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By Deacon Keith A Fournier

7/18/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

The principle of subsidiarity, a social ordering principle, lies at the heart of Catholic Social teaching

There is little discussion about the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic circles and virtually none in the national political debate. Many Catholics do not even know that there is such a principle within the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Instead they have borrowed charged rhetoric from both the political left and the political right for far too long and failed to offer their unique contribution to the common good. We need an intelligent discussion of the underlying issue - what constitutes "good" governance - and Catholics can and should take the lead.


By Deacon Keith A Fournier

Catholic Online (

7/18/2012 (3 years ago)

Published in Politics & Policy

Keywords: Social Justice, Social teaching, solidarity, subsidiarity, government, liberal, conservative, libertarian, democrat, republican, social teaching, good governance, charitu, philanthropy, Deacon Keith Fournier

CHESAPEAKE, VA  (Catholic Online) - In the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act it is time for a discussion about good government. After being told by the current Administration that the penalty for non-compliance with the "individual mandate" to purchase insurance was not a "tax", the Court found it to be a tax, in a dense majority opinion. Based upon that - and not based upon the Commerce Clause - the lawsuits failed to meet their intended goal of having the Act declared unconstitutional.

So, even though the Act does indeed require citizens to purchase a product or face a penalty (the individual mandate), since the penalties are a now called a "tax" by the Supreme Court; they fall under Congress' tax and spend power. The arguments over this dense opinion, its suspect evolution into the majority opinion, its convoluted rationale and its implications for the future of public policy are now academic. They will become fodder for law students and law review editors for years to come.  

The importance of the other lawsuits heading for the US Supreme Court becomes even more evident. They allege the Act is unconstitutional in its implementation. The HHS mandate requiring Church owned or related employers to purchase insurance which provides abortion inducing drugs, contraception and sterilizations, violates the Free Exercise Clause of First Amendment to the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution.

These lawsuits are correct in their analysis of this onerous mandate. It would compel Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and people of good will to violate their conscience and violate deeply held religious beliefs, or face an onerous  "tax" (government penalty) and persecution. This mandate must be opposed by every Catholic and other concerned Christians, other people of faith and all people of good will who respect the fundamental right to religious freedom.  

However, if this mandate were not at issue, the idea of federalizing the provision of health care cries out for discussion. It represents a massive increase in the role of the Federal Government. We have witnessed the dangers which accompany such an expansion when the administration in power has no respect for fundamental human rights such as the Right to Religious Freedom and the Right to Life.

Yes, we should all agree that there is a need for a better vehicle for the delivery of health care services to all of our citizens. The current approach truly does need reform and repair. However, I maintain that there should be a serious caution over "federalizing" the delivery of health care in the United States, for many reasons. 

Here is the policy question which needs to be asked; does centralizing the delivery of health care services through an increasingly bloated federalized bureaucracy violate the principle of subsidiarity, a social ordering principle which lies at the heart of Catholic Social teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes these astute observations:

"All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God. The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation."

"A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future. By means of society, each man is established as an "heir" and receives certain "talents" that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good."

"Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person . . . is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions. Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him."

"To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged "on both national and international levels, which relate to economic and social goals, to cultural and recreational activities, to sport, to various professions, and to political affairs."

"This "socialization" also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities. It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility, and helps guarantee his rights. 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."

"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."

"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." (CCC, Article 1, #1878 - 1885)

There is little discussion about the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic circles and virtually none in the national political debate. My experience is that many Catholics do not even know that there is such a principle within the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Instead they have borrowed charged rhetoric from both the political left and the political right for far too long and failed to offer their unique contribution to the common good. We need an intelligent discussion of the underlying issue - what constitutes "good" governance. Let me explain.

If you listen to some voices "on the right" in the debate over health care, you find a growing influence of a version of libertarianism which is anti-government. This is at odds with the insights summarized in the Catechism. Some paraphrase the American founders to imply that government is the problem. They quote phrases such as "he who governs best governs least", the source of which is actually unclear. The rhetoric can reveal a misunderstanding of both the nature and value of governance. When the right views all government as the problem, the right goes wrong.

If you listen to some of the voices "on the left", they seem to want to federalize everything. They question the empathy of anyone who disagrees with them. Those on the political left who actually want a collectivist and statist model of governance threaten human freedom and fail to understand and honor the role of mediating institutions, the first of which is the family, the smallest governing unit and first vital cell of society. Such an approach is a disaster waiting to happen morally, politically, socially and economically.

Catholics should begin with the positive; governing is something good. God governs and invites us all into this effort. We were made to give ourselves in love and service to the other; to form societies and communities of interest and association. In fact we are not fully human unless we are in relationship with one another. We are also one another's neighbors, called to stand together in solidarity.

The first society is the family wherein we learn socialization and are schooled in the virtues which make good citizenship even possible. It must always be the guide and measuring stick for any broader social and governing structure. The question should come down to whether the model or method of governance is "good", in several senses of the word.

Is it Moral? Does it recognize the existence of the higher law, the Natural Law which is a participation in God's Law? Does it affirm that there are self evident truths? Does it recognize the fundamental human rights with which we are all endowed and acknowledge that these rights are not given to us by civil government but by God? Does it affirm the nature and dignity of the human person as created in the Image of God?

Does the means of governance respect this dignity of every human person, recognize the primacy of true marriage and the family and society founded upon it and serve the true common good? Does it promote genuine human freedom, flourishing, creativity and initiative among the citizens?

Is the model and means of governing "good" in the sense of being effective, efficient and just? Does it respect the self government of each individual human person? Does it defer to the smallest social governing unit of the family? Does it respect the other proper mediating institutions and defer first to them before assigning the task it attempts to accomplish to the centralized or federal government?

We should reject the rhetoric of the right when rooted in a mischaracterization of governing itself as evil. We should reject the rhetoric of the left when it is statist and collectivist. It is time for Catholics to take the principles set forth in the Social teaching of the Catholic Church - which is neither left nor right - and offer models, methods and means of governance which can provide an alternative to the mistakes of both the left and the right.

We should propose a model of good governance. Good governance recognizes fundamental human rights, the first of which is the right to life, as endowed by the Creator and not manufactured by civil government. In fact, the very role of government is to secure and protect those rights and not violate or usurp them.

Good governance acknowledges the vital role of mediating institutions and associations in governance. The first is the family. It defers to and respects their function. They are the best place for governance to first occur. This model of governance respects both solidarity and subsidiarity.

Such an approach to good governance could help us to develop a vehicle for the delivery of services such as health care which defers to the family and the mediating associations while also respecting human and economic freedom. It is here that an alternative to replace this massive federalized model could be found.

The Federal Government should be the last place, not the first place, to which we look in our efforts to fashion a truly just society and an effective model of self government. Does it have a role? Yes, but the principle of subsidiarity must be applied. It is time to move beyond left and right. It is time for good governance.


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