Subsidiarity, though hardly the most exciting element of Catholic social doctrine, has been much in the news lately. It was invoked in the Republican primaries and its praises have been sung in The Wall Street Journal.
In April, Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, invoked subsidiarity to justify what can only be termed a radical budget, promptly passed by the House. He would cut 22 percent from Medicaid and 17 percent from food stamps over the next 10 years and convert Medicare to a voucher program that partially supports premiums for private insurance. Despite claims that this is a serious response to the deficit, Ryan’s budget squanders these cruel savings on an extension of the Bush tax cuts and massive new tax cuts for high earners.
Critics of the Ryan budget have argued that solidarity—the virtue that impels us to active concern for the needs of others—must be used to balance subsidiarity. While this argument is true, it gives too much away, for subsidiarity is an application of solidarity, not its opposite. Subsidiarity is not a principle of small government. It is a two-edged sword. Subsidiarity warns against the overbearing action of any large social actors and also demands that they render assistance, subsidium, when problems are too large to be handled by smaller, local actors.
Subsidiarity envisions not a small government, but a strong, limited one that encourages intermediate bodies and organizations (families, community groups, unions, businesses) to contribute to the common good. It envisions a strong government that protects individuals and small intermediate bodies from the actions of large organizations—not just the state but corporations as well.
That Representative Ryan could publicly change his allegiance from Ayn Rand to Catholic social doctrine without changing his policies suggests something is terribly amiss. His confusion is the fruit of decades of work by Catholic thinkers serving in neoliberal (so-called “conservative”) think tanks of Washington, D.C., aiming to conscript Catholic social doctrine as an ally in their libertarian economic agenda. The debate around the Ryan budget shows they have effectively transformed the concept of subsidiarity into a principle of small government.
This reduction of Catholic social doctrine is evident in that most successful act of public dissent, the 1984 report Toward the Future, by Michael Novak and a self-appointed committee of lay Catholics. Drafted to counter the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” it not only challenged the bishops, but distorted papal teaching as well. As the author Lew Daly has noted, it invoked Pope John Paul II’s discussion of “intermediate bodies” but changed their context from the common good to the free-market economy. In their words, “Only an open, free market allows such intermediate bodies economic breathing space.”
Ironically, they lifted the quotation concerning intermediate bodies from a sentence in the encyclical “On Human Work” (1981) in which Pope John Paul II discussed the need for new forms of industrial ownership that associate “labor with ownership of capital as far as possible.” The entirety of the paragraph displays the full breadth of the principle of subsidiarity. Both Marxist collectivism and “rigid capitalism” are criticized and new political and economic structures are contemplated.
A review of the history of Catholic social thought confirms that John Paul’s account is the authentic one and helps us see the full challenge presented by the principle of subsidiarity.
A Response to Two Revolutions
Catholic social thought was born of twin revolutions—one political, the other economic. The modern secular states in France and Germany stripped the church of its property, limited its role in education and marriage and created the modern citizen, equal and alone before the state.
These political revolutions followed upon and accelerated an economic one: the ongoing churning revolution of early capitalism that developed into the Industrial Revolution. Peasants were evicted from estates as agricultural land was turned to more profitable uses.
These twin revolutions stripped away the complex of relationships, affiliations and obligations that constituted medieval and early modern society. Feudal systems of support and obligation were replaced with the wage contract. The peasantry was transformed into a deeply insecure working class. Economic forces left families and communities bereft of support beyond parents’ inadequate and unreliable wages.
Catholic social thought and the papal social doctrine that built upon it emerged in response to these two revolutions. For that reason, Catholic social thought has always been directed simultaneously against both excessive state power and unrestrained economic power.
Subsidiarity was born of the long struggle to replace the structures that had been swept away in these revolutions. Catholic laity, religious and clergy struggled to build and support charitable organizations, Christian factories, mutual aid societies, schools for laborers, etc. Indeed, social ministries were a major part of the effervescence of new religious orders in the 19th-century Catholic revival. These formed the precursors to both modern social welfare structures and labor unions.
Subsidiarity thus bears this positive imperative to preserve, protect and create new effective mediating structures in society. Yes, subsidiarity guided the church’s embrace of social democracy, but it also moved the National Catholic Rural Life Conference to embrace the cooperative movement in the 1940s. Its logic is evident in the church’s embrace of community organizing through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. It influenced the faith-based charitable funding embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Subsidiarity inspired Catholic rethinking of the economic order as well. The Jesuit economist Heinrich Pesch proposed a “solidarist social order,” in which workers and employers collectively oversee their industries for the common good. Distributists like G. K. Chesterton argued for local economies and small-scale firms. Pope John XXIII judged that no matter how much wealth is produced, the structure of industry must allow workers to “express” themselves and to perfect their “own being” in their work and “have their say in, and make their own contribution to the efficient running and development of enterprise”—a theme John Paul II would develop at length in his labor encyclical.
