How to Understand Catholic Social Teaching: Solidarity and Subsidiarity

I've gotten questions in the past about how the Vatican views the international financial crisis, as well as what Catholics should think about a variety of economic and social issues.  I think that in addressing any of these questions, there are exactly two tools that we need to have at our disposal: solidarity and subsidiarity.  Both of them are aspects of the second great commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves:

  • Solidarity is the notion that we're connected with our neighbors: down the street, throughout the country, and around the world. We can't, as Christians, just say “I'll take care of myself, I don't care about my poor next-door neighbor.” Likewise, we can't, as Christians, just say, “I'll take care of America, I don't care about the poor Third World.” The presence of international borders doesn't curb our need to love neighbor. If it did, then how do we explain the Good Samaritan, who wasn't from Israel?

  • Subsidiarity is equally important. It's the idea that problems should be solved at the smallest and most intimate level possible. For example, the federal government shouldn't be solving problems states can solve, states shouldn't be solving problems that communities can solve, and so on. This is another aspect of charity. Charity isn't a faceless international bureaucracy doling out tax dollars. It's a soul exhibiting the love of Christ. This also means that our moral obligations to tend for our family are higher than our moral obligation to care for our neighborhood, or community, or city, or state, or country, or planet. We have some degree of moral duty and responsibility towards each of these, but it's best understood as concentric circles.
These are the two things that the Church teaches: solidarity and subsidiarity are very important.  At this point, we're largely in the realm of prudence.  Church leaders may suggest a solution to economic or political issues, but in almost every case, Catholics are free to disagree.  So if you understand these two principles, you're 90% of the way towards being able to formulate a Catholic response to any of the world's problems.  And these two principles help balance one another out, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in Caritas in Veritate:
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.
In that encyclical, he did a good job of laying out the role of both solidarity and subsidiarity.  Solidarity helps civilize the market, so we don't have the brutal excess of the sweatshop and the plantation:
Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State. While in the past it was possible to argue that justice had to come first and gratuitousness could follow afterwards, as a complement, today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place. What is needed, therefore, is a market that permits the free operation, in conditions of equal opportunity, of enterprises in pursuit of different institutional ends. Alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and the various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves. It is from their reciprocal encounter in the marketplace that one may expect hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself.
One risk we can fall into is what Charles Dickens called “telescopic charity” (I’m indebted to Fr. Paul Scalia for this term). It's the idea that we're going to meddle in the affairs of complete strangers, while refusing to love our family or those people we see every day. He mentioned seeing it a lot among high-schoolers: they want to stop all the injustice in the world on a grand scale, but refuse to stop perpetrating injustices.  That's a cop out, and not the appropriate Christian solution.  It's even more of a cop out when we think that we can accomplish this charity simply by writing a check, or worse, by having the government write a check for us.

So note what Benedict said above, about how solidarity can't simply be delegated to the State.  That's critically important.  Yes, we have an obligation to love our neighbors around the country and across the globe.  But no, that's not an obligation that's met through your tax dollars. The federal government cannot love for you.  The State certainly has some role to play, but the assumption that only the State has a role to play isn't a Christian one.

Benedict's vision of the economy is refreshing, and I wish more politicians here and abroad would take these words to heart.  A free market is a good, but a truly free market should make it possible for individuals and businesses to work for profit, or work for the good of others.  I think that tax-exempt charitable organizations are one helpful way in which the State facilitates charity without getting too much in the way (but even here, only if the tax-exemption doesn't come with a lot of strings attached that destroy the independence of the charity).

About subsidiarity, which he called “an expression of inalienable human freedom,”  Pope Benedict has this to say:
Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans — and therefore of the plurality of subjects — as well as the coordination of those plans.
So for example, you've got a friend who loses his job.  If the State takes care of him, he's treated impersonally, and he's at the risk of being treated as a helpless victim.  In contrast, if you and your other friends (or perhaps your local parish) help take care of him, it's personal and loving.  Plus, you're treating him as a friend with inherent dignity, not simply a victim.  Maybe your generosity will encourage him to help contribute in some way in return (either to you or others), something he's unlikely to have done in response to the welfare state.  That is, the more personal approach is the one more likely to cultivate respect and charity.

Benedict then remarks on the role that subsidiary plays in globalization, while emphasizing the role for international authority as well:
Hence the principle of subsidiarity is particularly well-suited to managing globalization and directing it towards authentic human development. In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.
So the pope is endorsing some degree of international authority for regulating globalization, while emphasizing that we don't want a tyrannical world government.  We want as local a solution as is possible: it just happens that for certain things in international relations, the most local solution possible is international.

