Santorum and the Lobotomization of Subsidiarity

David Brooks and Michael Gerson find in Rick Santorum a hopeful departure from the current radical Republican presidential contenders who range from neoliberal to libertarian.  They celebrate his embrace of subsidiarity as a more robust political philosophy than the rest of the field.  I share much of their desire, but little of their optimistic read of the political thought of the former Pennsylvania Senator.

It is hard to believe that the former lead Senate liaison in the K Street Project is guided by a political philosophy significantly different than the Republican mainstream.  Indeed, Santorum stands firmly with them.  He supports both Paul Ryan’s budget and the Balanced Budget Amendment.  He would cap Federal expenditures at 18% leaving a government little able to render subsidium when needed in times of crisis. 

Santorum’s It Takes a Family takes its title from Bob Dole’s zinger response to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village in the 1996 presidential campaign.  The Catholic notion of subsidiarity insists that it takes both families and villiages, as well as an economy yoked to the common good by government powerful enough to do so. 

This debate is important not only for politics, but for Catholic social thought.  Santorum and other so-called "conservative" uses of subsidiarity are deeply distorted and threaten to confuse believers and deprive the republic of the full force of this Catholic moral principle.

The full Catholic version of Subsidiarity is outlined in the Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. As a moral principle subsidiarity has both a positive and negative meaning.  In its positive sense, “ all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies.” (#186)  In its negative sense subsidiarity limits such intervention from usurping the power and agency of lower level governments, communities and institutions, including the family. 

The distortions are not Santorum's fault.  Catholic neo-liberals (who generally call themselves conservatives) have worked tirelessly to reduce subsidiarity to its negative sense and establish this as the keystone of Catholic social thought.  They do so by selective reading-- and outright editing--of Papal teaching from Pius XI through John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

This careful lobotomization of subsidiarity renders Catholic social teaching a docile partner in the neo-liberal program of limiting government and subjecting social institutions (schools, healthcare) to market logic. (Witness Ayn Rand devotee Congressman Paul Ryan’s invocation of subsidiarity in his attempted apologia for his radical budget to Archbishop Dolan this summer).

It was Pius XI who placed subsidiarity (and social justice) at the center of Catholic social teaching in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno.  That document was written amidst the post-war ruins of European liberalism and the rise of Fascism and Stalinism.   This was an epoch in which state usurpation of lower level power was the overriding threat.  He offered what has become the most sacred text for neo-liberal catholics:

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. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (#79)

Pius’s presentation of subsidiarity was not focused solely on big government.  Indeed, in the same section, he offered hair-curling criticisms of economic liberalism. 

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.

“Economic life” must be “again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.”  “Social justice and social charity” should guide the social and juridical order.  This is the work of a range of social and economic actors (powerful guild-like unions were central to his vision), but responsibility ultimately falls upon “public authority” to “protect and defend” this order. (#88)

We are a long way from 1931.  The ghost of Stalin is constantly conjured to distract us from the world in which we live, 30 years into the neo-liberal era inaugurated by the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions.  Decades of economic deregulation, trade liberalization, and tax cuts have brought economic growth of a sort, but growth marked by a stagnation of wages for low and middle income families, and by a corresponding rise in both income and wealth inequality.  In addition to our current economic crisis, this period has also produced a massive rise in corporate power.  Industries have concentrated (food, finance, insurance) and globalization has unleashed a race to the bottom both domestically between states and internationally between nations.  

Families and communities are being profoundly disempowered in precisely the way subsidiarity cautions against, but not by government.  Our lives are ruled by insurance companies, banks, media conglomerates and transnational corporations.

While Santorum is willing to take aim at big media, the rest of the epochal growth in corporate power is outside of his subsidiarity lens. 

Subsidarity has much to contribute to our political thought.  In order for it to do so, we must retrieve its full meaning, and develop it further to address the new challenges we face.  Those wishing to do so (including Brooks and Gerson) would be better served by starting with the discussion of governance in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate and the Pontificial Council on Justice and Peace’s document on Financial Reform.  Pay particular attention to the parts that George Wiegel says should be ignored.

