Some quotations lifted from a recent event at Georgetown University offer more substantial reflection than usual, regarding the proper role of government in social policy. The key concept is “subsidiarity,” a principle of Catholic social teaching, which was intended to stand in the breach between the unfettered individualism of laissez-faire capitalism, and the freedom-choking domination of totalitarian communism. Today it seems we are more endangered by unfettered individualism than by overweening governmental power– income inequality not seen since the 1920s would be evidence for this perspective– although the massive military necessary to maintain global hegemony would be evidence for the other side. I have to wonder: are we caught in the worst of both worlds? Are we suffering from both the atomization that comes with unfettered individualism, AND the disempowerment that comes from the domination of impersonal governmental and economic forces?
This following is clipped from Howard Friedman’s blog “Religion Clause”:
Georgetown University today was the scene of an unusual debate over how to apply Catholic teachings to U.S. budget policy. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, delivered Georgetown’s Whittington Lecture. Ryan explained his budget proposals and justified them in light of Catholic social teachings, saying in part:
“[S]ince we meet today at America’s first Catholic university, I feel it’s important to discuss how, as a Catholic in public life, my own personal thinking on these issues has been guided by my understanding of the Church’s social teaching.
Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government…. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach.
To me, this approach should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity – virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.
Government is one word for things we do together. But it is not the only word. We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another – and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.
….We aim to empower state and local governments, communities, and individuals – those closest to the problem. And we aim to promote opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job training programs, to help those who have fallen on hard times.”
A contrary perspective was voiced by some of the Georgetown faculty and administration:
Before Ryan’s speech, nearly 90 Georgetown faculty and administrators sent him a letter objecting to his attempts to use Catholic doctrine to justify his budget. The letter full text says in part:
“[W]e would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few….. In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love….
While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address…”
via Religion Clause.