So what does this authority look like?  We've seen it manifested in multilateral treaties in the past.  For example, the 1912 International Opium Convention was an agreement in which 13 major nations agreed to outlaw opium.  It helped regulate an international problem (the drug trade) in a way that wouldn't have been as effective done more locally (as China discovered, when it tried to unilaterally outlaw opium).  So when we read this, it's easy to conjure up visions of a UN world-government, but that's not what's being talked about.

Finally, there is a healthy debate over whether the role played by the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the rest are helpful.  Should they exist?  Should they be reformed?  If they continue to exist, what should their institutional goals be, and what means should they use to achieve these goals?  These, and all of the related questions, are prudential.  Once you understand the importance of subsidiarity and solidarity, and are motivated by a true love of neighbor, it's largely up to you to decide how you think these things should best be handled.
Just couldn't resist adding this picture of Pope Benedict speaking to the UN.
Update: Fr. C.J. McCloskey, the former director of the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., wrote an article in May addressing some of these same issues.
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  1. Fr. Scalia's brother (Which one? The professor. Which one? Lol, it's a successful family...) attends my parish. :-)

    My politics are: 1/3 William F. Buckley, 1/3 Ron Paul, and 1/3 distributist.

  2. Daniel -

    We are almost twins! I'm a big follower of Tom Woods (who loves Ron Paul) and wrote a great book on Catholicism and economics. I could no longer square my politics with my protestant upbringing. I despise relativism and protestanism eventually leads to theological relativism since there is no standard but mans own relative interpretation of scripture.

  3. Any good articles on who exactly are the "poor"? I know it when I see it isn't a good standard. But in the US, we define poor as not having a cell phone, cable TV, X-box, two packs of cigs per week, etc. Is a person still "poor" if he/she refuses to improve their economic value to the market? It's easy to throw around the term poor, much harder to define it in real terms.

  4. Very helpful, as is the linked article. Thank you.

  5. I'm glad the Church teaches subsidiarity, but I disagree with the conclusion that solidairty can/should be something of international government body. No. solidarity is best advanced by the only truly universal body: the Catholic Church. But if we fall into the error of religious indifferentism, we punt on the Church since we don't want to "exclude" non-Catholics, and fill that void by pretending international governments can do it.

  6. Sorry for the late comment, but I'm catching up on older posts.

    One thought that struck me while reading is the interplay between solidarity and subsidiarity is distinct not just in Catholic social theory but in her spirituality as well.

    We don't swing to the extreme of our Protestant brothers and sisters, who are primarily concerned with their "personal salvation" or "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Instead, us Catholics are tethered to things like the Mass, Confession, and the Communion of Saints, all of which depend deeply on solidarity.

    As for subsidiarity, Catholicism still requires, even in the midst of her communal faith, that we come to Christ as indviduals. Confirmation, reception of the Eucharist, and spiritual formation all require individual consent.

    I think out of all the Christian traditions, Catholicism strikes the most appropriate balance between these two concepts.

  7. Brandon,

    That's very astute. Yesterday at Mass, during the closing hymn, I realized that I sing better in a group then by myself, because I have a better sense of what key I'm supposed to be in (I have to be honest: I'm terrible either way).

    This got me thinking about St. John Chrysostom's description of the Apostle Peter as “the coryphaeus of the choir of apostles” - basically, the choir director. I really think the image of Christianity as a choir, with Christ (or perhaps the Gospel) as the music, captures something beautiful.

    To work well, everyone in a choir has to pull their own weight, and they have to be in harmony with one another well. A choir of divas all trying to be soloists* wouldn't work. But at the same time, a choir full of people like me (hoping that the choir will drown out my distinctive “contributions”) wouldn't work, either.

    So a good choir involves both a good personal relationship with the music, and a communal relationship with the music.**



    *Make all the sola / solo jokes you can think of here.

    ** A good start is to ensure that you're in communion with the choir director.

  8. "I sing better in a group then by myself, because I have a better sense of what key I'm supposed to be in."

    Bingo! A ringing affirmation of our need for Saints, both to emulate and to stand with in solidarity.

  9. I like to call it "Harvard charity". And its not only worse for them, telescopic charity is worse for you too. As screwtape says "The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary."


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