In regards to the struggles we see in our nation, some today advocate for big government to fix problems and injustices of our world. Others believe that corporations and businesses, if left essentially alone, will fix the injustices of our world. But what is the Church for? Does the Church recommend bigger governmental structures? The Catholic Church advocate for large corporations fixing our social ills? In short – the answer is neither.
One of the most refreshing and interesting concepts for me as I began to teach CST – subsidiarity. Subsidiarity, briefly, is the idea that things in our society should be left to the lowest level possible. Buying and selling should be done as locally as possible, politics should be done as locally as possible, schools should be run as locally as possible, etc. etc.
First of all, let’s look at subsidiarity defined as what it is against. “Subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the state” Compendium
So, let’s first look at the problem with big things. Big government. Big corporations.
1) First of all big things tend to see people as objects because people are not being dealt with as individuals. Many of the most heinous acts in the history of civilization, the Communist Regime, The Nazi Regime, the proliferation of abortion etc. are/were done under the thought of “helping save the world” on a large scale – lots of people have tried to help humanity and in the process harmed humanity. As a villain in The Brothers Karamozov put it, “I love mankind. But I find to my amazement the more I love mankind, the less I love individual people.” How true. When we view human beings as a whole, and when someone comes with a man made plan or program to “help humanity” history shows us you better run!
2) It leads to the mistreatment of individuals by putting distance between various people that are part of the system. For example: – I have never met the person who makes my shoes, who makes my clothes, nor have I met the person who picks my fruit nor the person who helps in any phase of the food I eat besides the person at Kroger who swipes my purchases. Nothing I own have I ever met the person who made it or grew it. And so we hear in the first reading: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needyand destroy the poor of the land!”…the scale at which things are done allows others to trample on the needy for me and for me to plead that I had nothing to do with it.
But I’m much less likely to watch my neighbor work in a sweatshop. I’m much less likely to watch my neighbor go hungry from poverty if I can’t tell myself that there is some massive government structure that is supposed to take care of them so that I can excuse myself – like Ebeneezer Scrooge – are there no workhouses? In our day, we might ask – aren’t there government programs to help you? But the social doctrine of the Church says the permanent welfare state robs me and the poor. It robs me of the dignity that I would have obtained from helping my neighbor and it robs the poor of their dignity by treating them more as a statistic
3) In the economic sense, the larger corporations get, the more we view our consumption in scientific terms and less in moral terms. For example, we are taught, in order to be good Americans, we must buy as much stuff as possible and ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS buy the cheapest option. In fact, we were told that in order to help our economy flourish, we ought to buy as much as we can for as cheap as we can
So we work overtime, we scrape and kick and leave our family behind and miss out on family dinners and a walk in the woods and taking some time to breath and relax and read a book or talk to a neighbor because we want to own 50 dresses or 20 suits and 5 watches and a television and a computer – we are always on the edge of a nervous breakdown because as long as we buy the logic that people are telling us we will never be happy – we will just keep throwing stuff at our problems – more stuff, more food, more consumption, and we’ll never be happy because we can never have everything
4) Impact on environment – larger corporations are less likely to be concerned with the local environment
We also see a problem with all of the shipping/packaging/production that comes from large corporations in our consumeristicly dominated way of doing things. Looking at food as an example, instead of local food, Most food is harvested by people I’ll never meet in a way that I will never know in a place that is far away. It will then be shipped a great distance, using up fuel, packaged somewhere, using energy and material, and then shipped again a great distance to me. Vs. my neighbor picking corn, walking across the street, and selling it to me.
So we see lots of problems from large systems – whether they are corporate or governmental, and the Church has long recognized and spoken out about this
Although there are lots of issues when things in our society get too big, there is a lot of reasons for hope.
1) It is something that our larger society has awoken to, and so we have this big moment to stand up and say “Hey, this whole grass fed local beef thing, this whole organic food movement, this whole shop local thing, this whole find someone local to do the job thing, our Church has been talking about this since 1892!!!! Not only is it just a social fad, we have a theological reasoning behind why it is so important.
Some of our greatest writers and thinkers over the last 120 years have championed this as THE issue of our time.
Hillaire Belloc’s book on the topic “THE CRISIS OF CIVILIZATION”!!!
GK Chesterton was a jolly and witty English writer whose writings are loved still today for their humor and levity – I’ve read most of his stuff and he has a huge following. His tone changes completely when talking about two things – birth control and subsidiarity. He describes this attempt to dig out from under large governmental and corporate structures as THE BATTLE of our time.
Another pivotal Catholic, JRR Tolkien, said that this concept was precisely the reason he write his Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the simple hobbits as the ideal society under the Catholic world view, and those who were evil seeing only more things to produce, build, pollute, and dominate.
So a culture that is hostile to many things in our Church, I think we are missing this great opportunity to point out this one great moment. Even those that don’t profess Christ to be their savior have recognized the importance of this key Catholic teaching. And so we have a perfect illustration of what we hear in our Gospel - “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light” We’re the ones that should be talking about subsidiarity as a key issue, but it is those who often don’t profess to follow Christ who are leading the charge here.
2) People are recognizing that the pace, size, materialism, consumerism etc. are not making people more sane, they are driving people insane.
3) Economists and even the average person in America today is recognizing that even from purely economic science, people recognize the impact of the different ways in which we purchase things. I can buy something for 8 dollars on Amazon and maybe the person in Greencastle or Brazil is selling it for $12. If I buy it off of Amazon, though, those 8 dollars are gone from our community, and they’re never coming back. If I buy the item for 12 dollars locally, it costs more, but now my neighbor has that money, and he/she can spend it locally and it begins to snowball locally as opposed to having money shipped out of the local economy never to come back. This is understanding of the value of keeping money locally as much as possible is something more people are becoming aware of
So, in thinking about subsidiarity, how do we put it into action? How do we catch up to those who have already begun to make this a priority, how do we work to ensure that the needy are NOT trampled on, whether they are my neighbor or working in Thailand?
1) Some before making this leap, want real specifics. What will it look like, how will it work, etc. etc.
St. John Paul II - “The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation,
We put forward not a definitive system but new principals to think about our government, our assistance to the poor, how we purchase things, how we interact in our local communities
2) Start asking myself, as Pope Francis has been challenging us, am I guilty of a consumerist mindset? Do I believe that to be patriotic, I must buy as much as I can, as conveniently as I can for as cheap as I can? Or can I get by with less stuff? Is the amount of stuff I have, is the way I consume things actually making me MORE miserable, stressed, etc.
3) As we think about purchases and our local economy, Hillaire Belloc, a great Catholic thinker, pointed out that “No mononpoly comes into existence save by the acceptation of those who submit to it.” – CRISIS OF CIVILIZATION. G.K. Chesterton said “The rush to the big shops is the thing that can most easily be stopped, by the people who rush there”
4) We believe if things are freed, they will begin to recover – if we put subsidiarity into practice, things will begin to heal. Chesterton was once asked about all this “so you don’t think our form of capitalism nor communism nor socialism will save England but you think subsidiarity will?” His response. No. I think English men and women will save England
We will answer for the treatment of the poor. We have a great concept that our Catholic Faith holds out to us as a path out of this cultural moment we are in. May we recognize what those around us seem to be recognizing – that subsidiarity – leaving governance, decision making, economies, etc. at the lowest level possible – will immediately begin to help heal our culture from many of the things that make it sick at the moment