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?