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Solidarity and Subsidiarity: Take Back Government and Reframe the Language of Political Action
By Keith A Fournier
January 13th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
We are in a midterm election year and the shaping of the contest is already underway in the political word-smithing which is all around us. President Obama was the first out of the gate, using the phrase income equality in his undeterred effort to reshape the American polity by proposing an increasingly large Federal government which controls the both the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. My sincere hope is that those who are gathering together to try to stop the slide into such a larger Federalized governing model do not make the consistent mistake of espousing and using language which feeds the caricature painted of them by their opponents. The caricature is to paint anyone who opposes centralized, federalized governance as being anti-Government. The caricature is to cast anyone who disagrees with the rhetoric of top down federalized governing as being against the poor and against fairness. This is untrue.WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online)- We are in a midterm election year and the shaping of the contest is already underway in the political word-smithing which is all around us. President Obama was the first out of the gate, using the phrase income equality in his undeterred effort to reshape the American polity by proposing an increasingly large Federal government which controls the both the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas.
My sincere hope is that those who are gathering together to try to stop the slide into such a larger Federalized governing model do not make the consistent mistake of espousing and using language which feeds the caricature painted of them by their opponents. The caricature is to paint anyone who opposes centralized, federalized governance as being anti-Government. The caricature is to cast anyone who disagrees with the rhetoric of top down federalized governing as being against the poor and against fairness. This is untrue.
One area of concern I have is how the language develops in the coming 2014 and 2016 election. It is time for a fresh political discourse and debate. Candidates who want to stop the slide into federalized control must NOT simply run on what they OPPOSE. They must PROPOSE a different model of governance and do so in a compelling, convincing and hopeful way. They need to reframe the language of their campaigns with words like fairness and speak of the foundational moral issues behind their positions. They need to reaffirm our obligation in solidarity to the poor and needy. Then, they need to offer a moral alternative to the increasingly secularist big government model being proposed by those who call themselves liberals and progressives these days.
I write to address an underlying question which has not yet been properly addressed, what is the proper role of government in civil society? I write as a Catholic Christian citizen.The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes some observations concerning society with which I begin. However, most other Christians, people of faith and all people of good will will recognize that what follows is not simply for Catholics, it has profound insights and important social applications:
All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God. "The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.
A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future.By means of society, each man is established as an "heir" and receives certain "talents" that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good."
Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions. Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him.To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged "on both national and international levels, which relate to economic and social goals, to cultural and recreational activities, to sport, to various professions, and to political affairs."
This "socialization" also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities. It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility, and helps guarantee his rights. Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of government ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence. The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order. (CCC, Article 1, #1878 - 1885)
There has been little discussion about good government, solidarity and the principle of subsidiarity in the national political debate. Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican vice Presidential candidate in 2012, raised it in an intelligently written exchange of letters with Timothy Cardinal Dolan in the last Presidential election. Ryan became one of the few Catholic elected officials to actually use the term to explain his own positions. That is partly because many Catholics in government do not even know the term exists, let alone understand the value it has in shaping the political discourse of our times. It also offers the most compelling language with which we can offer the alternative models of governance desperately needed in the face of the ever expanding, federalized, secularist State.
More are beginning to realize the value of introducing this term to the political discourse at such a critical time in our National history. Though Catholics can disagree with his application of the principle, at least Ryan actually used it. My experience has been that many Catholics in public service or running for office do not even know that there is such a principle within the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Instead, they borrow rhetoric from the political left or the political right in discussing the role of government. They often fail to offer a Catholic contribution to a much needed discussion of the proper role of government.
If you listen to some on the political right you sometimes hear a version of libertarianism which is anti-government and places the individual at the foundation of an understanding of freedom. This is at odds with the insights summarized in the Catechism. It is at odds with what the Natural Moral Law reveals. We are, by nature and grace, called to society with one another. Sometimes people paraphrase the American founders to imply that the existence of government itself is the problem. For example, they quote phrases such as "he who governs best governs least", the source of which is unclear, and use it to hide what at least appears to be a disdain for government. This can also reveal a failure to understand the need for - and value of - good government. When the right views government as the problem, the right goes wrong.
If you listen to some on the political left, they seem to want to federalize everything. To some of them the very word government is synonymous with the Federal Government. They think that our obligation in solidarity always means establishing more federal government programs. They are wrong. They have forgotten the role of mediating institutions and associations in governing and serving the common good. They are also wrong when they question the empathy of anyone who disagrees with them. They have adopted a model of governance which is top down and not bottom up, a model which fails to respect the individual, the primacy of the family, mediating associations, and other forms of participation in the entire enterprise of governing. Knowingly or not, they end up promoting collectivism.
Those on the political left who support a collectivist and statist model of government can end up threatening human freedom, squelching initiative, stunting creativity and preventing human flourishing. They can also undermine the role of mediating institutions, the first of which is the family, the smallest governing unit and first vital cell of society. An overly federalized form of government is a disaster waiting to happen morally, politically, socially and economically. The bad fruit is all around us as our own nation moves toward a form of collectivism which is antithetical to authentic human freedom and flourishing, squelches creativity and thwarts progress.
Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and good will who reject this collectivist model need to reaffirm that governing is meant to be something good. God governs and invites us all into this effort. We were made to give ourselves in love and service to one another; to form societies and communities of interest and to build mediating associations which participate in governance. Through their proper role, governing occurs and people are empowered. Together we serve the common good while still respecting the role of the individual, promoting human freedom, and ensuring the primacy of the family.
Catholic citizens should both understand and be able to explain in our political participation that none of us are fully human unless we are in relationship with one another. Freedom and human flourishing are not found in a notion of the isolated individual as the ground of human freedom. We were made for communion. We are one another's neighbors and we truly are called to stand together in solidarity. We are also responsible for one another and must build societies which further humanize us and enable us to live in peace together.
The first society is the family. It is there where we learn socialization and are schooled in the virtues which make good citizenship even possible. Thus the family must always be the guide, polestar and measuring stick for any broader social and governing structure. The family is the first government, the first school, the first church and the first mediating institution. All other government must defer to this first cell of social government and move out - or up - from there, never usurping the primacy of the family.
The question then really comes down to whether government is good, in several senses of the word. Is it Moral? Does it recognize the existence of the higher law, the Natural Moral Law which is a participation in God's Law? Does it affirm that there are self evident truths which can be known and which we hold together? Does it recognize the fundamental human rights with which we are all endowed and acknowledge that these rights are not given to us by civil government but by God?
Does it affirm the nature and dignity of the human person as created in the Image of God? Does the means of governing being offered respect this dignity of every human person, recognize the primacy of true marriage and the family and society founded upon it, respect and promote mediating institutions and serve the true common good? Does it promote genuine human freedom, flourishing, creativity and initiative among citizens?
Is the means of governing good in the sense of being effective, efficient and just? Does it respect the self government of each individual human person? Does it defer to the smallest social governing unit of the family? Does it respect the other proper mediating institutions and associations by deferring first to them, providing assistance and help before assigning the task it attempts to accomplish to the centralized or federal government?
Catholics should reject any rhetoric of the right which characterizes government as evil. We should reject the rhetoric of the left which promotes statist and collectivist models as the best means of government. It is time for Catholics to take the principles set forth in the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and lead a discussion of good government which serves the common good in the United States of America.
We need good government. Good government recognizes fundamental human rights, the first of which is the right to life, as endowed by the Creator and not manufactured by civil government. In fact, the very role of government is to secure and protect those rights and not violate or usurp them. Good government acknowledges the vital and indispensable role of mediating institutions and associations in government, beginning with the family and including churches, charities, associations, and local governing bodies. It defers to and respects their function and does not usurp their primacy.
The family and these other mediating institutions and associations, local government and State Government are the best place for government to first occur. This model of good government acknowledges our obligations in solidarity to one another, and to the poor, but always respects and applies the principle of subsidiarity.
Now, I want to consider an application of what I have proposed in my discussion above. I write as a private citizen - a Catholic trying to apply the principles offered from Catholic Social Doctrine. I affirm our obligation in solidarity to one another and our special obligation to the poor, in all of their manifestations. I acknowledge that my prudential judgment on the application of the principle of subsidiarity is not the only acceptable application. However, it is at least an effort to apply the principle and not simply parrot the talking points of those who are often identified as politically conservative these days.
Beside the horrid violation of the fundamental human right to life and the right to religious freedom which infects the "Affordable Care Act" (aka Obamacare), thereby rendering it an unjust law, I maintain that it also violates the principle of subsidiarity. It is NOT an example of good government.
We certainly need authentic health care reform in the United States of America. However, we need a vehicle for the delivery of health care services which defers to the family, utilizes the mediating associations and respects both human and economic freedom. It is in entering into a discussion of good government and subsidiarity where an alternative to the massive federalized model of the Affordable care Act can be found, and proposed. Those who oppose the collectivist model of the Affordable Care Act cannot simply OPPOSE it, they must PROPOSE another model and do so clearly, continually, confidently and competently. They should also begin to discuss the foundational moral issues at the root of their alternative proposals.
The Federal Government should be the last place, not the first place, to which we should look in our efforts to fashion a truly just and free society. It is inefficient as well as removed from the source. It is increasingly becoming immoral as it rejects the profoundly moral insights offered by the American founders in the enabling documents of the Republic. It is also the last place we should look to as we build an effective and just model of self government. Does it have a role? Yes, but the principle of subsidiarity must always be carefully applied and all forms of collectivism must be rejected. I certainly hope some discussion of the proper role and means of government comes up in the upcoming campaigns. Catholics must lead the way in offering such a discussion if we really care about furthering the true common good. It is time to take back the word Government and reframe the language of Political Action.
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