When a family member, following the lead of Congressman Paul Ryan, recently invoked the Catholic principle of subsidiarity to defend the economic ideas that are currently popular among American “conservatives” (and given teeth in the Republican federal budget proposal), I commented that Ryan’s grasp of Catholic teaching on subsidiarity is about as firm as that of Nancy Pelosi’s on abortion. In both cases, these two politicians either are either so committed to their dearest held convictions that they see exactly and only what they want to see in the teachings of their own Church, or they are willfully distorting Church teaching in order to dishonestly prop up their own ideas, which in fact find no support in these teachings.
A brand new article in America magazine, by theologian Vincent J. Miller, helps demonstrate how far off the mark Ryan and others are when it comes to Catholic social teaching (CST) in general and subsidiarity in particular. He shows succinctly that the overall vision of CST, the historical context in which it developed, and the specific teaching of the popes on subsidiarity all put the lie to Ryan et al. As Miller puts it: “That Representative Ryan could publicly change his allegiance from Ayn Rand to Catholic social doctrine without changing his policies suggests something is terribly amiss.”
Miller, for example, cites the classic statement of Catholic teaching on subsidiary in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quagragesimo Anno, section 79:
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.
What I’ve quoted there is the entire section 79 of the encyclical. Miller points out that most of those who invoke subsidiarity these days in defense of Republican neoliberal economics all conveniently fail to quote the first sentence of that paragraph, starting instead from the “Just as is it….” Miller observes:
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.
Call the thinking that’s enshrined in the Republican budget proposal necessary or helpful or even wise if you want to try. But don’t call it Catholic. The entire article, called “Saving Subsidiarity,” is available online here.
(And while you’re at it, don’t forget Gerald J. Beyer’s equally helpful article, “What Ryan Missed,” published on the America website last month.)