Sunday, June 17, 2007

Subsidiarity and Catholic Social Doctrine

This post bleeds into political philosophy, but it is political philosophy rooted in theology and so I think it fits here.

In the past, I have written that I am a neo-Calvinist. I am also a proponent of Catholic Social Doctrine. Both approaches cross over in many places. They work within different theological systems but end up in many of the same places.

A principle of Catholic Social Doctrine that I deeply believe in is the idea of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is:

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms. “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” . . .

Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted.

I am often critical of the welfare state. I do not do so because of the tired right-wing notion that the magic of the market will automatically care for the poor if we just let it loose. That is nice theory, but I think history demonstrates that it does not really happen.

That said, I am deeply ambivalent and critical of the welfare state. This comes from thinking about it and, at one stage in my life, working with the welfare system. My problem is that it undercuts the principle of subsidiarity. The state exists for jural reasons and economic justice is part of that. However, the notion that the state must ensure economic justice is not the same as saying the modern welfare state birthed by the New Deal and the Great Society is the only or the best way to achieve that.

Subsidiarity would say the individual should do what he or she can and then family and then local/private help, etc. should be exhausted before the state steps in. Why? Because by ensuring these other entities carry out their proper roles first, the state helps build common provision into the very fabric of the commonwealth -- into the hearts and lives of people. This is not to say the state has no place. It is to say the state ought to function in a manner that supports and supplements these other entities.

The Bush Administration's Faith Based Initiative held out hope of trying some new and creative ways of addressing issues of poverty that conformed to the principle of subsidiarity. I think the Bush approach had problems, and looks like, according to former Bush staffer and faith based initiative policy wonk David Kuo, that it was a political sham without any real intention to carry out. That's tragic and angering.

Poverty is a much more complex reality than lack of money. A large welfare state teaches a populace that addressing poverty is something the government does with our tax money. Beyond that, it's not our responsibility.

As a Christian, I think the Church -- and especially local congregations -- have a unique opportunity to demonstrate what economic justice in the Kingdom of God looks like. Part of our role might be to support the welfare state to a certain degree. But I think we also need to offer an alternative vision and approach than the liberal bureaucratic welfare state model. That model is based on an enlightenment world view that poverty is a problem to be analyzed, addressed and solved by the proper policy implementations. Part of the Church's role is to demonstrate the ultimately vacuous nature of that approach.

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