CONSCIENCE CONVERSATIONS – Subsidiarity: what is it, and why does it matter?

Matt: Brendan, in one of our recent Facebook postings, you posed an important question relating to that most elusive of all Catholic social teachings, the principle of “subsidiarity”— which the official Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes as being “among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine.”

The question you posed was, “How does subsidiarity touch our own environmental and economic policies in Canada? What is appropriate action for our federal government, and what is best left to provincial or local governments —or even to our own families?”

Unfortunately, although this is a question of first importance, it is far too frequently ignored, simply because the concept of subsidiarity is not as easily grasped as the other three Permanent Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: life & human dignity, the common good, and solidarity.

I wonder if we could help improve understanding by briefly examining one or two current social initiatives through the lens of solidarity. To start, we’d better ensure we’ve adequately defined it: subsidiarity is the principle that social decisions should always be pushed to the lowest level that they can be responsibly left to.

Properly applied, this makes subsidiarity a critical tool for preserving individual and social freedom —which itself is one of the fundamental values of the Church’s social teaching. The idea is that each of us should retain the maximum responsible amount of control over our own lives, so that we can put the unique gifts God has entrusted to us to work in seeking our own proper paths back to God. Government should not do things for us that can responsibly be left to us to do for ourselves, or left to our families or our communities; to ethical and responsible private initiatives such as business, civil society organizations, the press, schools, or the church; or to more-localized levels of government. As you pointed out in the posting I mentioned, this enables each of us to maximize our opportunities for learning and growth; and helps ensure that policies reflect of the legitimate and particular needs and concerns of local communities, respecting that it is most often these local communities that best understand their needs.

In some ways, subsidiarity helps to shape and inform the principles of solidarity and the common good—for example, by reminding us that while we are unequivocally called to care for those around us, and to consider that anything that hurts our neighbor hurts us as well, there is a wide and critical difference between helping others to realize their own destinies and diminishing their dignity as human beings by doing things for them that they can should do themselves.

One of the most remarkable examples of subsidiarity I’m aware of provided by the Canadian healthcare system. The basic framework for Canadian healthcare is provided by an act of the federal parliament, which requires each of the provinces and territories to assess the requirements and determine how they might best be applied in order to ensure that basic healthcare services are available to its residents. This ensures that basic levels of service are provided, while leaving the provinces and territories significant latitude to fill in the many blanks provided by the legislation in accordance with their own notions of propriety. Thus, healthcare in Ontario is different in some ways than it is in British Columbia, and each of those is different from healthcare as provided in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

It also provides plenty of scope for continuing debate on the proper shape and limits of healthcare in Canada. Are enough important services covered in each province—for example, should important prescription medicines be covered? Would it be better to leave options for provision of some services through private healthcare providers? Would it be appropriate to shift some greater or lesser portion of the burden of healthcare to individual patients, as for example through implementation of modest co-payments, or to alternative forms of care, such as naturopaths? To what degree should these questions be left to the individual provinces and territories? These are interesting questions, with no unambiguously correct answers.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on new questions. For example, several of the provinces, acting out of rightful concern for their citizens and the limited healthcare resources at their disposal, have attempted to restrict traffic coming into their borders. Is that appropriate? If so, to what extent? And can alternatives to inter-provincial travel be provided?

Brendan, what do you think? Are there other examples of social initiative that help to shed light on the elusive meaning of ‘subsidiarity?’

B: I’m glad you’ve raised the topic of subsidiarity Matt, as I think it’s one of the least commonly understood aspects of the Church’s social teaching. Many have an intuitive grasp of the common good—the social conditions which collectively allow all children of God to reach their full and authentic development. Solidarity also makes intuitive sense. Indeed, solidarity seems to connect most naturally and organically with our well-trodden understanding of Catholic social values, so eloquently and simply expressed in the phrase “Love thy neighbour.” Subsidiarity often goes unmentioned. But it is so critical, it could be argued rightly that it is impossible to understand and promote the common good or solidarity without the additional, essential pillar of subsidiarity.

Why is subsidiarity so critical? It stands between the twin monsters of collectivism—the idea that all decision-making should be made by larger aggregations of distant governing bodies—and individualism, the idea that all power should be invested in individuals and that only individual interests should drive societal decision-making. Both lead to terrible social evils, the former because human dignity is trampled underneath the whims of the majoritarian collective, and the latter because no restraint is placed on the totalizing and often corrupted desires of individuals and the harm they can cause to their neighbours. Subsidiarity takes the concept of servant-leadership—that the greatest must be the least and must support those they lead—and applies it to institutions. In this sense, higher levels of governance serve and support the self-directed needs of lower levels of governance, without crushing the initiative, enterprise, and self-determination of those lower levels. In addition to that “vertical” understanding of subsidiarity, there is also a “horizontal” understanding, namely the diffusion of power among differing institutions serving different purposes. This ensures that no one institution can unjustly dominate the others, nor that no one institution takes on responsibilities which it is not capable of properly serving. With this principle, every layer of governance or communal organization is imbued with the powers it is most capable of responsibly undertaking for the dignity of all—from the family, to the town and city, to civil society, to our provincial and federal governments, and all the various institutions in between.

From the perspective of subsidiarity, we’re blessed to live in a country like Canada, where the principles of subsidiarity are constructed right into the architecture of our federation. The Canadian model of government created multiple layers of government—specifically a federal government and multiple provincial governments—each with strictly enunciated powers of governance. Over time, through legal proceedings, these powers have been further clarified, largely to the benefit of the provincial governments. In my opinion we are lucky in Canada to have a government so strictly localized through our constitution. We are a geographically and culturally dispersed nation. Each region has unique needs, values, and aspirations. Such a decentralized federal model allows those regions to pursue their local aspirations while working collectively at the national level on issues of mutual concern.

We still have more work to do on this front. You asked me about a relevant political issue that touches on subsidiarity. Consider the issue of granting further powers to municipal governments and clarifying those powers. Municipalities in Canada are largely so-called “creatures of the provinces,” created by provincial legislation, which can be changed by a simple majority vote of the provincial legislature. Thus, was the case when Ontario Premier Doug Ford reduced the size of Toronto city council by half, right in the middle of a municipal election. Courts eventually ruled that this move didn’t violate the Constitution but it prompted much public discussion: do cities deserve more rights and powers of self-government, protected from the whims of provincial governments, so they can better govern according to the wishes of their citizens?

Like the common good and solidarity, subsidiarity is a bedrock principle that must be accounted for in any Catholic perspective on public policy issues.

M: Just a final observation about New Testament roots for the principle. In a single chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25), Christ addresses both the individual and social aspects of Christianity in a way that highlights the individual’s responsibility for both himself and his society. At Matthew 25:14-30 Christ explains, through the parable of the talents, that each individual is called to use the gifts God has entrusted to him for God’s purposes—which are to love God and to love one another. And in the very next passage (lines 31-46) he warns that individuals will be judged not only on the basis of our individual actions, but also for our collective activities as members of “nations.”

Likewise, the Apostle Paul stresses both individual and social aspects of responsibility, with emphasis on the duties of the individual. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul stresses the requirement that each conduct himself in an orderly fashion, and to avoid burdening others. “In fact,” he notes, “we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” “But you, brothers,” he continues, “do not be remiss in doing good.” (2 Thess. 3:6-13). And he reiterates that the purpose of life is to seek God, and the purpose of societies is to assist each of their members in doing so. In Acts 17, Paul explains that it is God

who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us…

God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed… 

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