. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes some observations concerning society with which I begin. However, most other Christians, people of faith and all people of good will recognize that what follows is not simply for Catholics, it has profound insights and important social applications for all concerned citizens: 

“All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God. "The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.

“A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future. By means of society, each man is established as an ‘heir’ and receives certain ‘talents' that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good.

“Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions. Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him. To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged "on both national and international levels, which relate to economic and social goals, to cultural and recreational activities, to sport, to various professions, and to political affairs.

“This ‘socialization’ also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities. It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility, and helps guarantee his rights. Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which 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 co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. 

“God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of government ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence. The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.” (CCC, Article 1, #1878 - 1885) 

There has been little discussion of the principle of subsidiarity in the national political debate. I suggest that is because many Catholics and other Christians do not even know the term exists, let alone understand the value it has in shaping the political discourse of our times. It also offers the most compelling language with which we can offer the alternative models of governance desperately needed in the face of the ever expanding, federalized, secularist State. 

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word for help and affirms that government which is closest to the need is the best resource. Further, whenever any other governing body intervenes it must be to provide help and not usurp the proper governing entity.

My experience has been that many Catholics do not even know that there is such a principle within the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Instead, they borrow rhetoric from the political left or the political right in discussing the role of government. They also, and sadly, fail to offer a Catholic contribution to a much needed discussion of the proper role of government in the national dialogue. 

If you listen to some on what is called the political right, you will sometimes hear what sounds like anti-government rhetoric, which places the individual at the foundation of an understanding of liberty. This is at odds with the insights summarized in the Catechism. It is also at odds with what the Natural Moral Law reveals. We are, by nature and grace, called into society with one another. 

Some on the political right will paraphrase the practical wisdom offered by the American founders to imply that government itself is the problem. For example, they quote phrases such as "he who governs best governs least,” the source of which is unclear, and use it to hide what at least appears to be a disdain for government itself. This reveals a lack of understanding of the need for good government. 

Others on the political left seem to want to federalize everything. The word government is synonymous with the Federal Government. They think that our obligation in solidarity to one another, and especially to the poor in all of their manifestations, always means establishing more federal government programs. They have forgotten the role of mediating institutions and associations in governing and serving the common good. 

They are also wrong if they question the empathy of anyone who disagrees with them. They too often propose a model of governance which is top down and not bottom up; a model which fails to respect the individual, the primacy of the family, mediating associations, and other forms of participation in the entire enterprise of governing. Knowingly or not, they can end up promoting a form of collectivism.  

Some of what is proposed on the political left threatens human freedom, squelches initiative, stunts creativity and prevents human flourishing. It can further undermine the role of mediating institutions, the first of which is the family, the smallest governing unit and first vital cell of society. An overly federalized form of government is a disaster waiting to happen morally, politically, socially and economically. 

The bad fruit is all around us as our own nation moves toward a form of collectivism which is antithetical to authentic human freedom. Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and good will who reject this collectivist model need to reaffirm that governing is meant to be something good. God governs and invites us all into this effort. 

We were made to give ourselves in love and service to one another; to form societies and communities of interest and to build mediating associations which participate in governance. Through their proper role, that is how governing occurs and people are empowered to fully participate. Together, we are called to serve the common good while still respecting the role of the individual, promoting human freedom, and ensuring the primacy of the family.

Catholic citizens should read, and understand, the social teaching of the Catholic Church. It has been compiled in an excellent resource called Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Along with a well-read Bible and Catechism, this Compendium should be a mainstay for every Catholic Christian.   

We should be able to explain in our public discourse and political participation that none of us are fully human unless we are in relationship with one another. Further, we should confidently affirm that freedom and human flourishing are not to be found in a notion of the isolated individual as the ground of liberty. We were made for communion. 

We are one another's neighbors and we are called to stand together, in solidarity. We are responsible for one another and must build societies which further humanize us and enable us to live in peace together. However, such an understanding of solidarity and our obligation to one another does not equate with support for big federalized government. 

The first society is the family. It is there where we learn socialization and are schooled in the virtues which make good citizenship even possible. Thus the family must always be the guide, polestar and measuring stick for any broader social and governing structure. The family is the first government, the first school, the first church and the first mediating institution. All other government must defer to this first cell of social government and move out - or up - from there, never usurping the primacy of the family. 

The question really comes down to whether government is “good”, in several senses of the word. Is it Moral? Does it recognize the existence of the higher law, the Natural Moral Law which is a participation in God's Law? Does it affirm that there are self-evident truths which can be known and which we hold together? Does it recognize the fundamental human rights with which we are all endowed and acknowledge that these rights are not given to us by civil government but by God? 

Does it affirm the nature and dignity of the human person as created in the Image of God?  Does the means of governing being offered respect this dignity of every human person, recognize the primacy of true marriage and the family and society founded upon it, respect and promote mediating institutions and serve the true common good? Does it promote genuine human freedom, flourishing, creativity and initiative among citizens? 

Is the means of governing “good” in the sense of being effective, efficient and just? Does it respect the self-government of each individual human person? Does it defer to the smallest social governing unit of the family? Does it respect the other proper mediating institutions and associations by deferring first to them, providing assistance and help before assigning the task it attempts to accomplish to the centralized or federal government? 

It is time for Catholic citizens to take the principles set forth in the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and lead a discussion of good government which serves the common good in the United States of America. Good government recognizes fundamental human rights, the first of which is the right to life, as endowed by the Creator and not manufactured by civil government. 

In fact, the role of government is to secure and protect those rights and not violate or usurp them. Good government acknowledges the vital and indispensable role of mediating institutions and associations in government, beginning with the family and including churches, charities, associations, and local governing bodies. It defers to and respects their function and does not usurp their primacy. 

The family and these other mediating institutions and associations, local government and State Government are the best place for government to occur - first. This model of good government acknowledges our obligations in solidarity to one another, and especially to the poor, but always respects and applies the principle of subsidiarity. 

Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A member of the clergy, a Roman Catholic Deacon, he is also constitutional/ human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. He has long been active at the intersection of faith, values and culture and currently serves as Special Counsel to Liberty Counsel. Deacon Fournier is also a Senior Contributing Writer for THE STREAM

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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