On two visions of subsidiarity

Gabriel Sanchez has an interesting comment at Opus Publicum, which begins,

Christian Democracy, an online publication to which I have contributed, appears to have fallen temptation to what I would call the “socialist seduction” prevalent in certain Christian—including Catholic—circles. Rightly dissatisfied with contemporary capitalism (which finds no support in the Church’s authentic social magisterium), socialist Catholics are in pursuit of a socio-economic order which, broadly speaking, is more just, equitable, and stable then the present ordo. Instead of looking to Catholic-grown theories like distributism or solidarism, these Catholics believe that socialism—or at least some form of socialism—can cure our present woes. The problem facing socialist Catholics is that numerous magisterial statements, including Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, appear to condemn socialism outright.

(Emphasis supplied.) To this brief list we would add, of course, Pius XI’s Divini Redemptoris, Papa Ratti’s towering condemnation of communism. Apparently, a couple of authors in Christian Democracy have apparently proposed solutions that are essentially socialism with a Christian face. (He links to them.) Sanchez objects to these solutions, arguing “that they largely ignore the central role subsidiarity plays in Catholic social teaching.” Sanchez seems to argue—though he doesn’t put it quite like this—that to be completely consistent with the Church’s social teaching, an economic solution should involve subsidiarity. But whose subsidiarity?

To be clear, we think Sanchez is probably correct: if you’re going to be consistent with the social teaching of the Church, then you have to be consistent with the social teaching of the Church. And subsidiarity is part of the social teaching of the Church. Thus, one needs to take it into account or explain why it may be disregarded without creating a conflict with the Church’s doctrine. (Our primary criticism of the Actonista set, for example, is that they neither take into account the less liberal elements of the Church’s teachings nor explain why they don’t have to take them into account. It’s mostly hand-waving about the various competences of the Church, notwithstanding Ubi arcano Dei consilio.) We simply observe that there are, perhaps, two competing versions of subsidiarity, and it is not clear to us that one gets the same result in a given situation under either version. Thus, when one says that one has to take subsidiarity into account, the question becomes, as we noted above, whose subsidiarity?

On one hand, we have Pius XI’s version of subsidiarity, encapsulated in this bit from Quadragesimo anno:

When we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore. the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.

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. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: 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 supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will 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. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, the smallest competent entity ought to handle a situation. The threat of a strike at a factory in a town ought to be handled by the local authority. Unfair wages at several factories throughout a region ought to be handled by the regional authority. If regional authorities differ on responses to problems or broader intervention is needed, then the national authority can step in and act. And so on. (We’ll come back to this question of the smallest competent entity.) At any rate, it seems to us that Pius’s subsidiarity is concerned with the entity that ought to intervene in a given situation.

On the other hand, we have John Paul’s version, as expressed in Centesimus annus:

Another task of the State is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. This does not mean, however, that the State has no competence in this domain, as was claimed by those who argued against any rules in the economic sphere. Rather, the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis.

The State has the further right to intervene when particular monopolies create delays or obstacles to development. In addition to the tasks of harmonizing and guiding development, in exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when social sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.

In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. 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.

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) In other words, John Paul puts the individual and associations of individuals at the center of the picture and argues that they have the primary authority in economic oversight. With this basic shift, a remarkable change occurs. Subsidiarity becomes the principle of limited government involvement in economic matters. Individuals and associations of individuals are the smallest competent authorities, to use fundamentally Pian terms, and, therefore, individuals and associations of individuals ought to be the entities that address economic issues first. What’s more, the state should concentrate primarily on creating and preserving the conditions for private enterprise to thrive. If targeted intervention is necessary, then it should be brief and demanded by the common good. And the state should exercise social-welfare functions only if more local solutions fail or are unavailable. In other words, individuals have primary responsibility for the economy and for ensuring that everyone gets either a fair shake or some help. If that cannot work for whatever reason, then the state can get involved.

One could argue that John Paul’s position is reconcilable with Pius’s, given the apparently different focuses of the two. On one hand, one could say, Pius is focused on the state’s role in the relations between capital and labor; in other words, Pius is concerned with the state’s role as mediator in industrial disputes. On the other hand, John Paul is interested in the state as actor in the economy, both as intervenor in industries and as guarantor of a standard of living; John Paul is concerned with crony capitalism, nationalized industries, and handouts. That is, one may say, of course Pius’s and John Paul’s visions of subsidiarity are divergent—they’re talking about different things. And that may be the case; certainly we would be open to seeing that argument worked out in greater detail. However, we are interested in John Paul’s apparent pivot back to the individual, which we believe is the key difference between his subsidiarity and Pius’s. It is this pivot that we think sets up a fundamental difference between John Paul’s thinking and Pius’s.

