Put the power back on the street

October 28, 2005

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 185-191

If the 18th and 19th centuries in the Western world represented the growth of industrialization, the 20th century included serious attempts to overcome the human exploitation of the Industrial Revolution and to try to establish social justice.

The last century saw, in many nations, a huge expansion of the role of government, not only as a regulator of the economy, but also as a provider of health and social services.

Indeed, a major dynamic of the 1900s was an ongoing tug-of-war between governments, on one hand, which wanted to eliminate poverty, unfair labour practices and lack of access to health care and taxpayers and businesses, on the other hand, which did not want to be stuck paying the massive bill for these efforts at justice.


Somewhat ignored in the tug-of-war, however, were those voluntary organizations and communities that had the promotion of human dignity as their special mission. Cooperatives, trade unions, neighbourhood associations, religious orders, hospital and school boards, credit unions, charitable associations, service clubs and other groups were all formed with the goal of trying to right some wrong and make a better world.

As noted in previous articles in this series, the Church does not see individualism and unrestrained capitalism as the way to defend and enhance human dignity. But neither does the Church see state-controlled or Marxist forms of government as the answer.

Centralized decision-making and the abolition of privately-held property may seem like a suitable response to the excesses of individualism, but they create different injustices. Centralization abolishes the autonomy of social and economic groups that are a means for the community to exercise initiative aimed at the common good.

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II challenged government-controlled charity head on when he wrote: "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 neighbours 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" (n.48).

Pope John Paul packed a lot into those three sentences. He articulated some implications of a principle called subsidiarity that the Church has been defending for the last 75 years. Subsidiarity means that organizations of a larger or superior status should not usurp the powers and responsibilities of smaller or subordinate communities.

Power and responsibility, insofar as is possible, belong at the local level. The government should not do the work of the family; national governments should not assume control for what can be readily handled locally; government bureaucracies should not try to do what voluntary associations can do.

This principle is crucial for society to retain its human face and the full participation of ordinary citizens. That the state has assumed too much power for social action in Western societies has led to widespread indifference and passivity as well as the erosion of the democratic spirit. A bureaucratic approach to social problems, while well meaning, saps the vigour from society.


If a government were to pursue perfect justice by attempting to correct every violation of human rights in families and other groups, that government would not only exceed its authority, but would also harm families and other associations. Moral theologian Germain Grisez argues "Excessive action by political society can weaken the self-reliance of individuals and the solidarity and effectiveness of families and other non-political communities" (Living a Christian Life, p. 856).

Subsidiarity does not mean the less government the better. Government is an important vehicle by which society works toward the common good. Government regulation of social and economic affairs places limits on the selfish pursuit of private desires. Only government has the financial resources to challenge the scandals of poverty and homelessness.

But the state also needs to know its limits. It needs to respect the legitimate autonomy of families, individuals and local associations. It should also use its extensive resources to ensure that such groups can flourish, not necessarily in the way the government would like to see, but on their own terms, using their own talents.