Liberty or Subsidiarity?

Ed Cook looks at Catholic scoial teaching in the current Liberty, especially the principle of “subsidiarity.” After tracing the history of the idea, and some positive elements, he offers a critique.

Although subsidiarity has much to offer, it has weaknesses in several areas. First, it endangers church-state relations. By definition, subsidiarity is designed to limit, or even to restrict, state involvement, which concept poses no threat in itself. The corollary of subsidiarity, however, requires higher organizations to facilitate the functioning of lower organizations. By such an ordering of societal structures, it naturally lends itself to supporting a theory of nonpreferential government aid to religious institutions.

This point bears significant weight in light of John Paul II’s statements against the modern welfare state. If the welfare state is viewed as “an evil to be avoided,” then responsibility for societal needs falls upon the shoulders of lower organizations, such as nonreligious and religious groups dedicated to caring for the needy. Rather than the state taking direct charge of caring for its citizens, it should aid those subsidiary organizations (religious bodies) through monetary support to accomplish such fraternal duties as caring for the disadvantaged of society.

Furthermore, one must consider the historical context of the origin of the principle of subsidiarity. The Roman Question was still far from being resolved in the late nineteenth century. Leo XIII, who first introduced the premise of limiting the state in Rerum Novarum , marked his episcopate as one dedicated to the liberty of the church.14 Thus, through the concept of subsidiarity, strong, modern nation-states are limited from overinvolvement with those areas that the church identifies as traditionally belonging to its care; yet, by the same principle of subsidiarity, the state is obligated to assist the lower organizations to fulfill their mission, where such assistance may sometimes take the form of monetary sustenance. In simplistic terms, in the Caesaro-papal power struggle, subsidiarity grants the upper hand to the church.