July 10, 2012
By Matthew Wilson
In a recent address at Georgetown University, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan invoked Catholic social doctrine in defending his plan to decrease federal spending and the scope of the American welfare state. In response, a group of Georgetown scholars issued a statement challenging Ryan’s proposals as unduly harsh on the poor, likewise grounding their arguments in Catholic teaching about social justice.
This exchange was heartening from the standpoint of the church because it framed an important policy debate in terms of Catholic social ethics. It also served to highlight competing perspectives on government power and the common good that should resonate beyond the Catholic community. Both Ryan and his critics make important points about Catholic social doctrine. Neither side, however, seems to embrace completely the church’s teaching on the common good — one that does not fit easily with the typical approaches of either the left or the right.
The principle championed by Ryan and Catholic conservatives is the doctrine of subsidiarity. This idea, central to the church’s approach to state and society, holds that power and responsibility ought to reside at the most localized level competent to exercise them. In other words, the city ought not take on functions that properly rest with neighborhoods, the state ought not usurp the prerogatives of cities, the nation must avoid encroaching on the states’ legitimate sphere, and all must acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of families. In his 1891 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI wrote that “one should not withdraw from the individual and commit to the community what he can accomplish by his own enterprise and industry,” and further decried the tendency “to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed … by lesser and subordinate bodies.”
The insight underlying subsidiarity is that assistance for the needy is most efficient and morally salutary when provided at a local level. A neighborhood coming together to help a struggling family is more personal, more caring, and more sensitive to the nature of the need than a check from an anonymous government bureaucracy. This is the intuition at the root of the subsidiarity doctrine, and is the aspect of Catholic teaching that clearly informs Ryan’s conception of the rightly ordered society.
At the same time, equally central to Catholic social ethics is the principle of solidarity. ...
Matthew Wilson is associate professor of political science at SMU. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.