Subsidiarity: A Principle for the 25 Percent

Last Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, tense and punctuated by unsportsmanlike interjections and guffaws, was more than a critical contest in this (now) close election. For the 25 percent of Americans who identify as Catholic, it was a historic showdown between two men with radically different conceptions of how to live out their Catholic faith in the public sphere. Moderator Martha Raddatz addressed this conflict in her penultimate question: “Tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.”

While the issue of abortion has certainly cost the Democratic Party the votes of socially conservative Catholics who consider the issue paramount, it’s not the only point at which the Democratic platform sharply diverges from Catholic social principles. The Catholic Church draws a crucial distinction between its teachings in matters of faith and the principles of prudential judgment required to apply these teachings to political concerns. Two other ways in which the Democratic platform’s ideals conflict with moral principles of the Catholic Church are in subsidiarity and individual charity. The Party insists on undermining structures of civil society and proposes to substitute redistributivism for the virtue of charity.

The DNC’s assertion that “government is the only thing we all belong to” reveals a profound indifference to those institutions that stand between the federal government and the individual and bind us together in more personal ways than national citizenship. This has been evidenced by Obama’s attacks on these institutions, most infamously to those Catholic hospitals unwilling to provide access to sterilizations, abortions, and contraception through the HHS Mandate. Pope Benedict XVI expressed his concern about “the efforts [that] are being made to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom," here referring to the HHS Mandate (no matter what Biden says about it).

Despite the clarity of life issues and the weakness of Biden’s “personally pro-life but pro-choice position,” some Catholics have argued this election that the Democrats have a claim to moral superiority in their care for the poor through increased government welfare programs. This was most notably characterized in recent months by the “Nuns on a Bus” movement, an attack on Paul Ryan’s budget proposals as violating the Church’s principle of the necessity to care for the poor. But Paul Ryan’s budget does not neglect the poor: it encourages them to provide for themselves instead of instead of beginning a dependence on government welfare that may last for generations. And seeks to allow people in communities to care for each other, instead of sending their money to the government in taxes and having it funneled through bureaucratic inefficiencies before being sent back to those in need. Finally, it recognizes that there are many difficulties facing the poor, not all of which can alleviated by government aid.

In both of these cases, the Democratic assumption is that it is the federal government’s job to care for the people, which directly contradicts the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, the idea that affairs should be conducted at a level as localized as possible. Pope Pius XI first introduced this as an important element of Catholic social thought in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, 1931. John Paul II was expanding on this, in a way, when he said, “so goes the family…. so goes the world in which we live.” The family is the center of Catholic society, the primary economic and provisional care unit. When a family lacks something, it can nearly always be better aided by other families in the community than by the state, and by the state than by the federal government. But the federal government should only undertake what cannot be provided for at these other levels.


All of this is not to say that the Republican Party abides by the principle of subsidiarity perfectly. It doesn’t—but its platform at least is not in direct conflict with it. When one looks at the tendencies of the Democratic Party both to force American Catholics to violate their Catholic principles through actions like the HHS mandate and excessive federal welfare programs and to disobey directly Catholic moral teaching on issues like abortion and same sex marriage, it’s a wonder that Catholics are a 25 percent divided and that a vice-presidential debate with two Catholics can even happen at all.

Aurora C. Griffin ’14 is a classics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.