In “Quadragesimo Anno” (1931), Pius XI provided the classic formulation of subsidiarity. That document is worth revisiting because its teaching is often distorted by being quoted with insufficient context.
The first lines of the paragraph on subsidiarity, which are almost never quoted, alert us that Pius was not simply discussing state power:
As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations.
Then follows the now classic definition:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.
This is not yet a discussion of the state; it is a general principle for all social actors. “For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help [subsidium] to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” Early translations used the term “corporation” to translate the Latin consociatio. Msgr. John A. Ryan’s initial review of the encyclical in the July 1931 Ecclesi-astical Review made the connection, declaring control of industry by large corporations to be “as bad as socialism.”
In his next paragraph, Pius explicitly addressed the state. The “public authority” should “let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance” so that it may more “freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.”
This is not the same thing as federalism, as Congressman Ryan has claimed. Pius is not speaking of different levels of government but of the public authority’s relationship to other dimensions of society (families, community groups, unions, businesses), all of which are bound by the principle of subsidiarity. Although the state’s role is limited, Pius is by no means calling for small government. The state serves the overarching common good by balancing the various subordinate organizations “powerfully and effectively.”
In this vision, government must be scaled to the size of the societies and economies being overseen. For this reason, every pope since John XXIII has called for a political authority adequate to the challenge of the global common good. Most recently, in “Charity in Truth” (2009), Benedict XVI called for “a true world political authority” that could “manage the global economy,” protect the environment, regulate migration and encourage solidarity.
This is a vision very different from the small government ideology pedaled by Washington think tanks that aims merely to get government out of the way so that the market can work free from moral and political interference. On this matter Pius was shockingly explicit; he denounced that economic vision as a “poisoned spring”.
The church has never condemned market economics, but it has likewise never accepted an unregulated market overseen by a minimalist state. In Benedict XVI’s words, “Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility.”
Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, Pius had only to look about him to see the destructive outcomes of these views. The free market had produced a massive concentration of both “wealth” and “power and might” resulting in a “despotic economic dictatorship...consolidated in the hands of a few.”
Our Present Crises
Amid an economic crisis that may yet be remembered as another depression, we, like Pius XI, have but to look around to see the powerful economic actors that threaten to usurp the power of families, communities and local and national politics. As the economist Emmanuel Saez has shown, income inequality in the United States has exceeded 1929 levels. The protective regulations on financial institutions enacted in the wake of the Great Depression have been undone with catastrophic results. No politician seems to possess sufficient will or power to re-enact them.
The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has granted individuals and corporations unlimited spending to influence elections. Billionaires have already spent lavishly in the primaries; our fragile republic braces for the deluge that will accompany the general election. Labor unions, those historically crucial mediating bodies, are now the target of multiple, seemingly coordinated, legislative attacks undertaken by the very politicians most given to warnings of government tyranny.
Families and communities are subject to the corrosive instabilities of the market. Unemployment is desperately high, especially among the young. Life plans are radically shaken as hardworking adults lose their jobs in the permanent turmoil of the global economy.
Local communities are profoundly disempowered. Whereas once technological and economic constraints bound corporations to place, now the mobility of capital frees them from attachment to and concern for the local. Factories can be moved at will. Localities are pitted against each other in a race to the bottom, offering tax breaks and other incentives to lure increasingly demanding employers while school budgets are slashed.
Without the full critical power of subsidiarity, we risk misreading the threats of the present. The fate of the U.S. Postal Service should loom as large in our thinking as the Health and Human Services mandate. Cuts are being proposed for deliveries to rural communities deemed too costly. The promise of the national common good is being dismantled by market logic before our eyes. Those who spread fears of a neofascist state imposing euthanasia upon the elderly should contemplate generations growing old without guaranteed health coverage. If the Ryan budget passes, when age and illness push our premiums beyond what our vouchers can cover, no “death panel” will ordain our exit. We will be left to exercise all the freedom our poverty can buy. We will do so knowing that we stood idly by while millions of handicapped on Medicaid and hungry children relying on food stamps were similarly liberated from dependency.
Subsidiarity demands vigilance against both state and corporate power. It also demands, beyond mere limits on power, positive action to serve the common good by the state, business and the myriad groups that make up society.
Pius XI on Limited Free Enterprise
The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority.... But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life—a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.
—“Quadragesimo Anno” (1931), No. 88.