For one thing, John Paul’s notion of the individual as primary guarantor of human rights in the economic sphere appears to contradict Leo in Rerum novarum:

We have said that the State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammelled action so far as is consistent with the common good and the interest of others. Rulers should, nevertheless, anxiously safeguard the community and all its members; the community, because the conservation thereof is so emphatically the business of the supreme power, that the safety of the commonwealth is not only the first law, but it is a government’s whole reason of existence; and the members, because both philosophy and the Gospel concur in laying down that the object of the government of the State should be, not the advantage of the ruler, but the benefit of those over whom he is placed. As the power to rule comes from God, and is, as it were, a participation in His, the highest of all sovereignties, it should be exercised as the power of God is exercised – with a fatherly solicitude which not only guides the whole, but reaches also individuals.

Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it. Now, it is to the interest of the community, as well as of the individual, that peace and good order should be maintained; that all things should be carried on in accordance with God’s laws and those of nature; that the discipline of family life should be observed and that religion should be obeyed; that a high standard of morality should prevail, both in public and private life; that justice should be held sacred and that no one should injure another with impunity; that the members of the commonwealth should grow up to man’s estate strong and robust, and capable, if need be, of guarding and defending their country. If by a strike of workers or concerted interruption of work there should be imminent danger of disturbance to the public peace; or if circumstances were such as that among the working class the ties of family life were relaxed; if religion were found to suffer through the workers not having time and opportunity afforded them to practice its duties; if in workshops and factories there were danger to morals through the mixing of the sexes or from other harmful occasions of evil; or if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.

Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

Consider also Pius’s summary of Leo’s position in Quadragesimo anno:

Just freedom of action must, of course, be left both to individual citizens and to families, yet only on condition that the common good be preserved and wrong to any individual be abolished. The function of the rulers of the State, moreover, is to watch over the community and its parts; but in protecting private individuals in their rights, chief consideration ought to be given to the weak and the poor.

Pius also notes that:

It follows from what We have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownership, that men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property. Moreover, Leo XIII wisely taught “that God has left the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and institutions of peoples.” That history proves ownership, like other elements of social life, to be not absolutely unchanging, We once declared as follows: “What divers forms has property had, from that primitive form among rude and savage peoples, which may be observed in some places even in our time, to the form of possession in the patriarchal age; and so further to the various forms under tyranny (We are using the word tyranny in its classical sense); and then through the feudal and monarchial forms down to the various types which are to be found in more recent times.” That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) In other words, the state may intervene both to regulate certain industrial relations and to regulate the uses of private property in accordance with the common good. This is a much stronger vision of the state than anything John Paul articulates. One could play George Weigel and offer all manner of explanations as to why John Paul’s vision is different (and you could guess what they are), but we will refrain from doing so.

As we say, John Paul’s shift away from the state toward the individual as primary guarantor of human rights in the economic sphere appears to be a break with Leo and Pius. Thus, we are not sure that the pivot John Paul makes, which produces his radically different vision of subsidiarity, is wholly consistent with the prior social teaching of the Church. (We will not discuss Mater et Magistra or Populorum progressio at this point, though we think there may be some particular applicability of Populorum progressio to one of Sanchez’s other points.)

Certainly, if we are wrong, we would be happy to hear it.

The upshot of all of this is that we think it matters, for the purposes both of Sanchez’s discussion and for any attempt to consider economic justice in the context of the Church’s social teaching, to be clear whose subsidiarity we mean. It is not at all clear to us that Pius’s definition of subsidiarity (or Leo’s concept of state action, for that matter) excludes certain top-down, nationwide economic actions—what we might call a centrally planned economy—in all cases. When discussing nationwide economic issues, such as widespread inequality, the smallest competent unit is surely the national government. Certainly, such actions must serve the common good, and it is an open question whether top-down state action always—or even often—serves the common good. On the other hand, John Paul’s concept probably does exclude a centrally planned economy and other top-down, nationwide economic actions except in the direst need. It’s not a trivial difference.