Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Social Justice and Subsidiarity

It seems that Catholics who are concerned about Social Justice (things like feeding the hungry, assisting the poor, reaching out to those whom society has neglected) always take the default position that more government programs, more bureaucracy, more State power is necessary to achieve this goal. These "Social Justice" Catholics push for increased welfare assistance, more government services, and an expansion of services already provided. Whenever we hear the words "Social Justice" uttered by Catholic political activists, it is a sure bet that they advocate for a big government and a Statist approach to solving societies ills.

But this is the wrong position for Catholics to take; it is a distortion of true Social Justice. In this age of secular governments, we cannot expect a non-religious entity (our national government) to do what is a religious imperative (love thy neighbor). Dr. Jeff Mirus, of, has authored an insightful piece concerning just this fact:
"The history of the 20th century, particularly in light of Nazism and Communism, ought to have alerted everyone to the dangerous and totalitarian tendencies of States that operate in either a religious vacuum or a vacuum of strong intermediary institutions capable of standing between the individual and state power. The more recent trajectories of federal power in the United States and elsewhere, especially in the European Union, only corroborate a lesson that should have been long since learned. The point is simply this: Speaking broadly, the greatest threat to both the common good and to the Catholic Church in the decadent and declining West is the concentration of power at the highest levels of government.

"For this reason, the default public posture of bishops ought not to be support of increased responsibility of national and international governments to solve problems, but support for increasing decentralization, intermediary institutions and subsidiarity."
Subsidiarity is defined as follows: "1. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over 2. (in political systems) the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level" []

Simply put, subsidiarity says that we should not entrust the highest level of government with tasks that can be done by lower levels of government or by intermediary organizations such as churches, civic groups, non-profit or for-profit agencies. This is especially true when the government is secular and the task at hand has a religious or spiritual dimension.

When the balance is thrown off, when we delegate too many responsibilities to the State and ignore our own responsibility to care for our neighbor, we risk totalitarianism and oppression. Indeed John Paul II warns us of this:
“In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called ‘Welfare State’. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the ‘Social Assistance State’. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: 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 coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.” (Centesimus Annus, 48)
As John Paul II says, the State cannot respond to the "deeper human needs" (spiritual and emotional) that always accompany poverty and oppression. The State cannot address the whole person. Only an act of LOVE can reach the human person at this level. This is why the State is inadequate and de-humanizing when relied upon as the primary vehicle for Social Justice.

Those Catholics (especially bishops, who greatly influence the Social Justice debate) who are truly concerned for the cause of Social Justice should heed the words of Dr. Mirus in the article I cited above:
"...[T]he default public position of bishops ought to be that national and international control seldom works well as the primary means of addressing social problems, and that local governments, churches and other intermediary organizations ought instead to be strengthened to address social needs—and not by receiving national grants, which simply lets the highest level of government call the tune. Then the bishops should ensure that their local churches roll up their sleeves and do what they can to interact with and assist real people with real problems, and to help put in place and strengthen the local organizations necessary to get each job done.

"Local initiative and intermediary institutions are key components of a vibrant culture and essential to the common good. They also protect and enhance the role of churches, and therefore of religion and Catholicism itself. To forge an effective public strategy, the default position of bishops must be to favor subsidiarity.


  1. Excellent post! True social justice must not include Big Government as a tool to help people.

  2. Thanks for reading, Teresa!
    If I'm not mistaken, I've read some similar posts on your blog. Keep up the good work changing people's minds...and hearts.

  3. Thanks. Feel free to share: Facebook, Twitter, email, etc...
    I think this topic is sorely misunderstood by too many Catholics. We need need to do what we can to let people know the truth about Social Justice.

  4. "Social Justice" is nothing more than a pseudonym for "Liberation Theology", which was and still is utterly rejected by the Church.

    The sick thing is that these people have usurped the corporal works of mercy (the things you pointed out as feeding the hungry, assisting the poor, reaching out to those whom society has neglected), as their battle cry, and knowing that these works should be the concern of every Catholic as a RESPONSE to our faith in Christ, they manipulate the people in the pews in the same way the serpent manipulated Adam and Eve.

    Not a fan of the Social Justice crowd, not one bit.

  5. Gina, I tend to agree. "Social Justice" has been hijacked by the Left as a vehicle for Liberation Theology. I think most ordinary Catholics who buy into the rhetoric have no idea that they are actually adopting beliefs that have been condemned by the Church.
    I think we could still rescue the term "Social Justice" if we define it as it truly is: Corporal Works of Mercy (as you point out).