J Cosgrove
5 years 2 months ago
I have a couple questions.  
I do not pretend to have read in detail all the encyclicals that deal with what Catholic social teaching supposedly is.  But if someone comes along and interprets one or more of these encyclicals in such a way that he or she supports actions that end up hurting what Mr. Miller calls lower-order societies, is that action socially just or compatible with the intent of the encyclicals?  To be specific, is an action or policy socially just if it ends up hurting the poor.
Second, does Mr. Miller consider himself a better Catholic than Paul Ryan or Rick Santorum?  Why then the harsh statements about each.  Maybe each of these men interprets the encyclicals in a way that is different from how Mr. Miller does.  I have not seen many things proposed by authors on this site which I consider socially just even though the term is used quite frequently.  Maybe the things that Mr. Miller would like to see happen might have very negative effects with the lower-ordered parts of our society and Mr. Ryan and Mr. Santorum recognize that.  If that is the case then what is really being lobotomized?
Michele Jansen
4 years 7 months ago
I come to this article late but as Paul Ryan was just named VP running mate of Mitt Romney I think his views on Subsidiarity as taught by the Catholic Church should become very relevant to Catholics as they prepare to vote in November.   I have been troubled by the lack of any clear message on the principle of Subsidiarity by the Catholic Bishops in any of their public messages about governmental policies for the poor and intrigued by Paul Ryan's use of this principle when discussing rational for his budget.  Unfortunately this article seems to do exactly what it accuses conservatives of doing - looking at only one side of the principle.  Further I see no support for either of these statements that bother me most:
“The Catholic notion of subsidiarity insists that it takes both families and villages, as well as an economy yoked to the common good by government powerful enough to do so.”
“Families and communities are being profoundly disempowered in precisely the way subsidiarity cautions against, but not by government.”
These comments imply that like God, government is somehow perfect and not subject to the greed, corruption, power hungry failings of other institutions.  Powerful, centralized government can properly “yoke” the economy according to God’s will?  Families and communities are not being profoundly disempowered precisely the way subsidiarity cautions against by government ???  There is so much evidence to refute both those claims, it is mind boggling anyone would try to state otherwise.  I would like to see an article where Mr. Miller can rationally come close to demonstrating this.  Just like money and power can corrupt corporations and other human institutions, it corrupts government.  You decry the concentration and globalization of industries as the cause of human misery yet the concentration and globalization of government is somehow benign?  No Mr. Miller just as with industry this monopolization of power to the few will not result in greater Social Justice - it will lead us back to tyranny, loss of freedom and  “justice” only for the well connected.  This is why democracies fail, this is why our founding fathers tried so hard to set up a system where centralized power would be checked and we would keep governmental power closest to the individual, the family, the community, the county, the state - and away from the federal government.  How can you miss that that is the most incredible attempt by any human culture to set up a society that best harmonizes with the principle of Subsidiarity?  And supporters of the government as set up by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution are making this connection.  It is a part of the argument of the principle of Subsidiarity I hope all Catholics have far more honest discussion about in the coming months.

Amy Ho-Ohn
5 years 2 months ago
"Decades of economic deregulation, trade liberalization, and tax cuts have brought economic growth of a sort, but growth marked by a stagnation of wages for low and middle income families ..."

This is an instance of the <i>post hoc ergo propter hoc</i> fallacy. There is no reason to believe the (temporally) corresponding stagnation of wages was caused by economic liberalization. A more plausible explanation is that wage stagnation was caused by advances in technology, which made many human workers replacable.
Michele Jansen
4 years 7 months ago
Sorry I inadvertantly used the user name instead of my full name on previous post - just putting this addendum to the mjbehta post to comply with posting rules.

Joshua DeCuir
5 years 2 months ago
I find it most curious that Catholic progressives are savaging Santorum's position, yet with do so with nary a reference to an actual statement of his.  Mr. Miller makes reference to Santorum's book (which I have not read), yet provides no textual evidence from the book for what he labels a "lobotomization" of subsidiarity.  By "lobotomization" I assume he means an attempt to use subsidiarity to prop up a Tea Party-esque anti-government platform.  Yet both of Mr. Brooks and Mr. Gerson (as well as Ross Douthat and, of all people, EJ Dionne) - who have read Mr. Santorum's book, as evidenced by actual quotes in their columns - reject the notion that Santorum is just a Catholic Tea Partier.  Santorum, as Brooks points out, has a much more optimistic view of the role that government action can take in shaping human behavior and character, a view that no Tea Partier with which I am familiar holds.  Moreover, Santorum's actual record in the Senate exemplifies tendencies to use government action in precisely the manner Pius' quote above exemplifies, as Santorum has been quite harsh on trade policies that have eviscerated the manufacturing base in this country from which Santorum springs (Mr. Miller's attempt to label Santorum as a sleazy lobbyist notwithstanding).

