Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Some Comments on Subsidiarity

One definition of subsidiarity is “a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over.”

Not really all that funny. . . .
That’s correct — up to a point . . . and it leaves a lot out, such as a legitimate role for the “larger” social bodies.  This is particularly a problem in our day and age when the Nation-State has achieved such — we’ll call it prominence — in individual and family life that people tend to divide into two camps, 1) those that deny any role to the State (and who thereby end up in a totalitarian society), and 2) those who deny any role to anyone or thing other than the State (and who thereby end up in a totalitarian society).

Translation: people hear what they want to hear (surprise).

Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.
What should they be hearing, however?  Why don’t we let someone who actually knew what he was talking about, CESJ co-founder, the late Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., “America’s greatest social philosopher,” explain the concept of subsidiarity?  Here’s an extract from Father Ferree’s unpublished manuscript fragment, Forty Years After, written around 1984-1985:

Fifth Law: Higher Organizations Must Never Displace Lower Ones

Another law of Social Justice which stems from the institutional character of the Common Good is that no organizations in the vast hierarchy which we have seen can “take over” the particular functions which an institution or person below it can adequately perform. This is well stated in paragraph 80 of Quadragesimo Anno:

“80. The supreme authority of the State, ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them. . . . Therefore those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduate order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of ‘subsidiary function,’ the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be and the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.”

In his encyclical Summi Pontificatus Pope Pius XII applies this principle to the State both as regards its subordinate institutions, and as regards the whole family of which it is a part.

Pope Pius XII
“60. If, in fact, the State lays claim to and directs private enterprises, these, ruled as they are by delicate and complicated internal principles which guarantee and insure the realization of their special aims, may be damaged to the detriment of the public good, by being wrenched from their natural surroundings, that is, from responsible private action.”

Then again to show the relation of the State to the whole human community:

“60 (cont’d). The idea which credits the State with unlimited authority is not simply an error harmful to the life of nations, to their prosperity, and to the larger and well ordered increase in their well-being; but likewise it hinders the relation between peoples, for it breaks the unity of supra-national society, robs the law of nations of its foundations and vigor, leads to the violation of others’ rights, and impedes agreement and peaceful intercourse. A disposition in fact of divinely sanctioned natural order divides the human race into social groups, nations or states, which are mutually independent in organization and in the direction of their internal life. But for all that, the human race is bound together by reciprocal ties, moral and juridical, into a great commonwealth directed to the good of all nations, and ruled by special laws which protect its unity and promote its prosperity.”

This is evidently Pius XI’s “Law of subsidiarity function” even though the name is not mentioned. It is particularly interesting because it brings together the two parts of the Law of Social Justice which Pius XI himself was content to treat separately.

One part, “The Law of Subsidiary Function” is treated in the passage we are commenting; the other part comes later on, being summarized in paragraph 109 of Summi Pontificatus:

"Shameful confusion of the functions of public authority."
“109. The ultimate consequences of the individualist spirit in economic life are those which you yourselves, Venerable Brothers and beloved children, see and deplore! Free competition has destroyed itself; economic dictatorship has supplanted the free market; unbridled ambition for power has likewise succeeded greed for gain; all economic life has become tragically hard, inexorable, and cruel. To these are to be added grave evils that have resulted from an intermingling and shameful confusion of the functions of public authority with those of the economic sphere — such as, one of the worst, the virtual degradation of the majesty of the State, which although it ought to sit on high like a Queen and Supreme Arbitress, free from all partiality and intent upon the one Common Good and justice, is become a slave, surrendered and delivered to the passions and greed of men.”

It can thus be seen that the Law of Subsidiarity has two parts: First, that no higher organization may arrogate to itself a function which a lower organization can adequately perform; and secondly, that no lower organization may “capture” a higher one for its own particular purposes.

"Like this Ferree and CESJ know what they're talking about."
Many people who profess great interest in the Law of Subsidiary Function don’t want to hear about the second part of the Law of Subsidiarity. This leads to such outlandish formulations as one I ran into personally in trying to dialogue with some students in the hectic passage from the Sixties to the Seventies: this earnest young man was even condescending in the patience with which he tried to explain to me that “the lower level was always right!”

 Perhaps the best way to handle the idea is to think of a single “Law of Subsidiarity” which has both a “Subsidiary Function” and a “Sovereign Function.”

*          *          *          *

So, if we are to believe Father Ferree, subsidiarity doesn’t mean automatically doing things at the lowest level, or at the highest level, but at the most appropriate level!  (What a concept!)

Thus, matters that are appropriate to the individual should be handled by the individual.  Matters that are appropriate to the family, by the family, and so on, up to the highest level of organized society.

The problem today is that the State has taken over so much, and people have so little power, that subsidiarity is, to all intents and purposes, a meaningless concept.  The definition of subsidiarity that goes “the State does whatever the individual cannot do for himself” (and we’ve seen it and had it quoted to us) reads like the Nazi program in which all intermediate organizations have either been abolished or absorbed into the State.

And charity?  We’ll look at that tomorrow.


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