It’s a principle called “subsidiarity” — Pope Francis: “It … makes us more united. I will try to explain it.”
The Holy Father has been dedicating his general audiences to the principles for society that are derived from Catholic doctrine and tradition, such as the need for solidarity, or that the goods of the world should be accessible to all. This collection of principles – just a handful of general ideas – is referred to as Catholic social doctrine.
On September 23, Francis took up one of the lesser-known principles, known as “subsidiarity.”
The pope acknowledged that the terminology can be unfamiliar, but assured, “it is a social principle that makes us more united. I will try to explain it.”
“After the great economic depression of 1929, Pope Pius XI explained how important the principle of subsidiarity was,” Francis noted.
In that document from 1931, Pius explained it this way:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.
Sometimes national or international organizations are needed to effectively deal with a situation. Francis offered the example of the economic stimulus packages that various states have implemented.
On the one hand, and above all in moments of change, when single individuals, families, small associations and local communities are not capable of achieving primary objectives, it is then right that the highest levels of society, such as the State, should intervene to provide the necessary resources to progress.
For example, because of the coronavirus lockdown, many people, families, and economic entities found themselves and still find themselves in serious trouble. Thus, public institutions are trying to help through appropriate interventions, social economic, regarding health … this is their function, what they need to do.
But, the pope explained, these top-level organizations (national governments or international coalitions, or other structures at the higher levels of social organization) should never usurp the rightful place of smaller entities.
Though the pope didn’t use the metaphor of concentric circles, various commentators through the years have found it a useful image to illustrate the concept of subsidiarity. The smaller circles all have a role to play in the working of the whole.
The pope explained:
Society’s leaders must respect and promote the intermediate or lower levels: In fact, the contribution of individuals, of families, of associations, of businesses, or every intermediary body, and even of the Church, is decisive. All of these, with their own cultural, religious, economic resources, or civil participation, revitalize and reinforce society (see CSCD, 185).
That is, there is a collaboration from the top and the bottom — from the State to the people — and from the bottom to the top — from the institutions of people to the top.
And this is exactly how the principle of subsidiarity is exercised
Pope Francis noted various applications of the principle of subsidiarity, while at the same time lamented that “Today, this lack of respect of the principle of subsidiarity has spread like a virus.”
For example, he spoke of entities that purport to help the poor, by “telling the poor what they need to do.”
“No,” he said, “this doesn’t work. The first step is to allow the poor to tell you how they live, what they need… Let everyone speak! And this is how the principle of subsidiarity works.”
Another example, explained the pope, is in “grand financial assistance measures enacted by States. The largest financial companies are listened to rather than the people or the ones who really move the economy. Multinational companies are listened to more than social movements. Putting it in everyday language, they listen more to the powerful than to the weak and this is not the way.”
Another: “places where huge economic and geopolitical interests are concentrated, such as, for example, certain mining activities in some areas of the planet. The voices of the indigenous peoples, their culture and world visions are not taken into consideration.”
Or another: “Let’s think about the cure for the virus: the large pharmaceutical companies are listened to more than the healthcare workers employed on the front lines in hospitals or in refugee camps.”
The Holy Father protested that “There is this motto in the collective unconscious of some politicians or some social workers: everything for the people, nothing with the people.”
The pope showed how the principle of solidarity, discussed in an earlier catechesis, is coupled with subsidiarity.
In a previous catechesis we saw how solidarity – solidarity now – is the way out of the crisis: it unites us and allows us to find solid proposals for a healthier world. But this path of solidarity needs subsidiarity. … Solidary, because we are taking the path of subsidiarity.
In fact, there is no true solidarity without social participation, without the contribution of intermediary bodies: families, associations, cooperatives, small businesses, and other expressions of society Everyone needs to contribute, everyone.
This type of participation helps to prevent and to correct certain negative aspects of globalization and the actions of States, just as it is happening regarding the healing of people affected by the pandemic.
These contributions “from the bottom” should be encouraged.
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