This week I am posting tidbits from my latest book The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching, which will be released this Monday, September 21 by New City Press.
You can buy the book either in hard copy here:
…Or you can order it on Kindle here.
To celebrate, I’m posting some little tastes from the book, which lays out the four pillars of Catholic Social Teaching: the Dignity of the Human Person, the Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity. This is from the discussion of Subsidiarity.
The Basic Idea of Subsidiarity
Now we turn to our personal responsibility in maintaining the Common Good, and therefore to the third pillar of Catholic Social Teaching, the principle of Subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity means that, as far as possible, those closest to a particular need or problem should deal with that need or problem. The idea is that each person should have the opportunity to act personally as a sacrament of God’s goodness and provision to the world and so be able to choose personally to cooperate actively with the grace of God in order to be that grace to others.
In Genesis, human beings take their place as unique cooperators with the work of God in creation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Scripture portrays creation not as a thing that happened once a long time ago, but as an unrolling act of God that continues throughout every square inch of the universe and every nanosecond of time right down to this moment. In the Psalms, God’s creatures praise God simply by existing as the things God made them to be. But with human beings, new and unique dimensions are added: reason and choice. Humans praise God not only by virtue of being the kind of creature we are, but by choosing to praise him with our minds and bodies and by doing his will to do good to others. We willingly cooperate with him and not only offer him worship, but also love our neighbor. God gives us—as he gives no other creature—dominion over creation with the command to tend the Garden of creation, make the earth fruitful, and use our talents for the good of creation and the good of the community. Each one of us is therefore responsible to be fruitful with our abilities and resources for the Common Good. It is generally better that persons, each and every one, do their personal best to help in that than handing their responsibility off to somebody or something else (such as a remote bureaucracy). And, of course, the most basic way in which we do this is through the founding of or having membership in that first, tiniest, yet most important of societies—the family.
A Common Misunderstanding of Subsidiarity
This seems straightforward enough, but in order to proceed with our discussion of Subsidiarity, we have to bring it into better focus, since this principle is often so misperceived that it appears almost like a photo negative of the true meaning of the Common Good.
What I mean is this: Just as many Catholics confuse the idea of the Common Good with socialism, so many 1) reduce Subsidiarity to Rugged Individualism and therefore 2) reduce much of Catholic Social Teaching simply and solely to that distorted definition. Not a few people imagine that Subsidiarity essentially means, “I should not have to pay taxes and the state should get out of my life.” Likewise, I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to Catholics who ring the changes on some version of, “Of course I believe in Catholic Social Teaching! I believe in Subsidiarity,” as though the one is equal to and coterminous with the other.
In fact, Subsidiarity is not the opposite of the Common Good any more than the Common Good is the opposite of the Dignity of the Human Person. On the contrary, Subsidiarity builds on and harmonizes with both of these principles in the Church’s thought. Catholic Social Teaching cannot be reduced to Subsidiarity—and certainly not to Rugged Individualism. But neither can Catholic Social Teaching get along without Subsidiarity since Catholic Social Teaching is all about the reality that God wants every human being to be an active participant in bringing his love and provision to the world. So whenever possible, Catholic teaching insists that the people closest to a particular need or problem should be the ones to fill that need or solve that problem. That, in a nutshell, is Subsidiarity.
Active Cooperation with, Not Passive Acceptance of, the Will of God
Subsidiarity harmonizes with the Dignity of the Human Person because in Christ’s salvific work human beings are at the center, not as passive subjects but as active participants. As C.S. Lewis notes:
He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods— out of nothing.
Subsidiarity is crucial because every human being— made in the image and likeness of the Creator—is made for active participation in his creative work of saving a broken world. Our dignity in living out that reality makes our work a true participation in the work of God by assisting him in the creation and salvation of the world. We are “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) because his work of creation and redemption is ongoing till the end of time.
Secondly, because each and every person has unique gifts to contribute to the Common Good, no person may be merged into the collective and lose his or her identity. We are immortals. The state (and any other system we create) is a temporary human artifact which exists only to stem the disastrous effects of the Fall. It exists for us, not we for it, because man is the only creature on earth God has willed for its own sake. And since we are material creatures who express our love and the grace of God through material means, each person should be able to own property so that each person has something to share with others.
Third, Subsidiarity is as essential as the Dignity of the Human Person and the Common Good because, more than merely sharing material things with others, we must share our very selves with others through our work. No small part of work is the joy of finding one’s vocation or calling or mission in life—of discovering who we are and what God made and gifted us to be and do. We see it in the moment we realize we were born to sing or do science or heal others or teach or cook or do the myriad other things we love. To be sure, not every menial job is the fulfilment of our aspirations. But no small part of giving our life to others consists of discovering our gifts in doing work and realizing that we become more ourselves in the doing. It is the very opposite of being merged into a collective to find out who we are by discovering our gifts and talents. It is joy to discover our place in the community we love and serve and bless other people by bringing those gifts to the table.
And, of course, in the ultimate natural act of human fruitfulness and cooperation with God’s creative will, we give of ourselves to one another in love so profoundly that we actually become participants in God’s work of creating another immortal human person, a baby, and help to raise that human being to maturity through lives of deeply personal self-donating love and care.
Mary as the Model of Subsidiarity
If you want to get the hang of it, think of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the icon of what we all do every time we say “Yes” to contributing to the Common Good. In the Annunciation, God comes to her personally. Mary does not receive a form letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” God calls her by name as the human being she is. In the paradox of the divine plan, she has been prepared from all eternity with the graces and gifts she needs to do the work and bear the sufferings she must bear in accomplishing her mission. Yet at the same time she is given complete freedom to choose to say “Yes” or “No.” And in her Yes Mary finds not slavery, but fulfillment. Her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior (see Luke 1:46-47). Mary’s “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) is not passive. It is a willed choice to actively cooperate with God’s will. In that “Fiat!” she chooses, not merely acquiesces to bear the Word made flesh through her.
Every person who cooperates with the will of God is, to some degree or other, doing the same thing. Disciples of Jesus are conscious that they are cooperating with God because they are privy to his revelation that he is the vine and they are the branches and apart from him they can do nothing (see John 15:1-5). Others, like the sheep in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, may discover only later they were cooperating with God; at the time they thought that they were just “doing the decent thing.” God, who does not care if he gets the credit, is not picky about that. What he cares about is our obedience to him because through it we are transformed into the likeness of his Son Jesus and our capacity to receive more grace from him increases and makes us happier.
This is why God gives us the gift of work.
By the way, on Saturday, September 19 at 1 PM Eastern/10 AM Pacific, I will be having a Facebook livestream to talk about the book and take questions! Hope to see you there!