Likewise, Catholic teaching on subsidiarity demands that social problems be resolved, whenever possible, by free individuals working together as families, charities, churches, or other units of “civil society.” Only when it is obviously clear that a vital good, or a norm of justice, cannot be maintained without the use of government force are we even permitted to call in the cops. And wherever possible, the person we call should be the sheriff — not the FBI or the United Nations. In other words, subsidiarity dictates that any problem addressed by the State should be resolved at the local level, by the relevant town or county. Only issues that cannot be fixed this way should be referred to the next highest level of power, the state or province. If a problem eludes the power and expertise of New York or Manitoba, only then should it be referred to the federal government. Issues which reach beyond even what national governments can resolve must be addressed by the United Nations or through treaties.
Of course, many rulers have equally trampled all over the principle of subsidiarity — from Charles V’s revocation of local communities’ rights in Habsburg Spain to the Obama administration’s attempt to micromanage the health care of every American. We shouldn’t fall into the anti-Catholic trap of equating liberty with Protestantism or secularism; there were plenty of illiberal Protestant monarchs who persecuted Catholics, and the atrocities of secular states from Revolutionary France to Stalin’s Russia clearly exceed the darkest crimes of the worst theocracies or feudal states in history. But these facts don’t change the underlying principle, that recourse to violent coercion ought to be the last resort — both in foreign policy and domestic. We cannot responsibly be anarchists or pacifists, but neither may we as Catholics be warmongers or socialists.
With this core principle in mind, of a preferential option for non-violence and non-coercion, we should look with prudent care at every social and political issue, from economic inequality to health care, from drug laws to foreign policy. We must avoid the intellectual traps that lie on every side of the truth. Too many modern Westerners use liberty as a pretext for sliding into relativism, letting their healthy aversion to calling the cops and throwing their neighbors in jail corrupt their sense of what’s good and true. Just because the State is not permitted to enforce religious orthodoxy doesn’t mean it’s of no importance. (In fact, religious truth and obeying your conscience are so vital that the Church does not sanction State intervention in such matters.) The State may not imprison people for adultery as the U.S. military still does, but that fact does not ratify as good every “sexual choice” of each “consenting adult.”
Some rightly indignant religious conservatives fall not into relativism but illiberalism, concluding that anything good ought to fervently promoted with all the blunt force of the State. But even these people concede that there are limits to how far the State can prudently go in enforcing the natural law. For instance, God’s existence can be known by reason alone — hence atheism flies in the face of the natural law. So an atheist raising his children in unbelief could be said to be flouting that law. Does that mean the State should intervene and take them away? Of course not, because the good of family life is too vital to be disturbed in this way. Acts of sodomy violate natural law — would we favor hidden cameras in every citizen’s home so that violators can be arrested and imprisoned? No, we do not. Does that refusal to violate privacy and grant enormous power to legislators and bureaucrats imply that we are sexual libertines? No, it does not.
Liberty is a vital good, especially given the fact of human fallenness. The men who draft and enforce a law are every bit as rife with original sin as any citizen. Power may not in every case corrupt, but it is always a near occasion of sin, which ought to be treated warily. This is the lesson the American founders took to heart, and which too many Americans now are lazy enough to forget.