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How to Do Subsidiarity?

Many discussions about Catholic social justice use the term “subsidiarity” as code for “libertarian individualism” – it is as if “solidarity” just looks too imposing, and we need something to balance it out. So we use subsidiarity. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Subsidiarity does not “balance out” solidarity – it specifies solidarity. That is, it suggests how one should proceed if one is seeking to realize social solidarity. The fundamental fact of the human person is solidarity – we are relational animals all the way down – and subsidiarity is meant to suggest the proper ways we are relational.

It seems to me many of the debates we have about our economic situation would become more fruitful if we recognized how subsidiarity names an alternative way of conceiving the common good, one that goes beyond the simple binary of the individual and the state.

I’m thinking a lot about this topic right now, since I am preparing for a wonderful conference we are having here at Mount St. Mary’s this Saturday, called “Human Scale and the Human Good.”  The conference promises to gather a whole bunch of people who are dubious about both big business and big government. It appears nearly every speaker has published something on Wendell Berry (!!), and has certainly taken to heart Berry’s important argument that

“the indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community…. Community alone, as principle and as fact, can raise the standards of local health (ecological, economic, social, and spiritual) without which the other two interests will destroy one another.”

I believe that. I must confess that, for someone who inaugurated his academic career with a grad conference paper titled “Should Catholic Boycott Wal-Mart?” which sought to use the Catholic social encyclicals to make the case against shopping there, I ought to be more convinced of this than I am. Yet being a Catholic advocating for localist economics and politics constantly runs a person into pitfalls, the biggest being that one looks around and sees very few people paying attention to these issues. On the one hand, I think Berry and subsidiarity are right – without community, the battle between the socialists and the libertarians will just be a case of slow but sure destruction of both sides. On the other hand, what practical steps are most urgently needed to protect local community? Don’t these steps neglect the “really big problems” we face? SHOULD Catholics boycott Wal-Mart… and Target? Or can we have a nice large corporate-driven economy and real social justice at the same time? This is a choice we make and re-make every single day… in where we shop, in our investments, in all the ways we act as “indirect employers.” I think there are prudential ways to make these choices. But I don’t think I know exactly how to parse the ways to see this accurately in our own context. Frankly, it is too easy to rail against Wal-Mart and then order books from Amazon (who at least pays its workers decently).

Which means I’m very interested in comments! How do others negotiate this tension? Or is there really no tension at all?



  1. I was recently writing something on Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, and he talks about subsidiarity in both of the ways you mention.

    In Paragraph 15 John Paul suggests that subsidiarity and solidarity are balancing principles.

    In Paragraph 49, however, he suggests that it is “intermediate communities” that foster solidarity. This is immediately after the well-known Paragraph 48 which contains his critique of the Social Assistance State. I take this to mean that solidarity cannot be reduced to a countervailing principle to subsidiarity, pushing responsibility to the state, since it is precisely the smaller communities recommended by subsidiarity that he claims embody solidarity. The way I would put it is that intermediate communities and the state must embody solidarity, governed by the principle of subsidiarity.

    Also, I have seen people like Daniel Finn and David Hollenbach talk about balancing solidarity and subsidiarity, so I don’t think they are interpreting subsidiarity in terms of libertarian individualism. Actually those who interpret it that way probably don’t talk about solidarity much…

    I hope you enjoy the Human Scale conference. I am a regular reader of the Front Porch Republic, although I don’t buy the localist perspective one hundred percent. You will have to report back how it goes.

  2. Thanks! That’s an especially helpful look at the encyclicals. I agree that folks like Dan Finn and David Hollenbach aren’t using the principles in the libertarian way – but it’s hard for neo-conservatives to avoid solidarity (after all, it’s one of the bishops’ seven principles of CST).

    The conference was impressive and instructive. I think localism goes awry when it drifts toward a kind of agrarian/libertarian nostalgia – it struck me that some speakers tended in this direction, while others were really trying to forge a different way of looking at human social life, that somehow got beyond the state and the individual. On the other hand, it is hard for me to remember a gathering – we had over 150 attendees – where it was so easy to generate conversation that got beyond the liberal/conservative divide. Everyone is basically already there – and that makes for some wonderful creative energy.


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