OWS and Subsidiarity and Participation (CST & OWS, PT 3)
By MT Dávila
The Role of Government in CST
Perhaps one of the least understood concepts or principles of Catholic social thought is the principle of subsidiarity. This word encompasses the presence in CST of considerations on the proper role of government, vis a vis the potential for extreme intrusion of government into the life of citizens (such as government regulation of birth control and family planning as in the case of the one-child policy in China) on one end, and the potential for a laissez faire approach to government regulation of the economy with little or no regulation protecting citizens and consumers on the other extreme. Throughout the 100 (plus) years of the documentary history of CST, we have experienced various models of government globally. While it understands that government is a natural development of the social character of the human person, with the principal task of promoting, safeguarding, nourishing and guaranteeing the common good to all in a nation, it has also struggled to adequately define the appropriately Christian role of government in the life of a society. Cases of aggressive interventionism as well as cases of extreme deregulation move the church to try to define a humane and productive way for governments and citizens to work together for the benefit of all. A discussion of the subsidiary role of government can be found in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931):
As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations… 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… (79)
The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State. (80)
These ideas about the subsidiary role of government depend on and expect that society will be highly organized, providing a number of levels for human activity, association, and participation at the private and civic levels that will robustly support a subsidiary character to government. Where these intermediary structures have failed to promote the common good or they have ceased to exist altogether, government has an obligation to set in place the safeguards for the common good that were previously the responsibility of mediating civil and private structures.
Parallel to this principle of subsidiarity is the need for robust participation by the populace in all the structures that control their political, economic, and social destinies. Participation and subsidiarity balance each other as principles that guarantee the health of a society and its governing structures. Where participation has been coopted by extreme power by a few elite (an effective oligarchy) or by more and more restrictions to free speech, free press, and the right to free association the health of a society is threatened. Often, the exclusion of certain groups from participation in the political and economic forces that direct the destiny of a society and a nation particularly target the poor, migrants, and other groups classically excluded.
Occupy is Participation
The US Bishops spoke clearly on the damaging effects to society and persons caused by the exclusion of any segment of society from full participation in the structures that determine their destiny and well being:
These fundamental duties can be summarized this way: basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons. The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were nonmembers of the human race. To treat people this way is effectively to say they simply do not count as human beings. (Economic Justice for All, 1986, 77)
Clearly stated, the exclusion of any member of society translates into less than human conditions. It means exclusion in the civic process because the members of that excluded group, the migrant, the middle class, the poor, the African American, women, are not counted, not considered as equal members, “they simply do not count as human beings.”
The Occupy movement clamors for a re-balancing of the power dynamics that control the destiny of our country and everyone in it. The control of the few 1% of the resources and, therefore, the decision-making structures of our country have mobilized a variety of constituencies to recognize and actively demonstrate against their exclusion from civil society and government. Considering the number of millionaires present in the governing bodies of our government (half of the members of congress and two-thirds of the senate) and the suffering experienced since the crash of 2008 by those losing their jobs, their homes, and their ability to care for their families with dignity, our nation is currently experiencing a crisis of participation. We are a nation dominated by feelings of powerlessness and non-personhood.
The Occupy movement is a nation’s attempt at recuperating our humanity after the system of participation and agency in our own destinies has effectively excluded the vast masses of peoples who do not have the same access to funds and resources as the “millionaire’s club.” The forceful clearing of Occupy encampments in Oakland, CA and in New York further reinforce the feelings of non-humanity caused by exclusion and the restriction of freedoms through the broadening gap between the 1% and the rest. The basic principles of CST of subsidiarity and participation offer strong support for the peaceful request that society reconsider the ways that it has yielded – willingly or not – power over our own futures. As mediating institutions, churches do well to interpret these principles to the faithful, to transmit them and inform of the ways the current arrangements for political participation and representation, basic elements of our shared humanity.
MT Dávila is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School.