Today, Catholics celebrate the feast of one of the church’s most beloved saints, Francis of Assisi. Francis had both a special concern for the poor and a deep appreciation for God’s presence in all creation, and in recognition of this unique charism Blessed Pope John Paul II declared Francis patron saint of “those who promote ecology” in 1979. That declaration has caused Francis to be associated in the minds of many Catholics with the church’s commitment to environmental stewardship.
Now that the election season is over in America, it might be a good time to take a step back and take a longer, more substantive look at some of the principles of Christian social thought than is sometimes possible in the midst of soundbites and stump speeches. Given the religious makeup of the candidates at the top of the tickets, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) was the focus of some attention in the national political conversation. It’s been noted that the political overlays onto religious faith are often just as constricting and reductive as partisanship itself. As Robert Joustra has observed, “Isn’t it ironic that the ecclesial conversation is essentially a thinly-baptized version of exactly the same disagreements in the secular world, but with less technical capacity and more theological abstraction?”
This is in some sense what has happened to principles of CST like subsidiarity and solidarity.
The principle of subsidiarity is perhaps one of the most crucial and most misunderstood in Catholic social teaching. According to the principle, decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. Subsidiarity is crucial because it has applications in just about every aspect of moral life. In medical ethics, subsidiarity helps guide decision-making. In social ethics, subsidiarity helps us prudentially judge not only decision-making but allocation of resources. Subsidiarity is an effort at balancing the many necessary levels of society – and at its best, the principle of subsidiarity navigates the allocation of resources by higher levels of society to support engagement and decision making by the lower levels. Despite how often it is stated – subsidiarity does NOT mean smaller is better.