Those not well acquainted with the Catholic Church may be surprised to learn this supremely hierarchical organization has as one of its most important structural principles the concept of subsidiarity. Here are a few passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) that explain it.
1883 Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”
1884 God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence.
1885 The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.
What the CCC describes is a happy medium between extreme individualism and extreme centralization in social, political and economic structures. The goal of subsidiarity is to maximize the individual’s freedom to flourish spiritually, intellectually and physically.
Subsidiarity works when individuals are involved at the local level, and when people working at higher levels of social organization have the best interests of the individual at heart.
We Need Subsidiarity Now
Take the two-question Subsidiarity Test:
- Are people at the local level taking responsibility for local issues?
- Are people at the higher levels serving the best interests of individuals below them?
Answers will vary depending on personal experience and perspective. My answers to these two questions are the same: Not often enough. Hard to ignore is the massive centralization taking place in critical areas of our lives. For example —
- Mainstream media ownership boils down to a handful of men.
- A handful of giants like Facebook and Twitter dominate social media.
- Google processes over 80 percent of global search engine queries.
- The Affordable Care Act brought an unprecedented level of governmental control to the U.S. healthcare industry.
- The EU is asserting control over formerly fully independent European nations.
- Independent farmers are being replaced by “big agriculture” around the world.
What we eat, what news and entertainment we consume and what health services we can obtain are being determined more and more by people further and further away.
Thankfully, there is significant grassroots pushback on several fronts. Alternate media, while often as biased as Big Media, at least present news from different angles. The local food movement continues to gain momentum in response to Big Ag. Home schooling is a reaction to Big Education. Privacy-driven search engines such as DuckDuckGo have picked up steam in response to Big Internet. So there is hope.
Don’t Blame the Fat Cats
It’s easy to blame the ills of centralization on corporate leaders with 8-figure bonuses and politicians raking it in from special interest groups. While such corruption exists and certainly influences powerful people to put special interests ahead of the common interest (CCC 1883 above), there’s an even bigger problem, and that problem is us.
Two advantages of centralization are cheap prices and convenience. It’s easier to buy a pound of nitrate-stuffed, processed bologna for $2.00 than a comparable, locally produced, hard to find organic alternative at double or triple that price. It’s easier to use Google or Apple for five online activities than encumber yourself with a separate search engine, email provider, cloud storage service, web browser and map utility.
One could argue that cheap prices and convenience are outcomes in service of the common good. But while these outcomes are good in and of themselves, they are only two aspects of the common good, and only two things that help individuals flourish. The principle of subsidiarity takes a broader view of the individual, encompassing mind, body and spirit. Cheap prices and convenience come at a cost. The cost of a convenient online experience is invasion of privacy and the dangers that go with it. The cost of cheap bologna runs from indigestion to cancer. The cost of single-source news could be our freedom.
But taking a broader view does not mean taking a higher view — in fact, it means taking a lower view. One of the biggest dangers of social media is that it takes our focus above and beyond where it should be. For instance, people are obsessed with President Trump’s tweets, but have zero influence over those tweets; on the other hand, they have all the influence in the world over what they say to their children and neighbors. People use social media to lash out at the sorry state of public education, but have never attended a school board meeting. People express outrage at the smoke-filled rooms in Washington but are unaware of the one in their own house.
We should take a lower view now — while there still exists enough subsidiarity for us to do so.
(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)