Much of contemporary political discourse consists of a debate between two camps: those who argue, “We need to do something about…” and those who contend that, “It’s not the government’s responsibility to…” The Catholic Church teaches that each approach, by itself, is inadequate. Ideologies derived from such sentiments should not be the yardstick of Catholic political activity. Rather, the Church presents to us two principles – solidarity and subsidiarity – which, together, provide a balanced and holistic means of thinking about political and social topics.
Solidarity is not a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38). Nor is it simply interdependence, which is a circumstance in which we find ourselves, whether we like it or not (CSDC, 193). Rather, solidarity is an active concern for the good of society as a whole, as well as all of its individual members. Because all men are equal in “dignity and rights”, (CSDC, 192) all men have a legitimate claim on our concern.
In the life of Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, we have the ultimate model of solidarity: a God who stoops to become one of us, “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15). He “takes on the infirmities of his people, walks with them, saves them and makes them one” (CSDC, 423). Jesus teaches us not to lord over our neighbors, but to love them, for when we love our neighbors we love Him (Mt. 20:25, 25:40). In the light of Jesus’ concern for all humanity, we discover that society itself, “despite all its contradictions and ambiguities, can be rediscovered as a place of life and hope” (CSDC, 196). As Christians, we are called to embrace society.
But human society is a broken place. Solidarity requires that we overcome the “structures of sin” which divide society and replace them with new structures that embody a “firm and persevering determination to [seek]… the common good” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36, 38). St. John Paul II warned that the path toward overcoming structures of sin “is long and complex, and what is more it is constantly threatened because of the intrinsic frailty of human resolutions and achievements, and because of the mutability of very unpredictable and external circumstances. Nevertheless, one must have the courage to set out on this path, and, where some steps have been taken or a part of the journey made, the courage to go on to the end” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38). The Church reminds us that we are “debtors of the society of which [we] have become part” (CSDC 195). Culture, scientific knowledge, and other goods – both material and immaterial – have been produced and shared with us by the rest of humanity, across generations and often across borders. Thus, solidarity is not an act of generosity on our part toward the less fortunate, but an act of justice.
Any Catholic thinking seriously about politics must bear in mind our fraternal concern for all mankind and the concrete ways in which it can be realized. The Church demands no less.
Complementing this teaching on solidarity is the doctrine of subsidiarity. Pius XI explained subsidiarity in this way: “It is an injustice,… a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do” (Quadragesimo Anno, 203). Or, as John Paul put it, “Needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need” (Centesimus Annus, 48).
The Church’s long-standing affirmation of subsidiarity is rooted in her concern for families and the various local associations which naturally arise in human society (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1882). Such relationships among individuals promote creativity, strengthen society, and are the basis on which higher forms of social activity are built (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 15; Centesimus Annus, 49). Thus, the Church clearly teaches that the state should not impinge upon the legitimate freedom and responsibility of smaller bodies (CSDC, 186). While still affirming the importance of solidarity and of state support to local institutions, John Paul cautioned that overly centralized social programs can become dominated by bureaucracy, rather than fraternal concern, and, like big business monopolies, sap individuals and local organizations of their energy (Centesimus Annus, 48). Even when the state must carry out functions which it alone can provide, these “must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary,” so that smaller associations are safeguarded (CSDC, 188).
Rather than simply offering a negative message – that the state should mind its own business – Christian subsidiarity should be understood as a call to strengthen and enliven local institutions, among them families, parishes, school boards, small business associations, artists guilds, charitable groups, and more. Such groups must be reminded that, though largely private in nature, they serve a broader function for the good of society (CSDC, 187). They are the primary means by which we fulfil our duties of solidarity. When parishes house the homeless, local businesses offer training to immigrants, or fraternal organizations raise money for their neighbors harmed by natural disasters, they are simultaneously living out both solidarity and subsidiarity.
This is the mindset of the Church. Though similar, at points, to some elements of contemporary political ideology, it is markedly different in its overall outlook, which is rooted in the dignity of individuals and our common good, which is ultimately found in God. Catholics voters, bombarded by increasingly shrill demands on their allegiances, would do well to take solidarity and subsidiarity to heart as they seek to provide faithful witness in the political and social sphere.