Each moment of history can claim uniqueness, but this moment in our nation’s history is exceptional. The recent concentration of power in the hands of our government is extraordinary and has been building for years. We are witnessing a fundamental change in the relationship between citizens and rulers.
Eight months ago, we voted out one government and invited in another. One of the major issues in a long campaign was the size and role of the state. The “Big Government” party won, and won with a solid majority of the Catholic vote. As we have heard over and over since, “Elections have consequences.”
Currently we are seeing the consequences: the nationalizing of the automobile industry, the promise of European-style, centralized health care, more Washington control of our banks and businesses, a dramatic growth in the numbers of individuals hired by the government and a similarly dramatic growth in the numbers of workers laid off from the private sector. And, then, there are the new federally directed pro-abortion initiatives.
While the current government is particularly aggressive in centralizing power and decision making, this growth of government is not a simply Democrat vs. Republican issue. Since the Great Depression, both parties have supported the spread of governmental influence. Like most such efforts, some will have positive impacts and some will have negative impacts. That is in the nature of the beast. It is not the programs that are our concern, but the process. What is going on fiercely violates a key principle of Catholic social thought: subsidiarity.
Before you completely turn off in front of the word, subsidiarity, give us a chance. Plainly stated, the core principles of subsidiarity hold that human affairs are best handled at the lowest level, closest to the affected persons. When the principle of subsidiarity is ignored, government steps in and typically becomes the oppressor-with-a-smiling-face.
Once upon a time, subsidiarity was simply the way we did things in America. Subsidiarity is, in fact, enshrined in the Tenth Amendment. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” For most of our history, we had a small federal government, a small state government and a quite “touchable” and approachable local government. On the other hand, we had independent-acting citizens and responsive neighborhoods. We had few expectations that Washington or Beacon Hill would solve our problems, but every expectation that our family, friends and neighbors would help us in need. We were part of a social fabric or network of interdependence.
Sadly, that network of interdependence has been eroded by many forces, from the diversity of the country to the growing sameness or homogeneity brought about by a national media. We now know more about the private lives of the people in the White House than of the people in the house next door. But that doesn’t mean we must continue to surrender control of our lives to the state.
A little study of the Church’s position serves here. The Catechism teaches that organizations of the state should promote the higher nature of man. Free association and voluntary institutions are encouraged. Take a snap shot of your local parish where so much good is done. Most likely the St. Somebody’s guild and some men’s groups emerged from this social goal. Benefits result from the natural tendency for individuals to associate with one another. Our true nature involves itself with one another. Such socialization develops the sense of individual initiative and responsibilities.
In the 20th century, this tendency to socialize was perverted by governments. Communism, state socialism, and fascism all took control over human lives by forming youth organizations, and requiring membership in the state party. The results were all too painful. In such cases the efforts to assist neighbors were neutralized and off they went to the camps.
Excessive intervention by the state -- any state -- can threaten initiative as well as personal freedom. This month, at the bidding of the federal government, educators from the 50 states are working on common standards for our elementary and secondary schools. This means we are soon to have a national [read: centrally directed] school system. Good-bye local control of our public schools.
Examples are everywhere of our hovering government. Can and should government manage the car industry? Can and should it control our medical care? The principle of subsidiarity tells us that people closer to the ground can better manage these affairs than distant bureaucrats. When physically distant governments get into the mix, there are decreases in economy, efficiency, liberty and personal character of the social order.
In the name of doing good or efficiency or fairness, it oversteps its bounds. It uses crises, real or hyped-up, to cover ambitions of centralized power. It uses the instruments of government to redefine fundamental human realities such as marriage. In our state, government drove the Church out of one of its most noble works, adoption. Will care of the sick be next?
The social teachings of the Catholic Church can be a particular gift to Americans at this time. Principles, such as subsidiarity, which are fundamental to the social teaching of the Church, are not only important for all societies; they are in fundamental agreement with the principles upon which the Founding Fathers established our nation. It’s just that we have lost sight of them.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.