On Solidarity and Subsidiarity

We have seen some confusion in recent days regarding the definition and role of the Catholic Social Teaching concepts of Solidarity and Subsidiarity by Catholic politicians and political junkies. Many fail to understand that Catholic Social Teaching does not fit into the left versus right political paradigm. Still, there are those who try to illegitimately co-opt Catholic teaching in support of their partisan views, and so Catholics and others interested should understand what Solidarity and Subsidiarity truly are and are not.

Solidarity is the call to aid your fellow human being in light of the Christian teaching that mankind was created in the image of God and represents the apex of God's creation. It is not a shallow and passive sympathy for others, but a call to action. It is not to be confused with collectivism, since Catholics believe that everyone has a basic right to their own unique identity and life goals. At the same time, Catholic teaching understands that mankind's very nature is to be social and exist within a community. Some on the political left emphasize Solidarity at the expense of Subsidiarity, but Catholic social teaching embraces both equally.

Subsidiarity is the doctrine that social matters should be handled at the lowest level of organization possible within the context of the common good. Higher levels of organization should intervene only where lower levels cannot handle the needs of a given situation. The higher organizational level should never take on something that is handled perfectly well at a lower level.

There are those on the political right who try to use the doctrine of Subsidiarity as an argument for scrapping important social programs that people need. That does not reflect a proper understanding of the doctrine. At the same time, Subsidiarity should not be pushed aside in favor of the statism of the political left.  In Catholic teaching, Solidarity and Subsidiarity complement each other and other aspects of Catholic Social Teaching, such as the Preferential Option for the Poor, the priority of the family, and the pursuit of the common good.

A common use that the political right makes of the doctrine of Subsidiarity is to be found in the claim that the function of the social safety net should be privatized and localized. Churches and other charitable entities should deal with the needs of the poor, it is said, rather than the government. This would indeed be in accord with Subsidiarity if it was practical, but it is not. Private organizations do not have the resources to handle all of the needs provided for by the social safety net in American society.

Anyone who would like to see the day when a social safety net is no longer needed should donate to charity as much as possible, and volunteer to work for charitable organizations with the same vigor. If the needs of the poor and vulnerable are adequately met at a lower level of organization, then there will be no need for higher levels of organization to remain involved. But, in light of the many years of prevalent secularization and the outright promotion of mammonism in American society, that is not likely to happen in the near future.

The problem with the implementation of localization as regards the social safety net is that there exists a disparity of resources from one locality to another. Poorer communities, which have the most need of the social safety net, do not have the resources of wealthier communities. Funding for the social safety net function must come from a broad enough area in order to tap into the resources that will make assistance meaningful.

A tendency to favor Solidarity or Subsidiarity in accordance with political inclination is to be expected. But Catholic Social Teaching embraces both. The social vision of Catholic teaching requires both, as does the need to deal with practical, real world issues.

David Frost

David Frost is the founder of the American Solidarity Party