Solidarity, subsidiarity, and principled sanity

Fr. Robert Barron reflects a bit on the relationship between the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity:

Now in 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.

Catholic social 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 programs, etc.?

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.

Catholic 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 worth developing.

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 is—and 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 paragraph:

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):

But in 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:

At every 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:

Americans 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 [1991])

To come full circle, we—both Americans in general and Catholics, specifically—tend 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. 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Jesus weeps – Catholic World Report – Catholic World Report – Bold News

Comments are closed.