In the opening passages of Leo XIII’s pivotal 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, there is something that has puzzled many people to the point that their only response is to ignore it. This is the pope’s rather odd comment about the role the State should take in everyday life. As His Holiness declared, “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.” (§7)
|State Save Us!|
“But . . . but . . . but . . .” today’s social justice expert or advocate burbles in baffled bewilderment, “isn’t the State’s job to take care of our every need from cradle to grave, to right every individual wrong, make us all feel safe and secure, and in general be the Hobbesian ‘Mortall God’ that rules on Earth as the Immortal God rules in Heaven? Isn’t that what social justice and subsidiarity are all about?”
Not exactly. The principle of subsidiarity implied here is not a virtue, per se, but a principle guiding the application of virtues. Thus, as CESJ co-founder Father William Ferree explained in his uncompleted manuscript, Forty Years After . . . A Second Call to Battle,
[T]he 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.
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!”
|CESJ co-founder Fr. William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Not surprisingly, it also leads to similarly “outlandish formulations” such as “the State is always right!” that also pervades the interpretation of Catholic social teaching, and thus the whole of the modern understanding of natural law, whatever your faith or philosophy. This leads us to the “Fifth Law of Social Justice” —
Higher Institutions Must Never Displace Lower Ones
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. This is well stated in Paragraph 80 of Quadragesimo Anno:
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 graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary functions,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be and the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.
|Pope Pius XII|
In his Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, Pope Pius XII applies this principle to the State both as regards its subordinate institutions, and as regard the whole human family of which it is a part.
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:
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 injures the relations, between peoples, for it breaks the unity of supra-national society, robs the law of nations of its foundation 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.
|Pope Pius XI|
What is particularly interesting in the cited passage from Quadragesimo Anno is that Pope Pius XI may have been responding directly to the interpretation that Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of the Catholic University of America put on certain passages of Rerum Novarum that directly contradicted explicit statements earlier in the encyclical itself! As analyzed by the solidarist economist Dr. Franz Herman Mueller (1900-1994), a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J. (1854-1926), Msgr. Ryan just assumed — with no basis for his assumption — the whole message of Rerum Novarum is summed up in a single sentence from § 36: “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it.” As Dr. Mueller commented,
Ryan relates that the first time he read Rerum Novarum he was most impressed by the passage in Section 28. [Mueller used another edition of the encyclical with different numbering than the current official Vatican translation.] Actually this passage is a clear statement of the principle of subsidiarity, but at that time Ryan seems to have been fascinated by the pope’s acceptance of State intervention and overlooked the important qualifications made by Leo. . . . Ryan all through his life felt that what governments normally do, and what appears to be practically necessary, may be regarded as belonging to the proper functions of government — a rather pragmatic point of view. (Franz H. Mueller, The Church and the Social Question. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, 1984, 96.)
|Pope Leo XIII|
Msgr. Ryan simply ignored natural law, individual rights, sovereignty, free will, and more — all “the important qualifications made by Leo” in §§ 12-14 of Rerum Novarum to protect the individual and the family. In common with earlier “democratic” or “Christian” socialists, Msgr. Ryan redefined salvation in terms of State-provided or supported universal wellbeing. As Dr. Mueller explained Msgr. Ryan’s orientation,
Ryan started out with the question whether the then prevailing trend toward wider State intervention should be permitted to continue until it has embraced the full program of socialism or whether it should be countered by, and confined to, a program which will keep it within the bounds of feasible and rational social reform. . . . He then proceeded to outline such a program which should aim at “regulating the limits, both upper and lower, of industrial opportunity,” by securing to the laborers a reasonable minimum of wages and other economic goods. (Ibid., 104.)
Msgr. Ryan’s program included minimum wage and maximum hours laws, compulsory arbitration, State employment bureaus. and unemployment insurance. (Ibid.) In a paper titled “A Program of Social Reform by Legislation,” Msgr. Ryan also advocated “State labor colonies” for recalcitrants and hardcore unemployables that “could be of great benefit to certain classes of the unemployed.” Regimentation of the workforce would be accompanied “by gradual nationalization of railroads, power companies, water works, municipal transportation, and telephones.” (Ibid., 105.)
|Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J.|
The American Bishops’ Program of 1919 contained many of the elements of Ryan’s proposal. In particular, “The industry in which a man is employed should provide him with all that is necessary to meet all the needs of his entire life.” (Ibid., 107.) As one “labor judge” commented at the height of Msgr. Ryan’s popularity, “I would rather see a man employed in private industry. But if he can’t find that kind of a job, the government should give him one.” (“Restaurant Union Hears Judge Smith,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 20, 1939, 6.)
As Dr. Mueller commented, “It is hard to understand why neither Ryan nor the Catholic War Council realized, or so it seems, the ‘corporatist’ [i.e., Fascist] implications of this statement.” (Mueller, The Church and the Social Question, op. cit., 107.)
Msgr. Ryan’s chief accomplishment, then, was to make Rerum Novarum mean exactly the opposite of what Leo XIII intended. He used an encyclical directed against socialism and fascism in support of socialism and fascism. Nevertheless, despite its heterodoxy and deviations from papal teachings, Msgr. Ryan’s analysis eventually became the authoritative interpretation of Catholic social teaching.