In the previous posting on this subject, we looked at one idea of subsidiarity, that some level of government does whatever an individual or a group is unable to do for itself. That understanding of subsidiarity, however, completely ignores the act of social justice, which is concerned with removing barriers to full participation in the institutions of the common good. Social justice is not a substitute for individual justice or charity. Rather, social justice enables individual justice and charity to function.
Similarly, the State as the mediate cause of human welfare is not a substitute for action by human beings, who are the immediate cause of their own welfare. Thus, social justice and State action, while related are not the same, and both act indirectly to effect individual good. The primary responsibility of the good of the individual human person — and thus the direct act to effect individual human welfare — is and will always be the individual human person.
|CESJ co-founder Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M.|
The principle of subsidiarity, then, is not that the State does whatever individuals or groups cannot do, but that the level of the common good closest to the task does it. Social justice steps in when the closest level is unable to function properly, then fixes the institutions so that the closest level can once again function properly.
Subsidiarity as a concept comes from Catholic social teaching, but that in no way restricts it to members of that faith or excludes others. It is not “a Catholic thing,” but “a natural law thing,” and thus common to people of all faiths and philosophies or none.
Not a virtue per se, but a principle, subsidiarity is inherent in all the social virtues, although most obviously in social justice. This is emphasized in the “laws” of social justice with each person having a responsibility for the common good at his or her own level directly, and indirectly for the whole of the common good, and “Another law of Social Justice which stems from the institutional character of the Common Good is that no institution in the vast hierarchy which we have seen can take over the particular actions of an institution or person below it.” (Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice. New York: Paulist Press, 1948, 37.)
Thus, to be effective as a social principle, subsidiarity must combine with the related principle of solidarity (a characteristic of groups, per se) and be integrated into the act of social justice directed to the common good, not any individual good. Subsidiarity therefore assumes liberty — freedom of association — as a natural right, for it is inherently an organizing principle; people cannot carry out acts of social justice except as members of an organized group — and that organization must be free, or it ceases to be a virtue and becomes the intolerable vice of tyranny.
|Locke got one thing right.|
Further, subsidiarity also assumes the right to life as natural or inherent in every human being and — less obviously but extremely important and most immediate — the natural right to be an owner, the right to private property. Without these three natural rights, life, liberty, and private property, acts of social justice (indeed, of any social virtue) become impossible:
· Life, for without persons who do not have to justify their existence to anyone, the whole question of acquiring and developing virtue — of becoming more fully human — becomes moot.
· Liberty, or freedom of association and of contract, for without the right to organize freely with others for the common good, social virtue (especially social justice) is impossible; virtue of any kind must be free, or it ceases to be virtuous.
· Private Property, for without the personal empowerment that individual private ownership vests in people, acts of virtue become ordinarily impossible; power is “the ability for doing,” and “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”
Thus, subsidiarity is the principle inherent in social virtue that in all matters affecting both immediate and mediate human welfare, the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority has the responsibility. When the obvious authority lacks the power to act, and the need is immediate, a higher level of the common good, agency, or authority may step in and assist as a temporary expedient until acts of social justice can be organized and carried out with the goal being to return the ability to act to the proper authority. To refuse to return power once the ability to act has been restored, or to prevent acts of social justice or deny their necessity is contrary to nature and thus to the common good.
|Pope Leo XIII|
In consequence, higher levels of the common good or centralized authority should be confined as a matter of course, and absent any emergency situation where their assistance should be viewed only as a temporary expedient, to those functions which cannot be performed by the lower levels of the common good or decentralized authority. Subsidiarity is in part a recognition of the dignity of the human person under God by asserting a personal responsibility both over one’s own life and for the whole of the common good.
The State, whatever the level involved, is there to serve the human person, not the other way around. It is therefore an offense against the dignity of the human person to impose a condition of dependency on anyone who has reached adult status, except for just cause and through due process, except as an expedient in an emergency. Thus, as Pope Leo XIII explained,
This becomes still more clearly evident if man's nature be considered a little more deeply. For man, fathoming by his faculty of reason matters without number, linking the future with the present, and being master of his own acts, guides his ways under the eternal law and the power of God, whose providence governs all things. Wherefore, it is in his power to exercise his choice not only as to matters that regard his present welfare, but also about those which he deems may be for his advantage in time yet to come. Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future. Man's needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body. (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)