Fr. Robert Barron reflects a bit on the relationship between the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity:
Catholic social theory, subsidiarity is balanced by solidarity, which is
to say, a keen sense of the common good, of the natural and
supernatural connections that bind us to one another, of our
responsibility for each other. I vividly remember former New York
Governor Mario Cuomo's speech before the Democratic National Convention
in San Francisco in 1984, in the course of which he effectively
lampooned the idea that individual self-interest set utterly free would
automatically redound to the general welfare.
thought does indeed stand athwart such "invisible hand" theorizing. It
also recognizes that, always in accord with subsidiarity, sometimes the
federal and state governments are the legitimate vehicles by which
social solidarity is achieved. Does anyone today, outside of the most
extreme circles, really advocate the repeal of Social Security,
unemployment compensation, medical benefits for the elderly, food stamp
Solidarity without subsidiarity can easily
devolve into a kind of totalitarianism whereby "justice" is achieved
either through outright manipulation and intimidation or through more
subtle forms of social engineering. But subsidiarity without solidarity
can result in a society marked by rampant individualism, a Gordon Gekko
"greed is good" mentality, and an Ayn Rand/Nietzschean "objectivism"
that positively celebrates the powerful person's dominance of the weak.
social theory involves the subtle balancing of these two great
principles so as to avoid these two characteristic pitfalls. It does,
for example, consistently advocate the free market, entrepreneurial
enterprise, profit-making; and it holds out against all forms of Marxism
and extreme socialism. But it also insists that the market be
circumscribed by clear moral imperatives and that the wealthy realize
their sacred obligation to aid the less advantaged. This last point is
Good stuff, as always, from Fr. Barron. Another point worth
developing is a precise, correct understanding of the common good. The
term "common good" is often thrown around as if everyone knows what it
means. But I suspect that many Catholics have a poor or incomplete
notion of what the common good isand is not. For instance, the rhetoric
of many suggests they think the common good is an end in itself. Or
that the common good is primarily about political rights, economic
equality, and material well-being. A few weeks ago, I wrote:
It's important to note that while social doctrine is often presented
or perceived as being only about social ethics, it is just as much about
personal morality. In addition, the Church's social doctrine is built
squarely on her moral teachings; the two simply cannot be disconnected
or sundered. And the ultimate goal of the Church's social
doctrine is not the elimination of poverty, or the destruction of evil
social institutions, or the building of a perfect, utopian society."With her social doctrine, the Church aims 'at helping man on the path of salvation'. This is her primary and sole purpose." (Comp., 69).
This does not mean, of course, that social doctrine is concerned
only with heaven; rather, it is completely oriented toward man's
heavenly calling and informed by man's vocation to eternal communion
with God. This orientation, in social doctrine, is essentially the
common good, for God is the source of truth, morality, and
goodness. True freedom is the ability to do what is true and good, and
thus to pursue a godly life, for our lives have meaning beyond the
limits of this temporal realm, as the Compendium explains in a key
The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has
value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and
the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the
ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be
deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the
historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it. This
perspective reaches its fullness by virtue of faith in Jesus' Passover,
which sheds clear light on the attainment of humanity's true common
good. Our history the personal and collective effort to elevate the
human condition begins and ends in Jesus: thanks to him, by means of
him and in light of him every reality, including human society, can be
brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfilment. A purely historical and
materialistic vision would end up transforming the common good into a
simple socio-economic well-being, without any transcendental goal, that is, without its most intimate reason for existing. (par 170).
Turning the common good into a matter of "simple socio-economic well-being" can involve a number of different errors and falsehoods, among them the promotion and use of contraceptives and abortion.
A foundational issue at hand is one of anthropology: What is man?
What or who is he made for? Does he have a transcendent end? This issue,
however, tends to be ignored or discounted in modern, secularized
democracies, a point was made six decades ago by the great Frank Sheed
in Society and Sanity (Sheed & Ward, 1953):
the whole of our social life Man is overlooked. Man is taken simply as a
word, a label for a particular kind of being (the kind to which we
belong ourselves), and nobody stops for any serious consideration of
what the word means. We proceed immediately to consider how to make the
creature happier without every asking what the creature is. It should be
just the other way round. When some new proposal is made which affects
the way men live, our immediate reaction is always to ask, Will it make
men happier? But this should be the second question, not the first. The
first question should be, Does it fit the nature of man? The total
ignoring of this question runs all through modern life.
Sheed notes that many people think the State is or should be
"neutral" on such questions, a position that Sheed rightly rejects as
"grotesque". Then, after a discussion of education, Sheed writes:
turn not only in education, but in the whole life of Society, the
treatment of human beings by one another and of the citizens by the
State needs testing by the question, What is man. And it is never asked.
The State does not know what man is, and is taking more and more
control of man's life.
Note, again, that this was written just a few years after the second
World War. Sheed, of course, had an eye toward Communion: "In Karl Marx
you see this ignoring of man in the pure form. The Western democracies
do not know, or care, what man is, but they have some notion of what men
want and how they are likely to react." Is that still true? It is, I
think, debatable. What is not as debatable is Sheed's claim that
democracies do not know or care what man is. I am in general agreement
with Walker Percy (as I noted this December 2011 essay) that we in the West are essentially "theorist-consumers"; that is (quoting myself, again)
we like to employ various
theories (usually draped in scientistic language) about nearly
everything, but when the rubber meets the road, it's really about our
desires, our dreams, our right to choose and our freedom to consume.
In the words of Percy:
are the nicest, most generous, and sentimental people on earth. Yet
Americans have killed more unborn children than any nation in history.
... It is not "horrible" that over a million unborn children were killed
in America last year [Percy was writing around 1989]. For one thing, one
does not see many people horrified. It is not horrible, because in an
age of theory and consumption it is appropriate that actions be carried
out as the applications of theory and the needs of consumption require.
("Why Are You a Catholic?", from Signposts in a Strange Land )
To come full circle, weboth Americans in general and Catholics,
specificallytend to be very confused and deeply conflicted people. And
one reason is that we often give a friendly nod and some lip service to
first principles but just as often fail to comprehend what those
principles really are and what they really lead to in practice. And so
it more than common to read about "social justice" and "the common good"
without the author every bothering to explain what those terms mean;
they are like cattle calls, soothing to the dull animals ranging in the
dusk, but rarely are they clarion calls that convey truth and clarify
the real issues.