Monday, September 17, 2012

Understanding the Concept of Subsidiarity

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Sister Geneal Kramer
There was a panel discussion at Aquinas Newman Center (the Catholic parish on the campus of the University of New Mexico, UNM) this past Sunday afternoon entitled Building Bridges when Politics Divide.  The panel included some distinguished participants: Sister Geneal Kramer, an instructor at the Albuquerque campus of St. Norbert College and a member of the Dominican community of Adrian, Michigan; State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino; and Mark Peceny, a political science professor who is also dean of Arts and Sciences at  UNM.  The moderator was Richard Wood, a sociology professor at UNM.

One premise is that bridges can only be built when there is solid ground--the solid ground of understanding.  As those of us who studied Catholic Social Teaching through the JustFaith program, we must make every attempt at sacred listening.  This means listening closely and carefully to what the other person has to say.  This doesn't mean surrendering your principles.  What it means is to not form a prejudgment based on external factors.  It also means taking time to understand some of the concepts and ideas that are brought up in a discussion.

Having said that, I want to consider a theme that was brought up briefly at the forum: subsidiarity.  This theme, which Sister Geneal addressed, has become the subject of the presidential campaigns.  So what is subsidiarity?  The principle was first addressed by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical (letter circulated) Rerum Novatum in 1891.  Pope Pius XI expands on the principle further in the encyclical Quadragessimo Ano in 1931.  Simply stated, the principle suggests that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary.

So, with Catholic Social Teaching becoming a subject of the campaign, let us examine this concept in a modern setting. We must understand what vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a devout Catholic, is trying to say when he uses the concept during campaign speeches.  He backs his argument for reducing the size of the federal government (and thus safety-net programs like food stamps, WIC, Head Start and others).  If we allow individuals to thrive, he argues, then society will thrive and the common good will be served. 

But it is important to look at the concept in the context in which it was written.   "Despite how often it is stated – subsidiarity does NOT mean smaller is better," said Meghan Clark, assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University (NY).

"To understand subsidiarity, we must remember that Pius is concerned that we will end up with a social order in which there are individuals and the state – with no intermediary communities, institutions or levels. The richness and diversity of human society is what Pius seeks to promote and protect," she noted  in a piece entitled Subsidiarity is a Two-Sided Coin in the Catholic Moral Theology blog.

So, does subsidiarity--in the form presented in the presidential campaign--actually lead to the common good?  Pope Pius XI answers the question in the encyclical.
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.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops also indirectly address the issue, in their 1996 encyclical A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, pointing out that all the players have some role in the economy.  Here is Principle 7:
In economic life, free markets have both clear advantages and limits; government has essential responsibilities and limitations; voluntary groups have irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state.
But the bishops also argue without any anbiguity that the common good should take priority in any of our economic decisions.  This is stated in Principle 8 of the encyclical.
Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action when necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in economic life."
The debate is likely to continue during the coming weeks of the presidential campaign, especially as the two political parties attempt to court Roman Catholic voters.  It is incumbent upon us to understand the true meaning and the context of concepts such a subsidiarity and how they are compatiblewith the overarching teaching of the Catholic Church, which is to place a priority on ensuring the common good. 

1 comment:

Jerry Ortiz y Pino said...

Nicely done, Carlos. Another point that Paul Ryan ignores is that since subsidiarity cannot be a rationale for hurting those in need, the private, religious and voluntary programs he envisions replacing government programs like TANF and food stamps would have to be in place and operating before we would be justified in cutting off aid now being provided. Don't hold your breath, Congressman; it is a long way from reality.