How should one’s faith shape his or her engagement in the policy arena?
Political Correspondent David Brody recently asked that question of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R–WI) concerning the Republican budget plan. In a taped interview for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Ryan, a Roman Catholic, identified care for the poor as a fundamental tenet in the social teachings of his Church.
For Ryan, that teaching means: “Don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty.”
Ryan believes his federal budget plan helps accomplish that goal. In a letter last year to then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York, Ryan stated that his proposed budget better targets assistance to those in need, repairs the social safety net, and fulfills the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans. Furthermore, if the U.S. government continues to drive up the deficit through reckless spending, Ryan wrote that “the weakest will be hit three times over: by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.”
In the CBN interview that aired last week, Ryan highlighted an additional principle of Catholic social teaching that informs his engagement in public policy: the principle of subsidiarity. CONTINUED
David A. Bosnich of the Acton Institute has written a very informative article explaining one of the key principles of Catholic social thought, the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity and sheds some light as to why the United States Catholic Bishops support statism, centralized government, as the primary solution for fixing social problems.
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.
This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “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 spite of this clear warning, the United States Catholic Bishops remain staunch defenders of a statist approach to social problems. They have publicly criticized recent congressional efforts to reform the welfare system by decentralizing it and removing its perverse incentives. Their opposition to the Clinton Administration’s health care plan was based solely upon its inclusion of abortion funding. They had no fundamental objection to a takeover of the health care industry by the federal government.
Why the troubling contradiction between Papal teaching and the policy recommendations of the U.S. Bishops? Part of the problem may rest with the reliance the Bishops have placed upon commentators such as Monsignor George Higgins. In the spring of 1994 Monsignor Higgins gave a lengthy talk on the principle of subsidiarity to the Albert Cardinal Meyer Lecture series. Higgins stated that the “principle of subsidiarity is concerned with the relationship of the state to other societies, not with the nature of the state itself.” This view is wrongheaded. Subsidiarity applies to all human institutions, including the state. When the federal government usurps the rights and responsibilities of state and local governments, a flagrant violation of the principle of subsidiarity has occurred. If upper echelon bureaucrats in a Cabinet department operate in a top-down manner and deny any flexibility to their subordinates, the effectiveness of this department will be diminished. Higgins’s interpretation of subsidiarity exempts the internal operation of the various levels and branches of government from any critical scrutiny. CONTINUED