How to Understand Catholic Social Teaching: Solidarity and Subsidiarity
- Solidarity is the notion that we're connected with our neighbors: down the street, throughout the country, and around the world. We can't, as Christians, just say “I'll take care of myself, I don't care about my poor next-door neighbor.” Likewise, we can't, as Christians, just say, “I'll take care of America, I don't care about the poor Third World.” The presence of international borders doesn't curb our need to love neighbor. If it did, then how do we explain the Good Samaritan, who wasn't from Israel?
- Subsidiarity is equally important. It's the idea that problems should be solved at the smallest and most intimate level possible. For example, the federal government shouldn't be solving problems states can solve, states shouldn't be solving problems that communities can solve, and so on. This is another aspect of charity. Charity isn't a faceless international bureaucracy doling out tax dollars. It's a soul exhibiting the love of Christ. This also means that our moral obligations to tend for our family are higher than our moral obligation to care for our neighborhood, or community, or city, or state, or country, or planet. We have some degree of moral duty and responsibility towards each of these, but it's best understood as concentric circles.
The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.
One risk we can fall into is what Charles Dickens called “telescopic charity” (I’m indebted to Fr. Paul Scalia for this term). It's the idea that we're going to meddle in the affairs of complete strangers, while refusing to love our family or those people we see every day. He mentioned seeing it a lot among high-schoolers: they want to stop all the injustice in the world on a grand scale, but refuse to stop perpetrating injustices. That's a cop out, and not the appropriate Christian solution. It's even more of a cop out when we think that we can accomplish this charity simply by writing a check, or worse, by having the government write a check for us.
Benedict's vision of the economy is refreshing, and I wish more politicians here and abroad would take these words to heart. A free market is a good, but a truly free market should make it possible for individuals and businesses to work for profit, or work for the good of others. I think that tax-exempt charitable organizations are one helpful way in which the State facilitates charity without getting too much in the way (but even here, only if the tax-exemption doesn't come with a lot of strings attached that destroy the independence of the charity).
About subsidiarity, which he called “an expression of inalienable human freedom,” Pope Benedict has this to say:
Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans — and therefore of the plurality of subjects — as well as the coordination of those plans.
So for example, you've got a friend who loses his job. If the State takes care of him, he's treated impersonally, and he's at the risk of being treated as a helpless victim. In contrast, if you and your other friends (or perhaps your local parish) help take care of him, it's personal and loving. Plus, you're treating him as a friend with inherent dignity, not simply a victim. Maybe your generosity will encourage him to help contribute in some way in return (either to you or others), something he's unlikely to have done in response to the welfare state. That is, the more personal approach is the one more likely to cultivate respect and charity.
Benedict then remarks on the role that subsidiary plays in globalization, while emphasizing the role for international authority as well:
Hence the principle of subsidiarity is particularly well-suited to managing globalization and directing it towards authentic human development. In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.