Is it contrary to the principle of subsidiarity for a school principal to ban homemade lunches, my colleague Jana Bennett asks? Should there be a national ban on incandescent lightbulbs? These questions are not earth-shaking. But they are extremely important for establishing a Catholic social teaching that actually “works” – that actually applies to our day-to-day evaluation of systems.

I wanted to write a separate post because the problem here begins when subsidiarity is deployed as a principle apart from solidarity. Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate (#57):

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.

I argue nearly the same thing in an (earlier!) essay in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, on CST and modern politics: that solidarity and subsidiarity together function as the key principles.

How might we apply these in the cases above? I think two rules are necessary. First, we should recognize that subsidiarity is not a free-standing principle about “size,” but rather a principle that protects against “demeaning” or “paternalist” laws. Is any “lower” group harmed by these rules? As Jana points out, the law makes exceptions for those who demonstrate particular dietary rules. It would not seem at all demeaning, were I a parent with interests in vegetarian meals, to indicate to the principal that I elected to send my child with vegetarian foods not served at the cafeteria. Attempts to ban particular types of foods are, of course, impossible, and would probably be much more paternalistic, because they inevitably involve judgments on particular choices, which are highly contestable. But how is the family unit harmed by this rule, if the exception is there? And how is the family unit harmed by banning inefficient incandescent lightbulbs? Here the case is even less compelling.

In both of these cases (and others), “subsidiarity” turns into a libertarian appeal, which is quite specifically is NOT meant to be – that would turn in into a principle of “social privatism,” which it often is in the hands of some Americans of a libertarian bent. In order to appeal to the principle, we need to demonstrate the harm done to the subsidiary group. We cannot simply appeal to freedom.

Such a standard is particularly true in light of the second requirement: that subsidiarity be deployed in tandem with solidarity. On lightbulbs, the pope is clear (#47):

On this front too, there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized. The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens.

Reducing energy use is virtually a moral norm (“can and must”)! Solidarity requires the reduction of energy use. The reduction of energy use is accomplished primarily collectively, since “everyone” do a small action leads to much larger results. Those for whom CFL lightbulbs are a symbolic issue are not wrong: solidarity requires it, and unless one can demonstrate harm to subsidiary groups, the law should do this (and on energy use, much more, if Benedict is to be followed). 

But what about school lunches? Un-commented-upon here is the way in which individual parenting failures (for example, feeding your kids poorly in public) affect other children. I’m sure others on this blog could offer many more examples than I can, but I would be relieved (as a parent trying to develop healthy eating habits for my kids) that my child was not faced with a lunchroom full of junk food. This is another issue of solidarity which we as a society need to face: for a long time, for good or ill, custom governed child-rearing in community. Today, for various reasons, custom is in disrepair, and one would seem to have two options: restrict the interaction of your children to groups where they are mostly exposed to good customs, or require certain kinds of good behaviors in schools and other public institutions, regardless of parental intentions. Neither, I admit, is ideal. But surely part of the reason for schools is to mitigate poor parental choices and habits – or at least to avoid “spreading” these choices. This is simply a recognition that school systems are important practices of social solidarity, and while they should not somehow usurp the family (e.g. through inappropriate sexual education), I do not see how the practice of teaching good eating habits to all, and protecting kids with good habits, does harm to families. If anything, it helps them. Call me paternalistic. If this is paternalistic, surely it is equally paternalistic for WIC programs to restrict food choices.

These examples help us get past a fundamental misuse of subsidiarity, which detaches it from the principle of solidarity. Catholics are not anti-government or pro-government; they are about common-good government.