I get that Catholic progressives like Mr. Miller have long believed that the Social Teaching of the Church is solely the domain of Big Government liberals like Ted Kennedy, and feel a sense of outrage that someone like Mr. Santorum should try to articulate an alternative platform, but for their attacks to have any weight, they need to do a better job of propping up their arugments than this.
ron chandonia
5 years 2 months ago
I have read Santorum's book, and I regret how little attention it got at its publication from those who appoint themselves spokesmen for Catholic social thought.  It makes an excellent case for the frequently overlooked 5th chapter of the Compendium (''The Family, the Vital Cell of Society''), which does not fit the template of those who offer uncritical support to liberal Democratic policies.  However, it is woefully deficient in its explanation of subsidiarity-basically ignoring, as Vincent Miller argues here, the root word subsidium and the role the Church envisions for government in empowering the poor to become fully participating members of society.  Miller's piece offers a badly needed corrective.
Eugene Palumbo
5 years 2 months ago
See this, too.
Jim McCrea
5 years 2 months ago
 Re #7:  Thank you for such a clear exposition of how neo-liberals in conservative dress, such as Senator Santorum, 'cherry-pick' from elements of Catholic Social Teaching to buttress economic policies that would not pass a biblical justice 'smell test.'

Cafeteria Catholicism of the Orthotoxic stripe.
J Cosgrove
5 years 2 months ago
''Thank you for such a clear exposition of how neo-liberals in conservative dress, such as Senator Santorum, 'cherry-pick' from elements of Catholic Social Teaching to buttress economic policies that would not pass a biblical justice 'smell test.'''

This is a very strange comment.  I read the material linked to by Mr. Miller about the Catholic version of Subsidiarity.  It sounds like the Republican party platform.  There is nothing in there that I am uncomfortable with and I guess a lot of people here would call me conservative or is it neo-liberal these days.  Maybe Mr. Miller could expand on how this is at odds with what Mr. Ryan and Santorum are recommending,  Then maybe we could have something of substance to discuss instead of denigrating comments.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 2 months ago
Ms. Ho-Ohn's basic premise is correct, in my opinion.  It is true that computer technology reduced the need for clerical workers.  This has resulted in increased profit and power for large capitalistic entities.  The resulting increase in economic power engendered the increase in political power and media power, and the neoliberal takeover of politics over the last thirty years.  Multinational companies only pursue their own interests and are enemies of the human community, in their present ungoverned form.  They run the whole show now.  Political decisions are made for their benefit alone, that is certain.  My question is, regarding the original point, why should large capitalist entities be the only ones to benefit from advances in technology?  If there is less work to do, shouldn't or couldn't that convert into more leisure time for everyone instead of merely ridiculous accumulations of wealth?
Marie Rehbein
5 years 2 months ago
I am not really sure what the author means by "lobotimization" in this case.  However, it is perhaps to obvious to state that the reason Santorum focuses only on the negative is because he is convinced that the current culture and government are virtually the same as the fascist governments in place when the concept of subsidiarity was first presented.  What accounts for this distorted perception of our current situation? 

Those of us who do not see any similarity between our way of life and life under a fascist dictator, see instead that Santorum would have us living under a fascism that dictates we live like he does.  It seems that there is a failure on the part of conservatives (or neo-libarals) to recognize that individuals are free in this country and that corporations need to have some of their freedom checked so as to ensure that this individual freedom continues to be protected.
5 years 2 months ago
Vince, Thank you for such a clear exposition of how neo-liberals in conservative dress, such as Senator Santorum, ''cherry-pick'' from elements of Catholic Social Teaching to buttress economic policies that would not pass a biblical justice ''smell test.''
Vince Killoran
5 years 2 months ago
Thanks Vince for your insightful-and sourced posting(he provided the appropriate links to support his view).

To Amy's point about the stagnation of wages: this dates back to the 1970s with the rise of deregulation, neoliberalism, and mounting attacks on organized labor.  The "Age of Compression" gave way to the "Age of Inequality."
5 years 2 months ago
great headline. you pretty much guaranteed that i'd read this.

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