Tag Archives: subsidiarity

Cultivating the virtues of subsidiarity

LANCE BYRON RICHEY writes that it’s easy to criticize power-hungry politicians, but if we want leaders who support limited government, they must come from our own ranks. Cultivating leaders demands cultivating virtues. This means modeling humility and patience in our own careers, sharing responsibilities, and seeking out employees who do likewise . . .

Lance Richey

Lance Richey

ObamaCare. The Patriot Act. Common Core. Increasingly in America, power and policy have been centralized in the hands of the federal government at the expense not only of state and local authorities, but of individual freedom as well.

As a result — from insurance to illegal immigration to light bulbs — decisions affecting every aspect of our lives are being made by an ever-shrinking circle of politicians and bureaucrats. The concentration of too much power in too few hands poses serious threats to our economic and political freedoms. Worst of all, we as a people risk losing those Christian virtues necessary for a free and democratic society when we ignore the principle of subsidiarity.

This principle, first stated in Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching. In 1931, when fascist and communist dictatorships across Europe were threatening the freedom of individuals and the Church (sound familiar?), this encyclical forcefully rejected the belief that the government alone can or should organize our lives.

Against those who would identify the interests of the State with those of society as a whole, the Church insists that the common good is not only distinct from, but often incompatible with, the growth of centralized government power. A free and healthy society requires a strong network of voluntary associations — churches, social clubs, youth sports leagues, chambers of commerce, etc. — to respond to the community’s needs precisely because they are closest to them.

Pius acknowledged that government is a necessary part of any well-ordered society. However, he insisted, it’s only one part, and should therefore limit its role to doing “those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them.” We may legitimately disagree about what the government “alone” is capable of doing: Is a single-payer system the only way to provide health insurance for all? Who should decide the nutritional content of school lunches? Nevertheless, the principle of subsidiarity tells us that, when passing laws and setting policies to address a problem, we should always err on the side of those who are closest to and most affected by it.

But this principle extends beyond the voting booth, and into every boardroom where Catholic business leaders daily make decisions which shape not only their corporate cultures but also their own personalities, and those of the people who serve under them. Too often, the vices we decry in government are the ones which beset our own businesses. Therefore, before complaining too loudly about the corruption in Washington, we should examine our own org charts (and consciences). Do we, as individuals and companies, possess the two great virtues of subsidiarity: humility and patience?

Humility, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “tempers and restrains the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately.” Humility enables us to recognize both personal and organizational limits, set realistic goals, and empower others who possess the necessary expertise to accomplish those tasks. Humility is not the same as fear or timidity. But a humble leader doesn’t confuse I can’t with we can’t — or I wish for I can.

Subsidiarity also demands and cultivates the virtue of patience, since sharing planning and delegating authority demand collaboration rather than mere obedience. Tyrants may dictate, but leaders (and especially Catholic leaders) must inspire, motivate and guide. Of course, eventually decisions must be made and action taken, but it’s what happens before that moment which most determines corporate success. Any business executive will tell you collaborative leadership requires almost superhuman patience. But having such patience when building a team around a common vision can call forth superhuman efforts by your employees, who will view themselves not as mere workers but as co-workers towards a shared goal.

It’s easy to criticize power-hungry politicians, but if we really want leaders who understand and support limited government, they must come from our own ranks. Cultivating leaders demands we also cultivate virtues. This means modeling humility and patience in our own careers, sharing responsibilities and recognition with others, and seeking out employees who do likewise. Long before the era of consultants and management gurus, Pius XI clearly saw what makes any organization (public or private) prosper. The principle of subsidiarity can help us decide whether we are growing a new generation of leaders with the virtues of humility and patience, or just adding more fertilizer to the existing crop.

DR. LANCE BYRON RICHEY is an associate professor of theology and director of the John Duns Scotus Honors Program at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.

The state’s role in the economy

Andrew Abela argues that the state’s role in the economy and how it should perform this role are found in two of the most important principles of Catholic social doctrine: subsidiarity and solidarity. After spending time in Italy recently, he says that country is stagnating economically because the state has promoted solidarity at the expense of subsidiarity . . . .

Dr. Andrew Abela

My family and I have been living in Rome for the past several months. While here, I’ve met with a number of business leaders, academics, and other professionals to hear their concerns about the economic conditions in Italy and the rest of Europe. Without exception, the biggest issue they all raise is the excessive amount of state intervention in the economy.

In the forthcoming Catechism for Business, we address the question: What is the state’s role in the economy, and how should it perform this role? The answer can be found in two of the most important principles of Catholic social doctrine: subsidiarity and solidarity.

The principle of subsidiarity says that it’s immoral for higher-level organizations to interfere with the legitimate functioning of lower-level organizations. It was first formally defined by Pius XI, who wrote: “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” (Quadragesimo anno, 79). The severity of the language never ceases to impress me: It is “a grave evil” — the stuff of mortal sin — for the state to interfere in the legitimate operations of lower-level governments, businesses or the family.

Italian business people lament the excessive government interference. A restaurateur specializing in locally grown food says it’s hard to source basic ingredients. Her local farmer can’t sell her eggs because of a new EU regulation that egg-sellers must first wash them with an approved device costing about $26,000.

The worst complaints came from senior executives in a health-care supply company. Since health care in Italy is run by the government, the government is both the regulator and the biggest customer of health-care companies. As regulator, it puts extensive constraints on how businesses are run. As a customer, the government is currently taking two years to pay its bills. How is one supposed to run a business with receivables aging 730 days?

Solidarity, according to Blessed John Paul II, is “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 38).

Based on these two principles, John Paul taught that the state should play a role in enabling unemployment support, adequate wage levels, and humane working conditions, both directly and indirectly: “Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, [and] by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions” (Centesimus annus, 15).

More specifically, the state has the role of determining the legal framework within which the economy operates, “and thus of safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience” (Centesimus annus, 15). In simple terms, the state’s main role with respect to the economy is to maintain a level playing field.

In understanding the role of the state in the economy, both principles are necessary. According to Pope Benedict XVI, the “principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa” (Caritas in Veritate, 58).

Here in Italy, the country is stagnating economically because the state has attempted to promote solidarity at the expense of subsidiarity. Italian labor law, for example, makes it very difficult to lay off or terminate employees. As a result, businesses are reluctant to hire new employees for fear of being stuck with them. The unemployment rate among young Italians has hit 30%.

Subsidiarity is important because it “respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. Subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state” (Caritas in veritate, 57). Likewise, solidarity “is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone [93], and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (Caritas in veritate, 38).

A Charter Member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, Andrew V. Abela, Ph.D., is chairman of the Catholic University of America’s Business & Economics dept. He is co-author, with Joe Capizzi, of the forthcoming Catechism for Business.